A major culture shock for gringos moving to Latin America is classism – “prejudice or discrimination based on social class.”
Wealth inequality is greater in Latin America than anywhere else in the world. The Gini coefficient measures wealth inequality, something for which my country is often criticized by the more egalitarian Europeans. However, the US pales in comparison to wealth inequality in Latin America, which boasts the most unequal societies of any region in the world, which is substantial given how tiny is population of upper-class Latin Americans. This year Colombia was ranked as the 7th most unequal country in the world. Classism is palpable.
The histories of the United States and of Latin America should be similar. Both represented new worlds to Old Europe. However, the difference in their paths lie in their heritage. Classism comes from the Spanish. From Michael Reid’s Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul:
The colonial inheritance
Apart from its costly birth, the second handicap faced by newly independent Latin America was the legacy of the Iberian colonial order, which made it ill equipped for democracy and development. Colonial Latin America differed radically from New England or Canada (though less so from the more southerly of Britain’s American colonies). In the sixteenth century, the conquistadores had brought with them a kind of militarised feudalism …
The Spanish crown tried to control who settled in the Americas – indeed it went so far as to obtain a papal bull to uphold its authority to do so. In sharp contrast with English-speaking North America, no heretics, dissidents or freethinkers needed to apply. The second guiding philosophy was mercantilism. This doctrine held that gold and silver bullion was the ultimate source of wealth – and not merely another commodity – and that trade was a zero-sum game. So Spain imposed a rigid monopoly of trade with its colonies, and discouraged the production of items that might compete with its own farmers and artisans. The backbone of the colonial economy became the hacienda (large landed estate with resident serfs), the plantation and the mine …
Unlike the Pilgrim Fathers, the Spaniards conquered territories with large populations of native Americans … The Spaniards quickly realised that they needed Indian labour. Colonial Spanish America became a caste society: a small group of large landowners, officials and clergy ruled over a much larger population of Indians …
Inequality was a fundamental and integral aspect of colonial societies, whether they were based on serfdom or slavery or both. ‘Perhaps nowhere is inequality more shocking,’ noted Alexander von Humboldt, an aristocratic German scientist and traveler, in his essay on New Spain (Mexico) published in 1811. ‘The architecture of public and private buildings, the women’s elegant wardrobes, the high society atmosphere: all testify to an extreme social polish which is in extraordinary contrast to the nakedness, ignorance and coarseness of the population.’ … Spaniards, criollos, and Indians lived under separate laws … Men always outnumbered women among Iberian colonists, and overwhelmingly so at the start …
[T]he underlying socio-economic divides, broadly speaking, ran along racial lines. The fears, resentments and ignorance which racial difference generated made that divide all the harder to break down. At the heart of the history of Latin America since independence has been the tension between the beneficiaries of that divide and the gathering forces of socio-political mestizaje.
I’ll translate that to layman’s terms. The colonization of English-speaking America was very different from the colonization of Latin America.
Canada and the US were colonized by people looking to start new religions (Quakers, Shakers, Pilgrims, Puritans, etc.), people escaping famine (Germans, Irish), people escaping debtors prisons. These were people who wanted to create new lives in an un-established land of opportunity. North American history, aside from the slave-holding South, was largely about single family farms. Wealth inequality wasn’t extreme.
The colonists who came to the rest of the Americas weren’t looking to start religions or establish utopias. They were overwhelmingly male, and they came as treasure hunters. The idea was to marry an Indian, build an estate with high walls to keep out the Indian labor, and extract all the resources possible to send back to the old country. Economics was a zero-sum game to maintain wealth in the family and keep the Indians poor. Wealth inequality was, in von Humboldt’s words, “shocking.”
Status in Latin America
In Early Latin America: A History of Colonial Spanish America and Brazil, James Lockhart writes:
Iberians themselves spoke much of the distinction between noble and commoner, and so much was made of nobility that a fairly large proportion of the population, people who in some countries would have been considered prosperous townsmen, asserted noble status for themselves. Much of the activity concerned with establishing nobility was superficial, a sort of subterfuge and camouflage that deceived no one, but the ideal, the well-defined role and lifestyle of the nobleman, was a force in life. Nobility was as much a set of attitudes as it was a matter of lineage … Full economic success in almost any branch of life created nobility, and the nobles new and old adhered to the same patterns … There were also things a noble did not do, as important to his status as his positive attributes. The noble married a woman of high lineage (underneath which ideal much jockeying for wealth and position went on); he maintained a large establishment of relatives, retainers, and servants who filled a city house of much magnificence and spread out to care for lands and stock in the country … The goal was permanent wealth, enabling a family to “live nobly” from rents and herds without daily activity in trade.
Institute Pimp once told me that if a Colombian is making 10 million pesos a month, he’s spending 15 million. He’s trying to maintain the image of high status.
