Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Poverty, Colombia's Failing

Doña Rosa has sold vegetables in the Egipto neighborhood's fruit market for about 45 years - long enough to see its location changed twice. The market is rarely busy, and Rosa's stall is hidden in back, where she offers her potatoes, tomatoes, radishes and garlic. On many days, she says, she takes in 10,000 pesos, of which 3,000 go to pay the stall rental. Near mid-day today when I visited, Rosa said she hadn't yet made a sale.

The Egipto market - quiet, like most days.
Like many poorer Colombians struggling to get by, Rosa's family hasn't found much opportunity for advancement. She lives with her husband and three children in Lourdes, a poor, sometimes violent neighborhood above downtown. Her children drive taxis, just as her husband does, so the family's situation appears stagnant.

Colombia is progressing towards fulfilling the World Bank's Millenium Development Goals in areas such as school enrollment, gender equity and health.

But Colombia has lagged in reducing poverty. Poverty levels have dropped, but nearly half of Colombians still live under the poverty line, and more than 16% of Colombians survive on less than $1.25 per day (a little more than 2,000 pesos). Those of us from wealthy nations would find it inconceivable to earn $1.25 per hour - much less per day.

Surviving all day for less than the price of a Sunday newspaper is only possible in the countryside, where living costs are much lower and some things, such as food, can be produced for free. But even for city dwellers who earn much more than that, life is still a struggle. In this city, scrambling to survive is called el rebusque: 'the search for a way'.

I talked to some poor Bogotanos about how much they earn, and how they survive:

Selling flowers by the Central Cemetery
The women selling flowers in front of the Central Cemetery said that some days they sell 10,000 pesos worth of flowers, other days they don't sell a thing. I believe them. I see them selling so little that I often wonder why they bother to show up at all. And, from that income, they have to pay for the flowers and a monthly rent of about 35,000 pesos to store their buckets near the cemetery.

Say thanks to those Policia Bachilleres - they stand out in the rain all day for about 11,000 pesos - from which they have to pay their bus fares and other expenses. (They're fulfilling their obligatory military duty.)

Selling grain for pigeons on San Victorino Plaza
This woman, selling corn and rice grains for feeding pigeons on San Victorino Plaza, said she can earn about 30,000 pesos per day - but undoubtedly that income plummets when it rains.

What's it say about Colombians' love for animals which other people call 'flying rats' that a legion of people can support themselves by feeding the birds?

Hector, shoeshine man.
Hector, a 61-year-old man whom I met on Las Nieves Plaza, said he earns about 25,000 per day shining shoes at 2,000 pesos per pair and selling cigarettes by the stick. But, of that, a full 8,000 pesos goes to pay for what must be a miserable room in a residencia in the Santa Fe neighborhood. He pays by the day, but some days, especially when it rains, he make the rent.
"Then I tell the owner, 'I'll pay what I can,' and give him 4,000 pesos, 5,000 pesos," Hector said. "I've lived there a long time, and he understands."

Hector spent a dozen years in prison, for crimes he didn't describe. Five years ago he got an early release thanks to good behavior and his work shoeshining behind bars. But he shows me his bad knee and crippled right wrist from prison, where he explains that "there was lots of regionalism" - and evidently violence. A small, mild-mannered man, Hector clearly got the worse part of it.

A few months ago he was diagnosed with kidney stones, but a Catholic church helped pay for his surgery, thanks to his certification of indigencia. He displays his indigencia card. He also has a pair of eyeglasses which evangelicals gave him while in prison. And a university student who interviewed Hector for a school project gave him a box which he uses to sell his cigarettes.
"I'm lucky," Hector tells me. "I believe in God."
Hector with the cigarete box which helps him pay the rent.
Every morning, he takes his things and shines shoes by the Colsubsidio store west of Santa Fe. Then he loads everything onto his wheeled shoeshine cart and pushes it to Las Nieves Plaza to catch the afternoon business. Along the way, he has to stop several times to rest.

