On the outskirts of Guayaquil, right off of the perimetral (a highway that circumvents the city center), past several hillsides covered in informal settlements locally known as “invasions” (invasiones is the Spanish term), flutters like a fugacious hummingbird the mall (centro commercial) known as El Fortín. Amidst an extensive swath of unattended and informal growth—like a prairie full of wildflowers—hovers this most curious creature of comfort and stability. El Fortín, a word associated with assurance, fortitude, power, and permanence, in this instance should be read and understood as “little fort.” During my last visit to Ecuador, I had the not-so-distinct privilege of examining this outpost of commodity culture. The irony is that while it is the most sturdy structure around, it carries within its modern carapace the most frivolous and fleeting elements of modernity. Durability, unfortunately, resides in the informal structures that surround the mall—that most destitute of poverty—that daily skips past pools of fetid rainwater and mud in the unpaved streets, ducking mosquitos laden with dengue, and replacing the bamboo pieces that regularly hold their homes together. This is not an exceptional scene in Latin America; rather it may be the most common. Whether one lives in a new coastal city, a colonial city high in the Sierra, urban areas in Central American marshlands, or the deserts of Mexico, Bolivia and Chile, the most common thrust of urban development is that of stark contrast: destitution on one side and affluence on the other.
While this disparity is visually obvious in the case of El Fortín, we might be able to think through some of the differences. Firstly, the project was designed and approved, particularly by the municipality and the Mayor (Jaime Nebot), as a means of bringing a shopping mall closer to residents in the invasiones, who would typically need to go to the city’s northern or southern sectors to find malls. Secondly, it was also designed as a means of providing formal employment (read: basic monthly salary of $312) to potential workers in the sector. Most people in Guayaquil do not work “formal” jobs, and so they are not all eligible for minimum wages—this would be a huge boost. The real tragedy is not so much the desire to help the poor by the city and investors, it is the financing of spaces of commodity consumption (huge food court, six-screen cinema, possibly the largest arcade in the country, over one-hundred stores selling luxury items) over investing in the infrastructure of the community. Rather than build roads that would facilitate transportation to the city center (where most “good” jobs and tourism is located), or to other sectors of the city with more “cultural” amenities, the municipality decided on dropping the fortress of capital right on the doorstep of some of the most disenfranchised people in the country. Typically it is the invader who invades—but not this time!
While we see this disparity in many forms throughout Latin America, one cannot but help wince at such a postmodern juxtaposition. High and low, haphazardly cast together like two stones across a silent pond. Maybe they both skip along, maybe they both sink. Maybe the mall attracts more investment and raises property values for those in the community that have been “regularized,” maybe not. The point is that development of this nature is not about people, but about profits; people are only the byproducts of these machinations. The rich who drive by on the highway may stop and see what is going on, maybe they make it a regular activity in their lives, but the people who live and work in this sector are stuck with this hypermodern fort of products and amusements they can hardly afford while their kids walk through mud to school, and they are one mosquito bite away from near-death experiences. They get the opportunity to work in proximity with the affluent, and maybe there will be a Cinderella story to come out of it. Or maybe that flitting hummingbird that adorns the top of the mall flies off with the hopes and dreams of a community, who would then have nothing but the monstrosity of dead labor guarding their humble barrio.
Homepage for the mall (al alcance de todos means at the reach of all): http://mallelfortin.com/
An article about the people who live around it (in Spanish): http://www.telegrafo.com.ec/noticias/guayaquil/item/vecinos-de-mall-el-fortin-con-multiples-carencias.html
A video of what the mall offers (in Spanish): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Sa5ewlO-5Y&feature=player_embedded