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

The Forming of a Baroque Society

Over the two centuries that followed their founding, new societies took shape in the cities of the Indies. They were different from the societies that had grown in the cities of the mother country. They had their own distinctive features, which were unique but not incompatible with the social structures predominant in the homeland. These new urban societies were, in fact, the only ones that were alive and evolving. In contrast, the societies that grew in the rural or mining areas were so rigid that most of their groups had no chance to find their place within the system. All they could do was to try and find their own social order outside the system, within a frame where submission to the rural lords was their only possibility.

These lords were, in fact, urban gentry, perhaps even refined courtiers, however much they might prefer to live in the production areas, on the hacienda or at the mine. For it was the city—which they viewed as the court—that guaranteed the cohesiveness of the group, the preservation of custom and the kind of aristocratic life impressed in their memory as they left behind the peculiar world of Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth century. In the cities they built their mansions, as elaborate as they could. There they lived, some all year-round, some during the months they could be away from their country estates. There they surrounded themselves with as much pomp and ostentation as their means allowed.

In the cities, the gentry had a society all their own, separate from the one formed by all the other groups, most of them lesser castes along with the occasional European or criollo whom misconduct or misfortune had ostracized. Toward the end of the sixteenth century, the Andalusian poet Mateo Rosas de Oquendo described Lima’s society as follows:

Un visorrey con treinta alabarderos;
por fanegas medidos los letrados;
rigos ordenantes y ordenados;
vagamundos, pelones caballeros.

Jugadores sin número y coimeros;
mercaderes del aire levantados;
alguaciles, ladrones muy cursados;
las esquinas tomadas de pulperos.

Poetas mil de escaso entendimiento;
cortesanas de honra a lo borrado;
de cucos y cuquillos más de un cuento.

De rebanos y coles lleno el bato,
el sol turbado, pardo el nacimiento;
aquesta es Lima y su ordinario trato.

[One Viceroy with thirty paid applauders;
lawyers aplenty, measured by the bushel;
ordaining priests and priests who’ve been ordained;
penniless gentlemen who are nothing but tramps.

Gamblers in countless numbers and scoundrels;
merchants whose rank and wealth are based on air;
and bailiffs, learned in the art of thieving
and every city corner taken by tavern-keepers.

Thousands of poets with little or no intellect;
courtesans with the blurry kind of honor;
countless numbers of cuckolds, rogues and swindlers.

The simple fool filled with cabbage and radishes,
obscured the sun, and very obscure the birth;
this is Lima and its everyday life.]

This was, on the whole, a Baroque society, one split into those with privileges and those without, those who led an aristocratic life and those who did not, those who paraded their superiority and arrogance and those inferior ones who could barely drag along their misery. Set apart and exclusive, the superiority of the gentry of the Indies was unquestioned. “Toward the rear is a wooden grille that divides the courtroom, to prevent people of low estate from sitting with the others,” wrote Cervantes de Salazar, in 1554, about the hall of the Royal Tribunal of Mexico City. The grille may have been unnecessary, because the chasm between the two social groups was virtually impossible to bridge; but nonetheless, after the Indian uprising of 1692 in Mexico City, an old plan was revived that would separate the neighborhoods of Spaniards from those of the Indians. Contrary to what was happening in the bourgeois cities of Europe, dual societies, with no middle groups, were taking shape in the Indies; and the most intense social process at work beneath the surface of these societies was, precisely, the silent formation of the middle classes that would burst upon the scene in the eighteenth century. By that time, many hidalgos of the Indies started to forsake their peculiar concept of society, and many of them became bourgeois, though still retaining a touch of their pride and, perhaps even, of their old convictions. But for the two centuries that followed the founding of the cities, the hidalgos vigorously defended their privileged status and their style of life. Such style of life was, to be sure, a fiction, since the so-called hidalguia 3 was nothing but an ideological construction of the founding group, one that the gentry themselves had already betrayed in practice. For they would readily surrender to whatever they had to in order to obtain wealth, which was their single objective and their only means of their social ascent. Being a fiction, such style of life gave their urban societies an aristocratic air that was utterly at odds with their harsh reality. It would have been enough to take a fresh and unbiased look at the actual situation to discover that the tidy portrait of Mexico City that Cervantes de Salazar tried to paint could barely disguise a society on the verge of exploding and contained only by the powerful structure that the conquest had set up.

