Colombian Values by mamapeirong


									                                                                                    David Restrepo
                                                                                     Pablo Sanint
                                                                                      Jorge Herrera

                          Colombianity, an Overview


        Values and social/environmental contexts mutually construct and change each other,

shaping history and society as they proceed through time. Values, which are the opinions,

attitudes and other beliefs of a group of people, make up a subconscious/instinctive constitution

that not only establishes the identity of a given group, but is also the frame that allows them to

live within their social/environmental context.

        Because values have been the tools that enabled or, at least, facilitated social cohesion and

environmental adaptation, societies refrain from changing their value systems. However, the

presence of a value system does not imply social immutability –only slow transformation- nor

homogeneity -the mental analysis of a situation differs in each individual. A value system is just

a range of attitudes, reactions –based on what is considered appropriate, likeable- that the

members of a group of people might go through in determined situations.

        Colombia’s case is not alien to this generalization on values. Just like any other society, it

holds on to its value system, offers enormous individual diversity, and is subject to the “value

constitution” that influences the actions of a majority of people. Additionally, its development as

a society has been influenced by these perceptions and the perceptions themselves have been

subject to change due to external factors (economic, demographic, topographic) that are ever in

       Like all societies, Colombia clings to the definition of value system, yet it differs from

other communities in both its values and the historical/environmental contexts that it has faced.

Its race is a tutti-frutti mixture of Native American, Spanish and African ingredients, blended

together in an explosive cocktail of ethnicity. In this sense, it is the oddball of the Hispanic

American family, which, save a few examples, is either very white (Argentina, Chile and

Uruguay) or very Indian (Bolivia, Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, Salvador, and Honduras)

or very Black (Dominican Republic, Cuba). Colombia is, or recently used to be, the Catholic

“Tibet”, lacking the religious fusion of Bolivia or Peru, where Indian rituals and beliefs have

been added into the central dogma, and the openness of Argentina or Mexico. It contains a more

varied assortment of sub-nations (the Atlantic Coast, Chocó, Antioquia-Old Caldas, Nariño-

Cauca, Tolima-Huila, Santander, Valle and Cundinamarca-Boyacá) with their own accents and

customs, than any of its neighbors. And, sadly, it is also the bloodiest state, with more civil wars

and homicides per one thousand inhabitants than any other place in the Western Hemisphere and,

perhaps, the world (rivaling African nations).

       But, just like its neighbors, the persistent poverty, classicism and racism have shaped

Colombia’s social relationships. The lack of social mobility, of openness to Afro-Colombians and

to Native-Colombians, has just started to diminish. As a result, class-oriented resentment and

material dissatisfaction have brought about both the highly organized delinquency of the Mafia

and guerrilla, and the onslaught of petty crime. This, in turn, has provoked or intensified

widespread paranoia and absence of profound nationalism, represented in the exodus –of mostly

the middle-class- to rich (or simply richer) nations.

       At present, Colombia has reached a point of maximum social, economic, political and,

thus, moral tension. That such is occurring can be witnessed in the street crossings -where the

displaced and the destitute (usually synonymous) beg using the most extravagant of methods
(juggling included)-, in the impunity and lack of legal authority, in the political climate -where

the choice for president has regained once-lost significance-, and other circumstances that can be

pinpointed by skimming through any journal. Although there will never be a consensus upon the

precise causes that have led to this crisis, the value system itself surely shares some responsibility

and people are starting to notice it. Since dissatisfaction at their current state of uncertainty is

growing, these people will probably begin to modify in some way their own value system.


The great regional diversity in Colombia makes it difficult to generalize a unique value system

for the totality of the Colombian territory. A more assertive approach would recognize that the

values analyzed here reflect the perspective of the people of only one region, specifically Valle

del Cauca. More importantly, the Spanish and landlord descent of the authors as well as their

membership in the wealthiest class of Colombians limits the range of their viewpoint. They

cannot faithfully speak for the inhabitants of the poor neighborhoods in their cities nor represent

the voice of the Afro-Colombian or Native-Colombian ethnic groups. At most, they can talk

about the concerns of the middle-class and of the mestizos and whites, apart from their own



         This concept implies the deliberate act of elevating the “ordinary” –objects or/and ideas

that either remain below the margin of consciousness or, if actually perceived, are not subject to

the visceral sensation of affection or wonder (or other attractive, “repeatable” feelings) - to levels
of art or beauty –where objects or/and ideas produce that feeling which the ordinary does not.

