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In Latin America, Discrimination Pits Neighbour Against Neighbour

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Bogota as seen from Ciudad Bolívar, one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods. Photo by Wolfgang Sterneck on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

This post was originally published on the author's personal blog, Globalizado.

For BBC Mundo's newly settled correspondent in Bogota, Colombia, the rigid socioeconomic classification the government applies to housing in the city has come as an unwelcome surprise. In a recent article, Arturo Wallace detailed how homes and apartments that use basic utilities such as electricity, gas, and water are subject to a municipal ranking system that is perversely exploited by the local population to discriminate amongst themselves. 

Housing is ranked between 1 and 6 —with 1 indicating the lowest socioeconomic conditions, and 6, the highest. But with typical Colombian inventiveness, locals further extend the classification to refer to social strata 0 and 10, reflecting the extremes of a society considered one of the most unequal in Latin America and indeed the world.

According to sociologist Consuelo Uribe, who was consulted for the BBC article, “The housing classification system has a powerful effect on the way Colombians self identify, so much so that when people seek out relationships, their social stratum is indicated (in personal ads) alongside gender, physique and age.” Moreover, as she points out, “one of the material consequences of the classification system is that it has contributed to greater socio-spatial segregation, making it increasingly difficult for members of different social classes to inhabit the same physical space.”

In every country there are social differences, but in Colombia your status is even specified on your bill.

The debate over social stratification, which dates back to the 1990s, has been ingrained in the Colombian intellectual elite for some time. For example; in 2013, Oskar Nupia, blogging for the investigative online journal La Silla Vacía (The Empty Chair), advocated eliminating the rigid system, although he recognized that substituting it for another already existent would be costly. Nupia also commented on the way in which the ranking is used, which he qualified as abusive: 

Los estratos socioeconómicos crean mayor segregación social. Hay evidencia al respecto para algunas ciudades (ver aquí). Lo inentendible es que muchos gobernantes locales y nacionales tienen como bandera política la eliminación de la segregación social pero usan intensivamente el estrato socioeconómico para focalizar subsidios y crear polarización política.

Socioeconomic ranking creates greater social segregation. There is evidence of this in some cities (see here). What is incomprehensible is that many local and national political authorities wave the anti-segregation banner all the while actively exploiting socioeconomic ranking to focus on subsidies and foster political polarization.

But Colombia is not the only country in Latin America where discrimination is a common practice. In Mexico, a survey by the National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination (Conapred) points out that “the most common reasons for discrimination are poverty, skin colour, sexual orientation, education and financial situation.”  In that regard, the website Animal Político commented on the ubiquitous trend:

En un país con múltiples orígenes étnicos y una mezcla entre ellos, resulta impresionante el nivel de racismo que puede llegar a darse entre connacionales. La población más vulnerable a sufrir discriminación en México son los indígenas, los homosexuales y las personas con alguna discapacidad física o intelectual. ¿Qué se necesita para sobreponerse a este síntoma presente en la sociedad en pleno siglo XXI?

In a country with multiple ethnic groups and intermarriage, the degree of racism exhibited by members of the same society is striking. The populations most likely to suffer discrimination in Mexico are indigenous peoples, homosexuals, and individuals with some type of physical or intellectual disability. What do we need to do to overcome this symptom so prevalent even in our 21st-century society?

This urge to discriminate against the other and, at the same time, convey that the discriminator is or perceives themselves to be better is obvious in Mexican society with terms such as “mirrey” (literally, my lord), which is used to designate those who have an ostentatious lifestyle that belies their true economic means. There are also “nacos” (hicks), which is applied to people of meagre means, and the “riquillos” or “fresas,” which describe people with money and a snobbish attitude. 

In Peru, another multicultural and multi-ethnic country with a long history of racism and discrimination, the situation is similar; but it carries the added sting of being accepted and propagated by the mainstream media. Recently, the satirical website El Panfleto (The Pamphlet), dedicated one of its posts to the media's habit of calling members of a wealthy urban area “neighbours”, while terming those who live in less favourable sectors “pobladores,” which translates as “resident,” but carries a slightly negative connotation. The post lists ten tips for newly minted journalists to help them with the appropriate terminology, including the following:

1. Si es de Huancavelica y protesta (y no es ingeniero de alguna mina): POBLADOR.
2. Si es de La Molina y protesta por un estudiante universitario (y no es empleada del hogar): VECINA.
10. Y para terminar, una regla de oro. Nunca, PERO NUNCA, le digas vecina a alguien que protesta contra la minería… peor si es serrana: POBLADORA.

