Postcard — May 26, 2016, 12:49 pm

Upward Immobility

Navigating Colombia’s class-based estrato system

HarpersWeb-Postcard-Bogota-full

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.

Enjoy this Postcard? Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine and receive our print edition delivered to your door each month—plus instant digital access to our entire 166-year archive.

Share
Single Page

More from Maggy Donaldson:

Postcard July 19, 2017, 12:46 pm

Spirits at Death’s Door

A visit to Wisconsin’s oldest continually operated tavern.

Postcard December 24, 2015, 10:00 am

The Golden Drop

A visit to the heart of African Paris

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2019

Men at Work

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To Serve Is to Rule

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bird Angle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The K-12 Takeover

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The $68,000 Fish

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Men at Work·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“You’re being reborn,” the voice says. “Exiting the womb of your mother. Coming into the earth as a small baby. Everything is new.” It is a Saturday morning in mid-March, and right now I’m lying on a yoga mat in a lodge in Ohio, surrounded by fifty other men who’ve come to the Midwest for a weekend of manhood-confirming adventures. The voice in question belongs to Aaron Blaine, a facilitator for Evryman, the men’s group orchestrating this three-day retreat. All around me, men are shedding tears as Blaine leads us on a guided meditation, a kind of archetypal montage of Norman Rockwell boyhood. “You’re starting to figure things out,” he says, in somniferous baritone. “Snow, for the first time. Sunshine. Start to notice the smells, the tastes, the confusion. The fear. And you’re growing. You’re about ten years old. The world’s huge and scary.”

Even though it’s only the second day of the Evryman retreat, it’s worth noting that I’ve already been the subject of light fraternal teasing. Already I’ve been the recipient of countless unsought hugs. Already I have sat in Large Groups and Small Groups, and watched dozens of middle-aged men weep with shame and contrition. I’ve had a guy in the military tell me he wants to be “a rock for his family.” I’ve heard a guy from Ohio say that his beard “means something.” Twice I’ve hiked through the woods to “reconnect with Mother Nature,” and I have been addressed by numerous men as both “dude” and “brother.” I have performed yoga and yard drills and morning calisthenics. I’ve heard seven different men play acoustic guitar. I’ve heard a man describe his father by saying, “There wasn’t a lot of ball-tossing when I was growing up.” Three times I’ve been queried about how I’m “processing everything,” and at the urinal on Friday night, two men warned me about the upcoming “Anger Ceremony,” which is rumored to be the weekend’s “pièce de résistance.”

Article
To Serve Is to Rule·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The WASP story is personal for me. I arrived at Yale in 1971 from a thoroughly mediocre suburb in New Jersey, the second-generation hybrid of Irish and Italian stock riding the postwar boom. Those sockless people in Top-Siders, whose ancestors’ names and portraits adorned the walls, were entirely new to me. I made friends with some, but I was not free of a corrosive envy of their habitus of ease and entitlement.

I used to visit one of those friends in the Hamptons, in the 1970s, when the area was about wood-paneled Ford station wagons, not Lamborghinis. There was some money in the family, but not gobs, yet they lived two blocks from the beach—prime real estate. Now, down the road from what used to be their house is the residence of Ira Rennert. It’s one of the largest private homes in the United States. The union-busting, pension-fund-looting Rennert, whose wealth comes from, among other things, chemical companies that are some of the worst polluters in the country, made his first money in the 1980s as a cog in Michael Milken’s junk-bond machine. In 2015, a court ordered him to return $215 million he had appropriated from one of his companies to pay for the house. One-hundred-car garages and twenty-one (or maybe twenty-nine) bedrooms don’t come cheap.

Article
The Bird Angle·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I slept for a good seven hours on the overnight flight from Spain to Peru, and while I slept I dreamed that I was leading American visitors around a park in Berlin, looking for birds on a hazy, overcast day. There wasn’t much to see until we noticed a distant commotion in the sky. Large raptors were panicking, driven back and forth by something threatening them from above. The commotion moved closer. The clouds parted, an oval aperture backed with blue. In it two seraphim hovered motionless. “Those are angels,” I told the group.

They were between us and the sun, but an easy ­I.D. Size aside, no other European bird has two sets of wings. The upper wings cast their faces into shadow. Despite the glare I could make out their striking peaches-­and-­cream coloration. Ivory white predominates, hair a faint yellow, eyes blue, wings indescribably iridescent. Faces blank and expressionless, as with all birds.

Article
The K-12 Takeover·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Last May, the families of students at Cypress Academy, an independent charter school in New Orleans, received an email announcing that the school would close when classes ended the following week and that all its students would be transferred to another nearby charter for the upcoming year. Parents would have the option of entering their children in the city’s charter-enrollment lottery, but the lottery’s first round had already taken place, and the most desirable spots for the fall were filled.

Founded in 2015, a decade after New Orleans became the nation’s first city to begin replacing all its public schools with charters, Cypress was something of a rarity. Like about nine in ten of the city’s charter schools, it filled spaces by lottery rather than by selective admission. But while most of the nonselective schools in New Orleans had majority populations of low-income African-American students, Cypress mirrored the city’s demographics, drawing the children of professionals—African-American and white alike—as well as poorer students. Cypress reserved 20 percent of its seats for children with reading difficulties, and it offered a progressive education model, including “learning by doing,” rather than the strict conduct codes that dominated the city’s nonselective schools. In just three years, the school had outperformed many established charters—a particular feat given that one in four Cypress students had a disability, double the New Orleans average. Families flocked to Cypress, especially ones with children who had disabilities.

Article
Five Stories·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

how high? that high

He had his stick that was used mostly to point at your head if your head wasn’t held up proudly.

I still like that man—Holger! He had been an orphan!

He came up to me once because there was something about how I was moving my feet that wasn’t according to the regulations or his expectations.

The room was a short wide room with a short wide window with plenty of artificial light.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The limited edition Nike Air Max 97s, white sneakers that have holy water from the Jordan River in their soles and have frankincense-scented insoles, sold out in minutes.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today