In that dual urban society, the gentry of the Indies came to be a powerful oligarchy which had at its pinnacle “titled noblemen from Castille, who make it illustrious, and many gentlemen of well-known lineage, who add to its dignity,” as José‚ Agustín de Oviedo y Baños said of Caracas in 1723. But the gentry never managed to be an entirely closed social group. The blind pursuit of wealth and power, in which all of them were engaged, never allowed the urban groups of founders to close their ranks. After receiving their official grants, many of these founders embarked upon new adventures, in search of even greater wealth, and eventually abandoned their lands. But in many cities, their descendants, especially their female descendants, founded lineages that eventually got their ancestry recognized. A few of them could have claimed to be members of the lesser nobility of Spain or Portugal, as second sons of usually impoverished houses; but in the Indies, they were all hidalgos, prouder of their poor crests than of their rich exploits. It was from these roots that first generations of criollos were born. These criollos had to endure the low regard in which they were held by those born in the Iberian peninsula—peninsulares, as they were called. Like the chronicler Pedro Mariño de Lovera, these peninsulares believed that the plague that struck Chile in 1590 had been kind to those born in Spain and cruel to those born in the Indies because, as was so often said, the race had declined in America. In addition, there were the peninsulares who kept on arriving from the homeland and were less and less adventure-seeking and more inclined to engage in trade, perhaps because, since the middle of the sixteenth century, most of them were from the cities. All of them constituted the gentry of the Indies, some by inheritance, some by royal decree. All of them were anxious to assert their position before a vast mass of dark-skinned people who, despite appeals to charity and mercy, had, in their view, no other purpose than to obey and serve the hidalgos. But it was only an hidalguia de Indias (“gentry of the Indies”), a title that Philip II bestowed upon “those who would commit themselves to settle the new lands and who would have performed and completed that duty” and upon “their sons and legitimate heirs.” Such title was to be recognized “in those settlements and in all other parts whatsoever of the Indies,” but they drew only ridicule or anger in Spain, where don Bela, a character in Lope de Vega’s La Dorotea, was perceived as the perfect incarnation of the pretentious and unreliable indiano.4 Even so, the hidalgos of the Indies were not equals in every respect. They were certainly equals when it came to make claims about their social station. But in all truth they were divided—no one ignored the risks of the New World adventure—into rich and poor. Rich were those who were granted mines and formed the aristocracies of Guanajuato and Zacatecas, Taxco and Potosí, Popayán and Cali, many of whose descendants built sumptuous homes in those cities, as well as in Mexico City and Lima, where they preferred to live. Rich were the senhores de engenho (“lords of the sugar plantation”) of Pernambuco and Bahia, and the encomenderos who knew how to exploit their lands, and the cattlemen who knew how to increase their herds and then settled down in Caracas or Bogota. Rich were also those who discovered the possibilities of trade, whether legal or illegal, and realized that commerce could multiply their earnings more quickly and with less effort than production at the farm or at the mine. And all of them acquired the arrogance of the wealthy, which they paraded as the loftier arrogance of the nobleman. The “Portuguese Jew” has left an invaluable testimony of that society of the early seventeenth century, so Baroque and reminiscent of the one portrayed in the Spanish picaresque novel:

They are—says the chronicler—haughty braggarts; they boast of being the descendants of great noblemen and the sons of well-known houses. Such is their folly that a man who was a petty bureaucrat in Spain would entertain grandiose thoughts, as soon as he has changed hemispheres, and would deem himself, on account of his lineage, worthy of joining with the best on earth.

According to the same chronicler, the women were equally pretentious: “Since they are beautiful and brag about being wise and refined, they think themselves nobler than Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.” Whether born in Spain or daughters of conquistadores, women acquired as much authority as their status in the new society would grant them. Some were encomenderas in the countryside, and the Quintrala in Chile was an example of the iron will they could muster to defend their rights and properties. In the cities, surrounded with slaves and servants, they tried to reproduce the atmosphere of distinction typical of the courts and cities of Spain. Some let themselves go for the charms of courtship and love games; indeed, the famous tapadas (“veiled women”) of Lima became the model of courtly coquetry. Some were swept away by stormy, passionate dramas like the ones that Rodriguez Freyle evokes in El Carnero [The Ram], as he depicts the society of Bogota in the early sixteenth century, or like those who actually took place in Santiago the Chile and whose protagonists were the women from the house of Lisperguer. And there were cases of women who assumed important political responsibilities, like the widow of Jorge Albuquerque, Governor of Bahia, or the widow of Pedro Alvarado, Governor of Guatemala. But their prescribed place was the noble household and their basic concern was to strengthen and perpetuate the new lineage formed in the Indies. The adventuresome male was always lured by new possibilities to increase his wealth or his station. By contrast, it was the woman that made urban families stable and managed to create a tradition that quickly transformed some of those families into aristocratic lineages. A house of three well-known generations was, in any Latin American city, an old line, whose hidalguia was beyond doubt.

The intellectual circles that were formed in many cities belonged to the ranks of the hidalgos. Certainly, many of their members were clergymen. Men of letters or learned scholars, clergy and lay alike, carried on the best traditions of intellectual aristocracy. They could be found in the salons and soirees. Some would shine as court poets, others would write in their shadow. But a solid education displayed in writing, conversation or teaching was the best proof of intellectual superiority and thus a confirmation of one’s status as an hidalgo.

