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



After the ceremony marking its founding, a city began to live, and vast urban projects began to mingle with the immediate problems of daily life. There was a mission to be accomplished, but first it was necessary to survive the enemies, hunger, disease. As in all crises, the uneasy link between ideology and concrete reality was put to the test. At times, the founding group increased in number, at others it decreased. Physical space began to fill with a few buildings that gave the city a certain semblance of reality; basic needs began to be satisfied in rudimentary but methodical ways; government began to function; Indian attacks began to be checked. Still, the founders had to decide what to do with the city, what function it should serve.

It was easy to transpose the lines on the blueprint onto the actual land; it was not so easy to turn ideology into policy. Each city had been set up according to some general premises and in response to some concrete circumstances. But the very fact of setting it up had created a host of new problems, both practical and ideological, that were solved at times very deliberately, at times in rather intuitive or spontaneous ways. Decisions were usually made under the weight of many things: a vague remembrance of the original purpose of the founders; the unique profile each urban society was acquiring, as it took shape, generation after generation; the possibilities that had been foreseen for its development. But the crucial element was perhaps the gradual discovery of all the new, concrete opportunities that the city and the region had to offer. Many were indeed very promising, but they required a change in attitude. For these new urban societies took little time to realize that they had a choice between two systems: that of their somewhat marginal homelands, grounded on an inflexible conception of colonial empire, and that of mercantile Europe, with its wide range of temptations, which they had been able to glimpse at through the narrow chink opened by corsairs, pirates, and smugglers.

It was the appearance of pirates and corsairs, coupled with the repeated threat of Indian insurrections, that helped maintain the military character of some cities. The conquest had been accomplished at large, but locally the danger of an Indian uprising still threatened many cities and forced their residents to stand ready for war, no matter how certain they might be of their final victory. More serious was the problem posed by the corsairs and pirates who roamed the high seas in search of opportunities to plunder galleons or to attack and loot cities. The fort-city improved its military structure, received experienced garrisons and consolidated its defenses with major works of military engineering that reached their peak in the eighteenth century, when walls were added to the fortified castles and fortresses to protect the civilian population. But not even the fort-city was confined to this one function; urban life discovered new opportunities and created some on its own, and even the experienced captain, perhaps a hero from the wars in Italy and Flanders, would slip surreptitiously into lawful trade or smuggling, hiding behind the servants and the clientele that his rank afforded him. As activities became more numerous and diverse, the fort-city itself became simply a city.

The cities had a well-knitted political, administrative, and ecclesiastical structure that helped to develop other aspects of urban life. Yet colonial government was remarkably cumbersome for more than one reason: the homelands were extremely far away; they had developed a rather peculiar and elaborate bureaucracy; day after day the central government was plagued by the number and complexity of the problems arousing in every corner of the colonial world; officials wielded an odd kind of power, because their actions were constantly monitored by other officials and no one knew, from moment to moment, who was in the crown’s favor. Heaps of paper came and went amidst endless scheming and intrigue, and a world of characters of diverse station and appearance hovered around the Viceroys, captains general, judges, bishops, and magistrates. It was this game of favor and intrigue that distinguished the great capitals—Mexico City, Lima, Salvador de Bahia—from the other smaller and more provincial ones, like Bogota, Havana, Santiago, São Paulo, or Buenos Aires. But all of them, big and small, were centers of power and therefore stood apart from the cities that only had to deal with municipal issues and with the concerns of the wealthy owners in their region. The capitals were not simply centers of power but also hubs of cultural activity, or better still, centers where ideas were shaped, some of them trivial perhaps, others significant for the life of the city. In the capitals were the archbishops and bishops, who concerned themselves with the work of conversion, and the Inquisition, that watched zealously over orthodox faith; and also the preachers who guarded public morality as they administered the sacraments; and the priests who pleaded for mercy for the Indians and for black slaves; and the brainy theologians, and the erudite professors who educated the sons of noblemen in colleges and universities, as well as those who trained the sons of Indian chieftains. All this activity, very limited at the beginning, increased rapidly in the capital cities, both large and small. But with time, some of its forms began to appear even in the provincial cities.

What did grow was economic activity. Like the fort-city, the emporium city—port and marketplace all at once—diversified its activities, serving at times as a military garrison, at times as a seat of government or a center of learning. But unlike the fort-city, where the first function was gradually overtaken by other activities, the emporium city became more of an emporium as time went on, with the exception of a few isolated cases of actual decline, such as Santo Domingo; and new emporium cities emerged during the first centuries of the colonial period. The entire system of production, both in agriculture and in mining, grew and got organized around the city. But what grew, above all, was brokerage, because production was invariably funneled through the city. The volume of exports also increased, and with it the activity of port and harbor; trade expanded its network as a result of the increase in exports and in Spanish imports and smuggled goods carried through long trade routes. Domestic markets also grew, embodied in each local marketplace: that of Mexico or Cuzco, that of Recife or Santiago, some of them direct descendants of the Indian tianguis 1 but in no way different from the one on the Zocodover in Toledo. A vast concentration of consumer goods for the city and its surrounding areas was to be found there, in the open market—a colorful scene bustling with local customers, ready to buy, and with craftsmen and rural producers, ready to sell. What was not sold in the marketplace was sold in the poky little shops squeezed together on the city square, near the gallows and the well—like the cajones de 2 on the Main square in Lima, or the cajones de San Jose‚ in Mexico City—or in the more suitable shops along the major streets.

Busy urban networks kept up a flow of products tailored to suit the needs of different types of consumer. As business diversified, a financial network was also organized by money-lenders and profiteers next to the large trading companies who had enough economic power to engage exclusively in wholesale business but would never refuse a minor transaction, if their line of business should allow. This process gave shape to the different economic groups that, in the end, would hold the fate of the city in their hands.

As these diverse activities continued to develop, the older cities began to lose their primitive appearance and ceased to be the rustic villages they had once been. In order to fit their concrete circumstances, the cities also altered the pre-established functions that their founders had assigned to them: some functions were maintained, some were abandoned, some still were combined with new ones and, on occasion, were entirely replaced by them. It was a long, complex, at times even confusing, process of change that began when the cities were founded and lasted until the second half of the eighteenth century. In the world in which they were established, these cities were destined to be—as they ultimately became—bourgeois and mercantile centers. But for a long time they were constrained by the vision of their founders to remain on the margins of the mercantile world. Thus, against the grain, they grew as cities of hidalgos, because hidalgos wanted to be the groups that became dominant within them. And hidalgos they remained, as long as they could, concealing the fact that they were only too ready to give in to the temptations of the bourgeoisie.