It's evening now and getting dark, and the plaza's other shoeshiners, who have larger more impressive stands, are starting to pack up their things.

"Now that they're leaving I'll get a few more shoeshines," Hector predicts hopefully.

Henrique pushing a load of trash in Las Nieves market.
Henrique,60, who pushes loads around in the nearby Las Nieves fruit market, was the person who reported the lowest daily income: 6,000 pesos per day. He earns by the load pushed, so his income varies. I'm not sure how he can get by, since he told me that he also pays 5,000 pesos per night for his room. But I suspect that the market's restaurants give him free food - and alcohol, as well.

Eriberto and his bike.
I met Eriberto, 29, years ago, when he worked as a repairman in a bike shop. Since then, he's also worked as a laborer on a road project and done casual work such as distributing advertising. This is how he supports his wife and two young children, who live in the poor Los Laches neighborhood high on the hillside above Bogotá. The family occupies two rooms in a home shared with Eriberto's parents, for which the couple pays 120,000 pesos per month. Eriberto shows me photos of two cute children and his pretty wife in his cellphone.
Eriberto's head scar.
This is a relatively stable life for Eriberto. When he was six, his mother sent him and some of his siblings - they were nine children altogether - to an orphanage. He escaped and lived the next dozen years on the street, addicted to alcohol, glue and bazuco, a cheap form of cocaine, and suffering lots of violence. He displays a scar on his head and another on his back, which damaged his spinal column.

Eriberto has since put his life on track, but hasn't been able to land a steady, formal job, in part because he never did military service. When he was younger, the military didn't want him due to his drug troubles. Later on, when he was cleaned up and tried to join, they said he was too old. Buying the libreta is legal and done routinely by wealthy Colombians. However, the several-hundred-thousand peso cost is a lot for Eriberto.

We're eating in a low-life Chinese restaurant in downtown Bogotá. When I pay, the owner, a young Chinese man, has trouble pronouncing the numbers in Spanish. I ask Eriberto why it is that immigrants who don't even speak Spanish well make it into the middle class, while many Colombian-born people stay mired in poverty.

"The Chinese know how to make these dishes," Eriberto says, pointing to the photos of Chinese food on the walls. "Colombians don't."
Henry, right, selling minutes.
Henry, who looks to be in his 50s, sells cellphone minutes mornings in the Centro Internacional and in the afternoons comes to La Candelaria, where he occupies one of the futuristic-looking stainless steel kiosks provided by the city for vendors. There he also rents cellphones and sells candies and cigarettes. In the Centro Internacional he might gross 25,000 pesos and here in La Candelaria another 15,000.

He prefers the cellphone business: there, half of his revenue is profit, whereas only 40% of his candy and cigarette sales are.

With this work, Henry has supported his wife and three children, who live near the La Perseverancia neighborhood. Nowadays, his two older children both study and work, helping to support the family. Both are studying accounting.

If Henry's family's story can be generalized, then education's the way out of poverty.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


amanda said...

i really enjoy these spotlight pieces! very nicely done and researched! thanks so much for sharing. as an educator, i also believe in the transformative power of education, but i struggle with how it should best be implemented to be effective. for education to overcome poverty, a student needs to be nurtured in a home culture that values and respects education or have tremendous valor to persevere in spite of its lack...that is often the most difficult battle.

Miguel said...

Hi Amanda,

Thanks for your positive comment. Of course, education is always more effective when there's also a supportive environment. But I believe it's almost always a mistake to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Any education is almost better than none. Just basic literacy and math ability can open so many opportunities for people. - Mike

Stefanie Tschampel Hasbún said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stefanie Tschampel Hasbún said...

Miguel, I would like to use the information in your blog for a social initiative I'm trying to build. Do you have an email address that you can give me? Thank you!

I'm confused with the Miguel and Mike - don't know whether to write in Spanish or English!


Miguel said...

Hi Stephani,

You can write via Bogota Bike Tours website. I prefer not to post an e-mail bec. it attracts spammers.

What is your social initiative?