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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

The Cities and Their Original Functions

Beginning with Fort Navidad and La Isabella, the many cities founded by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores were centers where they concentrated all the resources needed to face their internal contests for power as well as their ethnic and cultural confrontations with the native peoples in the conquered lands and in those yet to be conquered. The cities were legal and physical structures that had been thought out in Europe and were then transplanted into the virtually unknown soil of America. Pedro Mártir of Anghiera called those cities “colonies” because they seemed to be mere Spanish outposts. At the time they were founded, the cities were given a function, or to be more precise, they were founded in order to serve a pre-established function; they all began by performing that function, even though they might later become very different from one another.

In most cases, Latin American cities began as forts. This was inevitable, because each conquistador had to contend not only with forbidding and unimagined natural obstacles but also with the hostility of the Indian populations and with other conquistadores in the struggle for the possession of certain disputed regions. At the closing of his Cuarta Década, Pedro Mártir somberly states, “I will say it in just a few words, because all this is so unrelentingly horrible. Since my Décadas were completed, there has been nothing but killing and dying, murdering and being murdered.”

Thus the first cities were forts. In his letter of 1520 to the Emperor, Hernán Cortés wrote ,“I left in Veracruz 150 foot soldiers and two cavalrymen, building a fortress that is now almost finished.” Ulrich Schmidl spoke in similar terms about the first foundation of Buenos Aires in 1536, and so did Ruy Díaz de Guzmán about the establishment of Asunción in 1537. But the most eloquent testimony by far is that of Pedro de Valdivia in a letter written to the Emperor in 1545:

I decided to shelter an area of about 1600 square feet with a wall approximately eight feet high; the wall was made of 200,000 adobe bricks, each one yard in length and a palm in height, which Your Majesty’s servants and I, our weapons on our backs, fashioned with our own hands, working from start to finish without a single break. And whenever we heard the Indians’ cries, the lower ranks and bearers would run to that shelter, where the food was kept under guard. The foot soldiers would stay to defend the fortress, and the horsemen would go with me into the countryside to fight the Indians and defend our farmland.

Martín Alonso de Sousa also built forts in São Vicente and in Rio de Janeiro in 1532; in Recife, where the French had already built a fort, the Portuguese built yet another; the same was done in Olinda and in Salvador de Bahía, and later in Montevideo.

The fortified city was the first Hispanic-American experience. Behind its walls gathered a group of armed men who had to make war in order to occupy the land and extract the riches they assumed were hidden within it. They needed the Indians as mediators, in order to obtain food in the midst of an unknown nature and to find the key to the secret treasure: the pearls off the Venezuelan coastline, the gold and the silver which, before being discovered in large amounts, were found in amounts sufficient to whet the appetite of the conquistadores. But these conquistadores needed to keep the Indians under control, or better still, they needed to keep the Indians at once subdued and well-disposed. It was out of this duplicity that the policy of acculturation and mestizaje (mixing of the two races) was born; the fortified city was the first instrument of that policy. This is how all these cities came into being, first among them Fort Navidad. Next came the frontier cities like Valdivia, Concepción and La Serena in Chile, Santa Cruz and Tarija in Bolivia, and after that the outpost cities and those that followed the founding of Nueva Cádiz and Coro in Venezuela and of Barbacoa and Bayamo in Cuba. Countless Latin American cities have a fort at their origin.

Other Latin American cities began as connecting ports. They functioned as mercantile bastions, and sometimes they served also as markets, thus becoming trade centers. As points of arrival and departure for the fleets of the mother country, these cities were built on natural ports, sometimes without considering whether the site itself could sustain a permanent population. Santo Domingo, Portobelo, Havana, Panama, Veracruz, Cartagena, Salvador de Bahía, and Recife were all founded to accommodate the fleets. The economic policy of the Crown recognized the growing importance of certain ports and gave them a crucial role in the maritime traffic with the metropolis. This was the case with Portobelo and Veracruz after the regular routes of fleets and galleons were charted. The same happened with Acapulco, which handled all the traffic with the Philippines; with Panama and El Callao, which were the two terminals for shipping along the Pacific the silver that was then to be loaded and shipped across the Atlantic; and with Salvador de Bahía and Recife, which were the shipping ports for sugar. Trade functions were concentrated only in certain ports to secure monopoly and, above all, fiscal control. The concentration of trade functions prompted the development of these ports, which were provided with a military structure of defense and gathered ship repair businesses, merchant groups, government offices, and of course all the groups of population that urban centers of that nature would always attract.

