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

Hidalguia and Style of Life

During the two centuries that followed the founding of the cities, urban societies were under a host of different presures and incitements, but they were still defined by the preeminence of the hidalgos, who impressed upon them their own conception of life and tried to erase all signs of the influence that other social groups were struggling to exert. The gentrified cities of the Indies were the consequence of the attempt by their dominant groups to vehemently assert a social order at odds with their economic reality. That reality, which they vehemently denied, was nonetheless their enduring temptation.

In Spain and Portugal, as in the rest of Europe, cities had attained their splendor with the development of trade and the growth of the new bourgeoisie. In some cities, a singular social process had pushed class differentiation to the extreme and had transformed the upper middle classes into a kind of aristocracy. Out of this process were formed the Baroque cities of Spain and Portugal. They were more polarized there than in other areas of Europe and less likely to solve the problems that the pressures of the mercantile world had created. But in the Indies, the conquest had drawn a social map that prefigured the situation of the privileged groups. Those who in Europe had been socially and economically marginalized were mirrored in America by the group that the conquest subdued and marginalized with a single blow. Actually, the colonizers found themselves, all at once, in a situation of privilege that the patrician classes of European cities had labored to attain. The conquest imposed on the new continent an ideology that had already assigned fixed meanings to the different components of an idealized social world. Thus, it established in the Indies, from the very beginning, urban societies that mirrored those of the mother country at the time. But, in doing so, it ignored or discarded the first phase of urban development, which was inextricably tied to the mercantile system and to the attitudes of the incipient middle class that the system had created and sustained. The mercantile world was prospering, but the gentrified cities of the Indies, like Spain herself, pretended to ignore that fact. A hunger to enjoy the fruits of trade was throbbing underneath the pretense, but the dominant concern of the hidalgos was to consolidate their privileged position. And so a baroque society was implanted in the cities of the Indies: it was a mirror image of the baroque societies of Spain and Portugal, altered only by the copper-colored skin of its underprivileged groups.

Before long, the cities of the Indies began to acquire individual, distinctive traits. Capital cities with a wide jurisdiction—e.g. Mexico, Lima, or Bahia—became markedly different, in size and importance, from lesser capitals, like Guatemala, Bogota, Santiago de Chile, Caracas, Havana, Buenos Aires, Santo Domingo, Olinda, or Rio de Janeiro. There were wide differences in the size of their population, their density of building, their standards of living, their economic activity, and cultural development. More remarkable still was the difference between the cities and the municipal centers, small villages where life was dull and slow and where progress often would come to a halt.

Even among the cities that maintained or increased their importance, differences began to appear, not only in quantity but in quality as well. For some of them remained gentrified, while others quickly began to acquire a mercantile cast. The first were primarily the viceregal courts and the seats of local and municipal government, but also the cities where the encomenderos or the rich mine owners hastened to consolidate their wealth by adopting aristocratic forms of life that allowed them to show off their riches and to make the division between classes much more pronounced. Those that became more mercantile were mostly the ports and some mining cities that, like Potosí, underwent a vigorous economic development sparked by the thrill of adventure. Each type of city fashioned its own ideal forms of life and social paradigms, reflecting a distinctive cast of mind that pervaded the entire city even though it belonged exclusively to the dominant classes. These ideal forms and paradigms became valid for other cities, where hidalgos looked down on merchants and merchants looked down on hidalgos, or envied them.

The gentrified cities—those where the character of urban life was dictated by strong upper classes firmly set in their position as lords and masters—were, above all, the courts that grew around the centers of power. After he married doña María de Toledo, Viceroy Diego Colín gathered around himself a small aristocratic court that included the proud encomenderos against whom Friar Antín de Montesinos lashed out in 1510. Bishop Alejandro Geraldini, however, praised, in elaborate Latin words, the illustrious and noble city in which the Viceroy had built his castle. Court cities served as the trappings of viceregal power in Mexico City, as early as the period of Antonio de Mendoza, or in Lima, during the governments of Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza and the Prince of Esquilache; and it was also a court that the Governor Jorge de Albuquerque Coelho gathered around in Olinda. Groups of rich gentlemen and ladies fond of poetry, surrounded by clergy, jurists and public officials, were intent upon displaying a lifestyle similar to that of the courts on the Iberian peninsula. For they were anxious to make safe and secure their place in society and had also the dream to lead a noble life in their colonial exile.

