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

The Original Urban Groups

The physical establishment of cities was a decisive factor in the European conquistadores‘ occupation of the American territory. This was true not just for each city’s immediate surroundings, but also for the entire territory, since cities formed an urban network orchestrated by the central authority in the mother country. The system of communication among the cities drew together a continent that had until then consisted of regions that were incommunicado. But the settlement of the land was, of course, a consequence of the founding of cities, and this posed new problems since a new society and a new economic project began to take shape in the land.

The socio-economic problem created by the founding of Latin American cities was attributable to two factors: the original situation of the conquistadores, and the emerging prospects of the new scene where the original urban group was beginning to operate. This was the crux of the new situation: if the city was the center of the territorial occupation, the original urban group was the center of city life and of the impact it would have on its surroundings. The men with whom the city father surrounded himself were not necessarily a homogeneous group, or at least they would not have been homogeneous in their native country. But circumstances in their new environment made them a unified group, with the members bonding to cope with a common situation. Perhaps the group might behave as if it were homogeneous, but each of its members had his own history, his own tradition and above all a lingering notion of his place in the society from which he came.

Some texts illustrate the problem. In the late sixteenth century, the cosmographer and chronicler of the Indians Juan López de Velazco, wrote in his Geografía y descripción de las Indias about the Spaniards who came to the Indies:

The Spaniards in those provinces could be many more than they are if all who want to go would be permitted to do so; but the problem is that most often the men who are inclined to pass to those kingdoms are the enemies of work; their spirit is bellicose; their burning desire is to get rich quickly rather than to set down roots; they are not content to have enough food and clothing, which no one, with a bit of diligence, may fail to get in those parts, whether he be a workman or a farmhand or a man without any skill. And so, forgetting who they are, they set their aim real high and roam around as idle vagabonds in search of some official post or grant; thus they are viewed as a great impediment to the peace and quiet of the land. This is why permits are issued to the least number possible, especially to go to Peru, where this kind of people have spelled serious trouble, as demonstrated by the riots and turmoil in those provinces. And so, only those who have some official post there are allowed to go, with a limited number of their servants, and also those who will engage in war or in new discoveries, as well as merchants and traders, who are licensed by the officials in Seville for a period of two or three years, and this at a considerable expense on their part. No foreigner to this kingdom is allowed to pass to the Indies, nor can the Portuguese reside or do business there, nor, from within this kingdom, are allowed to leave those who descend from Jews or Moors, nor those convicted by the Holy Inquisition, nor those who are married but would go without their wives, with the exception of merchants and men who will stay for a short time, nor those who have been friars, nor Berber or Levantine slaves, with the exception of those from Monicongo o Guinea. And, in spite of this prohibition and the zeal with which it is enforced so that no one should leave without permit, many manage to go to all those parts under the guise of merchants or seamen.

In recounting what had happened, in 1735, Antonio de Ulloa and Jorge Juan summarized their observations of the original groups in their Noticias Secretas (Secret News):

The Europeans and the inexperienced Spanish soldiers who come to those cities are, as a rule, of low birth or unknown origin in Spain, uneducated, and with little to recommend them. . . . Since legitimately white families are rare there, because only the most distinguished ones enjoy that privilege, accidental whiteness earns the place that should be reserved for the highest qualities. Just by being European and nothing more, they judge themselves worthy of the same favor and respect given to other, more distinguished people who go there with posts, whose honor should set them apart from the common lot.

These texts corroborate the image that the chroniclers give of the original urban groups. Predominant in those groups were people of humble origin: adventurers who were greedy and anxious to get rich. America was, in essence, an opportunity for those who wanted to move up economically and socially. Those with neither property nor title were looking for both in the New World, an attitude antithetical to the idea of settling down permanently and working methodically and continually. For the new arrival, success in the American continent meant achieving a social position analogous to that enjoyed by the lesser nobility at home, a position that had to be based on easily acquired wealth amassed by using the large, suppressed Indian population. As the process of colonization progressed, Spain and Portugal tried to dissuade adventurers of this type from going to the Indies and encouraged artisans and merchants instead. But this policy had no success; even those occupations were performed by people whose ambitions prompted them to uproot themselves from homeland. Only a handful of genuine hidalgos went to America. Adventurism helped shape the mentality of the original urban group.

This group was invariably small. As settlement progressed, they established themselves in one place, and began trying to reap the promised benefits of conquest. The founder had selected the members of the group with the idea that they would settle within the city limits, but only a few remained there. When the city was founded, they were given plots of land within the city which boundaries had barely been drawn. There they would build their houses, and from there they would administer their farmland or mines using the Indian work force granted to them “in trust” (encomienda). If they received neither land nor an encomienda, they had to perform some public function or perhaps practice some trade or business, generally through the physical labor of the Indians. Such were, generally speaking, the opportunities open to the new settlers. The important point is that the privileges they enjoyed had been recognized and confirmed. That group constituted the inhabitants, the ones who had all the rights. These rights and privileges referred primarily to prospects for economic profit.

Miners, cattlemen, planters, refinery owners, slave traders, and large-scale businessmen involved in the export of local products quickly became the founding urban aristocracy. These colonial aristocrats also included members of the Church hierarchy and government officials, some of whom had been hidalgos and noblemen back on the Iberian peninsula. These people were the center of a very diverse group of settlers performing other functions. The major cities like Mexico City or Lima required many tradesmen or, as López de Velazco said, “mechanical trades.” Dealers or small-scale businessmen also appeared, as did middle- and lower-level public servants. Soon after the cities incorporated Indians who came voluntarily, and those who seemed to succeed as domestics and in other modest functions of urban life.