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

A City of Criollos

The mercantilist impact that prompted the development of the cities was not the only factor that triggered the crisis of the Baroque city. When the crisis occurred, a true transformation of Latin American society was taking place, or better, the signs of that transformation were becoming visible. Such visibility came simply with time. For the early stages of that change were no doubt disguised or concealed by the Baroque conception of society as static and immutable. But the passage of time, linking one generation to the next, was radically changing the structure of society, which ceased to be that of colonizers and colonized to become something quite different: a society of criollos. As social groups changed in their make-up and number, so did their relations to each other. In his Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions, Humboldt wrote that it was in Mexico City, not in Madrid, that he heard criticism of the Viceroy Count of Revillagigedo for having let all of New Spain know that the capital of a country that had close to six million inhabitants had, in 1790, only 2,300 Europeans as opposed to over 50,000 Spanish-Americans who had been born there. Humboldt estimated a population of 15 million inhabitants for all of Spanish America, of which only 200,000 were Europeans; there were 3 million white criollos; the rest belonged to the different castes (non-white). This demographic distribution continued thereafter, and its consequences were important.

The groups of native-born Spaniards or Portuguese could only increase through a steady flow of immigration, but those of criollos were growing naturally, even among the native-born Spaniards and Portuguese who lived there. Little by little, first-generation criollos began to associate with those who already had several generations of ancestors in the colonies. Old and new criollos, increasing in number, gradually acquired a cohesiveness of their own and began to displace, by their sheer weight, the system already in place. But this was not the only group that changed as it grew and altered thus the fabric of social relations. It was unquestionably the most important group, because out of it came the new bourgeoisie, that of criollos, which would soon achieve preeminence. Alongside with the criollos, the groups of pardos (all crossings and mixes of castes) also grew: some by leaps and bounds, like the groups of mulattos and mestizos, with their children and grand-children, and the more recent groups of mestizos and mulattos born of new caste crossings. They not only increased in number but, like the criollos, rose in social status as well. There were groups of Indians, blacks, zambos, and other castes that quietly made their way into the new society with that centrifugal force that comes of living together and that was capable of overpowering, however slowly, the centripetal forces that keep societies divided.

As those who criticized the Count of Revillagigedo no doubt observed, the small and basically weak group of native Spaniards was threatened by the increasing numbers of those born in the New World. The latter were attached to the New World because it was theirs; it was all they had and the only place where they could improve their lot in life. The Spaniards could replenish their ranks with new immigrants from Spain or, if settling in the New World, could marry into families of criollos. A few of them never grew roots in the new continent, since their plan was to return to the peninsula. But more and more settled permanently in the New World and with time planted their roots deeply in its soil. It was precisely this kind of well-rooted society that was now beginning to replace the Baroque society and its inherent lack of roots. But that was not the only sign of the social transformation that was taking place. Baroque society purported itself to be a static structure; the new society of criollos was essentially mobile and, in its drive, it uncovered the fallacies of the old social order. The conquistadores and the first colonists had established that order as they used the notion of nobility to defend or justify defended their privileges. In turn, the new drive was typical of a dynamic and vibrant society, like the one that was taking shape in Latin America out of the natural growth and integration of groups that were essential to the survival of the social compact but had been artificially kept on its margins. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, it became clear to many that the new society of criollos was imposing its own agenda over the artificial schemes that had been designed to ignore or contain it. The debate over the aptitudes and talents of criollos as opposed to those of native-born Spaniards became as acrimonious as it was widespread. And those who were attentive to the changes underway soon learned that the new society was coming to life not only in the cities but also in the rural areas.

True, the old rural society was still alive, grounded on the exploitation of land and mines and still dependent on the old system of Indian labor, despite the all the laws and the humanitarian concerns of some groups of Church and government. But next to the old structure, a new society began to emerge: it was decidedly marginal, but little by little its presence became visible and, in time, undeniable.