Leading a noble life was the obsessive concern of those who were or claimed to be upper class hidalgos. Their most distinctive trait was a disdain for all kinds of manual work and a desire to keep gentlemen separate from workmen, as jurist Juan Matienzo wanted. An entire system had to be organized so that the upper classes should lead an aristocratic life and everyone else should look at that life as a display of the superiority of the privileged few. These privileged few were the great families, the ones who lived on the best streets in Mexico City and deserved that Cervantes de Salazar mention them by name—the Mendozas, Zuñigas, Altamiranos, Estradas, and the like; they were also those who would decide, sword in hand, their disputes over a municipal post, as happened, in Santiago de Chile, with the relatives and friends of the Lisperguers and the Mendozas, on Saint Bartholomew’s Day in 1604. Proud of their ancestry and zelous for their own pre-eminence, the great families would display coats of arms and recite genealogies. Well above their petty disputes, they were bound together by a strong sense of class, and they closed ranks whenever they could. They had their brotherhoods and guilds; they had festivities in which they would recognize one another and ceremonies in which only the members of their class could occupy the places of honor.

Bernardo the Balbuena praised their way of life in Mexico in the following words:

Callo su altiva gallardía, y callo
la generosidad, suerte y grandeza
de corazón que en sus costumbres hallo.

Su cortés compostura, su nobleza,
su trato hidalgo, su apacible modo,
sin cortedad ni sombra de escaseza;
aquel prídigamente darlo todo,
sin reparar en gastos excesivos,
las perlas, oro, plata y seda a rodo;

si aqueste estilo aun vive entre los vivos,
este delgado suelo lo sustenta
y le cría en sus nimos altivos.

[I speak not of their exalted gallantry, not of
the generosity, the nature and the grandeur
of heart I find in their habits.

Their courteous countenance, their nobility,
their civilized intercourse, their gentle ways,
with no smallness nor shadow of scarcity;

their prodigal way of giving out all things,
taking no heed of excessive expense:
pearls and gold, silver and silk in plenty;

if such a style is still alive among the living,
this meager soil sustains and grows it
in their exalted souls.]

This lavishness was nothing but a sign of the desire for luxury and ostentation that drove the class of hidalgos. At the end of the sixteenth century, Father Cardim discovered this in Olinda, where the court of Jorge de Albuquerque Coelho was so flamboyant that one “would find more vanity there than in Lisbon.” Cardim went on to say, “Men were dressed in velvet, damask and silk; they spent dashingly on horses whose saddles and reins were of the same silk their own garments were made of. The ladies too loved to show off their luxury; and they liked parties far better than prayer.” Friar Tomás Gage made similar remarks about Mexico City around 1625:

It was said that the number of Spaniards living in the city was close to forty thousand, all of them so rich and vain that more than half had carriages; so it was a most credible report that at the time there were more than fifteen thousand coaches in town. There is a saying that in Mexico one would find four things that are definitely beautiful: the women, the garments, the horses and the streets. One could add a fifth one: the retinues of the gentry, which are much more splendid and costly than those in the courts of Madrid and other kingdoms of Europe; for in Mexico they spare neither gold, nor silver, nor precious stones, nor gold brocade, nor the exquisite silks from China in order to enrich their train.

As for Lima, Father Cobo wrote of the “vanity in the garments, galas and pomp of servants and livery;” and around the same years, the Crónica [Chronicle] of the “Portuguese Jew” offered the following description:

They [the women] go to mass and make their calls in sedan chairs carried by blacks; they have fine carriages, and mules and horses to pull them, and black coachmen to drive them. In Lima the gentry enjoy a paradise in this world, for the city has the best climate, since one knows today precisely what the weather will be tomorrow. If the women are beautiful and elegant, the men, in turn, are gallant and brave. All are generally well-dressed, in silks and fine wools from Segovia, with rich collars made of costly lace from Flanders. Everyone wears silk stockings. All are tactful, affable and well-mannered. All observe every rule of etiquette. They are all prodigal spenders who squander their money without rhyme or reason. They all boast about their noble lineage, and there is not one who does not consider himself a gentleman. They all go about the city on horseback, except for some who are very poor.

The desire for ostentation and luxury was evident everywhere: in the big houses that tried to parade as palaces; in all the furnishing and tableware shipped over from the peninsula; in the paintings that adorned the private chapels and even in the ceilings and walls of the homes, in the carvings and engravings, in the books and in the jewels. But the material possessions were not enough. They had to be used elegantly, as befits people of high station. The gentlemen were liberal spenders and liked to surround themselves with the kind of people, half-proteges, half-servants, who were the customary members of a nobleman’s train. These were the people who escorted them when they went hunting, like those who were with the Archbishop of Bogota, Friar Luis Zapata de Cãrdenas, in 1590, when he died hunting, “escorted,” as Rodríguez Freile recalls, “by his servants and relatives, and a number of clergy and lay people.” These were also the people who attended them in their duels, or lent an ear to their poetic ambitions, or served as go-betweens in their romantic escapades, or went with them on their nocturnal sprees, as they cavorted with women and wine. That entourage was the mark of their status as noblemen, the mark, that is, of those who made of idleness and sensual sport the essential condition of aristocratic life.

The class of hidalgos was at home in parties and soirees. There the select few came together, practiced the fine art of courtesy and etiquette, flirted and spoke of poetry; there they also sang and danced in an atmosphere of refinement and elegance. Pity that the context for such grandiose aspirations should be so irreparably modest: if the big houses were comfortable and well-furnished, the streets were, but for a few exceptions, made of dirt, public lightening was scarce, and drainage insufficient. But in the seventeenth century, both Mexico City and Lima got their promenade for the aristocrats, the Alameda, where the most distinguished members of society would meet. “The place for promenading is charming,” wrote Bachelier, in the early eighteenth century, in reference to the promenade in Lima. And he continued:

It is a handsome, very wide avenue, with a long, vanishing perspective; it has four rows of beautiful orange and lemon trees, two brooks of crystal-clear water that run alongside it, and at the end, on the horizon, the main front of one of the finest convents. All in all it makes a very pleasing impression upon newcomers. Carriages and coaches come to the promenade by the hundreds in the afternoon, as this is the meeting place of all the distinguished people in the city. Young men in love court their sweethearts and take it as an honor to follow them on foot, leaning at times on the doors of their coaches.

As for the Alameda in Mexico City, Friar Tom s Gage said in 1648:

Everyday, at about four o’clock in the afternoon, the greatest among the city’s aristocrats arrive—some on horseback, some in coaches—at a delightful promenade, called the Alameda, shaded by many rows of trees. There usually are about two thousand coaches full of hidalgos, ladies and wealthy citizens. The hidalgos come to see the ladies, some served by a dozen of African slaves, some with a smaller train, but all with their servants dressed in costly liveries and covered with gold and silver lace and flowers, silk stockings, roses on their shoes, and the customary dress swords by their sides. The train of the Viceroy, who often visits the Alameda, is no less brilliant or splendid than the train of his master, the King of Spain.

The merry life of the hidalgos must have made such an impression upon the observer that Bernardo de Balbuena devoted nine tercets of his La Grandeza Mexicana (Mexican Greatness) to its description:

Recreaciones de gusto en que ocuparse,
de fiestas y regalos mil maneras
para engañar cuidados y engañarse;

conversaciones, juegos, burlas ,veras,
convites, golosinas infinitas,
huertas, jardines, cazas, bosques, fieras;

aparatos, grandezas exquisitas,
juntas, saraos, conciertos agradabales,
músicas, pasatiempos y visitas;

regocijos, holguras saludables,
carreras, rúas, bizarrías, paseos,
amigos, en el gusto y trato afables;

galas, libreas, broches, camafeos,
jaeces, telas, sedas y brocados,
pinte el antojo, pidan sus deseos.

