Lazy Latinos? Not if they’re running on three hours’ sleep

There are two times a year when I become particularly unsettled. The first is January 1, that hideous time of year when we all turn into Roman Gods, straining our necks as we try to pick between examining the year that’s flown and wondering about the year that beckons.

The second is June 1. I hate June 1 because it means we are fast approaching the mid-point of the year. It’s a time to assess progress and panic about the fact there will soon be just six months left to achieve anything. It’s even worse if you happen to live in Bogotá, where June and January are pretty much identical. There is no gentle arrival of the sunshine, nor obvious lengthening of the days here. Time just seems to happen.

I console myself with three things; copious amounts of chocolate cake, that famous phrase from Leonard Bernstein (“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time,”) and the fact that, aged 30, I am now working harder than ever. When I was a child, I was a bit of a nerd (regular readers of this blog may have figured that out by now) Anyway, I was such a nerd that my mother, who is one of the most astute people I know, used to tell me not to do my homework (“I think that’s enough for tonight,” she would say, to an eleven-year-old kid who was half asleep on a textbook) Even now she calls me, all the way across the world, and says: “You’re not working too hard, are you?” I swear one year I did my homework on Christmas Day.

But the great thing about living in Bogotá, particularly about being surrounded by my Colombian friends, is the fact my current workload, my three jobs, is more than acceptable. The fact I work all hours, including weekends and carry a notebook everywhere I go, well, not only is that completely normal, it is actually lazier than most of the people I know.

You see, Bogotá is a ridiculously class-based society. You get graded on everything from your name and accent to your address and university, all of which forms part of a complicated formula designed to place you at an exact point on a social scale (and if you don’t believe me, try finding someone in Bogotá who can’t tell you their strato) Except I am foreign, which means that not only is my surname impossible to place (and pronounce) I also come from a country with a higher rate of social mobility (England is far from a meritocracy but let’s just say a large number of my Colombian friends still don’t really believe Margaret Thatcher’s father ran a fruit and vegetable shop. Half of our Presidents here have the same bloody surname) Similarly, my grandfather was a bus conductor and the other one a comic book printer, but my dad was a bank manager and I went to a good university, so I am somewhat difficult to categorise. The fact I pick-and-choose what to tell people makes me even more of an enigma.

I have therefore spent three years floating between clearly defined social classes and for someone who loves amateur sociology and analysing culture, it’s been a dream. Especially lately when, due to my rediscovered workaholism, I have become obsessed with how hard one particular sector of Bogotá society works. Let’s call them the ‘aspirational class’ – a group of people so determined to improve their circumstances they are willing to endure almost anything.

These people live in the poorer parts of Bogotá, further from the universities they want to attend, which in turn means hours on the bus. Then they have no money, a mistrust of debt and they went to worse schools so they often ended up with worse grades and therefore less access to public universities. These people amaze me. They amaze me much so that I have spent months surveying them to see if the extent of their workload can really be true.

Finally, though, I think I have found a winner. The diary of her week speaks for itself:

Ana is 23. She gets up every day at 3.10am to ensure she can eat breakfast, cook her lunch and be on the bus by 4.30. She then arrives at her office job at 5.45 which is annoying, because she doesn’t start work until 6.30 but, then again, that is the only bus that will get her there on time and, besides, she often uses that 45 minutes to do her university work.

She finishes work at 5pm, attends university every day from 6pm to 10pm and arrives home at 11pm. Her head doesn’t hit the pillow until midnight, which means she gets three hours sleep every ‘school night’ except Fridays when she gets to sleep for a whopping seven hours because she doesn’t have to be at university until 8am on a Saturday.

The good news is Ana only has to do this for four months at a time, before the semester takes a brief pause and, er, her degree will only take her five years to complete. Now I am supposed to be a hard-working soul but I honestly believe that routine would kill me.   All I remember from university is day-time television, mid-week partying, a couple of hours of lectures a day and the longest summer holidays ever. I didn’t know I was born. And the funny thing is, I barely had to search to find Ana. There are thousands like her.

