Anyone traveling through a major city in Mexico will note that giant malls have sprung up all over urban spaces in the same way it happened in the USA back in the 1970s. Galerías seems to be the common name for these consumer wonderlands that are reservoirs of American goods, where middle-class Mexicans go to buy “a guaranteed personality,” as The Clash used to sing. The personality, of course, is American, provided courtesy of NAFTA and neoliberal economics.
These massive malls have much in common with the American originals, including the name—Galleria in the U.S. and Galerías in Mexico. Still, taking a stroll in these shopping centers in both countries are quite distinct experiences.
After malls debuted in the USA, a culture quickly developed which defined the new shopping experience. The California version has been represented in many films all the way back to Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). The Midwest and East Coast type is found in Mallrats (1995). In music, Moon Zappa’s “Valley Girl” is a hilarious parody of the linguistic aspect of Galleria mall culture in the San Fernando Valley around 1982. These movies testify that since the seventies, the shopping mall has been the meeting point of American youth, especially those in middle and high school. It is a space open to everyone regardless of race, class, sex, gender, and ethnicity. Strolling through one of these shopping centers, you feel that you belong there. Yes, sometimes shoppers do encounter those employees at certain upper-end boutiques that give the cold shoulder to minorities, but this will be less prevalent in the future. Why? Because both the store’s salespeople and the customers have become more diversified, which has made USA malls less of a white experience than it used to be in the seventies. Shopping in these centers is now, let’s say, more democratic, where money talks clearly the international language of capitalism. It doesn’t matter to which race, class, gender or ethnicity you belong. If you got dollars or credit cards, then you’re more than welcome.
In Mexico, however, every time I walk into a Galerías mall, I have a feeling that I’m at the wrong place. They look and smell like any American mall, and they make you feel as though you were in the U.S. yet, at the same time, you immediately get that strange sensation that shopping, going to the movies or just taking a stroll at these centers somehow is not the same as in the United States. You won’t find the American mall culture, but after a few visits you start to notice that people of all ages sauntering by and through the boutiques and stores have the classic look of the Mexican middle class, wrapped up in their Yankee brands: Levi’s, Hollister, Aéropostale, and American Eagle. They wear their gringo clothes and go about buying more American goods with an air of superiority. Some of these Mexicans don’t seem to be there to shop at all; they only stroll about window-shopping. As you take all of this in, you quickly realize that Galerías is not just a place to go shopping, it is also where you want to be seen to be validated as a member of the Mexican middle class.
It is tacitly agreed that members of the lower class, the popular classes from the barrios feos don’t have a place in this scheme of things. They’re allowed in the mall, but you can be sure that they stick out like a sore thumb; all eyes are upon them. They are the nacos nacionales, the Indian-looking people of “México profundo” trespassing on the white world the “imaginary Mexicans” have made for themselves in the image of their true cultural gods, which they aspire to be like: the Americans. Fernando Sariñana captured part of this world in his film, Amar te Duele (2002), a Romeo and Juliet love story between a naco boy and a rich girl set partly in a mall in the Santa Fe district of Mexico City. The film’s scenes in the mall show the dissonance between the worlds of the rich and poor in Mexico. This space is openly hostile to the popular classes; it is clearly an area to be experienced exclusively by the middle and upper class. In fact, the film demonstrates that when nacos enter the white Mexican world of these shopping centers it highlights the naquedad, the “ghetto-ness” that defines the lower class. They belong in the tianguis and the mercados populares. Destined to have access to the material world of the gringos through the relatively cheap pirated versions of American brands.
Let’s check out the same scene in the USA. Lately, when I accompany my son and daughter to shop at the Sunvalley Shopping Center in Concord, California, I am fascinated to find Mexicans buying at upper-end stores such as Nordstrom, which ten or fifteen years ago would have been beyond their pocketbooks. At that time the vast majority of these clients could be found at Walmart, Sears, and Target. The few Mexicans who shopped at, say, Macy’s would have been a rare species. Now, they have moved on up; you can find them buying in every store in the mall. I love to watch these Mexicans, many of them dark-skinned with prominent, indigenous physical features, speaking a rural variety of Spanish, searching through the racks of expensive clothes. I love it because these are the nacos, but here they’re happily and freely shopping at Macy’s and Nordstrom, buying goods that are beyond the means of many middle-class Mexicans that look down upon them in Mexico’s Galerías. And even though they consume American goods, they manage to retain a degree of their Mexican cultures. In a strange way, I would say that shopping at the mall highlights their Mexicanness. It doesn’t diminish their strong connection to their country of origin and they are determined to maintain as much as possible their national identity despite their Americanized consuming habits.
This is not the case with the Mexican middle class that routinely patronizes the Galerías in urban areas south of the border. Their consuming tendencies clearly indicate that they want to be other than what they are or what Mexican culture offers. You won’t find too many men in guayaberas or women in folkloric dresses. The Galerías shoppers are the mimic people, who aspire to be Americans. Their trips to the mall are acts that reassert not their Mexicanness but their Americanness. Always trying to keep up with the Joneses of the USA: with the new fads, styles, movies, technology, and music. Never really catching up though, always a tad behind.
It is not improbable that many in the Mexican middle class view Mexico as a foreign country surrounding the Galerías shopping centers, where they are forced to live and be Mexicans even though long ago they slipped out of that cultural identity like a snake sheds its skin and leaves it drying in the sun. These Mexicans feel at home in the malls that some have called the cathedrals of capitalism, where they commune with all (except nacos, of course) who aspire to the American way of life. Here they find refuge from the political and social disintegration of the Mexican national project, lately abetted by the forces of globalization. We could call them American clones, mimics, americanizados, even mall rats, but to me, they’re just orphaned Mexicans lost in the supermarket.