Most of the shops in the Monte Carmo mall haven’t opened yet, but it’s already full of Brazilian kids. They come in droves, filling its cavernous hallways, giggling, ogling sneakers, asking for chocolate.
But they aren’t here to buy anything. They’re on a class field trip to the largest and most impressive structure for miles in this industrial town in southeastern Brazil, a gleaming white monument to the country’s economic boom of the last decade.
With its small display of animatronic dinosaurs — and large display of conspicuous consumption — the shopping center has become a cultural and educational destination for Betim’s schoolchildren.
“These kids are from the poor outskirts of town, and they don’t get out to see or do much. Look how excited they are, to see even a mall, let alone some dinosaurs,” teacher Margarethe Rosalina de Jesus says, adding quickly that she wishes they had other options. “What we really need is investment in the schools, or just in the city itself, really. There are so few public leisure or culture options.”
Looking onto the city from the glossy food court, so large it takes a minute or two to cross, the contrast with real life is clear. To the left is one of Brazil’s sprawling favelas, or slums, which like the mall sits divided from the rest of this humble town by a concrete river.
One man weaves in and out between cars at a stoplight trying to sell a device shaped like a tennis racket that zaps the city’s ubiquitous mosquitoes. Andrea Barbosa da Silva, 29, takes refuge from the sun under a makeshift wooden fort, coming out to sell water and juices.
“It looks like they went a bit overboard, doesn’t it?” says Da Silva, 29, looking up at the mall as she sells juice on the street, where she says she makes more than at her last job at a call center.
Despite her small piece of shade, her face is tanned, and looming large over the intersection are billboards for political candidates making promises as to what they’ll deliver if they win this month.
“It’s such a strange thing that this is what our town gets, out of everything else we need,” she says. “Our healthcare is a mess, and my neighborhood has no day care or place for my three kids to stay or play while I work. My in-laws take them.”
In 2003, former union leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva overturned Brazil’s traditional political establishment to become the first left-of-center leader to take over after the fall of the country’s dictatorship. His two terms were a roaring success, marked by the rise of tens of millions of people out of poverty and into a new middle class. Suddenly flush, they bought mountains of household appliances, clothes, TVs, even cars.
“In the last decade, you saw real growth in the spending power of classes that previously couldn’t consume anything, despite their ambitions. Now they can, they aren’t going to stop,” says Luiz Fernando Pinto Veiga, the president of Brazil’s shopping mall association.
But since at least 2010, economists and analysts have argued that to continue growing, Brazil needs to shift its economy away from consumption and toward investment, and to upgrade things such as infrastructure and other public projects.
“One of Brazil’s major problems is that from 2010 on, the country continues to concentrate on consumption and not investment. Investment is only 18% of Brazil’s economy, compared with 25% in Chile and Mexico and over 40% in China,” says Marcos Troyjo, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and co-director of the BRICLab Center on emerging market countries. “Brazilians save very little.”
Last year, more than a million people took to the streets to demand better schools, healthcare, transportation and security, and the vast majority of Brazilians supported the demonstrations.
Nor does the government disagree, and in this campaign season, politicians of all stripes promise to deliver just that.
But head to almost any sizable community in this continent-sized country, and it’s much more likely that the most profound transformation to the landscape, and to life there, has been the arrival of a huge shopping mall.
It’s easy to see why the malls are more popular in Brazil than the outdoor consumer experience now fashionable in the United States and Europe.
Some parts of the country are so hot that air conditioning is welcome. In addition, many Brazilians are afraid of crime and like the closed-off spaces and security guards. Others, in big cities with traffic and public transportation problems, prefer not to have to move around too much.
But class is also a factor: The shopping mall is still often seen by the rich as an exclusive place, and the rest of the country has recently spent a lot of time and money joining that culture.
“The shopping center culture existed before our recent economic growth, and was something the upper and upper middle classes engaged in. Our culture of consumption as a means to social distinction is very, very strong,” says Laurindo Leal Filho, a sociologist at the University of Sao Paulo.
“It used to be that only one class could consume, or send their kids to university, or ride a plane. Now that everyone can, there’s a rush to find a new way to distinguish themselves, and that is happening with more consumption.”
But in addition to becoming a symbol of the rush to consume, the preponderance of malls in Brazil’s society has served to close off and transform urban space.
“There is a serious lack of places for people to interact in our cities, and so many people go to malls without any intention to buy anything. They just want to walk around,” Leal Filho says.
At the beginning of the year, controversy erupted when poor, black youths, with few other places to go, filled the upper-crust shopping centers, singing, flirting and goofing around. When the malls refused to let them in, some accused the shopping centers of racism.
Pinto Veiga, the shopping mall president, says it’s not the concern of the industry if the malls end up closing off space, or picking up slack in communities where the government should be providing services.
Seated at the 13th International Mall Conference in Sao Paulo, which brought together 15,000 businesspeople from across Latin America and featured a speech by former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, he outlines the industry’s main concern.
“The shopping center entrepreneur has one objective, and that’s to win over return customers and not lose them,” he says. “We just want them happy with what we build.”
One recent weeknight at another towering middle-class mall, the Mooca Plaza in the megalopolis of Sao Paulo, patrons pour out of a Hollywood movie or the Outback Steakhouse.
The only movement or light anywhere near the massive structure comes from the customers’ cars leaving the compound, or the numerous security guards buzzing around the parking lot on motorcycles.
As is so often the case, the mall carves out its own space, marooned from its often grim surroundings. Like at Betim’s other new, overpowering mall, the Metropolitan, the parking lot is so large, and the area around the shopping mall so barren of pedestrians and public transport, that only cars can reasonably enter — and can exit only after paying.
Natalia Oliveira, 18, serves up lunches in the Monte Carmo food court before heading off to the university. She says malls have replaced other public spaces as community centers for kids.
“There’s the Parque Ecologico ... but it’s so dangerous now,” she says. “Other than that and bars, there’s not much we could do. I grew up in malls.”
Bevins is a special correspondent.