Escarches, bordaduras, entorchados,
joyas, joyeros, perlas, pedrerías,
aljífar, oro, plata, recamados;

fiesta y comedia nuevas cada día,
de varios entremeses y primores
gusto, entretenimiento y alegría;

usos nuevos, antojos de señores,
de mujeres tocados y quimeras,
de maridos carcomas y dolores;

volantes, carzahanes, primaveras,
y para autoridad y señorío
coches, carrozas, sillas y literas.

[Pleasurable recreations to keep oneself busy,
a thousand forms of treats and celebrations
to trick one’s worries and deceive oneself;

talks, games, light jokes and serious things,
feasts and numberless delicacies,
gardens, chases, forests, and wild beasts;

ceremonies and exquisite magnificence,
assemblies and soirées and pleasant concerts,
music, visits and pastimes;

rejoicings, salutary merrymakings,
races, courtings, gallantries and roamings,
friends who are genial in taste and in behavior;

trappings, liveries, brooches, cameos,
harnesses, cloths, silks and brocades,
as fancy may paint or desire may ask for.

gold cloths, needlework, gold threads,
jewels and jewelers, gems and precious stones,
pearls, gold, silver and embroideries;

parties and a new comedy on stage each day,
and from varied short pieces and lovely things,
pleasure, amusement and merriment;

new fashions, the fancy of gentlemen,
women’s hair-styles and fantastic dreams,
the perpetual worries and the pain of husbands;

ruffles, trimmings, silk-embroidered flowers
and, for authority and lordliness,
coaches, carriages, saddles and horse-pulled litters.]

A subtle compendium of baroque gentry, the Grandeza Mexicana reveals some of the secret mechanisms behind the gentry’s frivolous conception of life. But not everything was that way. There was another, not so easy, not so sterile side to the life of the hidalgos: some were high-ranking officials with obligations and responsibilities which were often ordinary but on occasion unexpectedly complex and demanding their full attention and even self-sacrifice; others were military officers who had to defend the city from corsairs and pirates or wage war against the Indians. When time came to undertake these duties, their frivolous conception of life was set aside, but it persisted as a general aspiration, since a noble and idle life seemed to be the only one befitting an hidalgo.

Aesthetic pleasure was considered suitable for hidalgos, as were on occasion some forms of elevated thoughts. As Sor Juan did in her Mexican convent, many women wrote poetry, like Leonor de Ovando in old Santo Domingo. Conventual life shared in the dignity of the upper classes, and it fostered the study of letters and the pursuit of learning. But letters and learning were not confined to the convents. Secular clergymen were also devoted to them, like Bernardo de Balbuena, Juan de Castellanos or Francisco Cervantes de Salazar. And then there were the court circles where poetry and drama would shine: the one in Mexico City, which had Gutierre de Cetina, Mateo Alemán, Juan de la Cueva and Francisco de Terrazas, and many other minor authors, so many in fact that one poetry contest in 1585 drew over three hundred entries; the one in Olinda, where Bento Teixeira Pinto wrote his Prosopopia [Prosopopoeia] in honor of Governor Albuquerque Coelho; or the one in Lima, where learned viceroys like Montesclaros, Esquilache and Castelldos Rius would surround themselves with poets like Juan de Miramontes y Zu zola, or humanists like Pedro de Peralta Barnuevo. The theater—which began in Mexico City in 1597 and in Lima in 1602—was both a literary center and a place for the fashionable gathering of hidalgos. These hidalgos were, indeed, the butt of satire: in Rodríguez Freyle’s mischievous tale, that captured the gossip rampant in Bogota, or in the witty prose of Juan del Valle Caviedes, who made fun of the women and men of Lima, or in the more severe words used by Gregorio de Mattos to criticize the Brazilian society of Bahia, where a fidalguia no bom sangue nunca est “nobility never had anything to do with blood or lineage.” Even the universities—first, those of Santo Domingo, then those of Mexico City and Lima, both founded in 1551, and later the ones that were established in Bogota, Quito, Cordoba, and other cities—had an aristocratic cast, the one that Cervantes de Salazar found worthy of praise at the university of Mexico, the same one that shows through the very founding of the Colegio del Rosario in Bogota.