1. If the person is from Huancavelica and complains (and they do not work as a mining engineer): POBLADOR [resident]
2. If the person is from La Molina and complains on behalf of a university student (and they are not a domestic worker): VECINA [neighbour].
10. And last but not least, the golden rule: Never, NEVER call someone who criticizes mining a ‘neighbour'… especially if they are from the mountains: POBLADORA.

It is important to point out that Huancavelica is one of the richest mining areas in Peru, but also one of the poorest regions with the most primitive infrastructure. La Molina, on the other hand, is a neighbourhood in Lima where the majority of families are from the middle or upper classes. 

And then there is the case of Argentina, a more ethnically homogenous country, but one that also offers evidence of discrimination. In October 2013, Micaela Urdinez, who publishes the blog “El vaso medio lleno” (the glass half full) in the newspaper La Nación de Buenos Aires, wrote about the campaign of a foundation whose slogan was “Finding each other in diversity”:

¿Cuántas veces hemos escuchado palabras como “negro”, “puto”, “minita”, “trola”, “bolita”, “mogólico” sin pensar en sus consecuencias? Por eso rescato el mensaje de esta campaña que señala que “La manera de no equivocarnos es preguntar a cada persona cómo quiere ser llamada”.

How many times have we heard words like “black, “fag, “chick,” “skank,” “immigrant,” “retard,” without giving them a second thought? That is why I am underscoring the message of the campaign, which tells us “the best way to avoid making a mistake is to ask each person what they wish to be called.”

In another post, Urdinez emphasized the insidious nature of prejudice and provides some data on discrimination in Argentina:

De acuerdo con el Mapa Nacional de la Discriminación presentado por el Inadi a fines de 2013, los principales motivos de discriminación padecida en nuestro país tienen que ver con el nivel socioeconómico, con la condición de ser migrante, con el color de piel y con el aspecto físico. El estudio también señala que la mayor parte de las conductas discriminatorias no se da en situaciones de crisis, sino en la normalidad de los ámbitos educativos, los laborales y la vía pública.

According to the National Map of Discrimination as published by Inadi [National Institute Against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism] at the end of 2013, the main reasons for discrimination encountered in our country have to do with socioeconomic status, being a migrant worker, skin colour and physical appearance. The study also notes that most of the discriminatory conduct does not occur in situations of crisis, but in everyday interaction in education, the workplace and public life.

Surely if we investigate the other countries of the region we would find additional ways in which we discriminate against one another. Catalina Restrepo, a social worker and Global Voices author, tries to explain this attitude from the Colombian perspective:

(Esto) tiene sus bases en aspectos contextuales, especialmente culturales, en los que por años uno ha escuchado a las generaciones mayores decir: “mijo, consiga plata. Y si no consigue, consiga”. En Colombia el dinero más que éxito representa poder y se tiene que ser colombiano para comprender lo que tener el poder representa en nuestra cultura. Por más que genere llaga, el conflicto interno armado y el narcotráfico han dejado instalada una idea del dinero fácil y de “soy más entre más tengo”. Puedo ejercer más control si mi familia “es de nombre o no”. No en vano en muchas de nuestras ciudades se pueden ver escenas (diciéndolos sin sesgo discriminatorio alguno) que parecieran el lugar más pobre de un desierto de África, y otras el lugar europeo más ostentoso. Y no en vano, hay un gran número de adolescentes queriendo ser el chico con la moto más lujosa de la cuadra o la chica de la que digan, tiene el mejor cuerpo.

[This] is rooted in specific contexts, particularly cultural, where for years one has heard the older generation say: “My child, make money. And if you can't, get it somehow.” In Colombia money signifies not just success but power; and you have to be Colombian to understand what having power means in our culture. With all the damage the internal armed conflict and drug trafficking have wrought, they have also given rise to the notion of easy money and that “the more I have, the more important I am.” I can exercise more control if my family “has a recognized name.” Not surprisingly, in many of our cities it is easy to observe scenes (and I say this with no bias whatsoever) on a par with the poorest African desert while, in another part of town, scenes of European-style opulence. And it is no coincidence that there are large numbers of teenagers wanting to be the guy with the most expensive motorbike on the block or the girl with the best body.

Catalina Restrepo, Indira Cornelio and Cecilia Cárdenas collaborated on this post.

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