These seaports were bustling with life because they offered so many and varied activities and opportunities; they were also prosperous because of the massive wealth they gathered. It was inevitable that these cities should attract the attention of pirates and corsairs. Many cities suffered their attack—San Juan de Puerto Rico, Panama City, Santiago de Cuba, Havana—and some were even destroyed by them. To avoid that danger, they were walled in and, in some cases, protected by the construction of a castle or morro (citadel). Cartagena de Indias still preserves its powerful wall and fortifications, and the citadels of Havana and San Juan de Puerto Rico are still standing. To lie in watch of the Caribbean cities, pirates created their own dens in the desert islands. For this reason, the port cities became centers of intense military activity, and, whenever they felt threatened by a possible attack, they mobilized their entire population.

Some ports acquired a rather different profile. The trade monopoly prompted the creation of a parallel black market. After its second foundation in 1580, Buenos Aires became a lesser port, economically inferior to those authorized to receive shipments from Europe. Such shipments came to Buenos Aires only by way of Portobelo or Lima. As a consequence, there emerged an intense and very methodical system of contraband which had its centers of operation in the Portuguese colonies. Contraband made Buenos Aires survive and prosper. In fact, the city itself had come into existence because the regions in the interior of the southern part of the continent were looking for a way to the sea that would free them from their dependence on the ports on the Pacific. Buenos Aires was a “gateway to the land,” on a direct line with Spain across the Atlantic. And as a port, Buenos Aires came in the end to perform the same function as the ports that the metropolis had established in the Caribbean and along the Pacific coast.

Some Latin American cities were originally just a station along the way, a place where people and products could be regrouped to continue their journey to more remote or dangerous regions. A typical case was Puebla de los Angeles, in Mexico, founded in 1531. The second Audiencia established Puebla to serve as a safe waystation on the journey between the port of Veracruz and Mexico City. Tlaxcala and Cholula, two major Indian cities along that same route, also served the same function. Even more significant was the case of Asuncion, founded in 1537 by Juan de Salazar at a place selected—according to Ruy Díaz de Guzmán— “because it seemed to him to be a good port and station for navigating the river." There gathered those bound from the Río de la Plata to what they imagined would be a mining region. There also came the survivors of the expedition of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, after their fabled march from the shore of the Gulf of Santa Catalina across Brazil. And in the times of Alvar Núñez and Irala, it was from Asunción that expeditions like that of Juan de Ayolas repeatedly tried to open up a route to Peru. All these attempts failed. But the future of Asunción was decided by new settlers who gradually occupied the surrounding areas and established close relations with the Guarani Indians. And so, from a stronghold and waystation city, Asunción eventually became a city proper in 1541, by a decision of the population that had settled there. The cities founded in what is now Argentine territory, along the north-south valleys of the Andean mountains, such as Jujuy, Salta, Londres (later called Catamarca), La Rioja, San Juan, and Mendoza, or those laid out along the way from Alto Peru to the Río de la Plata, such as Salta, Tucumán, Santiago del Estero, and Córdoba, were established in much the same way as Asunción.

The long distances and hostility of the Indians made it necessary to found these cities. Speaking about Loja in Ecuador, Cieza de León says, “The site of the city is the best and most advantageous that could be found, as it is a region inside the province; and as said before, this city was founded because the Spaniards who were traveling the royal road to Quito and elsewhere were in danger of being attacked by the Carrochamba and Chaparra Indians.” The quality of the site was measured by several factors. A high and easily defensible position in the mountainous regions—a position like those where the Incas had established their own small forts—might be selected. Yet other factors might decide which site was chosen. A ford or a bridge was a good place, as was a watershed or crossroads. At such a favorable site—which was the only appropriate site—a chapel might be erected, or an inn for getting fresh horses and refreshments. Around that small nucleus the city developed: first as a hamlet, then as a village.

At times, the Latin American city was built upon the site of an Indian city. A few of these were considerably large cities, and two of them—Mexico City and Cuzco—made vivid impressions upon the Spaniards. “It is a city as big as Sevilla or Córdoba,” wrote Hernán Cortés about Tenochtitlán. And he added, “It has another plaza that is twice the size of Salamanca, completely surrounded by arcades. Every day there are some 60,000 people there to buy and sell.” Although his description is full of admiration and awe, he nevertheless destroyed the city. In its place was built another city, this one in the European style. The new Mexico City was laid out in quadrilateral form; the site chosen for the Christian church was approximately where the Indian temple had once stood. The foundation of the fort was laid; the land was divided up, and little by little the new buildings began to go up, made from the same stone used to build the enormous Aztec buildings. Work began in 1523, on orders from Cortés.

