Thursday, December 15, 2011

Class Differences in Black and White

Four generations of a family and their servants. Can you tell who is who?
A Spanish magazine's photograph has exposed Colombia's racial tensions.

It's no secret that Colombia is dominated by a small, light-skinned elite. But a recent photo in the Spanish magazine Hola starkly emphasized Colombia's racial relationships - at least among the elite of the city of Cali.

Why the photographer chose to pose his or her subjects in such a stereotyped way - and why the family agreed to a photo that verges on satire - is beyond me. The four wealthy, white women relax on fashionable furniture while behind them two Afro-Colombian servant women stand posed with platters, resembling some sort of serving machines or decorative items, their white uniforms emphasizing their dark skins.

The eight-page article in Hola, which loves fashion, wealth and celebrity, was about 'The most powerful women of the Valle de Cauca, Colombia,' and  'their formidable mansion in the Beverly Hills of Cali.' The Afro-Colombian servant women evidently were part of that home's furnishings.

Sure, this is in Cali, a conservative, overgrown farm town where decades-old social traditions evidently persist. But there's a truth here about Colombia, whose population is about 15% Afro, with substantial proportions of indigenous and mestizo people, but has been ruled almost exclusively by people of European origin. Not only that, but just a few families, such as the Santos and Michelsens, have dominated business and government.

Impoverished children in Santa Marta
(Photo: Gov't of Santa Marta)
Afro-Colombians suffer a poverty rate of about 60% percent, compared to less than 50% for the country in general. They have also suffered disproportionately from displacement caused by Colombia's armed conflict. El Choco, a province near Cali whose population is heavily Afro and indigenous, has come to symbolize poverty.

The situation persists because of many factors which perpetuate social privileges, such as elite schools and social clubs in which friends and relatives help each other climb the social ladder. Social and ethnic prejudices also certainly persist.

Yet, Colombia's social stratification seem less stark than what I saw in La Paz, Bolivia, where I lived for several years. There, every middle class family had to have an indigenous girl servant, an empleada domestica, who was brought in from the countryside in a relationship resembling slavery. The girls often did not speak Spanish, were sometimes held in quasi-captivity, suffered sexual abuses and often were cheated out of their wages.

They also suffered from deep social prejudices in a nation in which the tiny, light-skinned urban middle class and the landowning class were overwhelmingly white or mestizo, and the rural poor were indigenous and often spoke only Quechua or Aymara. In one house where I rented a room, the family employed such a teenage servant girl. The family sent their own children to private schools, but the servant girl did not study. When I asked my landlady about the girl's future, she just shrugged her shoulders.

"Oh, she'll be a street vendor or something," the woman told me.

One evening in La Paz I met with a young Bolivian journalist in the lobby of one of the city's few expensive hotels. La Paz is located at almost 4,000 meters above sea level and evenings there are always chilly and often rainy. The Bolivian journalist and I talked for a good while about something or other, and then left the hotel - where we met my acquaintance's servant woman waiting outside the door. The two women had taken for granted, whether correctly or not, that the hotel would not allow an indigenous woman to enter. 

Another time, I visited the home of a friend who taught in a university and was therefore presumably more open-minded than average. While I ate lunch at the kitchen table with my friend's family, their servant ate out of a pot beside the stove. I commented about this.

The servant "prefers it this way," my friend assured me.

Perhaps she did, but that's because Bolivia had created such huge cultural and educational barriers between its classes that a servant woman felt uncomfortable mixing socially with her employers. Now that Bolivia has its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, perhaps that's changed - but I doubt it.

But back to the Hola polemic. The Italian-Spanish photographer Andrea Savini insisted that the photo contained nothing discriminatory.

"Hola does not deal with controversial subjects," he said.

Rather, it appears, Hola ignores stereotypes while also perpetuating them.

As a result of the photo, the wealthy women pictured have reportedly received death threats.

One of them, Rosa Haluf de Castro, defended the photo on W Radio. "There's nothing wrong with serving coffee," she said. "Here in the valley we do things right."

But Haluf de Castro's daughter, Sonia Zarzur, apologized tearfully for "a moment of vanity."

Nowhere have I seen the servant women interviewed. Domestic decorations, perhaps, cannot talk.

Bogotá has a small black middle class,
making stereotypes inaccurate.
Many observers have been unforgiving with 'Cali's most powerful women.' The government's representative for the development of people of African descent called the contrast between the white and the black women pictured 'perverse,' and pointed out that the government just passed a law prohibiting discrimination.

A commentator on W Radio's website called the photo "a typical contrast about how Colombian aristrocrats claim to provide work opportunities to the less-favored people (as in colonial days). But these (employees) are slaves to these jobs, because of the lack of opportunities created by people who shut themselves in their archaic fortunes."

In fact, Sonia Zarzur said that the family started off modestly and does lots of philanthropy, which may very well be true. Nevertheless, an Afro-Colombian leader has said that he will file a lawsuit - I'm not sure against whom - based on the new anti-discrimination law.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Ito said...

If the families in this story did not hire Afro Colombians they would be called racist for that also. The left wing is going to sell their hate no matter what.

Miguel said...

The point here is not whom they hired - I expect that the AfroColombian women are happy to have their jobs.

The point is whether there's a respectful relationship between employers and employees.


Miguel Tabares said...

I do agree with your article, and being vallecaucano it's sad for me admit how racist is society in this region. But It's fair to say that this prejudice comes from the old generations. I see everyday how young people are breaking those hateful links with our colonial past and changing their attitudes towards afrocolombians. I saw it in the way my family and friends and the social networks reacted to that picture then I realized how much society has changed here. There's only one thing I do not agree with you, Cali IS NOT an OVERGROWN FARM TOWN, maybe that's how bogotanos like to see us and how they see other regions. I don't know if you have visited Cali or not but there're more things in here than farms. We have quality in our education (more than 10 universities, being Universidad del Valle the second university in Colombia with more international patent applications)we have several industries running in here factories and food procesing plants. Yumbo is the industrial capital of Colombia. Our department has the best utilities coverage in the country and the best road system. Our development may not be Bogotá scale, but Cali defenetely isn't a farm town. If you have arguments to use that adjetive on our city I would like to read them.

Miguel said...

Hi Miguel,

Thanks for the comment. I apologize for any perceived disrespect towards Cali. I don't know the city well, but do remember it having a bit of a small-town feel.

But of course today it's a large, important city with lots of industry.

Still, my impression is from my visit and meeting people from Cali that the city retains more connection to the agricultural economy and more conservatism than Bogota and Medellin.



Unknown said...

Ofcourse Mike, you're right again and aren't you always? Cali is a large important city with lots of industry BUT STILL you find it to be more agricultural and conservative. Oh, and you don't mean do disrespect Cali right? And right after that, you do it again: it's more agricultural and conservative. Or did you mean it as a compliment? Yeah ofcourse, you just tried to be neutral. Really?