Polar Bears and Transculturation

VA columnist Jessica Dos Santos sees Caracas' Christmas decorations as a launch point to reflect on cultural practices.
Tales of Resistance polar bears
Fighting back against US hegemonic culture is a long term effort, Jessica Dos Santos argues. (Venezuelanalysis)

Venezuela has always been exposed to the US’ hegemonic culture. Its reach when it comes to fashion, movies, music, etc. is huge, and on some occasions this becomes very visible.

It is a consequence of our proximity, of the global dominance of the US cultural industry, and also a direct consequence of our all-important oil industry. For example, it was around the oilfields that people started playing baseball. Later, when a new class found itself flush with money, it did nothing more than imitate the consumer practices from the North.

I’m bringing up these things because right now, as Christmas approaches, the streets of Caracas are decorated with giant, lit polar bears, some dressed as Santa Claus, others looking like they came straight out of a Coca-Cola commercial.

Not just that, every Christmas decoration I have seen in our parks, highways, plazas, etc. seems carbon copied from what you would find in a US city.

And Christmas traditions are in no short supply in Venezuela. We could represent the instruments used in the aguinaldos, parrandas and gaitas (traditional music genres) which are unique to our country and a familiar soundtrack in December.

We could think of decorations based on our special Christmas dishes, on traditional games, or even the creole Nativity scene: with Mary hailing from the Andes and a San José from the llanos. Though Christianity is not native to this part of the world either, it has been appropriated and even combined with other traditions, including from Afro-Venezuelans.

But state authorities prefer Canadian pine trees, polar bears, Santa from the Coke commercials and the sleighs and reindeer that we have never seen except on TV. All of this sparks a lot of attention across town. Traffic around the areas with decorations is a nightmare, because people stop to take photos, record reels or TikTok videos there.

To be completely honest, a few years ago I would have led a crusade against this. In 2013 I wrote an article called #HalloweenCostumes where I criticized that this hashtag was trending as Venezuelan youths discussed what they would wear on Halloween.

I railed that they were all ignorant about Samhain, a gaelic celebration dating back some two thousand years in what is Ireland and Scotland presently to mark the end of Summer and the beginning of Autumn.

I also called them unpatriotic for caring about a foreign tradition, going out trick-or-treating and ignoring the birthday of Venezuela’s “people’s singer” Alí Primera.

Nowadays I read my words and feel bad for my old self, full of arrogance and misreading the context altogether. In other words, if Halloween is a thing in Venezuela it’s because that cultural penetration is already here. The state does not see it as an issue, institutions even have their own parties. Everything that sparks a minimum of economic activity gets tolerated.

Similarly, Black Friday has taken hold here because given the economic situation everyone is on the lookout for a discount or the possibility to buy appliances in installments. And the present policies grant ever more weight to the private sector and retail which is driven by consumption.

The Christmas decorations are no different. If people see a lit-up polar bear, they’ll take photos with it. Not because they are “brainwashed” or “easily fooled,” but because they are simply out for a good time, looking for places to hang out with their kids.

In other words, we can’t fight this kind of cultural invasion with extreme measures. One such absurd idea from the Venezuelan state was the recent plan to ban reggeaton from schools. It’s a bit contradictory when the state itself organizes super-expensive reggeaton concerts, featuring local and international stars, as a “reward” for kids who graduate from school. Where’s the consistency?

There is no magic solution for transculturation, but the government can at least recognize that it is an issue and use the instruments it has to fight back.

In Venezuela, for example, we have embraced burgers and hotdogs, they have become street food staples. Not just that, Venezuelans are wholly convinced that these are the best burgers and hotdogs in the world. And this proliferation of street food posts has largely meant that fast food chains never got much of a foothold here. There are many ways to fight this fight.

Some time ago, it was common in the center of Caracas to see kids taking photos with men and women dressed as some of our most iconic historical characters. It was part of a whole “historic route” with performances, songs and recitals in every corner. Now there’s not even a shadow of that. Instead, you see people dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse charging $1 per photo.

My conclusion is that we need to start talking about these issues again. They may seem irrelevant but they are not. Culture is not some isolated realm that only concerns the decorations we like or not or the influencers we follow on social media. At the end of the day, it reflects the kind of society we have, or want to have. Culture is no less political than the party we pick in each election.

But at the same time we need to be conscious that this is not a battle we can win overnight. It requires study, planning and above all a clear horizon. Otherwise, the hegemonic alternative will just impose itself, beginning with polar bears and ending in its “common sense” beliefs, that capitalism is great and the US is the model we should all aspire to. And we have to fight that.

Jessica Dos Santos is a Venezuelan university professor, journalist and writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as RT, Épale CCS magazine and Investig’Action. She is the author of the book “Caracas en Alpargatas” (2018). She’s won the Aníbal Nazoa Journalism Prize in 2014 and received honorable mentions in the Simón Bolívar National Journalism prize in 2016 and 2018.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.