Vanity itself is common to humankind, yet the objects/ideas subject to it and how they are

“elevated” vary from person to person. Despite these individual differences, nonetheless, a given

society might tacitly share a common view of what conveys the “desirable feeling” and how it is


       What, in general, Colombians individually elevate to artistic terms is their physical

appearance. To feel beautiful, they must first be clean and, to be clean, daily showering is

required, along with constant teeth brushing and deodorant-use. Although this might seem

obvious and could be taken lightly, an acid breath or any type of smell can result in surprisingly

harsh ostracism. Additionally, the importance of dressing neatly cannot be underestimated. Even

those people who perform tasks where clothes are of little relevance –gardening, for instance-

arrive to work with formal attire. Any trip outdoors –to the market, for example-, any day of the

week, is a justification for dressing-up decently. More importantly, messiness or so-called

“eccentricity” can quickly gain a negative impression –having long hair, using earrings and

bracelets may reduce a man’s credibility and earn him the titles of “mechudo”, “marijuanero”,

reducing his job-opportunities.

       Many social activities can also be subject to vanity. Dancing is one of them. Early in

youth, most Colombians learn their first steps and, if interested in having a “novia/novio”

(girlfriend/boyfriend), they keep on learning more and achieving greater agility as adolescence

proceeds. At parties, few will sit extensively to talk and drink –these are brief punctuations from

the dance floor to regain their breath and energy. Yet, when the music is off, Colombians –if not

working- would find it hard to stay silent; jokes that laugh at politics, race, the male-female

relationship, the toughness of the economic situation are a common scene and taken as the

(desirable) norm - any show reticence is cause for concern (even at the library). Courtship,
obviously, is another arena for vanity: the woman –more specifically, the girl- emphasizes in

fancy, suggestive, dressing and make-up, but generally has a more passive role (she cannot

appear eager, or else she looses people’s respect) than the man, who (in Cali, at least), aside from

skillful dancing and witty talkativeness, participates in so-called bonches (brawls) –that can end

brutally- whenever another doubts his virility. This extreme manifestation of sociability

demonstrates that Colombians find beauty and satisfaction in interaction and tend to be the

antonyms of introversion and uncommunicativeness.

       The comfort that Colombians find in usually boisterous company may often lead to

dependence on social paradigms, especially in what regards beauty. As mentioned before, new

and rebellious garb as well as strong music still provokes suspicion (especially in what regards

clothing) from a considerable portion of the population (though, due to globalization, this is

diminishing) and the traditional manifestations of art (tropical music, in this case) tend to enjoy

greater approval. Innovation in the intellectual and political scene only recently has gained some

space, as before any new idea ended up tagged as communist or atheist or immoral or the three.

This resulted from a Colombian incapacity to broaden the base of what could be elevated to terms

of beauty –anything uncertain under the eye of a dualist, Catholic worldview was shunned. Thus,

Colombian vanity is only now opening to fresh possibilities of expression.


“El vivo vive del bobo y el bobo de papa y mama” –the alert-one lives from the dumb-one and

the dumb-one from his mommy and daddy...

       There is a nagging in Colombian stomachs that pushes them to feel that if they are not

vivacious and alert to opportunity they are dull, idiotic and wishy-washy individuals. Yet,
resourcefulness is not only an instinctual urge. On the contrary, the difficulty that Colombians

experience while executing the simplest of tasks –like filing in to acquire identity cards and other

legal documents, calling and convincing police to be of aid, receiving constitutionally-assured

utilities (water, telephone, electricity), paying taxes, creating a business, getting credit and so on-

has led them to become innovational in their approaches at the problems that they might face.

       Colombia’s lack of institutional organization has been present since the time of the

colony. The government has always been irresponsive and isolated from society as a whole, and

in turn, race, political ideals and social status fragmented society itself. Consequently, people in

Colombia have never felt embraced by a higher, legitimate body (public services and

constitutional rights, like education and healthcare tend to be privileges). This resulted in the

incisive individualist search for the necessities that should have been granted by the government

in the remotest corners of the country. Therefore, the resourcefulness of Colombians presents

itself in an individual plane, for its goal is to aid individuals to obtain those forfeited needs. The

whole value is derived from this historical and current context, and has evolved in the sense that

it is applied to almost every situation that Colombians face in daily life. In other words,

Colombian resourcefulness stands out as the struggle of the individual to overcome, by his own

means, any type of adversity.

