The Power of Public Shame in Latin America

Alternate Title: Teaching Latin American Adults How to Stand in Line

I never forgot a scene from the documentary, Bogota Cambio, which profiles mayors Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa. Mockus’s outside-the-box idea to improve transit was to hire clowns to make fun of drivers who did things like block major avenues to avoid being stuck at a red light.

Mockus argued that public shame is a powerful motivator in Colombian culture, and it applies to greater Latin America. I often apply this technique when I get angry about whatever uncivilized behavior I suffer in the streets, as happened last night.


It’s a small miracle the subject of lining up, or “queuing” in British English, has never come up on this blog. But suffice to say that in Colombia and Peru and I assume most of Latin America, people are not good at lining up. Although I imagine that Venezuela (pictured) may be leading the region in changing that given their shortage economy and all. Some excellent queuing culture must be developing!

I wouldn’t say they’re exactly like animals at feeding time — a free-for-all where only the strong survive. But nor is it a civilized line because somebody always considers his time more valuable than everybody in line, and attempts to bypass them and place an order with the store clerk.

If he just wants a cigarette, the line doesn’t apply to him. Or a cold drink, or if his bus is coming, or if he needs to pay his electric bill right now because his electricity were shut off. Or just because he doesn’t want to wait.

Trying to change your resident country’s culture is futile. I have my little tricks to discourage it, but trying to eradicate the practice is like pissing into the wind.

However, once in a while it’s grave enough to get ugly and speak out. And that happened last night at the pharmacy.

My pharmacy is actually a breeding ground for line-jumping because the aisles are so close to the register that you could not have one line feeding two or three clerks even if the public had the moral depth and intellect to form such a line. It’s too tempting to go around the side and steal the clerk’s attention, preempting the line.

I usually just pick the best spot, as most people do, and make early eye contact with the clerks, all of whom know me well. But last night I had my three-year-old son in the child seat of my bicycle. I couldn’t go to the side aisles. I had to line up through the center, leaving a distance behind the bicycle that no animal would stand behind if it ever wanted to eat at feeding time. Yet the two clerks were positioned to the sides, making the (unattainable for me) side aisles the ideal positions.

But the center aisle was the only place with room for the bicycle. This ceded the side aisles to any attack on my flank.

The first patron after me was tempted to go around to a side aisle. But she saw my bike and the boy, and her decency compelled her to fall in behind me.

The next woman, not so much. She went around.

When somebody is going to jump the line and you’re going to make a scene, it’s not time to intervene until she effectively jumps the line and the clerks allow it to happen. Otherwise you’re being a bit of a nervous freak.

So my anger had to stew for about five minutes before one of the clerks finished with her customer. The woman made her move, asking “if they have” whatever she wanted. I counter-attacked in my LOUD, deep, ugly-American, alpha-male, English-accented voice:


My voice could not be ignored and the clerk, who of course knows I’m a nice guy, asks: “¿Quién sigue?”

“Yo sigo,” I reply before the woman could say anything, or maybe I said it so loud I didn’t hear her attempt.

Still in a voice loud enough not only to interrupt the other clerk and customer, but also to be audible for any managers in the back office:

“Señora, ¿puede respectar la cola por favor? Tengo un niño en la bicicleta, ¿puede demostrar un poco de cultura?”

My loud voice and the confrontation had already embarrassed this woman, who it is important to note was a white Peruvian. But the “Can you please show a little class?” was the knockout punch. Instead of falling in line, she left altogether. She couldn’t handle the shame.

It may seem stupid or trivial to gringos, but sometimes they really can’t handle the shame.

White Peruvians know from birth that their country has been a basket case for the last 400 years, earning distinctions such as top cocaine producer, top counterfeit bills producer, high rates of malnutrition and poverty and armed conflicts which threatened the state. They know they’re second-class citizens on the global stage.

But they like to think all that bad stuff is due to Peru’s masses of Indians and colored races. They like to think they’re above it, that Peru would be something else if all the citizenry were white like them.

So that’s where I take my shots. A gringo telling a white Peruvian to show some class knocks them down to the same level as the rest, renders them an accomplice to this lesser society. And that has unbearable implications to their self image, which this woman will have to work out later, or maybe not. She may not be the reflecting type. Either way, standing in line at this specific pharmacy is too much for her to bear right now.

Indians or Afro-Peruvians require different tactics, but white Peruvians are the easiest. I often run my mouth in the street to disrespectful drivers – especially if they seem like they have a little money. I ask them if they’re new to Lima, because this isn’t the province. This isn’t the cerro. There are rules to respect, and a little order here in the capital. A haughty pituco can’t handle that coming from a gringo.

Very effective.

But to be used in moderation. Only when absolutely necessary, or when you lose your temper. Otherwise, you’re pissing into the wind.


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