2 or More Barranquillas


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It only takes a few days to realize that there are two or more Barranquillas. Last Sunday (1/28/07), John and Paula needed to do some shopping for their house and invited me to go along. They were headed to the Home Center located near the newest mall, which by all estimates is upscale. The Home Center is larger than any Home Depot or Lowe's and the merchandising more extensive. The prices are in many cases much higher than in the states by 10 to 15%. The store was incredibly clean, well ordered, and there were actually people there to help one with finding stuff. Actually, I have yet to ask someone in a store here for help that they do not take me where I need to go. I do not know if that is out of mercy because I am a Gringo or the way they treat everyone. However, I have witnessed occasionally witnessed non-gringos being treated in similar fashion. This store and its neighboring mall are not the shopping venue of most folks who live in our neighborhood near the university.

There are other clues to two Barranquillas. One is the difference between the neighborhoods around the University and the neighborhoods where I am now staying, namely, with Pauline Schutmatt, her son and grandson, referred to as Prada for the luxury hotel at tis center. While the SAO Supermarket close to the university is a nice store that is clean and accommodating, the stores in the Prada neighborhood simply sparkle. They are obviously not the stores where the people who live around the university shop.

In the neighborhoods around the university, there are some very nice houses. John and Paula live on a street that is not unlike neighborhoods of small homes in the U.S., except there is little in the way of yard. The people are evidently not poor, but there is no clear distinction between residential and commercial areas and just a street away the houses appear to be much poorer. Many people in the neighborhoods around the university have businesses they run out of their houses. Many cook and sell some sort of food. Others are call centers where you can rent a cell phone to make a call. These call centers are their answer to pay phones. One of my photos shows such a place. Others have other kinds of enterprises that seem to have taken over the whole house.

In Prada, the distinction between residential and commercial is clear. The commercial centers close by are bright and uncluttered and the commerce taking place around the center is well ordered. From the photos, one can see it rivals such places in upscale areas of the U.S.: boutique shops, a park like atmosphere, and high end products, even groceries. There are few, if any, street vendors and nobody hawking cards for putting minutes on your phone. That's a big difference also. One can get a cell phone plan like we have in the U.S., but few on limited incomes do it that way. They get a phone and then buy a 50,000 or 100,000 peso card to add minutes to their phone. The card has a pass code that appears under a scratch strip. It is a means of budgeting. People in Prada have cell phone plans.

The Schutmatt family: Pauline is 85 years old, bright and engaging. While her condo is not in heaven, it is close. It's on the 9th (top) floor of the building just north of the dividing line of Barranquilla, 72nd street. If you live one side taxes and utilities are lower cost than on the other side— poorer versus richer.

Pauline and her husband came to Colombia in 1946 as United Presbyterian Church Missionaries. They had the first of 6 children (5 boys and finally a girl) about 9 months later. Two sons now live at least part time in Barranquilla. Jim, the oldest, is an architect who had a successful career in Venezuela. He now lives in Ocaña, Colombia about 8 hours away. He is president of the university as a volunteer missionary and spends two weeks in Barranquilla and two with his family in Ocaña. His brother, Bill, is director of the Colegio Americano, a school his father had considerable influence on during his ministry in Barranquilla. Pauline, Jim and Bill have also been quite active in leading the classical music culture of Barranquilla and northern Colombia. Last night I got a free concert as the three of them played in the living room of the condo. Pauline and her husband were both accomplished musicians. All six children have been also.

So here are two very different Baranquillas. Despite the differences, a common culture rises to the surface everywhere. On Saturday, I got a real treat to the beginnings of Carnaval (Mardi Gras). A group of young people put a show on at the shopping center nearby. The show/parade was an expression of the African history of many who live in Colombia. Such scenes would be repeated almost daily for the next several weeks.

Yet, besides the two distinct Baranquillas, there is the one that is buried and unseen, intentionally kept in the shadows. Thousands of displaced persons live here or nearby. The displaced people were driven from their land by the war and came to Barranquilla for refuge. Displacement touches more than the impoverished. Jim Schutmatt married the daughter of a rancher in the state of North Santender. Her father and uncles had land in the mountains that was invaded by Paramilitaries. After holding out for several years on selling the property for a price that was far below its expected value, the family finally agreed to sell because they had lost the livelihood that the farms had provided and had nothing but expenses. Had they not gone to the university for professional training, they would have lost everything. As it is, they did find other work and were able to keep homes in their town of Ocaña. Their story is the exception instead of the rule. 

In and around Barranquilla, there are thousands of persons who have undergone similar experiences. The difference is they never imagined such a situation and never went to school to learn to do anything but farm. Some lived in remote areas away from such opportunities. Today, they live in camps that the government has sought to put out of sight and out of mind.

So in Barranquilla, what I see is what has been and will be seen. Two or more strata of economic wealth that are, like most places, neatly divided. Unfortunately, in Colombia there is a whole other issue. One tenth of its population live in displaced communities and, despite efforts at resettling, almost 1,000 persons per day are still being displaced in Colombia and more are coming to Barranquilla. Re-settlement is not going well.

In the United States an equivalent displacement would number 30 million people. I can't think of another way to put it. We know the stress high growth rates have on our communities even when the people moving in are employed or employable and have the resources to buy good housing. Imagine what it would be like if those persons were coming in desperate straights, without skills to be employed in modern culture, and no means to obtain housing. Those who had to flee the Gulf Coast before and after Hurricane Katrina were a drop in the bucket to the numbers we are talking about.

Most of the rural folk who are displaced lived what they considered comfortable lives with nice houses, clean water, adequate food grown, hunted and foraged. They lacked adequate schools, roads, health care, and other services the more developed areas of the country took for granted and modern conveniences like electricity. Some of these deficiencies are the reason for the civil war. While rural areas paid taxes, the government ignored them and failed to provide services provided in other parts of the country. 

Because they did not have modern conveniences, they are ill prepared for life in the cities. Displaced women are unable to work as house keepers because the employers expect them to know how to operate the modern equipment. Men are unqualified for construction jobs because they are unfamiliar with the more modern approaches to construction. As it would be in the U.S., illiteracy is a handicap in the more literate cities. 

This kind of crisis is what the Presbyterian and other Christians of Colombia are taking on and to some degree helping to solve. This crisis is what our students will be working to overcome in the years to come.

© Parrish Jones 2012