So whenever I have a weak moment and think perhaps I am working too hard, when I can’t remember the last time I read a magazine, let alone a book or when I finally get around to seeing a film only to find it’s not only gone from the cinema but not even the pirateers stock it anymore, I will remember where I live. I live in a country that is on the verge of greatness. And because the only way to achieve greatness is to work bloody hard for it, it will be people like Ana who make all the difference.

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.


  1. Andres

    Thanks for reminding me of how I got it easier thanks to my grandmother. She was pretty much like Ana for 25 years (first she worked two jobs to put herself through college and then worked three jobs to put her 9 children through college as well). I’ll give her a huge hug this weekend!

  2. Tom Herman

    Sounds like Ana’s a lucky one w/out any kids… think of the number of people like ana who instead of pursuing a degree, instead are just trying to make enough money from the 2 or 3 jobs that leave them with 3 hrs of sleep to put food on the table for thier kids and pay the rent. Especially women since many, many men just don’t contribute or even exist in the family.

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      I agree, although surely not having kids is not just down to luck – I like to think there is a tiny bit of choice there (although clearly not in every case) Ana is no doubt the product of one of those mothers you mention – she certainly does her bit in the house (cooking, ironing etc.) but is determined to get higher education and contribute to the world in a different way. We have to celebrate the grit of every sector of our society don’t we? Except those non-existent men of course!

      1. bananaskinflipflops

        Actually, thinking about it, a lot of the grittiest people I know here have young mums. I remember being there once when one of those mums said: “I love you but don’t do what I did.” She had him at 17 and never went to uni. I remember laughing with them both (he pretended to be really offended) but he later said to me he wanted to learn from her ‘mistake’ – i.e himself – and he is another one just like Ana.

    2. Will

      I agree with your last comment. A lot of the Colombian women that I know have very young moms considering the age of these women. I know someone who’s 31 and her mom is 46.

  3. alephxander

    My mother is a great grand mother and she is just 54 years old. She got pregnant when she was 15 years old, and my oldest brother had my oldest nephew when he was 18 years old, and now my nephew who is 21 years old has a kid which is almost one year old.

  4. Lala

    Great post! I agree, people work very hard in Colombia and most times they can’t get outside of that box in which they were categorized. It is a vicious cycle of work hard but never have enough to just jump to the next level.

  5. Ceri

    Wow, this sounds like a lot of Mexicans I know (clearly Mexico and Colombia have more in common than we thought). Their workaholic tendencies make me laugh at the fact that they have a reputation of being “lazy”. A lot of the students I teach would be in their office at 6.30am and not leave it until 9-10pm (but only get paid their contracted 9-5).

  6. TammyOnTheMove

    Lovely post. I am always amazed how some manage to do so many things at once without having a burn out. I live in Cambodia and students here are often too poor to pay for uni, so they also have to work full time and then attend evening classes at uni. It is really inspiring to see how badly they want to break out of the poverty cycle though-and I am sure with their determination they will as well.

  7. j3ssm3ss

    So true!! Although my students do work hard, the majority of them are from the upper estratos I have to say. I’m only too aware of the existence of these super hard workers and often feel like reminding my students of this fact!! Incidentally I came across you blog after someone recently approached me in a local caf to ask if I was “that girl from bananaskinflipflop”. I’m blonde and British so guess we have a passing resemblance, I blog too but nearly as popular as yours – Check it out if you have a mo 🙂

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Hahahahaha, someone asked you if you were the girl from Banana Skin Flip Flops? That is mad! What have I done? One of the things I love about this city is the total anonymity and being able to hide away and stuff… that has really made me giggle. I will have a look at your blog, enjoy Colombia!

  8. yourmung

    I believe we are a paradise of contradictions and social contrasts. From my point of view we live in a modern society deeply buried in medieval times and ideologies and strange shreds of post modern world. You can see other people who don’t even have the break after months, the man selling candies and cigarettes in the street, the lady who sells salads in the corners of those middle class prisons surrounded by security cams and electrical fences not only to keep burglars outside but also to keep outside all the ones who aren’t of the same social class.