The new society was disorganized and unstable, but it was definitely growing. It was the product of the imbalance between a world rigorously structured along European lines —on the haciendas and especially in the cities— and another world, barely populated, where anyone who chose to settle down could enjoy a freedom with no limits, except those imposed by nature or the local indigenous peoples. It was a world made out of all the regions that remained untouched by economic exploitation or that had been long abandoned by the Europeans. Border regions became particularly attractive, as they were easy to get to and not altogether isolated from the rest of the colonized world. But the entire hinterland of the Europeanized world was seen as a way to avoid the system. Immigrants to those regions were a varied and assorted lot. Some had come to the colonies illegally and were unable to change their condition; some had deserted the army, fled from justice, or escaped from prison; others were Indians and black slaves who had migrated, individually or in groups, to escape their servitude. Then there were the fortune-seekers, who were exploring mine veins or doing small business with well established entrepreneurs. But above all there were those in search of anything to trade: Indians to sell in the slave-market, like the bandeirantes of São Paulo; maroon cattle to sell in the cities; fugitive black slaves or even free men whom they could take to the market.

Only the groups of fugitive slaves were eventually organized as communities: and not just the groups of Palamares or Rio das Mortes, but also countless others that were formed later, for instance, in the area of Bahía. Also there may have been communities formed by groups of Indians, like those that were dispersed when the Jesuits were expelled or those that joined insurgent groups in the last decades of the eighteenth century. But the ones who left their mark on this new society were the isolated immigrants, who often arrived with their wives and children and tried to eke out a rough, independent existence on their little ranches, farm houses or huts, far away from villages or communities. With no taste for routine work, they found farming and ranching to be a lifestyle in which they could combine work with pleasure: they were consummate horsemen and expert herders, so much so that the names they were called often became synonymous with cattle drivers: sertanista, bandeirante, huaso, gaucho, gauderio, llanero, vaquero, charro, morochuco. It was a free and open activity that trod the narrow line between the licit and the illegal. That kind of distinction was meaningless in areas where a new system of norms was beginning to emerge. Every man was fighting for his own survival; what mattered were the things he needed to preserve and defend his life: a lasso with balls, a lariat, a knife would help the bravest, or the most skillful, impose his own will and take as his booty the wife and the property of the defeated man, sometimes also his horse and the animals he had gathered or raised. When the occasion called for it, whites, mestizos, and blacks formed gangs, often working as highwaymen on a small scale, although sometimes they would mount attacks on haciendas or even entire villages.

In the last decades of the eighteenth century, urban societies and the organized rural world became aware of this new social formation, unmistakably indigenous, Creole in nature, informal society. It was an unmistakably native Creole society, growing unchecked and somewhat mysteriously in the interior of the legitimate world. This new formation was made of “country” folk, crude and lacking in the urbane refinements of city people. They would suddenly appear here and there, or someone would bump into them on the road and discover an entirely different culture: other norms, other ideas, other customs, and above all another language, all with vernacular roots, all unequivocally belonging to these sons of the earth. Curiosity drew attention to their customs and language, which seemed to express the personality of the group that was more firmly rooted in that society. In the final decades of the eighteenth century, they began to make their way into the cities, perhaps through the suburbs. Writers took note of their habits and forms of life and captured the contrast between the two societies, one rural, the other urban, often through the difference in their speech. Around 1778, a ballad was published in Buenos Aires in which un guaso sang en estilo campestre (a peasant sang country-style). The same language would appear again in the cielitos (popular Argentine songs and dances) of the wars of Independence. And some decades later, Fernández de Lizardi included, in his Periquillo Sarniento, a fragment composed with the forms of speech of the Mexican peasants, following a literary practice that José Agustín de Castro had initiated in his plays. Around the same time, the Brazilian nativists—Da Gama, Durão—represented in their works the emotions aroused by the natural world and by the contact with native populations.

Even before the wars of Independence, different groups began to detach themselves from that natural rural society to be assimilated into urban societies. They were drawn by the ranching activities that were a link between countryside and the city. Later on, with the climate produced by the Independence movement, larger groups burst onto the tumultuous world that the revolution was creating and became full members of that new society. Montoneros in the region of Rio de la Plata, llaneros in Venezuela, and sertanistas in Brazil swelled the ranks of the army and worshiped their leaders, who were also men from the countryside. As Azara put it, they were “countrifying” and, above all, creolizing urban society. Criollismo seemed to belong properly to rural societies and was used as a weapon against urban societies, which were accused of being cosmopolitan and alienating. Thus a sort of quarrel was born between countryside and city, one that would last for a long time and that seemed to express an insoluble contradiction.