In Politics, Power, and Cities (excellent speech), Enrique Peñalosa gives an example of bike use in northern vs. southern Europe. He asks why is bicycle use so much more common in the Netherlands than in Spain or Italy, when the weather in Spain and Italy is much warmer? Because Spain and Italy are less egalitarian societies. Because of status and social class, the Spanish or Italian businessman considers himself too important to be seen riding a bicycle in his fancy suit. The Dutch businessman, on the other hand, jumps on an old bike like everyone else.
That’s a cute, safe illustration of status consciousness. Here’s a funny one.
The preppie look from gringos in the 80s – early 90s is raging in Latin America. It’s common to see guys wearing khakis with Tommy Hilfiger flags on the butt, with plaid dress shirts tucked in with sweaters draped / tied around their necks or waists. Sweaters tied around their necks! I told this to a Mexican-American buddy back home – he didn’t believe me. The corniest, whackest trends from “preppie” are alive and well in Latin America. They’re known as gomelos in Colombia, pitucos in Peru. Polo, Nautica, all the golf brands. They’re differentiating themselves from the middle and lower classes. To an uninformed gringo, it looks like they’re trying to be us.
Then there are examples that aren’t funny.
The first time I went to Camana, the beach town a few hours from Arequipa, my buddy and I missed the bus our group of friends left on. Our best option was to hire a private taxi. Most taxis wait until they get four passengers, charging each about 15 soles. We found two kids about 17 years old to team up with.
I couldn’t believe how these kids treated the taxi driver. They were rude, insisting, and talking with a tone of the boss. They were telling him how to do his job. In the States, you don’t see 17 year old rich kids telling adult cab drivers what to do. And if they did, the cab driver wouldn’t sit and take it like this cholo did. An American cabbie would boot the brats from the car.
Pollo had an interesting story from when he was first deported to Colombia from Miami. He returned to his upper class family in Barranquilla. They tried to set him up with the daughter of similar estrato. Pollo and this creida went on a date to a Crepes & Waffles. Creida ordered a water and the server brought a glass of tap water. Creida went into a rage and loudly scolded the waitress. ‘Do you expect me to drink tap water? I can’t believe you brought me this to drink. I’m so insulted!’ Pollo said, “Oh my God, I wanted to disappear. This bitch wouldn’t shut the fuck up. I was so embarrassed and I felt bad for the girl.” I thought of the irony of Pollo, the ex-con, thug, con artist, gangbanger, coke-snorting, American spic being embarrassed by the behavior of a high society gomela.
Latin Americans will judge you by your hands. These are mine, and they’ve caused many soft-handed gomelos to inquire about them, horrified. This is directly at odds with American values, where men have hard hands. At least in the heartland, where I’m from. In Missouri, a normal boy is going to do a significant amount of cutting grass, shoveling snow, wheel barreling (bricks, mulch, dirt, etc.), digging holes (the worst!) – all kinds of manual labor. My hands had calluses before I was jerking off, so the only soft hands my dick has felt have been on girls. Later I worked in landscaping, as a busser, a beer merchandiser – all heavy manual labor positions. And of course regularly deadlifting 400 pounds doesn’t help. But the fact is, I never had soft hands. I have family and friends in construction and landscaping whose hands are like rawhide. I’d guess mine are about average for men from the South or Midwest. But you wouldn’t believe the reactions from gomelos. They point it out – what’s with your hands? They’re horrified. They’re proud of having soft hands because, in Latin America, hard hands indicate low class. As an undergrad I had a Brazilian girlfriend who complained about my calluses. She bought this rock to scrub them with, to soften the skin. The first time she did it, it hurt like hell and I withdrew my hands and told her to go throw the rock outside. She wasn’t going to use it on me anymore.
Latin Americans aren’t discrete about classism either. One of my Colombian affairs said in so many words, “Soy muy clasista,” as if she were trying to impress me. That’s like saying in English, “I don’t like poor people. I don’t fuck with poor folks.” When I went to Brazil, I took a liking to the funk song, Glamurosa. Another Brazilian indluged me and played it over and over. Another protested in English, “What level are we?” They come right out and say it.
Being seen with a gringo is a status symbol. That’s one reason why gringos make so many friends in Latin America, whether they realize it or not. Obviously, sometimes your Latin friend and you have true chemistry and you’re buddies. But often, they want to be associated with you for status reasons.
Classism Affects You and Me
If you live in Latin America, classism will probably affect you in time. It got to me real quick. When I arrived in Peru, within a couple months I was working at one of the city’s most esteemed companies. The student organization helping me was based at one of the city’s finest universities, and I played basketball with the alumni team of one of the most prestigious private high schools (and city champs). Everybody I knew had money and came from the upper class. I felt like a rock star.
