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

The Founding Mentality

Standing before the chosen site, with one hand clutching the grip of a sword, their gaze fixed upon the cross and their thoughts on the riches that the adventure would bring them, the men who founded a city—one that already had a name, but had not yet been built—must have experienced a strange sensation: the anticipation of magically creating something from nothing. They were Europeans on an unknown continent, and what they planned to create was already shaped in their minds. This adventure was just one more phase in that bold adventure of expansion that the Europeans had embarked upon four centuries earlier. The land upon which they now stood—real land, with rivers and plains, lakes and volcanoes—had to become an extension of the land they left in their wake the day they embarked upon their ships.

The attitude of the founders presupposed the unquestionable truth of the doctrine that moved Christian Europe since the time it first began its expansion: that Christian Europe was the one true world in the midst of inferior worlds steeped in darkness. This ethnocentric notion was neither unique nor original. Certainly, the Muslims had believed just as strongly that theirs was the one true world and for its sake waged their jihad.  Tracing its roots to the Roman Empire and emboldened by the Christian faith, Europe learned from the Muslim example that it was entitled to force the notion of its own superiority upon inferior and obscure worlds. From the time of the Crusades, catechesis as spiritual message—as Raimundo Lulio perceived it in the thirteenth century—was replaced by the notion of a war against infidels, always waged under the banner of St. James the Apostle, killer of the Moors, later transformed into killer of the Indians. It was all-out war: the war of good against evil. Those who embarked upon it did so in the certainty that they represented the good. “Temples of the Devil” is how the pious Motolinía described the buildings destroyed by the conquistadores in Mexico.

The founding mentality was the mentality of European expansionism: its underlying premise was that Christian Europeans alone had an absolute monopoly on the truth, one that could not be challenged. Christian truth was not just religious faith; it was the ultimate expression of a cultural world. And when the conquistador acted in the name of that culture, he not only affirmed its ends and purposes but also the methods and techniques that bourgeois culture had added to old Christian-feudal tradition. With those techniques good could triumph over evil: with a well-broken horse, a crossbow, the steel of the sword, armor, and strong ships able to navigate the high seas. The founding groups represented that cross-fertilization of the feudal and bourgeois worlds that, on the Iberian peninsula, was restructuring relations among the classes and reordering the ends and means used to achieve them.

Steeped in the certainty of its “truth,” the mentality of the European expansion had conceived a plan to harness the non-Christian world for its own ends, and it became more and more self-righteous as better means enhanced its possibilities: its greater technical superiority only reinforced the belief that its ends were the only valid one. The presence of new “infidel” invaders in central and eastern Europe may have shaken the confidence of the Europeans in Christianity’s supreme destiny. But it was only a momentary doubt. The Portuguese had already subjected the peoples of Africa and Asia, and their expansion to new regions added new products to their commerce; slave trade increased, as did the use of slaves for the economy of Portugal and of its colonies. The Spaniards, for their part, had conquered the last remaining vestiges of Muslim power in their own territory and considered themselves ready to expand beyond their borders into Muslim Africa, according to their first design, and later toward America, when they perceived the enormous prospects that the new territories had opened up. After their successful Re-conquest, the Spaniards were convinced that their new adventure would succeed.

In America, however, that expansionist mentality took on a new wrinkle. From 1492 until the discovery of the Mexican cultures thirty years later, the Spaniards and Portuguese found only small, primitive populations scattered over the vast territories they explored. Thus an image of the new lands took shape that would be of decisive importance from then on. America appeared as an empty continent, without a people and without a culture. The vacuum was not complete: the conquistadores certainly found native inhabitants in the new continent, but in their view those inhabitants were so few and their level of civilization so primitive that they were deemed worthless. And as for culture, the prevailing sentiment was decidedly negative. This image of an empty continent, when coupled with the image of tropicalism, became a virtually indestructible stereotype, one that would last a long time, even after the higher cultures of the plateaus and temperate and frigid zones of the hemisphere were discovered.

