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Upward Immobility


Navigating Colombia's class-based estrato system


Photograph by the author

1The names in this story have been changed.

The day of her third birthday party, Natalia1 waited at the window, ready to welcome her preschool classmates into her home. Outside, vendors sold tamales and fresh fruit juice, music blared from small multifamily row apartments, children played in the dusty streets; a typical Saturday in Bogotá’s Simón Bolivár neighborhood. But Natalia’s friends were not among the crowds. Hours later, after it became clear she would be celebrating alone, her mother, Carolina, received a text from one of the missing guests: “So sorry about everything, but your neighborhood is kind of dangerous. It is not our area. It is not familiar to us.”

Carolina, who is thirty years old and single, lives with her daughter in a three-room apartment in what’s considered a middle-class barrio. Natalia rides a bus an hour and a half each way to attend a bilingual preschool farther north. Most of her classmates reside there, an area where luxury high-rises dominate the landscape.

Housing in Bogotá, as in all Colombian cities, is governed by a unique stratification system that designates buildings and their inhabitants with a number from 1 to 6, called an estrato. Those who belong to the lowest estratos, 1 and 2, reside in the city’s most derelict neighborhoods, with 5 and 6 labeling homes in the wealthiest urban districts. The number designation determines a household’s tax and public utilities rates, including gas, electricity, and water. Cities began implementing the wealth redistribution mechanism in the 1980s, and the federal government codified it in 1994.

The idea is benevolent at heart: Charge the rich more for services to subsidize the poor. And the cross-class subsidy does serve that aim, but it simultaneously reinforces Colombia’s strict social hierarchy. Poorer people are branded with a lower-class designation that restricts upward mobility, all but ensuring they stay poor.

Carolina, who lives in estrato 3, says that in Colombian society, her estrato is part of her identity in the same way that her name, eye color, or height characterize her. She says even doctors have asked her what estrato she’s from, a way to gauge her social upbringing along with habits like diet. “Our personal relationships depend a lot on estratos,” she said. “It’s very sad.”

I first met Carolina outside Colegio Nueva Granada, a private bilingual K–12 school that teaches an American college preparatory curriculum. Perched on the side of a hill at the foot of the Andes Mountains, the school is among Bogotá’s richest. Carolina teaches Spanish to its international faculty.

We headed down the hill together, leaving the campus. Within five minutes of walking we were in the Bosque Calderón Tejada neighborhood, a small barrio she says is classified as estrato 1. A child was playing in the dirt with sticks, and several stray dogs wandered past. Across the street an old woman was clipping laundry to a line strung between a brick building and a lamppost.

Outside a tiny store proffering sweet rolls, empanadas, and glass bottles of Coca-Cola, Carolina said she loves the lower estratos for their tiendas and street food, especially tamales. In upper-class neighborhoods, she said, everyone shops at supermarkets, and “the concept of tamales is like a very disgusting food, because you can buy tamales in the streets, so it’s not very clean.” But for Carolina, the traditional dish tastes like childhood.

She pointed to the buildings, amalgams of brick, cinder blocks, and solid concrete. Most of them were two or three stories and lidded with sheets of corrugated steel anchored by rocks. “Every part of the house is a different construction, because it takes years” to build them, she said. Most people can’t afford to finish an entire house in one go, so they make additions to their informal shacks as finances permit. What the unfinished homes lacked in structure, though, they countered with vibrancy, with some exterior walls painted bright goldenrod, turquoise, and mauve.

In estrato 1, Carolina explained, every house belongs to a landlord who rents each room to a different family. She pointed to one orange brick building with a yellow façade and green-trimmed windows. “In this house there are maybe several families, every one living in a different room. And they share the kitchen and the bathroom,” she said. A modular skyscraper towered in the distance, a recent construction that houses diplomats, business people, and other members of Colombia’s elite.

If they’re not unemployed, most of the people who live in the shantytown are garbage collectors or maids, Carolina told me. Most of them always have, and always will, call the barrio home. Still, she added, “there are exceptions. Like me.”

When Carolina was young, her family couldn’t afford to pay rent in their area zoned as estrato 1, so they moved monthly from single room to single room to evade landlords in one of Bogotá’s most heavily armed and drug-ridden neighborhoods, Caracolí. “Every day when I was a child, a dead person in the street,” she said. The slum remains one of Bogotá’s most dangerous. Many of its residents are among the millions forcibly displaced by the country’s ongoing fifty-year asymmetric war between left-wing guerillas, right-wing paramilitary groups, and state military forces.

The country’s largest and oldest leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—known by its Spanish acronym, FARC—has for decades justified its violence as a response to the country’s entrenched inequality. Peasant Marxist-Leninists founded the FARC with the ideological aim of defending the interests of the poor by taking up arms. But after roughly fifty years of war, both the FARC and the second largest rebel group, called the National Liberation Army, have become increasingly perceived by the public as terrorists, far from political representatives. Their members are known for killing captives, drug trafficking, and murdering civilians.

Since 2012, the Colombian government, led by president Juan Manuel Santos, has engaged in formal peace talks with the country’s rebel groups. But even if a deal is reached, it is unlikely to address the estrato system; the FARC’s core concern is rural land ownership and farmland distribution, and Santos has repeatedly told Colombian media that “the economic and political model is not up for discussion.”

As we walked through Bosque Calderón Tejada, Carolina began to cry. Growing up in a violent slum, she said, “my expectations were very small.” Indeed, several studies conducted in Colombia on the estrato system show that the policy, which classifies people based on the physical space they occupy, is a determinant of internal self-worth, influencing how individuals decide what they could conceivably achieve. “Ultimately,” wrote Colombian sociologist Consuelo Uribe-Mallarino in one study, “it is about a social representation that transcends the logic and the scope of public policy for which it was created, establishing real barriers to social integration.”

Many of Carolina’s childhood friends fell into drug trafficking. One, Lina, was caught as a teenager transporting cocaine through the Miami airport, and is now serving a twenty-five-year prison sentence in Florida. “When your stomach is full, you can easily think, ‘oh those people [are] crazy; they don’t have common sense,’” Carolina says. “But when you are hungry, and your family is hungry, you don’t think so much. You make desperate decisions.”

Carolina finished high school early and gained admission to Bogotá’s top public university, where she completed teacher training. “My life changed,” she said. “But it is not common.”

Unlike Carolina, many of the other teachers who work at the Colegio live in the area, in the well-off neighborhoods zoned as estrato 5 or 6, adjacent to the Bosque Calderón Tejada barrio. “The HR office of the school, they warn teachers: Please don’t go to that area, it’s very dangerous,” Carolina said. “Of course, you would be afraid to walk in that area at night alone. But you know, danger is everywhere. And most of the times, it is in your mind.”

As we continued our walk, the small tiendas gave way to Starbucks and upscale restaurants. Less trash littered the streets, and the purebred dogs were walking on leashes. Carolina said we had gone from estrato 1 to 5. She gazed up at one of the sleek red-brick towers, with floor-to-ceiling windows so clean they seemed invisible. “In one way, I would like to live in that place. It seems to be more clean, with a doorman, with a parking lot—wow,” Carolina said. But in another way . . .” After trailing off, she switched to her native Spanish. “It’s like, ‘I’m exclusive. I don’t want to mix with other people. I live here. You live there,” she said, pointing to the shantytown we just left.

Next door a sign on another high-rise read: “No tall buildings. We want harmony in our neighborhood.” With an eye roll Carolina explained that Bogotá’s urban planners are pushing to build more high-density apartment towers to accommodate the city’s eight million residents. “But they don’t want other tall buildings—for the view—so ‘it’s great when it’s my building, but when it’s others, I don’t like it.’” She paused, her berry-tinted lips curving slightly upward. “This was also once a small house,” she said. “They have also interrupted the harmony of others.”

We entered a peaceful, forested park, with a path leading back up the hill to the school. When I asked Carolina what she hopes for her daughter, she again began to cry again. “I want her to accept that life has a lot of different versions,” she said. “I want my daughter to know what diversity is. That’s very important. And I want to teach her that she can do everything that she wants. Of course, that is very easy to say.”

While pregnant, Carolina suffered violent domestic abuse and nearly died before giving birth to Natalia two months early. She left her husband—her partner since childhood—to the distress of her devout Catholic family and friends. Her parents eventually came to accept her decision, but to the rest of society her status as a single mother is yet another strike against her. She has tried to find an apartment elsewhere, but landlords doubt her ability to pay rent without support from a husband. So she does her best to make her small house, in a neighborhood where her coworkers won’t bring their children, a home: “It is our place. And it is the place where Natalia is growing, so it is beautiful in that way.”

When we returned to the school, we sat on a bench outside the security gates. A few men in dark suits and aviator sunglasses stared at us. Carolina said they’re drivers, waiting to pick up kids after school. She checked her watch; in about twenty minutes the “street will be full of amazing cars,” she said, noting that wealthy mothers often pick up their children accompanied by their maids, who trail five or so steps behind. A moment later a woman in large sunglasses, a tight caramel blonde updo, and four-inch block-heeled boots proceeded to the gate. Her maid in uniform followed, eyes on the ground. Carolina laughed: “There you go.”

Carolina said that because she works in a higher estrato than where she lives, she feels particular pressure to fit in—to get plastic surgery, go to the hairdresser more often, get more frequent manicures. She looked down at her own short, oval-filed nails polished a shiny black, a few thin gold bangles adorning her wrist. “People in higher estratos behave physically in a different way. They don’t hug you. They have a different posture.” Carolina can easily identify a person’s estrato based on appearance, a reflex she said sometimes makes her feel guilty. “But it is deep inside of me,” she says. “It’s in my culture.”

“We Colombians are good people, but we have a lot of things in our minds classifying people,” she said. Last year a fourteen-year-old student asked her why she had braces. Before she could answer, he did: ‘You were very poor when you were a child, right? So now, you have money to repair your teeth.’”

Before heading back through the security gate, Carolina finished the last of her dessert cup of yogurt, granola, and mangoes, leftovers from her cafeteria lunch. She usually eats at school, and since becoming a teacher it’s more meat and fish, less rice and pasta. But on Sundays, she told me, it’s tamales. When she unwraps a banana leaf to release the steam from a masa pie of pork, beef, and vegetables, Carolina knows she’s with family.

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