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

The Foundational Act

Cities were the tools used to settle territories and create the new society within those territories. When the early Latin American cities were founded, all the formalities were observed. Later, other cities would spontaneously appear, the product of some internally-driven process, but the first wave of foundations was externally driven by the design of the conquistadores. A city’s founding was a political act; the formalities were repeated many times over. A small army of Spaniards or Portuguese under the command of an individual who had, at least formally, absolute authority and was usually accompanied by some Indians would come upon a place; after carefully choosing a site, they would establish themselves there with the idea that a group would remain permanently. It was a political act that signified the intent—an intent backed by force—to settle the land and assert the right of the conqueror. And so the political act was completed by a symbolic gesture: the conquistador would uproot a few handfuls of grass, strike the ground three times with his sword, and finally challenge anyone who objected to the city’s founding. The political act might have another purpose: to assert a conquistador’s eminent domain when the terms of the capitulaciones (contractual documents) or grants were not altogether clear. But claiming the territory and subjugating the Indian population were always the paramount objectives.

The political act was carried out in several ways. The celebration of a mass (as in the case of Bogotá or São Paulo) or the enthronement of an image (like that of San Sebastián in Río de Janeiro) added a sacred element to the founding of the city. In the meantime, the city’s charter was drafted “before the undersigned notary and witnesses.” It was a carefully worded document with provisions and deed-like formalities. As a rule, the charter contained the regulations for municipal government “because by law such cities were to have not only governors and superior justices, but also mayors to make and enforce the law, city councilmen for the business of government, and other officials.” Usually mapped out in advance, the physical construction of the city began with the pillory, the symbol of justice, placed at the center of what would become the main square.

The criterion used to select the sites in Brazil was not the one used in Spanish America. In Brazil, the preference was for high places that could easily be defended, while in Spanish America the preference was generally for flat sites. Accordingly, the layout of the cities differed. And while in Brazil there was some tendency toward a geometric, or at least a symmetrical city plan, the topography of the high sites dictated its own rules. As of 1580, when Portugal was united with the Spanish Crown, the symmetry that Spain dictated for its colonies would become more of a factor. In the Spanish-American cities, the layout was generally like a chessboard: square blocks with a plaza at the approximate center of the city plan. The main square was to be the heart of the city; around it would be built the church, the fort or palace for the seat of government, and the town council building. Plots of land were reserved for the churches and convents of the various orders, and the rest was divided evenly among the settlers.

An urban site required that a house be built, however modest at the beginning, like the cabins built in Bogotá by the companions of Jiménez de Quesada.  But over the course of time, those modest dwellings would be improved and eventually become adobe or stone buildings. A short distance away, the settler could also have a chacra, which was land for farming, and further out, beyond the city limits, a country estate (hacienda or estancia). Between the city limits and the surrounding rural area the city founders set aside space for possible expansion and common use, called the rossio or ejido, and another space for municipal ownership called termo in Brazil and propio in Spanish America.

Once the city was founded, it still had to become a physical reality, and the time the process took varied from city to city. In the meantime, several circumstances could alter the original plan. Religious orders or private citizens could change plots, and the empty spaces could be used for a variety of purposes. The most important change, however, was to change the site of the city itself, as frequently happened. In fact, the founding was almost always improvised, on the basis of a rapid assessment of certain immediate advantages that the geographic locale had to offer: coastline, altitude, rivers and, most important of all, water, wind, pasture, and kindling. As a rule, the city was established on poorly known territory, so there was no way to anticipate the various difficulties that might eventually be encountered. The city founders may always have thought that the founding of the city did not need to be permanent. The fact is that in many cities, experience counseled a change of site, which sometimes meant a change of geographic location. The transfer or removal was a curious phenomenon, since legally speaking the city was the same, for it preserved its name and remained within the same jurisdiction. Only time would tell whether the city would be the same one that was originally founded, with its functions intact.

In some cases, such as Veracruz, the city was moved twice; in other instances, uncertainty lasted still longer. Undoubtedly the most extraordinary case was the Spanish colony in the Catamarca valley in Argentina. Founded for the first time in 1558, four years after the marriage of Philip II and Mary Tudor, the city was called Londres. But it was moved repeatedly, so many times that in the early eighteenth century the chronicler Pedro Lozano described it as the “portable city of Londres, which never ceases to be moved from one place to another.” Father Lozano had used the same phrase in reference to the city of Concepción del Bermejo, founded by Alonso de Vera in 1585. Three months after its establishment, the founder himself wrote that he had received the power from the very authorities, whom he had just appointed “to move this city to the most convenient location.” Such authority was also invoked to change the site of the Venezuelan city of Trujillo.

Many other cities moved. For the sake of greater security, Mendes de Sá moved Río de Janeiro from its original position to what was called the Fortress. Santo Domingo, founded by Bartolomé Colón in 1496, was destroyed by a hurricane and refounded on the other side of the Ozama river by Nicolás de Ovando in 1502. Santiago de Guatemala, founded in 1524 by Pedro de Alvarado, was destroyed by a flood in 1541 and rebuilt one league away from its original site. But that city was itself destroyed when a volcano erupted in 1717; it was abandoned and rebuilt again at the place where Guatemala City now stands. In 1519, Pedrarias Dávila founded Panama City on the Pacific coast. Strictly speaking, it should be regarded as a result of the transfer of Santa María la Antigua founded by Enciso y Balboa around 1510. for Santa María la Antigua, despite the impulse of its governor, was abandoned once the seat of government was set up in Panama City. Thirty years later Cieza de León noted that the city was unhealthy and that the site should have been changed. “But since the houses had been built at such expense, the city was not moved, though everyone knew they suffered greatly from living at such a terrible site.” Despite the impulse of its founder, Santa María la Antigua was abandoned after the pirate Morgan destroyed the city in 1671, and the seat of government was moved to its present location in Panama City. Nombre de Dios was abandoned in 1596 to find a better site, and Portobelo was established very close by. San Juan de Puerto Rico and Quito were moved, as were for various reasons La Victoria, Mariquita, Huamanga (today called Ayacucho), Arequipa, Santiago del Estero, Tucumán, Mendoza, and Buenos Aires, among others. Changing the site of a city was the equivalent of founding it again, since frequently the original population changed. In the case of Buenos Aires, the population was totally new, since 44 years separated the first and second foundings. With the new foundings, life began anew.