This class of hidalgos flourished in the seats of the viceroys, of the regional governors and the municipal councils, that is, in all the centers of power, big and small. For it gathered strength by leaning on the direct authority of those who represented the power of the conquest. Wealth was always essential and decisive. But not all forms of wealth were equally acceptable during the two centuries that followed the founding of the cities. Good wealth had to have its sources not too close at hand, not too obviously visible. It had to come across the wide chasm that set the encomendero apart from those who worked his land, the legitimate mine owner apart from the mine ore. It had to come, that is, through some kind of ranking scale, so as to feed the illusion that it was “old wealth,” like that of the nobility in the mother country, so well-rooted and long-assented to that its beneficiary should have nothing to do except sit back and take it, with no need to soil his hands. This was the illusion of the hidalgos, but one they held so close and hard that it was perceived as something real, masked, as it was, by a whole system of conventions that secured the distance between the hidalgo and those who served him, and that sanctioned his innate superiority. These were the mechanisms that gave their aristocratic character to cities like Puebla, Guanajuato, Taxco, San Luis de Potosí, Morelia, Popayán, Tunja, Arequipa, Olinda, in Brazil, or Trujillo, in Peru. A few generations were enough to root a lineage.

The class that inherited the privileges of the conquest and all the sources of wealth amassed so much social and economic power that all the other groups fell well below. Even the whites engaged in manual labor or small-scale commerce were viewed as inferior. But it was the Indians, blacks and mestizos that suffered most from the disdain and suspicion of the dominant class. Engaged in the humblest trades and occupations, they had few prospects and very limited opportunities. In the neighborhoods where they lived, they would form tightly knit communities around their churches or in their guilds and brotherhoods; and in their celebrations, they would stay together, either by group or caste. But they could also be seen elsewhere in the city: in the streets, as they performed their jobs, or congregated in the marketplace which was, in fact, their own kingdom. At public celebrations, where the hidalgos shone, they were the huddle that applauded the magnificent spectacle the wealthy offered them.

Low standards of living were the rule in the neighborhoods of the common people (barrios de castas). But the cities, especially the major ones, offered some openings through which the lesser groups could escape in search of better fortunes. It was by dint of cunning that they would improve their lot and, as it happened in the peninsula, the mere attempt turned them into rogues pícaros. The Indies had their own picaresque fiction, which was the inevitable response to the conditions of a society fashioned and controlled by hidalgos.

Different groups, by different routes, tried to escape those conditions. Black women, alluring and apparently carefree, found their way to the hidalgos and used their closeness to place everyone they wanted under the protection of their own patrons. Dressed to attract attention, they added a picturesque and exciting touch to the city, not only in their own neighborhoods but also in those of the upper classes, where they rendered their services and did a variety of jobs. Black slaves could pay their masters a sum of money to buy the right to engage in some kind of trade or business of their own. If they earned enough to buy their own freedom, they could then increase their earnings and attain a position in the middle of the social scale. Mestizos and mulattos had the same possibilities, especially if they could count on the support of their white relatives. Because of their mixed race, they were often viewed as useful mediators between the masters and the blacks or Indians who worked in their service. As foremen or overseers, they had an opportunity to earn money and also get closer to the privileged classes in a kind of conspiracy against the groups subjected to servitude. But their possibilities did not end there. The economy offered many untapped opportunities which opened the way for those who dared and, in particular, those who had no other choice but to resort to heroic means in order to change their station in life. The bandeirantes, or mamelucos, as the Spaniards called them, were Brazilian mestizos from São Paulo who, when successful in their undertakings, would return laden with riches and attain, shortly thereafter, the same remarkable position that Alfonso Sandinha the Young rose to in São Paulo.

Economic activity was at the center of urban life, even in the most gentrified cities, and it imposed its own rules for development, which in the end proved to be, almost everywhere, stronger than the rigid structure of baroque society. Perhaps the hidalgos believed that their two-tiered society was immutable, since it was sustained by the tenacity of prejudice and by the gap of opposing casts of mind. But business and trade created zones of contact where money would bring the different groups together in transactions that called for both the rich and the poor, both the hidalgos with influence in the courts of law and the blacks and mestizos who knew all the twists and turns of city life. Certainly, this new economic force was a call to realism for a society that wanted to remain unchanged, frozen in its illusory order; but it worked to the fullest of its strength in the cities that had been mercantile centers from the start.