The stereotype was grounded in the initial experience of the Europeans in the new lands; but it was sustained by inertia and reinforced by the plans of the conquistadores. America continued to be a tropical continent, because tropical products were the ones the conquistadores entertained in their imagination, along with the fantasy of gold and silver that only chance transformed into reality. And it continued to be an empty continent because what they discovered they discounted, given the notion of European Christianity as the only valid world. When the truth presented itself to the conquistadores, they either denied it or destroyed it. Tenochtitlán was a symbol. Dazzled by it, Cortés ruthlessly destroyed it. When awe of the native American cultures began to spread, Charles V banned any further inquiry into them. The empty continent was to remain empty after all.

This is what was so different about the founding mentality. What it founded, it founded upon a void; upon a nature about which nothing was known, upon a society that was annihilated, upon a culture that was taken as nonexistent. Cities were European islands in the midst of nothingness, and they were entrusted with zealously guarding the ways of life of the homelands, the Christian culture and Christian religion and, above all, the projects that the Europeans had crossed the sea to realize. A single idea sums up the funding mentality: to build, upon that nothingness, a new Europe.

Nova Lusitania, Nueva España, Nueva Toledo, Nueva Galicia, Nueva Granada, Nueva Castilla were regional names that betrayed that mentality, as did the names of new cities like Valladolid, Córdoba, León, Medellín, La Rioja, Valencia, Cartagena, Trujillo, Cuenca, and those that placed the name of some saint before the old indigenous name: Santiago, San Sebastián, São Paulo, San Antonio, San Marcos, San Juan, San Miguel, San Felipe. The conquistador contemplated the new landscape with a certain melancholy, and he rejoiced in finding some soft and gentle corner that would remind him of his homeland, as Gonzalo Suárez Rendón was reminded of the Valley of Granada when looking through the windows of his home in Tunja. The conquistador tried not only to attain the dignity that he would have wished to have in his homeland but also to surround himself with everything—furniture, utensils, clothing, paintings, statues—that would remind him of it. This personal attitude reflected faithfully the official mentality. It was not just for pleasure that the founders copied what they had left behind on the peninsula. They had been instructed to recreate the European political and administrative system, the bureaucratic routine, the architecture, the religious ways of life, and civil ceremonies so that the new city could begin to function, as soon as possible, as if it were a European one, regardless of its surroundings, indifferent to the obscure, subordinate world upon which it had forced itself.

That certainty that there was nothing—neither society nor culture—in the new continent, or rather nothing worthwhile in the New World, was undoubtedly instrumental in setting the European city upon the unknown land; from that certainty the founders inferred that everything that they established and governed was destined to endure just as they had willed it and just as they had instituted it. They would never entertain the thought that the milieu—the indigenous flora and fauna, the native society and native culture—could turn against them, or that the subsumed and ignored elements might slowly and silently begin to make their way into their world.

Initially, cities did not have the significance in Brazil that they had from the very start in Spanish America. In Brazil, the agrarian society would shape reality until the eighteenth century when the bourgeois and brokerage functions began to gain a foothold. But in Spanish America, as in Brazil since the eighteenth century, it was the city that, from its very founding, shaped the image of the surrounding reality and the functional model by which the founding group would operate. And to some extent, both in Brazil and in Spanish America, the city won an early victory, since it established what had to be created first: the areas of influence of the cities, the relations among cities, thanks to which urban networks were formed, and finally the very map of the New World, with its continental and maritime linkages, as it had never been drawn before the conquest.

The cycle in which the cities were founded is paralleled by the mapping of a New World that became increasingly interconnected and urban. During this period a first colonial ideology was shaped by the urban world: it denied the reality of a socio-cultural world that unequivocally existed and proposed the creation of a new one modeled after the European metropolis. If that ideology endured and took on added meaning, it was because its model was modified and adapted to the new circumstances. Between the cracks in the Christian empire a new society took shape, one divided between conqueror and conquered. The conquerors constituted a fluid group of people who aspired to ascend economically and socially. In the midst of an unprecedented situation, the founders shaped an ideology that was confusing and contradictory in appearance only. In fact, it was quite well suited to the new feudal-bourgeois society that was taking shape in the Indies, a territory that wanted to be a new Europe when in fact it was merely the frontier of the old Europe.