Culture Shock! Classism in South America

Here´s your latest “Culture Shock!” post, late as always.  Someday we´ll get back to actually doing these on Wednesdays!

Culture Shock! Classism in South America

One thing we have unfortunately noticed in South America is the rampant presence of classism.  Ugh, what an ugly “ism.”  We didn’t see it so much in Colombia, but we have definitely noticed its presence in Ecuador, Perú, and Bolivia.

In countries where the per-capita income is so much lower than in the United States, you would think that there would be less of a class hierarchy than we have.  In fact, I think the opposite is true.  One example I’ve thought of is this:

In the United States, there are plenty of wealthier people who will still occasionally eat at McDonalds or other fast food places.  Maybe this is just because the horrible fast food restaurants have gotten us so badly addicted.  But regardless, in the US, I think most would agree that plenty of people who can afford not to will still occasionally eat this cheap food.  In Ecuador or Perú, this would NEVER happen.  From what we have seen, a majority of the wealthier people in those countries avoid cheap food at all costs because they consider it “beneath them.”  We have had locals actually cringe when we’ve mentioned the fact that we eat street food or basic lunches.  Also from what we’ve seen, a wealthy Peruvian, for example, will never associate with a poor indigenous farmer.

This is not to say that this doesn’t happen in the US, just that we have noticed it a lot more here.  I want to know why the classism is so bad?  Is it a remnant of the Spanish colonial system?  Probably partly.  Is it because breaking out of poverty and rising to the upper class is much more difficult here?  I bet that has something to do with it.  Once, we met some really wealthy 30-ish guys in Perú.  They had family in the US and thus had each lived there for about 10 years.  They spent these years working menial jobs at fast food restaurants or driving taxis, while learning English.  Not a very lucrative life, most of us would imagine.  When they returned to Perú with the money they had saved, they were able to live like kings!  These guys would eat at only the best restaurants, wear only the nicest clothes, shop at the best stores, and flaunt their ability to speak English everywhere they went.  They would never, ever consider buying street food, or associating with the poorer Peruvian majority.  They were the elite, and they certainly knew it and acted like it.  Their attitude was “We’ve arrived, so why care about anyone else?”  The thing that gets me is this:  how can you live for such a long time at a low-class level in one country, but then once you have money in a new country you totally disregard the poor around you?

I’m not an expert on the subject and I don’t have answers to any of these questions, of course.  I’m just an outside observer noticing the strict class divide and less-than-compassionate attitudes of the rich in South America.  It seems to me that the lack of empathy and loyalty the upper class shows toward the lower class is one of the biggest social obstacles toward development in these countries.