But it didn’t stop there. One night I made out with a gorgeous chick at a bar. She invited me to a party she was having the next week. When I showed up, I was shocked at her house. She was rich, fine, and very interested. That had never happened to me in the States. Girls I dated were teachers, nurses, secretaries, etc. They came from working class or middle class families. I’d never gone to a girl’s house to find a mansion. That night was a turning point for me.
In the marriage ad I posted (which was a joke), the one requirement that elicited the most comments was that the girls had to be estrato 5 or 6. The ad was a joke, but the requirements weren’t. Obviously I could be lax with one or another for a girl I really liked. But those were the guidelines I was using to vet women. I had realized that as a gringo I’d have access to that socio-economic level. Why throw that away?
Race was mentioned in Michael Reid’s passage above. I never gave a shit what color a girl is back in the States. But once social class and classism in Latin America started to affect me, I started noting how white women were. How many Indians in her bloodline? Because only pure Spanish blood would be the best indicator of estrato 5 or 6.
“I don’t fuck with poor bitches” – I never would’ve said something like this before going expat. But I’ve said it since.
I’ve moved away from the classism, however. Colombia is the 7th most unequal country in the world, and its brand of clasismo is harsher than anywhere else I’ve seen (especially in Bogota). Stuck-up gomelos are the most obnoxious people I’ve met in my life. I’d rather kick it with American hipsters. Everything is just too SAFE and BORING. I started avoiding the north of Bogota altogether, at least when partying. Last year I made an artist buddy, a nice guy, who invited me to posh parties and galleries in Chicó and Usaquen. But I’d always flake on him, until he stopped calling. I’d rather get in trouble with deported guys or other expats in La Candelaria and Chapinero.
A lot of gringos live entirely inside these upper-class bubbles. It’s easy to do, especially if you’re making an American salary. You can tell from some of the all-too-common, incredibly naive comments on this site that a gringo never “leaves the hacienda” – the protected bubble of affluence. If you do the math, 3% of Colombia is estrato 5 or 6. Now given government, business, and media power is centered in Bogota, you could reasonably assume that average is double, while many regions of Colombia have little to no upper class. So at 6% of a city of 8 million, that’s 480,000 people in estrato 5 or 6. That’s a small city in itself. That’s a lot of gomelos – more than enough to never leave the bubble. It’s not big enough to never have to see low or middle class people, but it’s enough to never have to get to know them. Not that I know anything about how people in the slums live – but I don’t believe the image of a country fed to me by the people in the hacienda.
Don’t Eat the Rich
Much of the classism actually comes from the aspiring middle class. At my gym, Los Libertadores in Teusaquillo (Cl 63A between Kr 17 and 18), a trainer once told me not to call him ‘parce’, implying it was beneath him. It’s one thing for an estrato 6 gym-goer at Bodytech to say ‘Don’t call me parce’. But you work at Los Libertadores, a university that has an auto mechanic school. At nightfall the surrounding streets are prowled with zombie crackheads. Sometimes entire blocks stink of crack smoke. And the little party district adjacent to the school is one of the most likely areas you’ll get drugged with Scopolamine in Bogota. Don’t give me that too-cool-for-school nonsense. The brief rola affair who told me in so many words, “Soy muy clasista,” – she was estrato 4. Moreover, an estrato 4 neighborhood in the south. A clasista from the south!
In Peru the middle class are more likely to badmouth the serranos AKA cholos. Milagros, a nurse, told me she learned from her mother, a middle class housewife, to look down on the Indians. Milagros has been one of many Peruvians who voiced support for forced sterilizations of rural, indigenous Peruvian women by Alberto Fujimori’s government. This is similar to what I’ve observed on racism against African-Americans in my country. Despite what you see in the movies, most racists aren’t people with money and power (like in Trading Places). They’re not the power elite in New York or LA. The biggest racists are working-class whites who want to feel superior somehow.
Upper-class Colombians I’ve met are more likely to be involved in social work. So definitely not all Colombian gomelos, Peruvian pitucos, and high-estrato Latinos are consumed by classism. I’ve met Andes students who do unpaid social work in Chocó. And on the days when Un Techo Para Mi País is out collecting donations, stop and talk to the volunteers. How white are they? What universities do they go to? How much English do they speak? Connect the dots.
Finally, one of the best forces against Colombian classism is Enrique Peñalosa, who didn’t come from humble roots. He attended one of the best Bogota high schools, then Duke University before going on to his doctorate in Paris. Here are quotes that display his disdain of classism:
- A bus with one hundred passengers deserves one hundred times the road space as a car with one passenger.
- A citizen on a $30 bicycle is just as important as a citizen in a $30,000 car.
So don’t eat the rich. Most of them are the classists I describe, but you can’t paint them all with that brush. And the only people in Latin America who are trying to move the culture away from backwards practices like classism are from upper class families.
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