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When a meal at McDonald’s isn’t so happy


I learned a new phrase in Spanish today: hasta agotar existencias. I first thought it sounded ominous, something to the effect of “until all of existence is snuffed out.” In fact, it means “while supplies last.” I learned it at the local McDonald’s. I went to see what kind of toys they were putting in their Cajitas Felizes (“Happy Meals”) these days.

In my case, the “local” McDonald’s is located on the main drag in La Paz, Bolivia. I live and work in La Paz as a lay missioner with the Maryknoll Mission Association of the Faithful. On a recent global association Internet mailing list, Fr. Charlie Dittmeier in Hong Kong wrote asking other Maryknollers if the McDonald’s restaurants in their respective mission countries were running the same giveaway promotion as they were in the Chinese metropolis.

In Hong Kong, McDonald’s was encouraging clients (presumably children, above all) to eat their combo meals every day for 28 days. They were luring them in by offering Snoopy figurines dressed in costumes from different world cultures each day. Included were costumes representing a good number of Asian countries, several European countries and North America. Representing the rest of the Americas, there was a Mexican Snoopy and a “Latin America” Snoopy. There was not a single Snoopy from Africa.

A fascinating discussion ensued on the mailing list, as Maryknollers from other parts of the world commented on health and environmental concerns regarding the arrival of McDonald’s in their mission countries. Charlie pointed out that McDonald’s has been encouragingly responsive on some issues. But he was still curious about the ethnic makeup of the 28 Snoopy costumes in other countries where the offer might be in effect. So, I went to investigate.

Well, no racially selective Snoopies here. In Bolivia, they are giving away four different McDonaldlandia characters in astronaut suits. While supplies last, that is. Maybe when they run out, we’ll get Snoopies. I don’t know how well Bolivians would react to being lumped in with every other non-Mexican Latino from Spanish Harlem to Tierra del Fuego (to say nothing of being portrayed by a beagle).

But it probably wouldn’t bother most of the local Big Mac consumers the way it might bother, say, leading activists for the rights of coca growers, or a socially conscious Aymara cultural promoter. That’s because being simply labeled “Latin Americans” is a step closer to not being Latins at all. It certainly doesn’t point to the embarrassingly evident “Indian” blood running through most of their veins. After all, they’re eating Quarter Pounders, aren’t they? And for a pretty peso. They’ve earned the distinction of not being distinct. Their ancestors were the first people on earth to harvest potatoes - 800 varieties, in fact -- and yet they choose to munch on world famous McDonald’s French fries, imported from Canada. “Latin American?” Indeed, they’re almost Middle Americans.

Don’t let that wrinkly-faced beggar woman outside in sandals and a bowler hat tell you otherwise. Besides, she must agree. She’s left her potato patch in the altiplano and come to the big city, and now nothing would make her happier than for one of the Happy Mealers to reach through the bars surrounding the patio and playground and hand her some scraps of Canadian-grown, French-fried potatoes to share with the toddler wrapped in a blanket on her back. You can even see his black eyes sparkle as he turns the red and yellow box over in his tiny brown hands, his mother hobbling away, savoring her world-famous leftovers. The enormous plastic McDonald’s Golden Arches perched majestically overhead like an imported rainbow add a sense of cinematic composition to the scene as mother and child disappear into the hills of the adobe-dotted Andes.

When McDonald’s was first preparing to open here in Bolivia, there was a controversy regarding where they would get their potatoes. I heard they had finally given in to local pressure and agreed to buy local spuds. The week they opened, I went in to make sure. I asked the manager, and he told me that the meat was from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, but that the potatoes were imported from Canada. I told him what I had heard. “Impossible,” he said. He told me that it was absolutely necessary to import the potatoes in order to ensure uniformity in the French fries. Using the English phrase with evident pride, he explained that the policy was “worldwide.”

