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A Foreigner in Bogotá: My 5 Colombian Identities

I’ve been a foreigner in Bogotá, Colombia for more than two years now, and something I’ve noticed is the way that people are defined here. Since moving here, I have taken on a number of identities which didn’t matter or exist when I was in London. In this post I explore my various Colombian identities.

identity in bogotá

1. I’m a gringa

I’d actually say I’m a Londoner, but as a foreigner who speaks English, I’m often called a gringa. The term ‘gringo’ was initially coined by Spanish-speakers to refer to English-speaking people, and nowadays is typically used by Latin Americans to refer to English-speaking North Americans, often in a derogatory way; but as few people here will be able to distinguish between the different accents, if you look foreign and are speaking English, you’re a gring@.

2. I’m an English teacher

Being a native English speaker, I’m also seen as a potential English teacher, regardless of whether I have a teaching qualification or related degree. There is a massive demand for English in Bogotá; this is partly due to many national and multi-national companies requiring their employees to have at least an intermediate level of English, and universities requiring their students to demonstrate that they have a particular level of English (by taking the TOEFL or IELTS exam) before they will be able to graduate in any subject. So if you’re a native English speaker, expect at some point to be asked if you’ll give private English classes – because if you speak English, you are an English teacher.

3. I’m a “professional” linguist (because in Colombia, ‘you are what you studied’)

What’s your profession? (i.e. what did you study?). This is one of the ways of defining people which frustrates me most. Here, I’m a Modern Languages ‘professional’ (and therefore assumed to be a teacher or translator). I’ve found that in Colombia, you are what you studied and it is difficult, if not impossible, to escape from this pigeon-hole. Conversely, in the UK, it’s very common to study for a degree at university and then follow a completely unrelated career path after graduation. For example, although I’m a languages graduate, I could fairly easily enroll on a Law conversion course and aspire to become a lawyer if I wanted to. In Bogotá, it is very difficult embark on a career which is not directly related to your degree, because Colombian companies see your degree and your career as synonymous; if you try to apply for a job without having the relevant university degree, you’ll be told that you don’t fit the ‘profile’, regardless of the transferable skills and experience you may have. (Incidentally, you’re only a ‘profesional‘ in Colombia if you have a university degree).

Most young people in Colombia finish school at age 16 and then have to choose a degree which will define who they are for the rest of their lives; because once you’re qualified as a lawyer, that’s it – that’s what and who you are. If you happen to choose to do a Masters in an unrelated subject, perhaps because your interests have changed since you were 16, you’d better get ready to apologise for it, because employers usually won’t get this. First they’ll be confused, before judging you to have the wrong ‘profile’ and striking you off. In Colombia, it seems that your university degree becomes a permanent brand on your identity, and employers don’t seem to be willing to think outside the box; the only way to escape the degree-career pigeon-hole is to set up your own business, or leave Colombia and search for work elsewhere (and many people who can afford to do both of these things).

4. I’m a ‘wife’

I’ve always lived with my boyfriend here in Bogotá; indeed, it’s common in the UK to live with a partner before getting married. One thing I soon discovered is that if you live with your boyfriend/girlfriend in Colombia, you will become known as husband and wife (esposo/esposa) in Colombia, regardless of whether anyone’s put a ring on it, because living with a partner is equated to being married, even by law once you’ve lived together for two years.

5. I’m ‘estrato 4‘*

“What estrato are you?” Are you “estrato 6” and therefore automatically assumed to be a member of Bogotá’s ‘High Society’? Are you “estrato 4”, living a comfortable middle-class life? Or are you “estrato 1 – 2”, poor, exempt from taxes, and viewed with disdain by many from the other estratos?

Bogotá and its residential buildings are divided into six estratos, or strata, and these have become an indicator of the social position of the people who live in a particular area or building; the cost of your bills will depend on your estrato and you will need to be aware of this when looking for somewhere to rent or buy. It is a system which was initially devised as a means of ensuring that people paid what they could afford to for their utility bills. People living in an estrato 6 area will often spend hundreds of dollars each month on their bills, while someone in estrato 4 might pay half that amount for the same usage, and, in turn, someone in estrato 1 will pay very little in comparison. This sounds like a fair system; but your estrato in Bogotá has come to mean so much more than how much you pay for your bills. It is a suggestion to others of the quality of life you lead, your position in society, the type of job you’re likely to have, how much you’re likely to be earning and who you are likely to be associating with. In Bogotá, it’s not just that you live in estrato 4, you are estrato 4.
*Foreigners/expats are usually automatically viewed as estrato 6, because it is assumed that they have money.