That, however, was not the case. For the urban societies had been transformed by the criollos, and the differences between city and countryside were now simply a matter of degree. Naturally, the ports and capitals were home to the newly arrived Spaniards and Portuguese, who brought with them the new ideas fostered by the establishment of free trade. These cities were also home to some foreigners, especially Englishmen, who carried that new mentality to an extreme. And it was precisely these new ideas and attitudes that gave cities the atmosphere that rural groups found alienating. The new arrivals were, in the eyes of rural people, Europeanized merchants and “doctors” who either ignored or looked down on the new society. But theirs was an exaggerated claim. The cities had in fact undergone a social process not unlike the one experienced in rural areas. The only difference was that, in the cities, those who prevailed were not the common people but the members of the new bourgeoisie, who initially fashioned themselves after the European middle classes. But by the end of eighteenth century this new middle class began to show its vocation to take the lead and pursue its own ends.

To be sure, the popular classes, as they grew larger, had also became more visibly “creolized,” and the process had been a tumultuous one. Native-born Spaniards were surrounded not just by white Creoles but also by what were known as the castes, a varied mixture that included black slaves and freed blacks, mulattos, Indians, mestizos, zambos, and other mixed groups. Peninsulars and foreigners were arriving by the hundreds; slaves were increasing by the thousands. The lower classes were exploding. In his Political Essay on the Island of Cuba, Humboldt noted the following: “We have seen above that at the Havannah and in the suburbs, the increase of the whites has been in 20 years 73 percent; that of free men of color, 171 percent.” Humboldt had the sense that he was witnessing a society in crisis. “If the laws of the Antilles,” he warned, “and the condition of the peoples of color were not changed for the better very quickly, and if the authorities continue talking and don’t act, political power will soon be in the hands of those with the strength to work, the determination to shed their yoke and the endurance to sustain long periods of privation.”

In other cities of the Caribbean and of Brazil, the number of blacks also increased. José de Salva Lisboa wrote that “In Bahía alone in 1781 there were fifty ships making the trip from Africa.” Cartagena de Indias was infamous for having been a center of the slave trade. Yet those were not the only regions in which the black population, slave and free alike, had increased. Buenos Aires had a considerable market, as did Cordoba. In El lazarillo de ciegos caminantes, Concolorcorvo wrote that he had seen 2,000 blacks sold, “all of them Creoles,” some of them with three or four generations of Creoles behind. In Cuzco, Indians were so large a percentage of the population that, in 1788, Ignacio de Castro wrote the following:

There are so many Indians that all trading is done with them. Accordingly, their language has become the almost universal language in the city. Everyone born in Peru speaks this language, which one must command in order to understand and be understood. So that even though the gentry speak Spanish with Spaniards, they speak the Indian language with their domestics maids and servants and with the people of the town.

Although perhaps not so extreme, the scene was very much the same in many cities. In the mid-eighteenth century, Antonio de Ulloa and Jorge Juan pointed out that of the 4,000 families living in Santiago de Chile, half were Spaniards, that is whites from the Iberian peninsula or criollos; the other half were castes, mostly of Indians. Creolo society was a variegated mixture of diverse social and racial groups that changed from one generation to the next as the roots of one or the assimilation of another became more pronounced. And the best description of this multi-colored society is the one that Simón de Ayanque published in 1792 in an amusing work titled Lima por dentro y por fuera, which he wrote under his pen name of Esteban de Terralla.