I guess my problem with McDonald’s here is more cultural than it is environmental or nutritional. Too many Bolivians believe that all things foreign are inherently superior. The arrival of McDonald’s last year gave upper-class Bolivians a unique opportunity to live out that belief. Their appreciation is made evident by the Range Rovers seen around town with McDonald’s stickers in the back windows, not to mention the traffic jams caused by lines at the drive-through. They would much rather pay U.S. prices for a fast food combo meal -- the exact same combo meal New Yorkers and even Parisians are eating, mind you -- than pay $1.50 for a traditional Bolivian multicourse lunch in a sit-down restaurant (perhaps a stuffed tomato, peanut soup, bread with hot sauce, spicy chicken with rice, vegetables and two kinds of potatoes, fruit salad and a cup of coffee or coca tea). Families who are less able to afford simply popping in to refuel will wait and save all week to make McDonald’s their big Sunday outing.

There are a head-spinning number of people working at McDonald’s at any given time. So, at least they provide jobs, right? Well, just like in the United States, they aren’t looking to support families or provide benefits, so these are almost all upper-class, white Bolivian teenagers earning some spending cash after school.

The percentage of white people, among both clients and employees, is striking in this second-most-indigenous of Latin American countries (after Guatemala). The place doesn’t look nearly as Latin as, say, the crowd at the McDonald’s in Adams Morgan where I used to grab late-night snacks in Washington. In fact, I’ve often thought that the proud clients of McDonald’s here would be shocked and disillusioned to see some of the characters nursing cokes in the less conspicuous corner booths of many McDonald’s restaurants back home.

And, beyond all that, the aesthetics alone depress me. The first McDonald’s here in La Paz was built in the elite Southern Zone of the city. It looks exactly like any suburban McDonald’s in the United States, right down to the kind of bricks on the floor. Which actually means it fits in rather well down there. It’s next door to a Mormon church -- also exactly like its Northern counterparts. Across the street is a big modern Catholic parish (English Masses on Saturday evenings), a bowling alley and a new, overwhelmingly large supermarket that specializes in imported goods (the same company has an older, smaller store just blocks away; the new one has almost exactly the same stuff as the old one, but it has wider aisles and 20 of everything, to give it a more impressive, U.S.-style appearance).

Just weeks after McDonald’s arrived, a Domino’s Pizza opened around the corner. Ex-pats and the grandchildren of former dictators (including those who continue to run the country) meet and mingle in this most elite of Bolivian neighborhoods.

The second McDonald’s opened on the main boulevard downtown. I must admit, they did a decent job at maintaining the building’s colonial facade. But then they planted a ridiculously large set of Golden Arches out front, which now dominates the entire boulevard, especially when lit up at night. This not only makes La Paz look like any U.S. city, it also looks just like Amsterdam and countless other otherwise unique and beautiful places I’ve lived and visited. They just tore down a beautiful old colonial house on the main street in Cochabamba to build the first McDonald’s there. I’ve yet to visit Santa Cruz, home to most of Bolivia’s drug money, and its first two McDonald’s restaurants.

I admit it, I like McDonald’s. Always have. And I admit that I have given in to temptation and eaten there a couple of times since they opened here in La Paz. It may not be gourmet, but “comfort food” rarely is. It’s something familiar, quick and fairly unlikely to give me parasites. Heck, they even have astronaut toys. But my cultural misgivings have always caught up to me, and I’ve ended my meal slinking out hoping nobody I know sees me, feeling as if I were exiting a porn theater.

I want to thank Charlie for his recent inquiries and words of semi-defense regarding the Mac empire. Today, armed with the pretext of a work-related investigation into current Happy Meal toy offerings, I ate two cheeseburgers and drank a Coke (I did resist the French fries) and left feeling guilt-free -- no small feat for an Irish Catholic in any situation!

Of course, now the floodgates are open. I just read an article the other day in which one of Bolivia’s richest industrialists, Doria Medina (interestingly, I work in the local prisons where I’ve visited some guerrilla terrorists who once kidnapped him -- the ransom is rumored to have financed the takeover of the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Peru last year) cheerfully announced that “Bolivians will soon enjoy the world-famous hamburgers of Burger King.” Can KFC, Pizza Hut and Dunkin’ Donuts be far behind?

I’ll leave you with a semi-related quote from the book Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads by Gil Bailie. I find it a strangely hopeful statement in both its assertions. He says, “Christianity no more owns the gospels than do multinational corporations own the earth, a point that the gospels and the earth will make clear enough in due course.”

Food for thought.

Daniel J. Moriarty writes from La Paz. He may be contacted at daniel@djmo.bo

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999