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



Once the Spaniards and, after them, the Portuguese had reached the American shores and surveyed the coastline, they began to settle the territory. Starting with the establishment of La Isabella on Hispaniola in 1493, the process continued through the sixteenth century with the foundation of a large number of cities. These foundations were, from the very beginning, highly formalized political acts. They all had the same institutional frame, based on a unified set of laws, on long-standing custom, and on practical prescriptions for similar if not identical situations. Initially, then, the urban experience was similar everywhere, as similar as the texts of the foundation charters or the first institutional acts parceling out plots of land or establishing local governments (cabildos). Indeed, one of the most important aspects of urban development in Latin America is the fact that every city and every urban process, identical to all the others at the start, became with time uniquely different. That initial similarity is fundamental to explaining the conflicts that arose between the conditions that were imposed at first and the needs and possibilities that later developed in each individual place and circumstance.

Clearly, the American territory and its peoples impressed certain characteristics first on the occupation and then on the colonization that followed. Distances, geography, the startling new flora and fauna, climatic idiosyncrasies, and, above all, the unexpected character of aboriginal cultures surprised the conquistadores and to some extent dictated their conduct: it was precisely these two sides of the process that made it so unique.

The greatest surprise for the conquistadores was, no doubt, the discovery of the tropics. Not all of America was tropical; neither was all of Asia or Africa. But the conquistadores were obsessed with the tropics, which they viewed as a world complementary to that of temperate Europe. Tropical products had reached the Mediterranean, but for a long time the Europeans had been unable to discover their source; once they stumbled upon the tropical regions of Africa, America and Asia, they “tropicalized” the colonial world. Thus the old image of the Orient was transformed into an image of the world of the tropics. There the conquistadores became acquainted with a nature that was surprisingly lush and humid. But they also came into direct contact with a world made on a different scale from the one they knew. Their view of things and their reactions were shaped by the magnitude of those rivers, mountains, lakes, islands, and jungles and by the experience of the immense distances they had to travel to reach their destinations. Perhaps this is why the European colonist came into being as a new kind of man, one who carried to the extreme some of the attitudes typical of those men who had taken part in the Crusades. And for many colonists, the European world began to seem too narrow and dull.

But the process had other traits as well. Those who took on the mission of settling the territory established within it cities that would serve as points of relay. But for a long time, these first settlers had no clear idea of what their concrete aim should be. They took whatever they found within arm’s reach, be it brazilwood or gold. Thus their initial attitude was vastly different from the one they had to adopt once they discovered that the real riches required organized labor: planting and then processing sugarcane, cattle-raising, or mining. For a long time, the initial attitude seemed sufficient for the adventurer who came to America with the idea of amassing a quick fortune and then returning home. It took a considerable effort to transform this attitude into that of the entrepreneur who knows he has to produce the riches he wants to take home. But it did not take too much time to make the adjustment, although the two attitudes remained obscurely mixed in the mind of the European colonist, who no longer knew with any certainty whether he was a European man or a man of the New World.

Perhaps the one thing that most confirmed his European identity for the colonist was the nature of the native American people and their culture, so profoundly alien to him. Mastering the native populations was a task that could be accomplished in more than one way, and the colonists had to choose a course of action: either subjugate them so that they would provide the labor needed to produce wealth, or protect them and convert them; or perhaps the two courses at once, combined and justified with arguments that ultimately would seem valid. But in any case, no European ever doubted that he was a conqueror, with all the right that victory granted him. Here it was a victory over infidels, not unlike the early ones over the Muslims. Thus the early city of the Indies was European, in the middle of a world populated by other peoples and other cultures. This is how the conquistador grew entirely certain that his was an all-out war. The groups of settlers who were taking possession of the land had traveled unknown routes and had severed contact with their rear guard. Since they had burned all their ships, their only possible strategy was that of a desperate fight to the end. This explains the kind of power they instituted, after the battles had been won, in the bastion that paid homage to the victory: the fortified city.

The conquistadores took total possession of the territory. Legal and theological foundations for the takeover were built upon a mountain of arguments, but the conquistadores had their own grounds which, for them, were indisputable, because those grounds had their origin in an act of will and were, in their view, sacred. They took possession of the land upon which they had actually set foot, and there they built their city. But in addition to the known territory, they took symbolic possession of all the unknown ones and divided them up before they ever saw them, indifferent to the mistakes in hundreds of leagues that they might make as they apportioned an imagined land. Thus, jurisdictions were established by law before they could possibly be set up in fact. And although the establishment was always both formal and real, the formal aspects far exceeded the real ones.

All this made the city the center of the colonizing process. From the city—already built or still merely planned—everything that had only an imaginary existence would be transformed into fact.