Colombian Culture

Core Concepts

  • Family solidarity
  • Dignity
  • Machismo
  • Rumbero spirit
  • Optimism
  • Pride
  • Class
  • Independence


Colombia is a South American country that shares borders with Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and Brazil. The majority of the Colombian population lives in the valleys and tablelands of the north and west, while the southeastern side of the country is dominated by the Amazon rainforest. Colombian society is quite provincial; a person’s region/city of origin can often be determined by their dress, diet and accent. Approximately 76.2% of people live in urban areas, which are very cosmopolitan and European in their design (Britannica, 2014). However, a brief drive outside these centres reveals a slower, more agricultural lifestyle. Colombia’s contemporary culture reflects a colourful blend of Spanish, African and indigenous influences that have melded together over the centuries since European colonisation. Most Colombians are very proud of their country, especially in regard to its national soccer team, incredible natural treasures and indigenous roots.


The Colombian Spirit

Colombians are generally seen as very positive people, described as having a “joie de vivre” (enjoyment for life). They tend not to linger on negative aspects and are often animated, charismatic and cheerful. Both foreigners and Colombians themselves exclaim at their ability to make a party and celebration out of any situation. Indeed, the ‘rumbero spirit’ has become a recognisable national trait. This describes the Colombian people’s ability to enjoy the leisurely side of life under pressure and in difficult circumstances. It is often summarised as an attitude that says: “work hard to play hard”. Many Colombians living in Australia miss the energy of their people and country in this regard.


Colonisation and Diversity

Colombia has been deeply influenced by Spanish colonisation that began in the 16th century and lasted for almost 300 years. Though the country has been independent for nearly 200 years (since 1819) the colonial impact on the ethnic make-up, religious landscape and culture of society remains very visible. The Spanish introduced Roman Catholicism to the land, brought with them thousands of African slaves and established a social hierarchy that favoured whites – the casta system (sistema de castas).

 

Today, the majority of Colombians identify as ‘mestizo’, meaning they share a mixture of European and Amerindian heritage to some degree. According to the CIA World Factbook, at least 84% of the population are mestizos or European. Approximately 10% of the population possess African heritage – known as Afro-Colombian. This includes ‘mulattos’ (those that have mixed African and European ancestry) and ‘zambos’ (those that have mixed African and Amerindian ancestry). Meanwhile, the indigenous Indians of the Americas (known in short as Amerindians) are now vastly outnumbered and comprise 3.4% of the population.

 

Each of these diverse peoples has played a role in shaping the nature of Colombian society today. Ultimately, the contemporary culture is based on a 'mestizaj' (mixture) of indigenous Colombian traditions, inherited Spanish Catholic values and African customs. However, the Spanish influence has been the most dominant. For example, among those indigenous communities that have survived colonisation, Spanish is the most common language. There are roughly 80 Amerindian languages still in use; however, these are generally spoken only by very isolated groups (Summer Institute of Linguistics, 2005).

 

Class Distinctions

Colombian society is very hierarchical on the basis of class. This is the systemic result of colonisation as the Spanish developed a complex ‘castahierarchy that determined the privilege and socioeconomic standing of racial groups. Today, social stratifications remain obvious. There is a steeply unequal distribution of wealth throughout the country. While the middle and working classes are growing and gaining more social advantage, a small minority continue to hold most of Colombia’s wealth and power. These are generally the traditionally rich elite families and ‘narco’ families (those families originally from a lower class background that have recently gained great wealth and privilege from the drug trade’s stimulation of the economy). Most Colombians belong to a lower class that lacks steady employment. Family ties and elite networks (roscas) often have a lot of influence behind the scenes in high-level business and political dealings in Colombia. These kinds of connections are often the most valuable asset one can have for opening up opportunities; in some cases, networks can secure a job more effectively than educational achievement.  

 

Interaction between people from different classes may be limited. Some people might mix company only in the workplace (for example, between business people and those in service jobs). This social isolation has meant that Colombians have tended to form strong group loyalties to their class. One’s class background has become a major aspect informing people’s sense of identity. People often go to great lengths to support and assist those from the same social class; for example, helping them find job opportunities, navigate around bureaucracy or get introduced to certain people. On the other hand, people may slightly ostracise those that are significantly more or less privileged than themselves. The societal divides are quite visible on a local level when observing the different neighbourhoods within a single city. For example, in the capital city of Bogota, influential suburbs reside next to poor ‘comunas’ (communes) of the lower class.

