This weblog was created to provide a fuller and more accurate picture of the current situation in Bolivia. Our principal effort to try to pull things together and place them in proper perspective is the penultimate post below, titled "Main Story."

Monday, May 19, 2008

Another side of life

Here she comes,
. . .Miss Santa Cruz

Let it be known that life here in Santa Cruz is hardly all work and no play, and last week people took time off from forming a new government and battling with the central government over export controls to observe an annual rite of the season – the crowning of Miss Santa Cruz.
Actually the anointing of Miss Santa Cruz and the principal runners-up, one of whom almost always becomes Miss Bolivia and a contender in the Miss Universe contest, is the culmination – a Super Bowl, if you will -- of a series of crownings that take place all year long as the department (state) pays tribute to its abundant production of long-stemmed beauties.
There is the Queen of the Corn, the Queen of the Wheat, the Queen of Carnaval, Queen of the Sugar Cane, the Queen of Soy, the Queen of Sunflower Seeds, and, well, the list just goes on and on.
Nor is the Miss Santa Cruz pageant a short, succinct episode on the civic calendar. It goes on for weeks as first the two dozen or so candidates backed by assorted groups -- Lions Clubs, fraternities, universities, charities like “Liga Cruceña de Combate al Cancer,” and so on -- are all taken to a local resort where they are extensively photographed for the public prints. Following that, and then there is a succession of minor competitions in various venues for prettiest face, best “silhouette,” best coiffure, best smile, and so on.
Getting the "morning line"
The pageant itself is a large, well-attended, big ticket event held in one of the larger entertainment venues. The day of the event the major local newspaper runs a six-page section with alluring pictures of all the candidates, most of them supine, that is basically a racing form handicapping the contestants, weighing in frank and brutal terms their various strengths and weaknesses.
Of one contender the paper observed that “she possesses a sculptural figure, has good height, and knows how to walk down the runway,” but, alas, “her skin is very white and her smile is not attractive, and she has not found a hair style that favors her.”
The pageant is far from being all fun and games. Feminine beauty is a serious business here in a region where a particularly congenial melding of genetic pools year after year produces bumper crops of gorgeous women, a fair number of whom go on to be models in the fashion capitals of the world – and sometimes movie stars (or, well, starlets).
Raquel Welch, for example, is a Cruceña, and returned a few years ago to preside over the Santa Cruz International film festival, which featured a retrospective of her cinematic oeuvre.
The local supermodels, who are known collectively as “Las Magnificas” put on their own pageant, which consists mainly of the opportunity to look at them wearing glamorous clothing. (That show filled what had been the one remaining gaps in the calendar of beauty pageants.)
Santa Cruz women in history
Santa Cruz’ reputation for beautiful (and assertive) women goes back well into history. Many early travelers to the city commented on the high pulchritude quotient. French naturalist Alcide D’Origny, who arrived at Santa Cruz central square on horseback in 1830, reported that a lovely young woman who was coming out her house on the square at that moment announced loudly, “He’s mine. I saw him first.”
Kelly Clark Boldt for many years complained that there were too many pictures in the paper of scantily clad models (along with often suggestive photos of young girls who have just celebrated their “Sweet Fifteen” birthday parties). Each morning she would intercept the paper with scissors in hand to censor out the images she regarded as too lascivious to be a good example for her young daughter.
David, who once covered the pageant for a now-defunct English-language paper in Bolivia, has tried to take a broader view. Complaining that there are too many pictures of beautiful women in the Santa Cruz paper, he says, is like complaining about too many pictures of cars in the Detroit papers.
The presence and tradition of feminine beauty in Santa Cruz undoubtedly colors life here, though it needs to be kept in perspective. Not every Cruceña is a raving beauty by any means. However, any time you go out in the city you are likely to see at least one, and often several, gorgeous females.
You can't miss them
And they can occur almost anywhere. Standing in their stilettos in the roadside mud waiting for a bus, for example; behind the teller’s window at the bank; poking at the produce in a supermarket aisle. You just never know.
Once Kelly and David were having a coffee in a popular bistro on what passes for Santa Cruz´ ”strip” when our attention, along with everyone else’s, was captured by a curvaceous, elegantly turned out woman who was artfully maneuvering her way between tables to one of the few remaining empty seats. Kelly broke the silence just after she passed, whispering, “How do they make so many of them?”
One effect of this pervasive presence of precious belleza is that there is a tremendous emphasis, for women, on being attractive, well dressed, carefully groomed, and tightly tailored. The plastic surgery industry and orthodontics business are thriving here, not so much to do repair work as to give young women an added edge in a highly competitive atmosphere.
At one time it was customary, on the occasion of a girl’s Sweet Fifteen party, to gift her with a major item of personal property, up to and including a vehicle. Then, about a decade ago, the custom came to be a trip abroad. But most recently there have been an increasing number of girls given, and gratefully receiving, the offer of a breast augmentation or a nose job to commemorate the big day.
Emphasis on appearances
Critics of the generally free-wheeling, party-loving social customs of Santa Cruz – where almost any night you can hear dance music in the air – this preoccupation with beauty contributes to the superficiality that often seems to characterize the city. (People here don’t read much, for example. The biggest newspaper in this city of 1.5 million sells less than 10.000 copies a day in the city.)
Another charge is that it feeds a spirit of sexism, though this is a hard case to document. In the employment realm there is no shortage here of female TV anchorpersons, bank officers, university administrators, and the like. Many women head their own businesses (though they tell often tell interviewers that it’s a hard role to play).
Watching young couples, the girl often seems to be in charge, twirling her male companion as she crosses the street, or pointing out purchases in shop windows she would like him to make. Santa Cruz girls definitely find out early how to open doors with just a smile.
Are the men worthy?
The jury is still out, incidentally, on whether Santa Cruz men are worthy consorts of their womenfolk. There are, to be sure, some handsome men, but they don’t dress up the way the women do. Jeans and T-shirts are the standard uniform of young men, who rarely, if ever, match the dressiness of the females they are escorting. (To be sure, this would often require a tuxedo.) And often one can hear (or see in people’s eyes and furrowed brows) the question: “How did a guy like him get a girl like her?”
And it may be that the spell wears off as time goes on. It is in domestic relations that the inequality of the sexes shows up in starkest relief. There are innumerable horror stories of husbands deserting their families, fathering children out of wedlock, and failing to meet the requirements of fatherhood. This often has a shattering effect on the wives and children involved, and does not, generally, entail much social opprobrium for the errant husband. Young Santa Cruz women are infamous for stealing male expats right out of the lives of their older wives.
Laying down the law
Still, one should be cautious in drawing conclusions. There is little hard evidence that infidelity and poor fathering are worse in Santa Cruz than elsewhere in the macho cultures of Latin America. And many marriages seem to survive, even thrive, without major difficulty.
Sometimes this involves carefully formulating the ground rules. One attractive Cruceña, who brought her American husband home to live in her home town, first laid down to law to him. “Things are different in Santa Cruz,” she told him, “but not for you, gringo.”
Many women, including ex-pats, like some parts of the culture here. One fashion conscious woman from Los Angeles who came down to do volunteer work for a charity, said she was very glad that there was such emphasis on fashion and appearance. “It made it much easier for me to fit in,” she said.
And few men are complaining. Often while driving through the city David often finds himself humming Standing on the Corner from the Broadway musical "Most Happy Fella." But Kelly has made it clear: “Not for you, gringo.”


Robert said...

I loved it! It is funny, yet insightful.I will definitively be a frequent vititor of this blog!

sandro said...

This blog is very interesting.
Im going soon to Bolivia from New York and hope to meet a cute camba.