       From the early seventies, however, vanity has pushed a considerable number of

Colombians a step further: to use their creativity in order to obtain superfluous, dirty wealth.

Since their ambitions could not be materialized in a legal manner –because of the ineptitude and

exclusion of the state, which favors only a few-, illegality became the only option to attain riches;

thus, drug trafficking –of a very ingenious and furtive type- was born. Colombians turned out to

be so successful in this matter that, during ex-president López Michelsen’s period in office (‘74-
‘78), the drug income exceeded by 300% the legitimate gross domestic product and, despite the

country’s poverty, one of the drug lords was numbered among the world’s richest men.

       Unfortunately, creativity has not manifested itself pronouncedly through scientific

research and technological development. This could be explained by the historically evident

humanist vocation of the educated elite, which, in Spanish times, was highly recognized and

rewarded with offices in the government, and also by the lack of scientific schooling -only during

the Liberal Hegemony (1930s) did the state begin to sponsor the sciences by founding and

funding engineering schools in public universities. In this last point, Colombia differs strongly

with North America.

Calor Humano/ Vitality:

       Colombians are characterized by their ‘calor humano’. But what does calor humano

mean? It is the friendly attitude assumed in order to make others feel comfortable. The

Colombian way of transmitting this feeling is mainly through physical contact. For instance,

when a new teacher arrives to school, staff and students approach him/her and try to establish

some kind of relationship. After some chatting and physical contact, things ease off a little and a

strong sense of confidence is established. This way, Colombians welcome most strangers,

making them feel that they are important and that they can trust in them. However, there is a

contradiction in this value, since this ‘calor humano’ is not present in every situation. For

example, in a traffic jam, when two or more vehicles have a corrosive encounter, it is common to

hear the horn of the three vehicles, only stopping after quite a long time, to give path to the voices

of three angry drivers. Therefore, the ‘calor humano’ that characterizes Colombians is only
present when a relationship is possible to become established and when there is the option of it

being extended.

       The ‘Calor humano’ of Colombians is evidenced since the colonization period. Latin

Europeans, who were the most expressive group in Europe, settled in Colombia and founded

different villages. These Europeans, mostly Spaniards, intermingled with the natives that

inhabited those territories, and with the black slaves brought from Africa, creating new mixtures

of races. These new races had the Latin expressiveness, the African joyfulness, and the

indigenous sensitivity; together they brand the ‘calor humano’ Colombians possess.


       The ‘calor humano’ disclaimer is straightly linked to Colombians’ intolerance. The reason

why a vehicle incident causes unnecessary dispute is because Colombians are intolerant. Others

do not tolerate that another stranger gets in their way or threatens their ego. Everyone likes to feel

superior in their own circle and anyone who tries to disrupt that circle is an unwanted challenger.

Yet, this intolerance has given rise to mayor problems that affect all Colombians. The roots of the

problem with subversive groups are mainly caused by intolerance of many types. It started in the

60’s when political parties could not tolerate others’ ideals, and with it the violence intensified,

creating discontent and insecurity among the people in mayor cities and in rural areas. Summed

to the political intolerance, the social intolerance between classes made Colombia an aristocratic

country, with fewer opportunities for those economically disadvantaged. In turn, all this

intolerance provoked a general disappointment amongst everyone, resulting in guerrilla groups,

which were not alien to this intolerance, and are currently the mayor agents in the armed conflict

Colombia lives today.
       Intolerance has existed in Colombia since the colonization period. When the Spaniards

arrived to the Americas there was a great racial difference that, due to intolerance, resulted in the

oppression of native and indigenous people who were already in America. Considering these

native people were not efficient for hard working tasks, the Spanish brought in slaves from Africa

to fulfill their New World ambitions. Intolerance again presented itself in the racial ambit and as

the races mixed with each other the resentment remained in a large group of discriminated

groups. This historical resentment has given rise to the intolerance that has always been part of

Colombian society.