Ayanque was from Andalusia and settled first in Mexico and then in Lima. He described, not without humor or biting sarcasm, the world of the market place and streets of Lima, which was the world of the middle and lower classes. Ayanque stresses how the various groups coexisted, how they integrated themselves in the daily life of the city, how they felt that Lima was their city, and how much weight that the kaleidoscopic mass had on the viceregal city. Speaking to a Spanish audience—actually, to himself—Ayanque paints a picture of the Main Square and the marketplace:

What a carnival of people,
And so many animals in cages,
How difficult it is to tell
The animal from its master;

Oh, how many cooks you’ll see,
And so many black women and men,
Indian women selling produce,
Old cows and young heifers;

Oh, how many mulattas you’ll see,
Headed for the market,
Some to sell meat,
Others to sell themselves;

Oh, the Indian fisherwomen you’ll see
Fishing for money,
Often netting much more
Than the fish they brought.

Roaming the streets, he was surprised by the mixture of races and colors:

Oh, and then, in the streets
You’ll see so many types of hair:
Indians, zambas and mulattas,
Chinos1, mestizos and black men.

Oh, you’ll see Spaniards
With their arms and attire,
With rich capes of scarlet,
Watches and large hats.

But you’ll see others, too,
Who though cut from the same cloth,
Wear light woolen cloaks
With greasy stains and holes.

In the streets you’ll see
Few whites, many dark;
The dark are the blank
Of admiration and respect.

The blacks are the masters
And the whites are the blacks;
And a day will come
When they’ll be their slaves.

They wear embroidered capes
And the most elegant hats,
Stockings of the finest silk,
Lamé, wool and velvet.

In this class of people
Resides the principal commerce
Because the best mechanism
Is that of privilege.

In every trade you’ll find
Chinos, mulattos and blacks,
But very few Spaniards,
For they think it a disgrace.

You’ll see many Indians
Who came from the highlands,
So as not to pay tribute
And become gentlemen.

As the poem goes on, Ayanque report on what he knows about the relations among lower-class groups; he talks, above all, about their chances for social ascent and integration into the rigid structures of the society of hidalgos:

A mulatta and a zamba
And other short-hair types,
Wear the garb and perform the role
Of a titled noble person.

And because she was the nurse
Of his lordship Don Estupendo,
It is to the hardest tip
That the hardest efforts go.
That public health
Is in the hands of blacks,
Chinos, mulattos
And others of the same stripe.
Grandsons of the King of the Congo
These gentlemen doctors are
Who take the pulse of little girls,
Of ladies and of gentlemen.

The public faith is
Also among Maccabees;
It is in the Scribes
And in all the Pharisees.

There are many mulattos,
And many chinos, too,
Who by means of bogus papers,
Want to change their own skin.
You’ll see dressed in the finest garbs
Women of the lowest birth,
Without distinguishing person,
Or estate, or age or sex.

You’ll also see a white woman
Made love to by a black man,
And a white man who has put
All his love into a black woman.

You’ll see the aristocrat
And the loftiest gentleman
Give to a mulatto woman
All his tender love and care.

These ordinary folk were a vital part of the city life. Although from a variety of backgrounds and each with his own expectations, over the course of time they became a fairly homogeneous urban mass. They were what the “decent folk” referred to as the “hoi polloi” and even included the vagrants and beggars, white and dark alike, whose Mexican brotherhood Fernández de Lizardi describes so well in Periquillo Sarniento.

There were white Creoles in the middle classes. One of them may have been that locksmith that John Luccok met in Rio de Janeiro, who wore a tricornered hat and had a black slave carry around his toolbox. And it was among these white, middle class Creoles that the process of interpenetration with the lower classes actually took place. Obviously, their relations were not easy. From time to time a white man would win a competition or contest because of the color of his skin. But mestizos, mamelucos, and mulattos persevered in holding middle-level functions and, in the end, it was more common for penniless white Creoles to be seeking employment in businesses run by mestizos, mamelucos, and mulattos than the reverse. Because they were a combination of races, mestizos and mulattos became necessary and effective intermediaries within a traditionally divided society. That role was what determined the functions of the middle strata in society, the ones to which disinherited white Creoles could aspire. Ultimately it became increasingly clear that everyone was a Creole; all had roots in the land and all were wedded to the same destiny. That realization was slow in coming; but it was inevitable and became quite strong in the late eighteenth century. Unlike the upper classes, the middle and lower classes learned how to rise above their racial prejudices, without giving them up altogether.