The marketplace was the heart of the city: there, wealth was amassed and circulated, and as prosperous as the market was, so was the city. It is interesting to note how López de Velasco explains the progressive depopulation of Santo Domingo and Santiago de Cuba. Both cities—he says—had had as much as one thousand residents, but by 1574 Santo Domingo had only five hundred and Santiago de Cuba only thirty. The explanation is the same for both cities: “because merchants do not come to this island to trade goods,” or “because ships do not come here to do business.” In Mexico City there were four open markets which had—according to Vázquez de Espinosa—"merchandise in great quantity: silks, fabrics, and everything one would find in the best markets in the world." Of the largest of these markets, which was on the Main Square, López de Velazco said: “As many as one hundred thousand people can do business there; the entire square is lined by arcades with designated places for each trade and type of good; there is a great variety of merchandise and a large volume of retail.” Lima’s market—el Gato, as the locals would call it—was a smaller one, but still it deserved these words from Father Cobo:

All kinds of fruits and foodstuffs are sold here; the vendors are black and Indian women, and there are so many of them that the place seems a veritable ant hill. Any well-provisioned republic could live and feast upon the many and varied goods sold in this market. There are also countless little shops and stalls and Indians peddling a thousand little things. All along the Palace pavement is a string of wooden shops where hucksters sell their goods, and there are also many little vendor stands along the two sidewalks and even at the center of the marketplace; near the City Hall one can always find used clothing and furnishings for the home on sale at very low prices.

On a large or small scale, there were markets in every city, all of them similar in kind. In some cities there were also fairs with some unique traits. And yet, not all the business was done in the marketplace. There were well-established shops on the city streets, and indeed some of those streets were named after the major shop owners. On occasion, the owners were not simple merchants but artisans who sold the products of their special craft or trade. Among them, the most notable were the silversmiths, who by the late sixteenth century had already formed powerful guilds in Mexico City and in Lima. There were also dealers who would do large-volume business with wholesalers and exporters.

This economic activity brought to the more gentrified cities a way of life that had little to do with the aristocratic attitude of the upper classes. And yet a good number of the main business players were members of that class— hidalgos, public officials and ecclesiastics—, although they often acted through middle-men. But there were also professional businessmen who were entirely devoted to commercial transactions and had accepted their secondary role in the traditional cities of the hidalgos. They were at the top of a scale that had at its lowest end those engaged in shipping or retail sales. All of them certainly enjoyed a very different position in the cities with a more definite mercantile cast.

Some of the mining centers began rather quickly to look like mercantile cities. The sudden discovery of a new vein would unleash a whirlwind of bold venture that neither the prejudice of the hidalgos, nor their rhetorical strictures, nor their scruples were able to contain. Silver was there, within everyone’s reach, and many tried to grab it. A few years after the discovery of Cerro Rico, around 1550, Cieza de León wrote the following about the attraction the place exerted on so many:

Although, at the time, Gonzalo Pizarro was waging war against the viceroy and the kingdom was in upheaval because of his rebellion, settlements began to fill the foot of the hill; many large houses were built there; the Spaniards established their principal residence in those parts, and so did the courts of justice. The town was left almost entirely deserted. So many people rushed to dig silver on the hill that the place began to look like a great city.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing was the quick growth of an extraordinarily active market where countless secondary activities were conducted. Cieza de León compares the market in Cuzco with the one in Potosí in these terms:

But neither this [Cuzco’s] market not any other in the Kingdom can equal the superb one in Potosí, because business was done there on such a scale that, at the times when the mines were prosperous, between twenty-five and thirty thousand—on occasion over forty thousand—gold pesos worth of goods were sold daily among Indians alone, not including the Christians; which is an amazing thing; and I believe that no other market in the world can equal this one in its dealings. I noticed this several times: on the flat surface of the square, I saw, here, a line of baskets full of coca, which is the most abundant among the riches of these parts; there, heaps of shawls and fine shirts, both light and heavy; in another spot, mountains of corn, dried potatoes and other foodstuffs; and in addition, a lot of beef, the finest in the kingdom. Many other things, too numerous to mention here, were also for sale. The market day or fair lasted from morning to nightfall. Since silver was being mined everyday and the Indians—especially those who did business with the Spaniards—were very fond of eating and drinking, everything that was brought to the market was immediately bought or consumed, so much so that people from all over the place would bring in all sorts of provisions and supplies. This way, many Spaniards got rich here, in Potosí, just by having two or three Indian women do business for them in this market; and from every corner came large gangs of anacondas, that is, free Indians who may choose to serve whomever they wish; and the most beautiful Indian women of Cuzco and of the entire kingdom came to live here in Potosí. One thing I noticed in the time I spent in these parts: fraud and deceit were routine. There was so much merchandise that fine linen and fabrics were sold almost as cheap as in Spain, and I saw things on sale at such low prices that even in Seville they would be deemed inexpensive. Many men who had made big fortunes, lost them all, as their insatiable greed compelled them to try to buy and sell. Some of them fled to Chile, or Tucumán, or other places, for fear of the debt collectors. And thus most of their dealings were lawsuits and disputes with one another.

Seventy years later, “the Imperial City of Potosí—the happiest and most fortunate one among those known in the world for their riches”—has a population of “four thousand Spanish homes and between four and five thousand men at any time,” as the “Portuguese Jew” says in his Descripción. And he goes on: “Some of these men are engaged in mining; others, who are merchants, sell their wares all across the kingdom; . . . and still others live out of gambling and bold ventures.” He also adds: “Merchants trade here in large scale, and the shops are very large and brimming with goods of every kind. Potosí does a lot of business with Lima; many merchants from here go to Lima, Mexico City and Seville to buy their supplies, and the city sends quite a number of very rich men to live in Spain.”

The area of Minas Gerais held the same powerful attraction in Brazil. Once it became known that the area was rich in gold, not only the bandeirantes from São Paulo rushed there, but also the “bahienses”—the Northern Brazilians—as well as many Portuguese, the first ones to emigrate to Brazil by their own choice. The fierce competition between the bandeirantes and those they viewed as foreigners gave way to an all out war: “la guerra dos Emboabas.” Together, however, all these groups produced an extraordinary display of mining wealth. Villa Rica—present-day Ouro Preto—was called “the Potosí of gold;” and there, as in Potosí and all the other mining cities in the Hispanic world, the gathering of adventurers produced the same social phenomenon. The hope of riches set aside all worries and made equals of all the whites who engaged in mining; black slaves labored and died by the hundreds in the mines, as did the Indians under Spanish control. Squandering, gambling, prostitution, orgies, and crime were the distinctive marks of life in Villa Rica; and, as it happened in Potosí, once the gold boom was over, the urban society of this village, turned into a city in 1711, ceased to develop, and the city itself became a ghost-town.

Other cities—Guanajuato, Taxco, Zacatecas—came into being thanks to the riches that the mines provided. They all began, like the other mining towns, with quite a scramble of social groups. No one there cared much about the claim of noble lineage, although the way they dressed would match the description of the inhabitants of Potosí that Arzans de Ursúa and Vela wrote in the eighteenth century. What everyone wanted was simply wealth. No one tried to show off an aristocratic way of life. The distinctive traits of these cities were gambling houses, where entire fortunes were staked, brothels of every type and, above all, every sort of reckless passion. “This ill-fated town—remarked Arzans de Ursúa in his history of Potosí—does not seem to be inhabited by Christians, but by the cruelest of barbarians;” for men and women alike were carried away by violence. But the force that defined the peculiar forms of social life in the mining cities was the ease with which enormous fortunes could be made and the opportunities for new business. The mercantile spirit was irrepressible, and in the end it triumphed over all social concerns, perhaps because many foreigners, especially Portuguese, flocked into the Hispanic dominions and changed the old-fashioned attitude of the Spaniards so attached to their hidalguía. And yet in some cities, the wealthy turned themselves into hidalgos at the end of the seventeenth or the beginning of the eighteen century, precisely when the very notion of hidalguía was beginning to be questioned.