Among the gentry of Lima, the “Portuguese Jew” discovered those he called “the arrogant poor,” hidalgos by royal decree, but wretched and resentful because they had never made a fortune or had lost the one they had:

There are also those arrogant poor who bark because they are no longer able to bite. They walk with their head down, looking for anything to seize upon. They subject themselves to nothing, and there is no reasoning with them. These people are called soldiers not because they are soldiers, but because they go from one place to another, always with a deck of cards in their hands so as not to miss any occasion to play with whomever they happen to bump into. If by chance they should hit upon some novice or chapetón 5 not adept or well trained in their games or who does not know that they play with a stacked deck, they rob him blind, taking his money, his lands, even his horse, leaving him to walk home. There are many such types roaming about Peru. Most are enemies of the rich and are always looking for sensational news, altercations and disturbances in the Kingdom in order to steal and obtain by war and dissension what they could never get otherwise. These are people who do not wish to serve. They are all well dressed, because they never lack a black or Indian woman and several Spanish ones—and not from the humblest classes either—who will clothe them and feed them because these men are their escorts by night and their thugs by day. They are happy to enter into the service of old men, who have lost all their strength and vigor, and to escort the ladies to mass and when they go visiting. There are more vagrants in Peru than people who are settled down. And there is little work for these types, for very few gentlemen want men servants in their homes, as they clearly see what goes on everyday in the homes of others. And thus, everybody makes use of black servants. And may these Spaniards turn and tumble and make a living as well they might.

Poverty was the lot of the lesser people, but the odd coupling of poverty and high social rank gave birth to a new, particularly dramatic, breed of rogues. Ambitious and violent, the penniless gentry were a threat to the cities that were trying to build an ordered civilian society. To get rid of them, the cities encouraged them to take on new enterprises. This is what happened in Asunción with the mancebos de la tierra (“native sons”), criollos without prospects who headed south and actually helped found Santa Fe and Buenos Aires. The same happened in Lima, where every year groups of them were sent to Chile: “They are marched out under the city’s banner to fight against the Araucanians and, while still in Lima, they are given two hundred pesos to buy their outfits.”

Beneath the group of hidalgos rich and poor, real and virtual—was the other half of the society. It included whites, many of them Europeans who were mostly engaged in high finance or small businesses; there were also Jews, who attained some prominence in Olinda, Salvador de Bahia, Recife and also in Lima, Asunción and Buenos Aires. Some of the artisans were also white. But mestizos began to appear in the world of commerce and in the crafts and trades, helped in their ascent by their paternal family or by their outstanding skills or their talent for business. Beneath all the other groups were the castes under different forms of subjection: Indians, blacks and lowly mestizos and mulattos. They did all kinds of jobs, including crafts and handiwork for their owners or lords. The most fortunate were those who became servants in the homes of the hidalgos: they benefited from the patriarchal system that usually reigned in their households and they also enjoyed that particular position that the “criados” 6 attained in Baroque societies, where they came to be imbued—in the eyes of their peers—with some of the traits of their lords. But most people from these lesser castes dragged their poverty through the slums and brought it occasionally to the center of the city, on market days or at the public wells, where they would try to sell something or ask for alms. The scorn of the hidalgos for these people did not even need to be expressed in words.

Social stratification became very evident when public offices were established in Lima. Around 1625, the “Portuguese Jew” wrote in his Descripción:

The city has eight infantry captains. Each has a company of one hundred and fifty men. The city also has six hundred mounted soldiers. Neither infantry nor cavalry men are paid soldiers, because the city has neither a garrison nor garrison men nor does it pay the foot soldiers, who are merchants, shoemakers, tailors and other kinds of tradesmen. The mounted soldiers are mule drivers and chacareros, that is, peasants who work as foremen in farms and estancias7 or hold other similar jobs. They are not as good a class of people as the foot soldiers. The city has at most one hundred caballeros,8 and these are called vecinos,9 because they receive some income from the tribute the Indians pay them. There are also twenty-four regidores (city councilmen), who are part of the one hundred citizens, and chief among them, because they are the government of the city.

Thus, defense needs drew some of the white have-nots into the other half of the society, that of the gentry and the wealthy. There were many paths, some rather intricate, that brought the two halves of the society into contact. The mestizos were the greatest challenge to the formal order of the Baroque society of the Indies, one that would actually undermine the dual structure of urban societies. Sealed by its possibilities and limitations, each half of the society seemed to live confined within its own sphere without interference with the other. But this confinment was far from being stable. Mestizaje conspired against it, helped and strengthened by the opportunities available for economic ascent. These opportunities increased as the cities, against the design of the metropolis, gained ground in the mercantile world. In that process, a large group of criollos gained autonomy and discovered that the social structure established in the first two centuries of colonial life was both an anachronism and an obstacle to their development. Taken together, all these facts brought about the crisis that the society of hidalgos experienced in the second half of the eighteenth century.