Unlike the lower classes and the castes, mestizos and mulattos tended to identify with the Spaniards: mamelucos and mestizos, in particular, were proud of their indigenous roots, but were more and more inclined to become part of the new society. They were foremen, supervisors, stewards, agents, all the jobs that whites avoided to reduce frictions with the groups that had been brought to submission. But they had other jobs as well, and performed a variety of functions, always closer to the whites than to the lower castes. Manuel de Campo Verde y Choquetilla, “Spaniard on his mother’s side, the descendant of legitimate caciques and a governor of the Indies,” was appointed Oruro’s master of relay stations, according to Concolorcorvo. Elsewhere he reports that “the Spaniards engage in commerce with everyone, including mestizos and other lower-class types that have Indian roots and that are either moving up or down.” One attempt to legitimize the mestizos’ rise was the royal edict of 1795, which permitted the dark-skinned men of Caracas to use the title “don” in exchange for a fee.

The proximity or solidarity of whites and mestizos is a recurring theme in the conversations that the mestizo Concolorcorvo creates for the visitor don Alonso Carrió in his Lazarillo de ciegos caminantes. An Indian who is well treated by the Spaniards and taught how to dress and how to groom himself passes for a cholo, “which is the same as being a mestizo. If his services are useful to the Spaniard, the latter dresses him and puts shoes on his feet. Within two months he is a mestizo in name also.” Mestizos enjoyed a privileged status: they were allowed to engage in commerce with whites and to practice trades. True, mestizos also inspired some mistrust because of “their peccadillos and mischief” and were said to be “worse than gypsies.” But the mistrusts was minor, and they were able to engage in the same activities as white Creoles of the middle class. In fact, Concolorcorvo referred to mestizos and Indians as “natural Creoles” and underscored the irony by stating, “we cholos look up to the Spaniards as children of the Sun.”

Natural Creoles and white Creoles kept the middle strata of urban society in constant ferment, which allowed some to acquire wealth, while others fell into extreme poverty. As they were constantly “moving up and moving down,” as Concolorcorvo put it, those Creoles constituted the most mingled and mobile social group and the one that experienced most intensely the transformation that brought about the new creolo society.

That transformation had other traits in the upper classes which traditionally had been made up of peninsulares who held public offices, owned mines or haciendas or, in increasing numbers, engaged in trade-in trade. But already in the eighteenth century, criollos were unmistakably the majority of the population. They constituted a group with a varied and imprecise profile, not only in terms of their origin and social status but also in terms of their attitudes and ideology.

Humboldt made three astute observations about the upper classes on the eve of Independence. In Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions, he pointed out that, in the colonies, the true external sign of social nobility was the color of one’s skin, which was generally the dividing line between the upper classes and those in which dark-skinned people predominated, although a white Creole might occasionally appear. But Humboldt also described the presence of a clearly divided group of criollos within the upper classes. “There are,” he said, “two kinds of gentry in the colonies. One is made up of criollos whose ancestors have until recently held very high positions in America; they base their prerogatives, in part, on the prestige they enjoy in the mother country; and they believe they can retain that prestige on the other side of the ocean, regardless of when their families settled in the colonies. The other kind of gentry has closer ties to the American soil: it is made up of the descendants of the conquistadors, in other words, the Spaniards who served in the armies of the original conquests.” It was, therefore, a division between old and new criollos, one strictly based on origin. As he goes on, Humboldt looks into the upper class of Caracas, where he distinguishes two types of men, or as he puts it, two very different generations.

One, quite small in number, holds fast to the old ways, to their simple customs and moderate desires. Men in this group live in an imagined past; they view America as the property of their ancestors who conquered it; they detest the so-called Enlightenment of this century and carefully cultivate their inherited prejudices as part of their patrimony. Men in the other group of gentry are not as much concerned with the preset as it is with the future; they are inclined to go for new habits and ideas, sometimes without much reflection; but when they also have a love for solid learning and let reason govern their inclination, they do a great service to society.

Humboldt’s distinctions are essentially based on differences in attitude and ideology.

