Sounds like a dream job: getting paid to spend a month hanging out with young people in cities up and down Latin America from Panama City to Buenos Aires, but things don’t turn out quite the way anyone expected…
Amaranta Wright has written a travel book telling the story of a journey from casually naive researcher to committed anti-globalista set to a backdrop of tales of disaffected, distracted and discarded youth up and down the continent. Amaranta now runs the excellent magazine Bulb, in fact, so I wondered whether she really took the offer of a job from Levi’s at face value when they made her a scout of youth trends. Well, at the book launch, that was the story she was sticking to…
Like something out of a modern day Graham Greene novel, she gets a commission in a bar in Miami to report back on the state of Latin youth. As she travels the length and breadth of Latin America, her sense of self-revulsion grows as she trades the secrets and aspirations of the young people she encounters so that brands like Levi’s can exploit them better. She paints a vivid picture of Latin America and even if it is one that often differs markedly from my own experiences of the same cities, one never loses faith in her candour and honesty.
The back-story to the book is a search for Amaranta’s America. Her childhood was spent in Buenos Aires as her parents mixed with Argentina’s left wing intelligentsia. The betrayals and terrors of the seventies and eighties haunt her (and millions of others of course) and increasingly she loses the ability to draw the distinction between what she is doing for Levi’s and the needs of the neo-liberalist machine that disappeared so many in the hunt for the bottom line.
Having said that, Levi’s emerge from the book relatively unscathed. They are not doing anything that a switched on company would not do and the people who work for it in Latin America are a familiar bunch of fairly average people on the make. It is only if you buy the argument that all capitalist activity is evil that they stand condemned.
My suspicion is that people are rarely hapless victims of omniscient brands and their interactions are subtler than that. As Marx would say, capitalism contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. If Levi’s can get an edge by promoting anti-capitalist attitudes, then that is what it will do even if it might make their lives more difficult five years down the line.
What one gets from this book, however is a series of poignant vignettes of people’s lives across a continent; drawing our attention to the unique instance of each place and time as well as highlighting common threads and concerns felt from Milton Keynes to Medellin. Comforting notions about the ‘other’ or the ‘developing’ world seem to have lost whatever purchase they may have once had.
One cannot help emerge from this book with a new appreciation for a continent that shows mankind at its best and its very worst.
You should err, buy this book or, better yet, steal it from a multinational. Or Amazon maybe?
Paperback 352 pages (May 5, 2005)
Publisher: Ebury Press