 

One’s family origin, education (including English proficiency), wealth and region of birth generally determine a person’s social positioning in the class structure. However, the class system is largely correlated with race. Lighter skin is traditionally associated with wealth, reflecting the historic affluence of European colonisers. Meanwhile, darker skin is associated with being poor, uneducated or unemployed. Ultimately, this perception can hinder the opportunity and social mobility of Afro-Colombians, indigenous Amerindians and those of mixed descent in Colombia. However, many Colombians make the argument that their society is classist, not racist, because almost everyone shares mixed ancestry anyway. For example, while a high income alone cannot guarantee a high-class status with other factors in mind (e.g. family background, education), a low income assures a low social status regardless of other factors. Nevertheless, black Afro-Colombians are rarely found among the upper class.


Long-Term Orientations and Daily Organisation

The Colombian people are generally very optimistic and future orientated. However, the social climate does not make it easy to be forward planning; there is a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity in society. Indeed, people commonly stress over the lack of opportunities available to progress in their careers. There is little security to plan out one’s life as many circumstances are subject to change.


Organisation is also difficult on a day-to-day basis as regulations and procedures are not tightly followed or enforced in Colombia. Rather, there is a light disregard for law and order, which is apparent in the way drivers ignore traffic laws and in the general lack of punctuality. People tend to focus on the practical constraints of situations, following rules when they are applicable to their circumstance. In reality, those with power have the ability to make their own rules. Thus, the aim is not necessarily to follow proper process, but to find the most advantageous method (for example, through personal contacts). Family solidarity and mutual support are essential to helping people in many circumstances. People seek an option that is the most convenient, clever and practical to their situation. This should not be misunderstood to describe Colombians as manipulative. Rather, they are flexible, improvising and opportunistic.

 

Governance and Conflict

The weak rule of law has presented long-term problems in Colombia. Vigilantism became common as citizen-organised groups took it upon themselves to take action for ideological and political reasons. Colombia has now been plagued by ongoing violence for over 50 years. Government military forces, left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and various criminal bands have been fighting each other to promote their influence, power and agendas in Colombian territory. The conflict is deeply complex. There is no exact consensus on its causes amongst the general public and there is also ongoing disagreement about whether much of the violence from particular combatants has been carried out for political or personal reasons. All sides have been known to commit human rights violations and collaborate with each other at times. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) are infamous for being the main perpetrators of human rights abuses.

 

Violence has become endemic in Colombian daily life; however, it affects people to varying degrees depending on their location and background. Some people have felt the effects of violence directly – perhaps losing someone they know. Others may have been impacted indirectly through its influence on politics and the reduction of their mobility (it is often too dangerous to travel by land). In total, the conflict has killed at least 225,000 people and displaced 6.8 million more between 1958 and 2016 (Proquest, 2017). Civilians are often caught up in competition over territory and face the choice of having to support/join one of the armed groups for protection and survival, or flee for their safety in urban slums where they encounter massive unemployment, further crime and poverty. The lower classes are generally most vulnerable to this, especially those from the younger generation that are both uneducated and unemployed. People from the higher classes and those living in cities generally have more protection from such problems.

 

Despite the violence of the past 50 years, many people remain hopeful for the future of their country. Current agreements and negotiations suggest further improvement to relations between different groups. It appears that some groups have deescalated and reportedly demobilised. At the time of writing, there continues to be ongoing progress towards implementing a peace agreement.


Dignity and Honour

It is important to recognise that Colombians have maintained a strong sense of pride and dignity despite the country’s social and political issues. In the face of hardships, they have remained resourceful, hard working and peace loving. Colombians do not appreciate it when foreigners point out the country's struggles or seek to make them feel ashamed of it. Most are disgusted by it and want to redeem the country's global reputation. Furthermore, while they are very critical of their own nation’s problems, they tend to reject further judgement from outsiders – especially when this criticism is informed by stereotypes. Instead, Colombians prefer foreigners to focus on how they have managed to achieve a high level of economic development despite the political turmoil and violence. This is a testament to the country’s plentiful resources. They also continue to be very proud of their democracy and independence.


Colombia is also one of the most conservative countries in South America, influenced by its strong respect of the Roman Catholic tradition. People generally place a high value on manners, formality and dignified behaviour. They tend to be conscious of upholding their honour and moral integrity regardless of their class or background. Many Colombians derive a great deal of personal pride from the achievements of their children and family.


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