A conversation about class

Social class isn’t exactly polite dinner conversation, but living in Colombia I’ve come to learn that your last name and address say more about you than just where you live.

In my first months in Bogotá, I didn’t notice it quite so much—the way the way the porteros (doormen) in a friend’s building would let her expat friends in with no problem, but the Colombian ones would wait while he called to ensure that they were, in fact, guests. Another friend told me that when applying for membership at a country club, they wanted to know all about their parents—what kind of work they do, their religion, and whether or not they are divorced. Startlingly, I only just realized that there’s a chain link fence, topped with a curlicue of razor wire, that separates the low-tuition school where I volunteer from the most prestigious school in the city, attended by children who’s parents are senators and diplomats.

As we were discussing the social order of Bogotá in a Saturday Spanish class, my professor told Cody and me that there is a reason foreigners may not see the sometimes subtle—but many times direct—borders in class that are still prevalent in Colombian society today. She explained that foreigners are kind of exempted from the rules because firstly, they’re assumed to have money (and by default are put in a higher group) and secondly because we simply don’t fit in firmly rooted rubric of Colombian social structure.

When we were apartment hunting in our first days in the city, it was inevitable that Bogotá’s estrato system would be explained to us. As we looked at potential homes, it was described how all of the city’s neighborhoods were given a number from one through six as a way to subsidize utilities: those in estratos five and six pay the most for things like gas, water, and electricity while those who live in estratos one through three pay much less or receive these services for free (I chat about estratos a bit more here).

In theory and without much knowledge of how the system has impacted society, the stratum seemed like a logical idea—knowing about the displaced population and incredible gap between the wealthy and those struggling to make ends meet, why shouldn’t those who are able to help those who are in need?

Going back to that same Saturday Spanish class, this past week Cody and I read and discussed an article that highlights how this system—while well intentioned—has seeped into the culture as a whole (see the full article here).

A sociologist and researcher quoted in the article says that the estratos have become a way for Colombians to define the social order and are an inescapable reminder of a person’s place in society.  Though the system has been successful in subsidizing utilities and assisting people in that way, it has inadvertently laid a physical barrier between people of different socioeconomic status and has prevented social mixing. Colombia is the only country in the world to so explicitly map out a city based on socio-economic status and it’s pretty much an accepted part of society: our professor told us that she never questioned the system and assumed that it was the norm all over the world until she traveled outside of Colombia.

Not only is there an idea of keeping people ‘where they belong’, the system has also created some unhealthy fears. The article mentions a study that found people wouldn’t want to move to a higher estrato—even if they were able— because everything would then become more expensive. The arbitrary nature of the system has even prevented people from improving their homes: because the system is based on a checklist of factors regarding the building, rather than the inhabitant’s income, people are reluctant to make home improvements out of fear that their estrato level will increase.

After our discussion, I realized certain things have been zooming over my head. For instance, when I wrote a post about ciclovía, I mentioned the study that touted how the weekly event fostered a sense of safety, but I didn’t grasp their example of how it also promotes social mixing.

Colombia is like any other place: there is a mountain of lovely things which make this place special, but inevitably there are things that are broken. The fact that the estrato system has come under scrutiny is a good thing—though a total change is still years away, the conversation has started. In the meantime, learning a bit more about the problems caused by the current system has made me see why projects like Sembrando Confianza, the Hogar Nueva Granada school, and ciclovía are so important—each one is a small, hopeful step in shrinking the gap between one and six.


6 thoughts on “A conversation about class

  1. Fascinating post. Of course, here in America, we like to pretend we are a classless society, something which was always a fiction, but seems increasingly more so. And despite the various barriers which have arisen in recent decades, we still have a fair bit of class mobility.

    However, in Mexico, class distinctions are more boldly cut, and they share some similarities with those of Colombia. In Mexico, there’s a pretty clear tendency for whiter folks to be higher class than darker folks, or at least treated that way, something I’ve written about on my blog. (https://gringosuelto.wordpress.com/2014/03/30/moreno-y-guero-in-zacatecas-some-thoughts-on-mexican-concepts-of-beauty/) And the darker folks tend to be lower class, and often not treated well. Though this is not cast in stone, it tends to be generally true, or at least perceived as such. And so my ex BF, “F,” who’s a dark-skinned (moreno) Mexican often found himself treated worse than me (a very white gringo) when we’d go somewhere and find ourselves separated.

    And as a tall, white Gringo, I get treated *very* well wherever I go in Mexico. It’s nice to get the benefit, but it’s sad that Mexican society is that way. And it certainly annoyed me that “F” would be treated worse in his own country than I.

    Anyway, it’s quite eye-opening being abroad, isn’t it? I’d love to go to Colombia some day.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we’re glad we don’t pay more for electricity than anyone else.

    1. Hi Kim, nice to see you around here again! I completely agree with your comments that while the U.S. is definitely not a classless society, mobility isn’t as difficult. When my husband was younger, he was a personal banker and always made comments that in Southern California you have no idea who has money or not—on more than one occasion he met with millionaires who drove Toyota Corollas and wore t-shirts that had seen better days.

      The stuff you said about being treated well as a gringo also carries over in Colombia, as well as the idea that lighter is better when it comes to skin tone. Your story about you and “F” really articulated something I wanted to discuss in the blog, but wasn’t sure how to approach. Our Spanish teacher isn’t afraid to broach uncomfortable topics and we’ve discussed this lingering stigma, left by Spanish settlers and still pervasive today. In fact, we spent an hour last Saturday talking about words that were taken from the Muisca language (the indigenous people who lived in Bogotá)—words that described people in honored positions or had other significance—and co-opted them into degrading terms.

      Even though it’s more overt, each difference only points out to me how much we all have in common. And I hope you make it to Colombia soon! Just saw a KFC opening near the historic center of this city…

      1. Danielle: I’d love to go to Bogotá one of these days. My Spanish tutor is from Colombia and she has said many interesting things about the place. One of these days, but you won’t see me in the KFC, though. Saludos!

        1. Haha, what I meant is that KFC is just another of the many American chains I’ve seen start to pop up all over the city and you should come to Colombia before they take over! When we first arrived there were only a few select places and now it seems like every time I go out I see a new Carl’s Jr. or Starbucks. Blech!

          1. Starbucks in Colombia? That’s too funny, considering how wonderful the locally-produced stuff is there. That said, I have no idea about the locally-produced fried chicken. Saludos.

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