In Peru, according to Cieza de León, “Nowhere was there a city so beautiful as Cuzco, which was the seat of the Inca Empire and of its royalty.” The opulent, Indian city astonished the conquistadores. “It had to have been built by a great people,” writes Cieza de León. He described it as follows:

There were splendid streets, except that they were very narrow. There were houses built of solid stone; the massive building blocks were perfectly pieced together, and the joints or couplings, which showed how old the buildings were, were beautifully done. The other houses were made of wood and straw or mud, because tile, masonry, or lime were nowhere in evidence. Located in several places in the city were residences of the Inca kings where the successor to their throne held his celebrations. There was also the magnificent temple of the sun, which they called Coricancha, one of the richest in gold and silver in the entire world.

But the city suffered the devastation wrought by war, and, as Cieza writes, “Don Francisco Pizarro, Governor and Captain General of these kingdoms in the name of Emperor Carlos, rebuilt it and refounded it in October of the year 1534.”

Unlike what happened in Tenochtitlán, Spanish Cuzco retained much of the Indian city, and as happened in Mexico City, the traditional significance of certain places survived. The cathedral was built upon the ruins of the temple of Viracocha, out of the very blocks that had been used to construct the temple; the grounds that had once been the site of the palace of Guaina Capac were the place the Jesuits chose to build their church. Both were on the edge of the Plaza Mayor, which had been the main square of the old Inca city as well.

Besides Mexico City and Cuzco, other Latin American cities were built upon sites of small Indian communities situated in advantageous locations; these included Cholula, Bogota, Quito, Huamanga, Chuquisaca, Mendoza, and to some extent São Paulo in Brazil. But almost nothing remained of the former Indian village, and little by little the symmetry of the European city and its buildings would completely cover over what had once been an indigenous community. Other places would emerge or, like Piura in Peru, carry on as indigenous suburbs. Occasionally the marketplace survived; in any case the site retained its attraction and, with it, a certain social interdependence that helped define the city’s makeup as an amalgam of Spanish, mestizo, and Indian communities.

The intense attraction exerted by the mining areas triggered the appearance of a Latin American city of an altogether different type. The lure of mining brought about the establishment of Taxco and Guanajuato in Mexico and Vila Rica in Brazil. But Potosí was unquestionably the one that was most characteristic of this type of city.

Founded in 1545, shortly after the discovery of the Cerro Rico, within eighty years Potosí had “4,000 Spanish homes, and always between 4,000 and 5,000 men.” Thus says the author of the Descripción del Perú, attributed to a “Portuguese Jew” and written in the early seventeenth century. The author adds: “Some engage in mining, while others market their wares throughout the kingdom; others make and sell food and the wax candles used every day in the mines. Still others live by their wits and their gambling, and by being bold.” The description continues: “Over 40,000 Indians live around the town in straw huts. The provincial governors (corregidores) issue the orders that force the Indians to work in the mines, and their chiefs bring them there. And thus they submit to the mita (forced labor in the mines), and come to work, some traveling over 150 leagues.”

Shortly after the founding of the city, Cieza de León pointed out how the importance of Potosí’s market: the “commerce was so great that when the mines were prosperous, among Indians alone—not counting Christians—between 25,000 and 30,000 gold pesos changed hands each day; there were even days when 40,000 gold pesos in business was done; it was a strange thing, and I do not believe that there is any market in the world that can rival it for business.”

The city of Villa Rica de Albuquerque, now called Ouro Preto, was another typical mining city. It was founded, in 1711, because of “the riches promised by the mines in its hills and streams promised and because these mines are important sources of trade and wealth.” Three years after it was founded, the city, lead by its governor, Antonio de Albuquerque, was already able to pave its streets and build bridges, erect public buildings, and ensure a water supply. By then, Villa Rica was already contributing six arrobas 1 of gold per year to the Royal Treasury.

The growth of these mining cities paralleled, as a rule, the growth of the mining operations, because the only advantage of their sites was their proximity to the mines. But as the mines prospered, they helped create centers of attraction that left, as a lasting reminder, the physical structure of a large and rich city and a system of human interests that refused to fade away.

As a military and political center, the Latin American city was often an institution, that is, the physical expression of a legal and political situation. The conquistador, who had been given certain territorial rights in the form of a charter or grant, was required to take possession of his territory. But that territory was often unknown, and its description and even its size were purely hypothetical. Once on the land, the colonizer had to translate that hypothesis into reality. To claim the land, some event was needed; generally that event was the founding of a city. Most Latin American cities of the sixteenth century were, in some sense, founded as a necessary response to these circumstances. The first such case was Santo Domingo, established in 1496; then came other cities founded by the Spaniards on Hispaniola and Cuba in the early decades of the sixteenth century, and those established by the Portuguese along the Brazilian coast, beginning with São Vicente in 1532.