       Any stranger who does not know that in Colombia it is not necessary to have completed a

Ph.D. degree to be considered a ‘doctor’, could conceive Colombia as the country with the most

Ph.D. degrees in the world. This is because in Colombia, any person of greater ‘status’

(economical or social) is treated with much respect. Therefore, the names of ‘doña’, ‘don’,

‘señor’, ‘doctor’ or ‘patrón’, come handy to those lower in the hierarchy when addressing

someone those higher up. Yet, some people also oblige servants and even their own children to

address them in a certain manner just for respect. This formalism is a manifestation of classicism

in Colombia. It exposes the barriers set between different social groups and the idea of

superiority between classes. Moreover, classicism is not only a matter of money, but also of race

and social recognition. For instance, if a person becomes suddenly a millionaire and enters a club

(clubs in Colombia are private social spaces to hang out) they are not accepted by other families

and looked as if they were strangers and inferior.
       In Colombia, classicism and formalism share the same roots as intolerance. Since the time

of the colony, the racial and social differences established a ‘code of status’-creating a clearly

defined barrier between races, economic levels, and social standings, which were the indicators

of power.


       The phrase “si Dios quiere” –if God wills it so- may many times bring to a close those

statements in which Colombians describe their ambitions and the means by which they plan to

achieve them. A considerable section in society considers that external, unpredictable factors can

frustrate their hopes and that this is attributable to supernatural motivation –call it God or fate- or,

simply, to the realities of life (the historical explanation to this lies under the title

“resourcefulness”). Though an outsider would predict inaction as the inevitable result, he would

be wrong because Colombian fatalism permits ambivalent attitudes to permeate into the nation’s


       On the one hand, fatalism leads to pessimism. Any sensible diagnosis of the country

would convey a sinister picture that might induce the following conclusion: life will tend to

become more difficult. The recurrence of “este país está jodido” (this nation is in the pits) when

inquiring strangers would clarify doubts in relation to a widespread negative attitude. Yet,

because in daily life certain important institutions, like the family, still work (if not always) and

dynamic social life has not been nullified, many Colombians seem to be not as cynical in respect

to their individual and near-individual existences, as the low suicide rates, among other factors,

       So what does fatalism actually do to the country? It does not hinder action –if so, why do

so many destitute mob the streets to sell trinkets or beg, desperately struggling against the social

forces which clearly enough want them starved? Why would once-poor drug traffickers rise from

their humble past to a glorious, if futile, position, if the traditional rigidity of the social structure

tells everyone that glory is for an age-old established few? Colombia is definitely not India;

fatalism does not tie its hands. What fatalism probably induces is irresponsibility. The motto

could be: “I’ll act despite reality, but if something happens along the way ‘¡qué pena, no fue mi

intención!’ (sorry, not my fault). Since, under a fatalist conception, action is not completely

dependent on the person, he is not necessarily accountable for the consequences. This could

probably explain why many Colombians –politicians and businessmen included- are so reckless

and believe themselves so dove-like and inoffensive.

Religiousness and Tradition:

       This should not to be confused with spirituality, which is a matter that few dare to take up.

No, Colombians are religious in the sense that they have an attachment to the Catholic mass and

other rituals. Especially amongst country people, assistance to church on Sundays is considered a

moral duty. Many still make vows to the Virgin and to the Divine Child and peregrinate to places

like the Cathedral in Buga or other similar destinations. To some, this might be considered a sign

of spirituality, but to delve into what some Colombians are really feeling or thinking when they

practice religion is to make conjectures.

       The affinity with Catholicism, however, is presently diminishing. Christian sects and

other cults are winning adepts perhaps because these congregations are much more dynamic and
allow for a greater participation of attendants. Also, some Colombians opt for unreligious life,

which, in decades past, used to be a socially unacceptable decision. The Sixties, as well as

increased contact with foreign currents of thought, can be held responsible for this greater

heterogeneousness, which is changing the face of Colombian religious practices. However,

Colombia is still a generally Catholic society with a dualist mentality, which has not surpassed

thinking in terms of good-and-evil, sin, confession and punishment. In this sense, Colombians are

not too unique.