    But it is an extension of that concept of First, second and third world countries. An awful custom.

    1. Will Castillo

      C’mon guys! This doesn’t just happen in Colombia. I have lived in both Latin American and North American countries and it’s the same concept. Only that the former is more visible than the latter. The meritocratic ideal is in trouble in North America. Income inequality is growing to levels not seen since the Gilded Age. Everywhere I turn I see elites mastering the art of immortalizing themselves. Canada is increasingly looking like imperial Britain, with dynastic ties proliferating, social circles interlocking, mechanisms of social exclusion strengthening, and a gap widening between the people who make decisions and shape the culture and the vast majority of working stiffs. It’s time we opened our eyes to this and at least be conscious of it.

  9. latinmuslimah

    The saddest part of this is that people like her will actually never climb in the social scale based on the fact that they don’t come from “known families” or dont have “palanca” (doesn’t mean they cant improver their conditions to certain extent). Also, because they can’t afford to go to the good universities (many are forced to join the “universidad de garaje” because they can’t pay for the reputable ones) their diplomas are not as important as the ones of other people who graduated from the expensive universities. Add to that the fact that because they are so tired they don’t get the best grades and graduate in an older age. In other words, most of them follow an almost impossible dream… 😦

  10. Fernando Montoya (@montogeek)

    Hi Vicky, I’m 21 now, the last week I started my 10º semester at the University, the next year I will get my grade on Systems and Computer Engineering, I had a similar history, for the past 4 years I have to wake up at 4:00 a.m., get the bus at 5:00 a.m. and travel one hour and 35 minutes, then walk 20 minutes to get my 7:00 a.m. class at the University, I finished my class at 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., then walk 20 minutes back to the Terminal Bus and then travel again 1:35 minutes, generally more to my home, then study until 1 or 2 am.
    I did it for 4 years and I can tell you that’s awesome, is very, very, very hard but you can appreciate how much your education can cost.

  11. doblefierro

    i’m what you would call a privileged colombian but my grandfather was a farmer, and this article just give me chills and brings tears to my eyes thanks

  12. duendecitoboxeador

    “You see, Bogotá is a ridiculously class-based society. You get graded on everything from your name and accent to your address and university, all of which forms part of a complicated formula designed to place you at an exact point on a social scale”

    >que hay grandes divisiones sociales, es cierto, pero creo que la gente de la que estás rodeada (gente de clase alta) es mucho más clasista que el resto de bogotanos.

    “…(and if you don’t believe me, try finding someone in Bogotá who can’t tell you their strato)”

    >Y es natural. Saber el estrato es como saber la dirección de tu casa o cuál es tu EPS. Es obvio que todos sepan de qué estrato son, pues define cómo pagan servicios públicos, etc.

    “… let’s just say a large number of my Colombian friends still don’t really believe Margaret Thatcher’s father ran a fruit and vegetable shop. Half of our Presidents here have the same bloody surname)…”

    Yo lo creería sin problemas y sé que mucha de la gente que conozco lo haría, y es completamente normal. Muchos de los más reconocidos científicos y algunos de los líderes políticos más famosos en Colombia provienen de familias fuera de la élite. Tal vez tiene que ver con lo que dije en la primera respuesta, el clasismo que impera entre la gente de clase alta con la que tratas a diario.

  13. duendecitoboxeador

    Así que, si bien concuerdo con el núcleo de lo que dices, creo que lo exageras un poco. Los padres o abuelos de muchos bogotanos eran campesinos que no tenían luz eléctrica y vivían en una casa con sus 20 hermanos. Hoy muchos de sus hijos tienen grados universitarios. Mis padres eran campesinos, hoy son jubilados de un banco (solo mi padre completó el bachillerato), y todos mis hermanos y yo tenemos grados universitarios e incluso postgrados.

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