But the necessary response to circumstances was most evident in regions where jurisdictional disputes emerged. Perhaps the most typical case is that of Santa Fe de Bogotá, founded in 1538 by Jiménez de Quesada and refounded the following year in the presence of the three conquistadores, Quesada, Benalcázar, and Federman, who had happened to arrive then on the savannah. Several cities in the interior of what is today Argentina were founded under similar circumstances. Men directly answerable to the government in Lima competed and those who took orders directly from Pedro de Valdivia, the governor of Chili, competed for the northwest region. The first group founded the city of Barco, but the second ordered that it be abandoned and in 1553 founded within its jurisdiction the city of Santiago del Estero. Still more remarkable was the case of Mendoza, which García Hurtado de Mendoza, Governor of Chile, ordered established in 1551 to carry on his name when he learned that he was about to be replaced by a rival. One year later, his successor, Francisco de Villagra, ordered Juan Jufré to found the city again, “since that settlement”—as the Charter of the second founding reads—“was unfit in parts for the good and increase and preservation of the dwellings and the population, because they are within a valley and do not get the winds that are necessary for the health of those who live and shall live there.” The first city was just beginning to be built when the second one was baptized City of the Resurrection. Villagra ordered that:

all official documents and testaments, and all those that usually bear the day, month, and year shall show that name and none other, and anyone violating this order shall be subject to the penalty prescribed for those who put on public documents the names of cities that are not settled in the name of His Majesty or subject to his royal dominion.

This act consolidated the jurisdiction of the governor of Chile over the trans-Andean region known as Cuyo.

In some regions of Latin America the Indian villages were as important as the European-style cities. Some of the old, native settlements were to some extent incorporated into the new colonial system. But new Indian communities began to emerge, organized from the start within the European system. This was especially true in the case of the missions and reducciones2 that the various religious orders established.

In Mexico City, Bishop Vasco de Quiroga developed a unique plan to protect the Indian population. To prevent them from being exploited and exterminated, he organized a group of communities in Michoacan, inspired by ideas he drew from Erasmus and Thomas More and based on his own observations of the social and cultural patterns of the Indians. In the beginning, they were hospitals and shelters, but they quickly became villages. One of them, founded by Viceroy Mendoza, was the city of Valladolid, today called Morelia. Organized according to their own traditions and engaged in their particular crafts and labor, the Indians nevertheless formed urban centers that fit the colonial pattern. Their work habits did not change, but their dependency and their forced exposure to Christian teaching slowly led the Indians toward gradual integration with Spanish groups or, more precisely, toward a quiet acceptance of their subjection.

The Dominican, Capuchin, Mercedarian, and, above all, Franciscan and Jesuit missions were all similar in this respect. The Franciscan missions were the largest and the best organized, with a very well-defined system of political, socio-economic, and spiritual ideas. There were major experiments in several places: Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela, Peru and Brazil. But those founded in Moxos and Chiquitos and in Paraguay are particularly interesting. In Paraguay, thirty identical villages were established: a chessboard layout with a plaza at the center and the church, convent, cemetery, workshops, jail, and town hall all arranged around it. The inhabitants—as many as 3,000— engaged in agriculture and lived a carefully regulated life within their villages, but they also lived in complete isolation. In the meantime, the Indian reducciones often served as the basis for new communities. This happened in the case of Quilmes, south of Buenos Aires, which was populated by an Indian group that had been transplanted from the Calchaquies valleys in 1669, once their terrifying insurrection was suppressed. The cities of Itatí, Jesús María, Rio Cuarto, and Baradero, all in Argentina, came into being in much the same way.

In Brazil the most notable case of a mission becoming a great city was undoubtedly that of São Paulo. The mission was established in 1554 by the Jesuits, under Father Manuel de Nóbrega, the Brazilian provincial headquartered in São Vicente. Father José de Anchieta quickly became the most prominent of the thirteen priests assigned to the mission. These priests set themselves up in the Indian village of Piratininga, and the followers of Tebiriça and Caiubí, caciques (chieftans) of the Guayanazi, came to live in the village.  Following the example of those two famous Indians, so many came from the interior that the village was unable to accommodate them all. At the center of the new mission were the Jesuit school and the church, around which the Indian huts were built. Two years after its founding, new adobe buildings were replacing the original, rudimentary school and church; some adobe houses began to appear as well, while walls and stockades were built to protect the new population. Not long thereafter, people of many types began to gravitate to São Paulo. The so-called bandeirantes made the city their base of operations for hunting Indians, most whom they then sold as slaves; São Paulo thus became a major market for “red slaves.” Businessmen like Jorge Moreira and the Sardinha amassed an enormous fortune from enterprises of every type. They were the ones who controlled the Cámara, the municipal governmental body that began to function in São Paulo around 1560.