Loyalty to Tribal Interests:

       Colombian society cannot fit under the concept of individualism nor can it be classified as

community-oriented; it belongs in the middle of the two ideas. In other words, Colombians do

not regard the benefit of society –much less make sacrifices in its favor- whenever decision-

making is involved, yet they are not the ideal individualists who stand alone against their

surroundings. They join with others who share their own pursuits, for as long as their individual

interests are not compromised.

       History proves this. Colombia’s two traditional parties -the Liberal and Conservative-

have mustered support for more than 150 years from those sectors of society –landowners, traders

and, more recently, industrials- interested in keeping their economic privileges. In the last fifty

years, both parties’ members have prospered while the rest of country remains underdeveloped

and, though originally the Liberal ideology differed exceedingly from the Conservative one, they

united in the National Front (Frente Nacional) when Rojas Pinilla, the dictator, contradicted their

political power.
       This loyalty to tribal interests, nonetheless, can also be expressed in daily life. Within

school, there is a tendency to “hang out” in very close, small-numbered groups of people who

share the same social standing (hierarchy), principles and ambitions. These “tribes”, though

demonstrating relatively strong bonds of trust and loyalty, allow other people to “hang out” with

them, without the trust and sense of belonging.

       Regionalism is another manifestation of tribalism. People from a given “departamento”

experience a subtle annoyance (that does not approach xenophobia) towards inhabitants from

other “departamentos”. In Medellín, for instance, the ‘paisas’ (people of Medellín) protect their

internal industry by preferring not to buy products from other parts of the country and each

region is proud and disdainful, in a covert manner, when assessing another. Yet, the sense of

belonging does not keep Colombians from damaging their cities: Medellín has the highest

homicide levels in the world and is disputed by the militias of both guerrillas and paramilitaries;

corruption is severely sacking both Valle and the Atlantic Coast and in Bogotá much is still to be

done in order to make it a livable city. Thus, regionalism does not produce a tight community -

though it stands apart from pure individualism.


       As a recently urbanized nation, Colombia still conserves some of its rural ancestry and,

among that inheritance, lays its family values. First of all, the structure is extended: aside from

parents, grandparents and siblings, aunts, cousins and uncles – both those directly related or those

once or twice removed- are considered important family members, arguably because the

agricultural lifestyle used to require large numbers of people to increase production. This can also

explain why Colombian families tend to have a friendly environment –in order to harvest your
crops you couldn’t be pushing each other into them. Although this could be changing –the levels

of family violence have been mushrooming since the sixties-, overall adolescent rebelliousness is

somewhat less extreme than in North America, communication between siblings and between

parents and their offspring tends to be relatively more open, and family reunions are more

frequent and dynamic (father and son drink together and laugh at similar jokes and even joke

about each other).

       Yet, this may result in dependent and oedipal behavior. Many Colombians move out of

their parents’ home (and, more specifically, their mothers’ house –since single mothers are an

increasingly recurrent phenomena) long after their third decade of life. Perhaps because of its

Catholic obsession with Mary the Virgin, many Colombians also demonstrate an immoderate

adoration for the maternal figure. In those areas with paisa ancestry or ethnicity (Valle, Tolima,

Eje Cafetero and Antioquia –the most heavily populated areas), the mother’s preponderance

within the family influences the oedipal tendency that victimizes autonomy. In the paisa society,

the lack of slaves and of other servants, and –when the coffee business began- even the absence

of the father for most the day, made the woman assume a strong, frontier-like character, which

she needed in order to successfully take charge of the property and children. Add to this a strict,

moralist Catholic mentality and most likely the offspring’s dependence on their mother’s advice

reaches levels far beyond the norm. Although this is not a value, it is a behavioral pattern, which,

nonetheless, could be starting to decrease as industrialization and modernization exterminate the

traditional family structure.

       Despite the recent changes, however, family still plays an important role in determining

life projects. Most adolescents plan on having at least two children. Managers and workers alike

look forward to arrive home and dine with the whole family, or sit together around a T.V. set –to

watch a soap opera more specifically-, or devise plans for a “paseo” –trip- on the weekends –and
children generally share this attitude. Of course, conflicts abound. Yet, in most cases, animosity

is not as pronounced nor is disintegration as complete as in other western societies. Colombia is

heading in that direction, but it has not reached that destination yet.

By: Jorge, alias Tito “el Animalito”, Herrera; Pablo, alias “el Chigüiro”, Sanint; and David, alias

“la Araña”, Restrepo

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