Inside the Bubble

By Thea Johnson

QUITO—It is springtime in the capital of Ecuador, and that means everyone is celebrating Carnival, as are people all over Latin America. In the halls of the Fundación Colegio Americano—the American School—in the neighborhood of Carcelén, students are gearing up for the annual election of the school’s “princess.” This is no suburban prom queen selection. The election takes a beauty contest and transforms it into a grand display of wealth. One candidate is chosen from each of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades. Even in a school for the ultra-wealthy, filled with unusually attractive children, these girls stand out as the true beauties. As the three candidates campaign, six-foot photos of each hang in the school’s main foyer, greeting those who enter with a hint of cleavage and the come-hither expressions of fashion models.

Three days of Carnival festivities have led now to the climax—a school-wide dance where the princess will be named. At this grand finale, each class is charged with the responsibility of creating an elaborate dance routine before its candidate for princess is “revealed” to the audience. The routines involve elaborately choreographed theatrical numbers—intricate matching outfits, dancers moving in a harmonized bridge—in anticipation of the arrival of the entrant. Along with my fellow teachers, I sit watching the performance. The audience fills with parents, relatives, siblings and friends, as camera flashes create a circle of light around the stage.

As the music builds, the mass of dancing teenagers reaches a crescendo of movement. Then, with a wave, all the students point skyward with one grand gesture. The audience follows the movement with their eyes, craning their necks. And suddenly, above, there appears a giant glass ball. Eyes take a moment to adjust, but soon we can all see the first candidate, encased in the immense transparent ball, dangling dramatically from the ceiling. She is wearing a white dress with a corset bodice and a full skirt—quite likely purchased from Miami, or hand-made by a member of the small group of women in Quito who earn a living outfitting the rich. This year the candidates are limited to spending $500 on the gown. Before the school imposed the price cap, these young women could spend $1,000 or more on the chosen dress.

The first would-be princess waves at her audience, who cheer raucously below. She is beautiful. Her skin is tan, but not dark. Her layered, dusky blonde hair falls over her shoulders. Her figure is flawless.

As the glass ball descends slowly, majestically, few look past it to the ceiling. There, all but invisible to the wealthy throng below, dark-skinned men in blue uniforms are balancing from the rafters. They are the school’s janitors and grounds keepers. Standing precariously on the beams, without any safety net or belts, easily 30 feet off the ground, they are holding the rope attached to the glass ball and its cargo. The men brace themselves against the beams as they lower the ball as slowly and gracefully as possible. They are sweating, straining with all their might. The candidate smiles and waves inside the glass. Finally, mercifully, the ball lands and the men relax their muscles. On the floor, the door to the ball opens and the girl emerges. The crowd erupts.

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Thea Johnson spent two years teaching at the American School of Quito. She is now a writer and a public defender in New York.

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