It is, therefore, obvious that both in the Spanish and in the Portuguese colonies a new upper class of criollos had taken shape. These criollos, born in the land and committed to it, outnumbered by far the groups of those born in the mother countries. Sure of their privileges, these criollos were proud and arrogant. Proud were, in Brazil, the lords of the sugar plantations and the mines; proud were, in the entire Hispanic world, the descendants of the encomenderos and mine owners; proud, in short, was everyone who tried to preserve an aristocratic society. But new circumstances began to have their effect on that pride and arrogance. First, these criollos were less than equal to the native-born Spaniards and Portuguese, who clung to their anti-colonial and anti-American prejudices to assert their occasional supremacy. Second, there began to grow, among the criollos of the upper classes, some bourgeois groups that shook the old structure of the society of hidalgos to its very foundation.

The first of these circumstances gave rise to all kinds of tension between the majority of criollos and the peninsulares, who were so far outnumbered. This was, in fact, a confrontation between a society that was taking root and the groups that were only temporarily in the colonies but still held political and economic power. The tension was constantly mounting and, more and more often, it erupted into open confrontation: as, for instance, when Juan VI came to Brazil, in 1808, accompanied by his Portuguese court, and the upper-class criollos challenged the court and even managed to win over don Pedro; or in the comunero movements of Paraguay and Colombia; or in the attempts at emancipation that failed initially but triumphed in the end. The tension also became evident in the long and complex debate about the relative merits and worth of peninsulares and criollos. Concolorcorvo captured that debate quite neatly, and Father Feijóo intervened as well. It was argued that the European race was degenerating in America; the rebuttal had its share of insulting remarks against the Spaniards and Portuguese, who, according to the criollos, were driven by an insatiable appetite for wealth. Criollos from the lower class made fun of Spanish gachupines or chapetones and of Portuguese mascates or emboabas. But in the upper classes the dispute was different, and there was perhaps no more expressive text than the speech given in Lima, shortly after 1810, by Mariano Alejo Alvarez, of the University of Charcas, entitled Speech on the preferences that Americans should be given with respect to employment in the Americas. As the political tension mounted, hatred became more pronounced and its expression acquired a bitterer tone, evident in the poem that circulated in Oruro about the subversive atmosphere prevalent in 1781:

Being of the Indies is evil
But to be wealthy as well
Is a most grievous offense
Against the Crown.
Proof that this is so
Is the terrible hatred
Harbored in the heart
Of the lowly European
For Oruro and all indianos
Because they are not of his nation.

The second circumstance was the formation of bourgeois groups of criollos who felt they were more harassed than others because they had “means” or who believed they had a greater claim to jobs in America. These were groups influenced, directly or indirectly, by the new ideas of the eighteenth century and tempted by the opportunities that the mercantile world had to offer. Against these criollos, there were some groups that stressed even further their aristocratic claims; these were indeed the people that Concolorcorvo mocked with sharp irony. But despite them, the Creole middle classes asserted themselves and claimed their role as the new elite. Many, like the mantuanos of Caracas, were from so-called “noble” families; others, like the Mexican mine owners, boasted a nobility they had just acquired at a price the Crown had set without much hesitation or scruple. But not even those who had paid for their titles concealed their determination to assert themselves as the leading minority of Creole society, which they meant to ply to their own purposes, within the increasingly powerful ideology of mercantilism. The most attractive business seemed to be brokerage. And the cities were the centers out of which brokers would control economic activity, establish and maintain relations with major trading centers abroad and hold the public offices that regulated trade.

The growth of this last group was visible once free trade was established: in Brazil it happened after 1808, when the ports were opened up; in the Hispanic world it happened after Independence. As the Creole bourgeoisie continued to grow, the illusion of the Baroque society began to fade. And the members of that old society were depicted by Ayanque, who subscribed to the new ideas, as a dying group:

This wasteful lot
Time will now destroy.

A new conception of life was struggling to assert itself in this new society of “natural” and white criollos that had taken root and had found in the criollos of the middle class an elite responsive to the needs and opportunities arising from the crisis of the Spanish and Portuguese empires.