From the very beginning, economic activity had played an essential role in port cities. It was precisely in these cities that the mercantile spirit became most pronounced and acquired a character much more akin to that of the bourgeois cities of Europe. Using figures from 1574, López de Velazco illustrates the differences in social structure from city to city, as he cites the number of Spaniards in each social group. He finds, for instance, sixteen encomenderos among the thirty families that reside in Popayán; among the five hundred Spaniards in Guatemala City, seventy were encomenderos and the rest colonists and merchants; among the thirty-six who resided in Cali, twenty-four were encomenderos; there were sixty-three encomenderos out of the eight hundred residents of Cuzco; and twenty-three out of the three hundred of Trujillo in Perú. But when López de Velazco refers to Potosí, he writes as follows: “Four hundred Spanish houses, and not a single encomendero: all are merchants, dealers and miners, most of them people who move around.” Of the inhabitants of Veracruz he says that they were all merchants; among the two hundred and fifty residents of Cartagena, sixteen were encomenderos and the rest merchants and dealers.

Portobelo, Havana, Cartagena, Veracruz, La Guayra, Santo Domingo, Acapulco, Panama City, Guayaquil, El Callao, Valparaíso, Buenos Aires, São Vicente, Rio de Janeiro, Bahía, Recife, all the port cities had their distinctive lifestyle. Major businesses had set up their headquarters there, so that these cities became home to the most powerful economic groups, which were a determined, pragmatic and rather efficient lot. From the beginning, the groups that did business with the mother country had a very definite social and mental profile. Soon, another profile would emerge among two new business types that became especially significant because they amassed big fortunes and came to occupy a unique position in social life: the slave-traders and the smugglers. Not unlike the groups that made up the urban societies in mining cities, these business groups had little scruples when it came down to handling their own interests, which they took in their own hands. They may have chosen these activities because they were only too determined to get rich, and to do it quickly, and had little room for social concerns. But they forged, in any case, the type of bourgeois merchant that would gain more and more acceptance as colonial life went on.

In Brazil, a number of unique circumstances shaped the mercantile, bourgeois model of life. Sugar exports opened up much wider prospects of the world market than the ones Spain’s monopolistic policies could ever allow. These prospects improved when the Dutch established themselves in Recife, in 1630, and made it a typical bourgeois, mercantile city, patterned after far-away Amsterdam, as were other cities that they founded: New Amsterdam, today’s New York, in 1624, and Willemstad, in Curacao, in 1634. Under Maurice of Nassau, between 1637 and 1644, Recife was not simply an economic emporium but also a model of the bourgeois way of life that the Portuguese imitated and continued after they recaptured the city in 1654. When Recife was compared to Olinda, which had maintained the social traditions of the hidalgos, the contrast between the two types of cities was even starker. Recife showed the way that the upper classes would eventually follow, even though some vague aristocratic tendencies were kept alive.

The significance of the mercantile and bourgeois way of life increased with the establishment of the Companhia Geral do Comercio do Brasil (1649) and of the Real Compañía Guipuzcoana de Caracas (1730). Trading post and their agents brought a new economic and social attitudes to the cities where they operated. Those who saw their interests and styles of life affected by the new trading system rose up against it. The rebellions headed by Jerónimo Barbalho in Rio de Janeiro and of Captain Leín in Venezuela responded to this dual, social and economic, concern.

The cities where the hidalgos prevailed and those where business was preeminent fashioned two distinct styles of life, according to the tendencies of their dominant classes. The two styles did in fact coexist in every city, because the hidalgos did not avoid getting their hands into mercantile deals nor did the mercantile groups ever abandoned their hope of attaining one day the luster of the idle rich. Aristocratic status had been everyone’s overriding obsession during the first two centuries following the founding of the cities And it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that a growing pragmatism, sustained by the ideas of the Enlightenment, made it possible for all the fortune seekers to abandon, little by little, their fantasies of showing off old family trees and coats of arms. When the simple fact of being rich seemed enough of a merit, no one tried to hide any longer the fact that his coat of arms had been bought and paid for, perhaps because the Crown itself did not hide the fact that it had set the price.