You know that movie They Live, in which former WWF wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper discovers a pair of magic sunglasses that allow him to see the subliminal messages all around him urging him to conform and consume? Well, that place exists in real life, and it wants to recruit your children.
It's called Mini City, and it's a children's play place in Tijuana that encourages kids to play in a pretend city with a little grocery store, post office and other places for make-believe amusement. Sounds adorable, right?
My sister Gaby and nephews Sebastian and Adrian visited from Los Angeles, and we headed to Mini City. We paid the admission charge and went to the registration desk, where we were strapped with wristbands. The kids' wristbands each had a large, red, bulb-looking device attached to it. The teenage desk worker activated our wristbands, and I asked if they were in case the kids wandered off.
"It's so we can keep track of the money they've earned," he squeaked, then handed us laminated checks. "Make sure to stop at the HSBC bank upstairs to the left so they can cash their first paychecks."
We made our way up the escalator that had a giant tube slide running alongside it. When we reached the top, it looked as though we entered a mall. Perplexed, I held Sebastian's hand, and we all made a loop around Mini City.
There was storefront after storefront of real-life businesses. There wasn't a cutesy little pretend market with cartoonish plastic fruit, but there was a Calimax, a national Mexican grocery-store chain. A little girl joylessly bagged packages of pasta as another stared blankly. We passed a child-sized Nissan dealership, where a little girl was handing paperwork to a small boy who was signing for a silver Nissan go-cart. Another child was waiting to pump the car buyer's gas at a small Pemex, the Shell of Mexico.
A group of 3-foot-tall police officers ran by, followed by a 4-year-old wearing a smock imprinted with Frontera, the local newspaper, ready to cover the news of an apparent break-in at the miniature plastic surgeon's office. That surgeon's office, by the way, had a kiddie hyperbaric chamber in case one of the little ones needed to reverse the signs of aging. I mean, what 6-year-old wouldn't want the taught skin of an unborn fetus?
"This place is fucking weird," Gaby said. Uh, yeah.
The whole ethos of Mini City is to show children the type of responsibilities they'll have when they reach adulthood, to teach them that they have to earn the things they want by working hard. I'm not a parent, but I imagine that's something any mom or dad would want to instill in their child.
There's even an "adult area" where parents can lounge as their kids are taught how to be good consumers of name-brand products. One dad was laying on a couch with his shoes off, using an iPad while his child was out making pretend minimum wage at a pretend thankless job. I hated him immediately. This place makes no effort to hide its intention of turning tykes into conformist drones, or responsible adults, depending on how much Kool-Aid is swishing in your tummy.
We found the small HSBC bank, where an adult teller was seated behind a counter. "Hi! Can I see the little ones' wristbands?" I pulled over Sebastian and held up his soft, chubby arm. The worker swiped his wristband. "Hi, Sebastian! Can I have your paycheck?" He handed it to her, eyes wide and unsure.
"Thank you!" she says. "You have 100 points. As you take part in activities, you will earn more points. You earn more points if you work than if you just play, though. Remember that. When you finish your activities, someone will scan your wristband, and then you'll come back here, and we'll cash your points. You can use your points to buy toys. Have fun!" I wondered if she'd short circuit if I threw water at her.
That was a lot of information for a 30-year-old, let alone a 5-year-old. Sebastian looked up at me with his big brown eyes and said, "Can I go pway now, nina Alej?" Poor kid. All he wants is to play, and here he's being given a crash course in capitalism.
The rules of "play" were rigid. The kids get a set amount of minutes to partake in "activities," i.e. work. When he attempted to go down the slide a third time, the girl manning it said no, he only gets two times. "But, why?" Sebastian asked tearfully. "Those are the rules," said the heartless bitch. Mini City? More like mini North Korea.
This place isn't teaching responsibility. It's teaching conformity. Why is Sebastian already being told which brands and companies he's to give his hard-earned pretend money to? My nephew can't just make pizza? He has to make Mama Mia (another Mexican chain) pizza in a Mama Mia uniform and make Mama Mia money in order to be rewarded? He can't go down a slide more than twice? What kind of sick place is this?
Already, these kids are separated according to their station in life and taught to abide by conventions that seek to affirm that they belong in one box and will never attain more unless they sell their souls.
No, Juanito, you pump the gas for Carlitos because he could afford to buy the new Nissan. Good job, Carlitos! Get back to work, Juanito.
As Sebastian attempted to play in this wonderland that celebrates consumerism and mediocrity, I could picture him turning gray as his little fingers signed for a high-interest loan. Nope. We left, and I promised to take him to a free park with unlimited slide play.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also bug her on Twitter.