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



Although strapped within the dominion of the mother country, Latin American cities were leaning toward the mercantile world. Starting in the second half of the eighteenth century, these cities began to turn to the scene of a freer economy, a more open and more bourgeois society, and vigorous new social and political ideas. Little by little, the walls that had kept them enclosed within the ideas and lifestyles of the mother country began to crumble. The momentum gathered by new ways of doing business created new activities in the ports and capitals; it also created new attitudes among those who promoted and practiced those activities. Commerce was the key word for those who wanted to escape from an increasingly anachronistic stagnation: it seemed as if wealth had taken on a new form, one to which people would have to ascribe wholeheartedly if they wanted to further themselves.

“Progress” was another key word, but one that did not make its way easily into the vocabulary of the groups of hidalgos who controlled the baroque cities. For them, the economy was immutable, as was society. Still, the word “progress” was beginning to circulate among those social groups that were the connective tissue of baroque society and would come to have considerable power within a matter of decades. Enlightened Spaniards and Portuguese, or merchants who had more recently arrived, associated mercantilist freedom with progress and declared themselves to be progressives until, of course, they discovered the consequences that way of thinking could have in the colonies. There, the word “progress” took on a much more explosive meaning than it had in the mother countries and those who uttered the word did so to underscore their desire for change. These were, above all, the bourgeoisie and the criollos; or more properly, the new Creole bourgeoisie whose emergence as a social group had shaken up traditional society and had left its singular imprint upon it.

Indeed, by that time Latin American society had already undergone a silent change and had started to turn Creole. But not all social groups took advantage of the change in the same way. The urban middle classes, more and more unmistakably Creole, would rapidly reach social prominence and constitute, by the end of the eighteenth century, the first native-born social elite in Latin American cities. Its members knew that they were not just transients; that their destiny was not to go back to the mother country to enjoy the wealth they had gained, but rather to remain in their cities and impose on them their own economic ambitions, their own forms of life and their way of thinking. They felt attached and committed to their city and their region and undertook with determination their role as the elite. Before long they began to think about political independence and achieved it basically through urban revolutions that they themselves led.

With the rise of the Creole bourgeoisie, the system of baroque cities faded away, but there remained some vestiges that kept alive a nostalgic model of the court city. A half century before Independence, however, the Latin American cities began to be unmistakably Creole and assumed their own social and cultural identity. Thus, they began to be authentically themselves and started their true process of steady and cohesive development, leaving behind the artificial structure of the city of hidalgos.

A wave of social mobility soon manifested itself. A society that had long been thought of as immutable began to undergo rapid change. The political upheavals of Independence were but one sign and one phase of that change. The process predated and followed Independence. Depending upon the intensity of that process and the strength of the groups moving up, a new economy took shape and the cities moved forward, stagnated or regressed, according to the functions they were called upon to perform within the new system. In the end, almost all cities took on a decidedly urban look, as wealth increased enough for private houses and public buildings to be built. The city took shape and its dwellers saw their horizons expand.

Some cities had libraries and newspapers, but almost all of them had in circulation the books and ideas that were shaking up Europe. The Creole cities were born out of the Enlightenment and its philosophy. Charged with those new ideas, so precious to the bourgeoisie, the city strengthened its ideological vocation. Urban and rural life were scrutinized and subjected to various projects: some were more extreme than others, but almost all of them found staunch supporters. The city was a scene of great ideological tensions that expressed the social, economic and political leanings of unstable groups for whom power was the guarantee of considerable dominance. There were traditionalists and progressives, reformists and revolutionaries and, among the revolutionaries, moderates and Jacobeans. The cities simmered until Independence, and then became a boiling cauldron.