The Lower Class and the Masses

Colombia Table of Contents

The lower class and the masses together constituted the largest sector of rural and urban society--about 75 percent. The line between the lower class and the masses was fine; it was based more on an increased awareness of the social, economic, and political systems among members of the lower class than on any other criterion. Those at the upper levels of the lower class--organized labor, small farmers, merchants, and some white-collar workers-- were in a transitional stage and possessed some attributes of middle-class status.

The lower class was more politically aware than the masses, although the levels of participation were uniformly low. Feelings of common identity were generally lacking among groups in the lower class, although class consciousness existed within such groups as organized labor and landowning campesinos. Generally, members of the lower class were regularly employed with some degree of security, although they were frequently unskilled and unorganized. Included in this category were domestic servants, construction workers, taxi drivers, barbers, repairmen, and small shopkeepers. The rural lower class included small independent landholders, called minifundistas, and even some day workers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers, who provided some security for their families.

In contrast, the masses were composed of the illiterate and the impoverished who lived on the margin of subsistence and possessed little or no security, skill, or stable employment. They included Indians and blacks as well as many other dark-skinned persons. They resided on the sociopolitical periphery of the society and maintained their traditional way of life; most of their energies were consumed in the struggle for survival. Although the masses possessed some political potential and some awareness of the political system, they lacked an effective, evaluative understanding of it as well as sufficient class cohesion to articulate their desires.

At the top of the lower-class hierarchy and merging into the middle class were the regularly employed industrial workers. Often distinguished from white-collar employees only by their blue-collar occupations, unionized factory workers received relatively high wages and were protected by labor legislation. They were better organized than other employed members of the lower class and were sometimes able to exert a degree of pressure on employers and political parties to obtain their demands. In general, they were conservative politically and opposed government initiatives to change the status quo. This conservatism existed because, despite their stability relative to other members of the lower class, their status in the society was fairly tenuous, resting solely on maintenance of their occupation. Loss of job would seriously impair a factory worker's ability to maintain his status.

Social life in the lower class was less structured and more informal than in the middle and upper classes. There was less restraint and concern with the rigid standards of behavior that regulated the social activities of those higher on the social scale. Participation in religious activities, particularly celebrations of saints' days and festivals, was an important part of social life, as were spontaneous neighborhood and family gatherings.

The rapid growth of the urban sector since the 1940s resulted primarily from the influx of migrants from the countryside. Agricultural workers continued to leave the rural areas and come to the towns and cities, hoping to improve their way of life. Most were uneducated--at best barely literate--and unskilled, two attributes that considerably limited their prospects for employment and their ability to adjust to urban life. Consequently, there was a high rate of unemployment and underemployment in this migrant population, particularly among the men. Women often found jobs as domestic servants or cooks, but the continued flood of unskilled labor into the cities made it increasingly difficult for men to find even the most menial jobs.

Movement to the city did little to change the relative social status or way of life of most migrants, who merely exchanged rural unemployment and poverty for the same conditions in an urban environment. Many became residents of the shantytowns that surrounded the larger cities. Housing in a lower-class barrio was frequently no more than a shack without running water and often without electricity, not too different from what the migrant had left behind.

Despite the apparent hopelessness of the migrant's condition, there was the expectation of some future improvement, if not in his own life at least in that of his children. One survey taken in a lower-class community in a larger city found that parents believed that the future would be better for their children. Usually this belief was tied to the greater availability of education and the other institutions of urban life. Migrants perceived themselves as closer to the mainstream of national life with a greater chance of becoming economically, socially, and politically a part of it than those who remained in the countryside.

In the mid-1980s, the rural lower class was outnumbered by the urban lower class. Migration had rapidly reversed the traditional balance; the proportion of the rural population continued to decline steadily as it had since the 1920s. In the past, the lower class was primarily an agricultural sector, its position in society dictated by dependence on the land. Whether minifundista, semipermanent squatter, sharecropper, tenant farmer, or day laborer, the campesino's small parcel of land or lack of land kept him at a near-subsistence level of existence for generations. There were slight distinctions among the various groups making up the rural lower class: generally, the living standard of the minifundista, squatter, and tenant farmer was somewhat higher than that of the sharecropper, who in turn lived a little better than the landless day laborer.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress