Upper Class

Colombia Table of Contents

The upper class comprised two interrelated groups, the traditional landed elite and the new rich, who owed their status primarily to successful entrepreneurship. The former continued to base its elite status on distinguished lineage and a respected family name, together known as abolengo, and on the ownership of large tracts of land. It frequently provided personnel for the highest offices in the government, the church, and the military. Abolengo remained virtually the sole determinant of upper-class membership in rural communities and in some traditionally oriented cities, such as PopayŠn. In larger cities and in areas accessible to its influence, however, wealth was probably equally or more important in determining elite status. In urban areas, a person's family history was frequently not as significant as the financial ability to maintain the life-style that had come to be associated with the social elite.

The traditional elite continually lost individual members to the middle class, either through the gradual loss of inherited wealth or through the division of estates among many heirs. In the past, however, and even in the 1980s, displacement of families was kept to a minimum because of the custom of mutual aid among relatives. If one branch of an elite family suffered financial difficulties, friends and relatives rallied to its support, helping children to obtain the customary good education and enabling the family to maintain a facade of well-being.

In the modern urban industrial communities, however, the financial climate had become more demanding as ever-increasing emphasis was placed on wealth and its display as a criterion of high status. The decline in extended-family cohesion and the dispersal of relatives that accompanied urbanization made it even less likely that an elite family would feel obligated to sustain all of its members at the accustomed level. Thus, many of these persons were forced to accept middle-class employment and living standards and might even fall into the lower class.

The newer members of the upper class were generally thought to be in a transitional state from the middle to the upper class. They had acquired economic and social success through entrepreneurial skills in banking, commerce, and industry. Some of the representatives of this group were self-made men, often mestizos, who had worked their way up the social ladder from the middle class. Others were European immigrants or their descendants who had been successful in the business community.

Some observers believed that the new rich constituted a lower sector of the upper class because they lacked the lineage, cultivation, and landowning tradition of the old elite. Although the new rich often regarded themselves as equal to the elite, they were not so considered by the rest of society. The barriers between these two groups were dissolving, however, at least in the major urban centers, where changing social standards, intermarriage, and shared political interests tended to overrule tradition.

Further linkages between the traditional elite and the new rich were provided by the many persons who had roots in both groups. Although the entrepreneurial upper class was sometimes regarded as entirely of recent origin, many of its members had aristocratic forebears and had long been recognized as part of the traditional elite. Because of the declining productivity of traditional agriculture and the increased opportunity for investment in industry, business, and commercial farming, the sons of large landowners had been among the first to enter these new areas of economic endeavor during the 1920s.

Education was traditionally correlated with upper-class membership. Upper-class children received the best education in the most prestigious schools, beginning at one of the exclusive private schools and ending with a degree from one of the country's wellknown universities. Intellectual and professional careers, particularly in law, medicine, and journalism, were preferred by sons of the elite. It was not unusual for a member of this class to obtain an advanced degree and take a position as a university professor for several years before entering high government office or assuming a managerial position in a family enterprise.

The upper class was very successful in maintaining exclusiveness and controlling change through a system of informal decision-making groups called roscas--the name of a twisted pastry. These informal groups existed at different levels and across different spheres and were linked hierarchically by personal relationships. Their composition varied according to level-- municipal, departmental, or national--but each group tried to include at least one powerful person from every sphere. A rosca was a vitally important system in both the social and the political context because it was at this level of interaction that most political decisions were made and careers determined. Only when a man was a member of such a group could he consider himself a member of the upper-middle or upper class.

Roscas linked influential individuals and institutions in such a way that an important university, a commercial bank, an investment bank, an association of industries, and agricultural interests might all be coordinated and controlled by a few persons. Several competing groups in an area often bargained and traded favors among themselves. A casual observer might not recognize the linkages within such groups until he began to do business in the area or needed something done in an official capacity. Colombians moving up the social ladder became increasingly aware of the importance of such groups.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress