LIMA, Peru—“Vamos! Do you have that heart rate at 80 percent?”
I’m pedaling like mad in a spinning class at Planet Fitness in the lower middle-class neighborhood of San Miguel—one of the myriad nodes of globalization mushrooming throughout the Andean nation of Peru. The internationally certified Peruvian instructor is playing salsa, but her commands of first, second, and third positions would be understood by any spinner anywhere on the globe.
Just a few years ago, globalization came to middle and upper class Peruvians in the form of Blockbusters and Burger Kings set up in well-off neighborhoods like Miraflores and Monterrico. Gringo-style, shrine-like shopping malls such as Jockey Plaza rose alongside Lima’s prestigious horse-race track.
But spinning classes like the one in San Miguel, as part of fully equipped fitness centers, have sprouted in lower middle-class barrios as well as in low-income shantytowns called pueblos jovenes (young towns), where wages are commonly just $2 a day. Global chains such as Gold’s Gym opened up equal sweat opportunities to thousands of Peruvians for whom, until very recently, fully equipped gyms were as inaccessible as country club memberships.
One of these gleaming gyms sits astride the new and aptly named Mega Plaza shopping center in Comas, a low-income sector in northern Lima. As I stand at the plaza’s entrance I find it hard to believe that this used to be a car-grease, mud-caked and garbage-strewn side of the road off the Pan-American highway cutting through a highly densely populated metropolis of Peru’s working poor.
Today the Mega Plaza is flanked by Toddus, a “hyper market,” and Max, a discount department store. The food and fashion displays at both stores are picture-perfect images of bounty and beauty. In combination with the cacophony of price-scanner beeps at the checkout counters, memories of quaint and dirty Third World open-air markets fade.
Nestled between Toddus and Max are more than 100 boutique stores with the latest genuine or knockoff shoes, jeans and other apparel. Shoppers can catch Spider Man 2 at the cineplex and chow down at the English-named “Food Court,” complete with KFC and Dunkin Donuts. There’s even what had been until recently an oxymoron—fast-food Peruvian—at Peruanissimo.
In this globalized, homogenized village, Dad can watch the kids at a 10,000-square-foot mini amusement center while Mom gets a plastic surgery quote at one of three storefronts enticing customers to “Finally make that change that will change your life.”
So how do the poor afford the Mega Plaza experience? For one, the informal economy, so well documented by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, has created a new entrepreneurial class among the low-income “chichas,” Andean Indians who have migrated to the city.
Their businesses have generated high revenue, which they have invested back in these densely populated communities that had been ignored by mainstream capitalists. They have established private schools and clinics where people used to suffer decrepit state schools and hospitals. The other big service business is gyms. Also for the chichas, the deep-seated Andean value of ayllu, or community, means they pool their resources to buy in bulk.
But credit-card seduction also contributes. An economic culture that used to be hand-to-mouth, with all transactions paid in cash, is quickly becoming an indebted society. Multinationals have discovered Latin America’s emerging market: 250 million low-income consumers, who, due to their sheer numbers (50 to 60 percent of the region’s population), have an annual purchasing power of $120 billion.
Poor Peruvians are deluged by an unprecedented wave of tens of thousands of credit card offers with which to fuel the purchasing of middle class dreams. The advertised interest rate is 2 to 5 percent, but because it’s compounded monthly, the actual annual rate is a stunning 27 to 80 percent.
Now, as poor Peruvians dress in the latest fashions, use sophisticated deodorants and perfumes and watch the latest flicks, they too are getting sucked into compound debt like American consumers.
Yet, in the midst of this restless globalization, the ancient Peruvian Catholic soul still peeks through the Nike swoosh.
In Arequipa, high up in the Andes, where the consumerist dynamic too is manifest through shopping malls and easy credit, there still beats a deeply felt fervor for the Virgen del Carmen and the Twelve-Year-Old-Boy.
Outside the Cathedral, anxious parishioners purchase “milagros” (miracles)—two-inch high aluminum molds representing health for body parts such as hearts and lungs, or desires, such as for happy homes and relationships—to be pinned as petitions on the flowing manta (shawl) of the Virgen saint. When the manta is ceremoniously pulled off the Virgen and brought down to the supplicants, it is held up horizontally at the four corners. A dozen people at a time scurry underneath for a special blessing.
Under the manta the murmur of prayers begins, “...forgive us our debts....”