Last year, The Bogota Post wrote a short piece quoting Roberto Lippi, head of the Colombia-based UN group UN Habitat, who interpreted the labelling of groups of people from strata 1 to 6 as a form of “caste system” that inhibits social mobility. (Mark Kennedy, ‘Stratas ‘like caste system’ The Bogota Post, October 2014 edition).

Stratas 'like a caste system', taken from The Bogota Post

Stratas ‘like a caste system’, taken from The Bogota Post

Sometimes these definitions of my identity frustrate me a bit. I don’t see myself first and foremost as a modern languages professional, nor as a teacher, nor as a gringa, nor as a wife, nor as estrato 4/6. I’m a Londoner, an honorary-Bogotana, a writer, a blogger, a teacher, a translator, a life-partner, a daughter, an artist, a linguist, but some of those identities I slip into and out of, depending on my mood, location, interests and circumstances at a particular time. Identity is fluid and difficult (and sometimes controversial) to define, and I feel uncomfortable when Colombia wants to place each aspect of me into a specific defining box. Right now I’m working on all sorts of projects, so why do I need to be defined as a modern languages professional or a teacher? What if I wanted to go and do a Masters degree in Creative Writing? Colombia doesn’t have a box for people who are linguists AND creative writers, nor for engineers who have developed an interest and expertise (and a Masters degree) in Finance. What if I decide to move to a quaint estrato 2 building in the Candelaria?

People are complex, diverse and changing creatures; I wish that this could be better acknowledged and catered-for here in Colombia.

6 Comments on A Foreigner in Bogotá: My 5 Colombian Identities

  1. Very interesting info. I recommend to check out the Wikipedia entry about Castas in Spanish Colonies in the Americas to learn about the origins of the Strata.

    Also you may notice that estrato are usually placed along with skin color and accent, the whiter the upper, the indio the lower. With exceptions of course, like the mobsters. very good example of social mobility.

    Thanks for have a wonderful blog !!

  2. Thank YOU for the comment! I will read that article, thanks, though I have lived in other Latin American countries and although you’re right, there are often social divisions/inequality relating to race, I’ve never encountered such starkly defined strata as those that exist here in Colombia. I did read a really interesting article on BBC Mundo which discusses this in more detail – although it is in Spanish, here’s the link:
    Thanks again for the comment!

  3. Hello Naomi Blogger. Thanks for the BBC article, the BBC is very accurate.
    There is plenty of bibliography to understand the historical secessionist, racist and classicist but not very elitist colombian society. There are very good books, some of them are online and for free in the Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango Online Historical Books Catalog, unfortunately most of them are in Spanish Only:

    There is a good book called “Como somos los colombianos” by German Puyana about colombian society. You can find it easily at any book shop.

    I have heard of another book written by an English Author in the 1990s about colombia but don’t know the name.

    I guess you already noticed that blond people have their special estrato among colombians.Funny thing is that have happened since Neo Granadian Times.

    BTW, Why did you stop your blog Entries?

    • Thanks for all of this information, I will investigate the books you mention! I wonder if the English book you were thinking of was The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself by David Bushnell? I’ve also heard (from Colombians!) that it’s a very good read!
      I’ve had some personal circumstances which have led me to neglect my blog a bit over the past couple of months, am still trying to post though from time to time! Thank you again for your comment!

  4. Patrick Bindy // April 21, 2017 at 9:17 am // Reply

    Great article. That’s exactly how I use to feel, especially for the “caste” system which somehow makes me sad.

    But it’s also difficult for Colombians to understand our point of view and that we could/want to be “friends” with everybody, no matter where they live, what they studied…

    • Thanks Patrick. I think there are a lot of areas where Colombians could try to be far more open-minded than they are, but in my experience people seem quite resistant to change, and reluctant to go against the grain. Hopefully this will change with time!

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