the gringo problem

Bogotá isn’t exactly a diverse city. Its racial composition includes people of Mestizo origin (those of mixed Amerindian and European descent), in addition to Spaniards and other European ethnic groups. It also has a large Middle Eastern population, made up mostly of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants. The Afro-Colombian population in Bogotá is smaller than in cities along the coast such as Cartagena, where Colombians of African descent have historically resided. Pale-skinned, light-eyed people, however, are nowhere to be found.

The few of us who do roam the city are prime targets for beggars and con artists. Whether we are sitting at a coffee shop, eating at a restaurant, or walking on the sidewalk, Seth and I are consistently singled out. When we refuse to give change, or when we do not give enough, we are accused of being greedy. “You’re gringos; you must have money!” they shout angrily. Whether we have spare change or not, our skin color signifies wealth. Meanwhile, our upper-class Colombian friends—Juancho and our coworkers, for example, who live with their parents rent-free—are never asked.

While these incidents are only slight annoyances for us, they tend to cause bigger problems for establishment owners, who must pause their work to shoo the beggars away, or for other patrons, who prefer their conversations to go uninterrupted. We try to locate tables in concealed corners of restaurants, where we expect to be of little disturbance, but our efforts are often fruitless. One Sunday afternoon, for instance, Seth and I were sipping cappuccinos at our usual panadería when an unusually large and demanding homeless woman approached our table. She asked us for money, and we gave her our leftover change. “That’s it?!” she asked incredulously. “I know you have more!” We told her we simply did not have any excess change to give. She proceeded to lecture us for the next minute or two, until the shop owner could break away from her duties and order the woman to leave.

I have since seen that woman a few times, and every time I do, she demands that I give her money. On Thursday, as I was walking home from work, I stopped by our neighborhood Éxito to buy a couple of beers for Seth and me. (Don’t judge; it was a long day!) She was standing outside, asking customers for donations as they left. As I waited in line to make my purchase, I saw her staring through the window, watching me. Once I received my bag and my change, I quickly packed everything away and hurried out the door. Not only did she ask me for money, but she also proceeded to FOLLOW ME down the street, yelling that she was starving because of greedy gringas like me.

That’s not to say that all people who ask for donations are homeless or even needy. Two weekends ago, as Seth and I walked the busy, pub-filled streets of La Zona T, a guy about our age ran up to us, holding out his hand. He was clean-shaven and wearing what looked like a brand new North Face jacket. We stared at him blankly and continued on our way.

I never imagined that I could be on the receiving end of racism, albeit the superficial, somewhat distorted end, but I am… I think?

3 thoughts on “the gringo problem

  1. We are a bit worried for you. On the other hand, this experience will forever color the way you see interpersonal conflicts of any sort. – And we feel for the better. We know you and Seth have tender hearts. Carry on, carefully.

  2. Please do not worry. I wrote this post because I feel enlightened, not because I feel endangered. It has been interesting for me to see how another culture views white people of the United States and Western Europe—as a people who have a disproportionate percentage of the world’s wealth, more money than we could ever need. I am gradually beginning to understand the anger and resentment, but I have yet to learn how to effectively respond to it.

    • Very well stated. Chuck said his grandfather lived by the axiom “Live Simply So that Others May Simply LIve”. May we all strive for this.

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