Of the 4 million people in Bogota today, fully half live in chronic poverty, with no social programs to sustain them and no realistic hope that better times are coming.
They live a hand-to-mouth existence, whose survival can depend on the sale of a handful of oysters, or the success of a middle-class businessman so he can employ a lower-class maid. Failure on any day can mean hunger on any night. Repeated failure can mean starvation.
It is against this setting that the family of Luisa Gomez de Cassiani lives. She, six members of her family and one boarder are among the 2 million Bogotans who subsist in the futile class.
The Cassianis live in a one-room wooden shack covered by a corrugated metal roof. Bricks and stones have been placed on top to keep the cover from blowing off.
Family Is Lucky
"At least we have water," said one daughter, Luz Dary, a 17-year-old unwed mother who recently gave birth to a son. There are thousands, she says, who must cart water to their homes.
But Luisa's family is lucky. Their water is stored outside in a cement tank. The source of their water is a neighbor's garden hose, and the source of his water is a pirate connection to a city line.
Electricity is also stolen from the city, the illicit hookup powering a two-burner table-top stove and one light bulb, which is moved between two ceiling sockets as needed. There is a black-and-white television and a radio, but no refrigerator and no hot water, no washing machine and no vacuum cleaner. The toilet is an outhouse with a hole and a supply of newspaper.
Luisa, however, seems not to mind the unfinished plank floor, or the pale blue paper peeling off walls decorated with pictures of movie stars Bruce Lee and Matt Dillon.
Thankful, Despite Poverty
"Thank God we have this little lot," she says, knocking on the wooden frame of the bed where she sat.
The life style and possessions of Luisa's family are typical of those in the crime-ridden Quinta Ramos district, a neighborhood of only 300 people, most of whom have six-day-a-week jobs that provide barely enough to keep them alive.
Cheese is a rare luxury here, and meat is virtually unheard of. Pasta and vegetables are the mainstays of the diet. Meals of bits of fish with rice or chicken heads and feet cooked in a broth are not uncommon.
In Colombia, there is no welfare or food stamps. Nor is there social security for any but those who have secure jobs. Forty percent of all employment in Bogota is considered temporary, lasting anywhere from a few days to a few months. There are no records kept on those workers and so there are no benefits paid.
New President Virgilio Barco, inaugurated Aug. 7, has pledged to eradicate absolute poverty, revising the tax structure to provide basic services. The government runs a few day-care centers, with children eligible for government food. For a child to enter such centers, however, the parents must prove that they are working.
The Catholic Church also helps in many cases, setting up day-care centers that also are eligible for government food.
Luisa, unschooled and illiterate, had secured the best job in the family--cleaning the three-bedroom home of a middle-class family six days a week. She would arrive at 7 a.m., cook, sweep the floors, do their laundry by hand and return home late in the evening.
For her labor she received 12,400 pesos ($63) a month and the leftovers from the family's meals.
'Like Parents to Me'
"They are like parents to me," she said of her young employers. "I was born in the country and cooked meals for farm workers, for room and board. I couldn't even buy shoes."
But she also had a foreboding of what was to come. "Things are bad at Dona Marina's house," she said, suggesting that her employer's business--selling chickens--had not done well lately.
A few days later she was fired.
Luisa's husband of 19 years, Jose, 48, has a more secure but less profitable job. He sells oyster cocktails mixed fresh with wine, honey and orange juice on a busy Bogota sidewalk.
Every day he wheels his wooden stand from the run-down Gloria Hotel, where he pays a 15-cents-per-day storage fee.
$5 in Profits Is a Good Day
"Yesterday was a bad day," he said, noting he made only 600 pesos, a total of $3. "Today is better. I lowered the flag (sold his first cocktail) by 9:30 a.m. A good day is when I sell 1,500 pesos' worth, and I make a profit of 1,000 pesos (about $5)."
By late morning, Cassiani and other sellers often pool money for a jug of Aguadiente, Colombian firewater.
"But my father keeps his money in his shoe so he doesn't spend it all," said Luz Dary.
When possible, Luisa's sons--Fabio, 22, and Jorge, 18--and boarder German Lopez, 23, work in construction. Fabio earns 700 pesos a day, Jorge earns the minimum wage of 550 pesos a day, and German earns 800 pesos daily.
There also are two other daughters, Judith, 12, and Celia, 10.
Has Little Hope
In some ways, the Cassiani family is fortunate. Quinta Ramos dwellers collectively own their land, so they pay no rent--only 50 pesos (25 cents) a week to the owners' association.
But as far as Luisa can look into the future, she sees little to raise her hopes that her family will ever break into the middle class.
Her children are uneducated and will have little opportunity to become educated before they must go out and find jobs to support the rest of the family.
And that poverty will stretch well into old age. In Bogota today, it is estimated that half the population over 60 are street beggars.
At night, the eight occupants of the shack watch television from three crowded beds, which are occasionally sprayed with gasoline to keep down fleas from the family dogs.
Ironically, one of the favorite shows in Colombia is the American police show "Miami Vice," which routinely portrays Colombians as sinister scions of drug wealth.