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

A Creole Communal Life

Centers of projection of the mother countries, during the colonial period Latin American cities reproduced Spanish and Portuguese ways of life and altered them as society changed. Almost imperceptibly, these ways of life were “Creolized” in the cities under the indirect influence of the surrounding milieu. The conventions of the hidalgos, their habits and formalities survived. Yet many things altered the artificial status of the privileged classes when circumstances removed some of them from their redoubt and brought them into contact with the new society. This contact came, above all, through dealing with slaves and servants; it was much more frequent in the countryside than in the cities. When Independence undermined the traditional structure of society, urban groups began to be “countrified” to some extent. It was inevitable that city ways of living should acquire a kind of Creole air, the legacy of those rural groups that had become part of urban society.

The “countrification” process was not as strong, nor did it move at the same pace everywhere. From very early on, provincial cities had been surrounded by a rural world, so that they hardly noticed when the rural influence became more pronounced after Independence. It was noticeable, however, in those cities where the urban and Iberian tradition remained alive and those where, after Independence, newly arrived English and French businessmen joined the rural people whom political upheaval had brought to the city. These rural people touched urban society at top and bottom; some were part of the power structure of the new gentry and many of them would climb to important political positions and become wealthy. Most, however, joined the ranks of the popular classes, adding some traits not present in the old subordinate groups of Indians, mestizos and black slaves.These changes were evident in Caracas, during the Páez and Monagas period, in Montevideo, in Mexico City, and in Veracruz. But they were most palpable in Buenos Aires, whose atmosphere during the Rosas period was described by José Mármol in his novel Amalia. Although quite politically biased, Amalia nevertheless accurately portrays its setting. The dominant classes were Creole and countrified, yet nevertheless drawn to the charm of European customs. This strange contrast was the one that the traveler Xavier Marmier captured in 1850:

To help me explain some of these day-to-day images, the reader should imagine himself accompanying me for a short stroll through the streets of the city. We are turning onto Peru Street; to the right and to the left the luxury and industry of France are showcased in the furnishings, jewels, and wig shops; in the silks just arrived from Lyon and the ribbons from Saint-Etienne; and in the latest fashion in dress and hats. Behind a grillwork window, a young girl is arranging artificial flowers that would be perfect in a salon in the Saint-Germain quarter of Paris. In his window, a tailor is placing the new sketch from the Journal des Modes that just arrived by packet boat from Le Havre and that will be attracting the attention of the dandies. The owner of a bookshop is carefully arranging a collection of books on the shelves. He will be puzzled if someone asks him for the works of Garcilaso de la Vega or some other old Spanish historian, but he always has on hand the novels of Dumas and Sandeau and the poetry of Alfred de Musset. One might liken it to a corner of Paris. One might say it is a copy of the Rue Vivienne, for that is what it is. Yet it is a copy wearing a scarlet waistcoat, like those worn in Paris after our famous February revolution.

We walk a little more and go by the English businesses and by the shop of Favier, who has the same delicate touch for oil paintings and daguerreotypes. And so we come to City Hall and the Buenos Aires Police Station and jail. The scene changes abruptly. Whereas we were in Europe before, we now find ourselves in primitive America, in the Pampas region. Beneath the arcades, the soldiers sit on horseback. They in no way resemble Europeans. There are white soldiers and black soldiers, soldiers in uniform and soldiers without uniforms. One soldier is wearing an Indian poncho and another the narrow cut of an English jacket. Some have their heads covered with a scarf, others with a cap, and still others with a brown hat.  In that respect, there is complete freedom. If I am not mistaken, there is only one piece of apparel that is required: pants that are fringed along the bottom. Soldiers are barefoot. It occurs to me that in Rosas’ troops rank can be distinguished by the lower extremities: soldiers go barefoot, sergeants wear ankle boots, an officer wears boots of common leather, while generals wear patent leather boots. It is a more practical way of recognizing military rank than our own, for to know the rank of a superior officer a subordinate must keep his eyes down.

It is amusing to see how slowly and lazily these defenders of the city mount guard and carry their rifles. As I watch them, I hear the sound of horseshoes on the pavement, and a horse gallops up and stops under the rider’s masterful hand as if the hoofs were nailed to the ground. It is an estancia horse, ridden by a gaucho. This is South America’s true soldier, the son of the Pampas in all his masculine beauty.

After carefully describing the gaucho’s dress and customs, the traveler describes the unique ambience of the wagon trains and portrays the wagon driver as being enclosed within his conception of life, immersed in his rural atmosphere, although he may be on the fringe of the city without a thought of ever seeing “the obelisk in Victory Plaza or the magnificence of Peru Street.” He ends by saying, “Wagon drivers and gauchos: this is the most picturesque part of Buenos Aires’ population. Let us look, however, at other aspects. The city has some 120,000 inhabitants, half of whom are foreigners from various nations.” That was the Buenos Aires of Rosas—half European and half rural, an extreme example of the change that revolution had brought to several Latin American cities.

As the traditional forms of communal life were abandoned, a strange conjunction of rural and Anglo-French influences followed. Each influence had its adherents, some of whom were aggressive and even fanatical; some, who accepted both the rural and the Anglo-French influences, produced curious combinations that astonished the observer and never failed to elicit irony. But that was the direction life was laboriously taking in the big capitals and the ports, while the countrified Iberian tradition predominated in cities that were beyond the reach of Anglo-French influence.

In describing the Mexicans’ careless way of dressing, the Marchioness de Calderón de la Barca said:

This indolence is certainly going out of fashion, especially among the younger members of society, owing perhaps to their more frequent dealings with foreigners, though it will probably be a long time before morning at home ceases to be considered the time and place for being half dressed. Yet I have made many visits where I have found an entire family very well and neatly dressed; but I have recognized that in those cases the fathers and, more significantly, the mothers had traveled to Europe and established a new order of things on their return.

For many in the new upper classes, it seemed important to preserve the Creole tradition in dress, food, devotions, and festivals. It seemed necessary to preserve the tradition of the jarochos in Veracruz or of the gauchos in Buenos Aires, so that the new nationalities could define their profile. As he described meals around 1840, the Argentine Santiago Calzadilla said that everything was “Creole,” and “no one even knew the word menu at the time.” He also said that in those days “We were not walking as the French do, but rather in Creole style,” a habit that one of Machado de Asís’ characters in Don Casmurro criticized in Rio de Janeiro. But Calzadilla also liked to fancy the southern quarter as a kind of Saint-Germain; and elsewhere wrote: “Of course I like matte; but I prefer cognac, as it settles the stomach after we eat a good barbecue, as we usually do here.”

This contradiction was not overcome until the last decades of the century, when foreign usages displaced those of the Creole tradition, transforming them into some faint and quaint reminiscence of the past. But from Independence to the end of the century, the new societies lived in permanent contradiction, elaborating one combination of influences after another. In Bogotá, there was a clear distinction between those who wore ruanas and those who wore frock-coats, two social classes, no doubt, but also the protagonists of two ways of life. The contradiction was even more obvious among the more elegant people, some of whom had used a ruana until very recently. While the nativist ideology prompted them to preserve and even extol whatever was part of their Creole tradition, their upper-class status induced them to adopt foreign fashion and custom. In the 1840s, the arrival in Bogotá of Madame Gautron, the first French modiste, was an important event in the life of the city that had occurred in many other cities after the first French fashion houses were established in Rio, on the Rua do Ouvidor. The Argentine intellectual Juan Bautista Alberdi did not think fashion beneath him (a newspaper that he inspired was called La Moda); in fact, using the pen name Figarillo, he publicized the Paris fashions that he wanted Montevideo and Buenos Aires to embrace.

Ornate residences, some the work of French architects, were home to families that wanted to show off their wealth. They were showplaces of luxury that people noticed and moralists passionately criticized. But for a long time that luxury was an exception among traditional families. Around 1860, Lima’s novelist Benjamín Cisneros would write a condemnation of that luxury, yet it was only beginning to appear. Up until then, the rule had been the Creole lifestyle that Cisneros described in his novel Julia:

Among us, the speed with which individuals and even entire families form close friendships and boundless trust is a quality inherent in the character of the country. That is why strangers who come to our door are immediately received with such affection, kindness and courtesy. That quality also accounts for the charming idiosyncrasies of our social way of life. I speak of those things that set our private life apart, in other words, relations between families, between persons. The expansiveness, the instinctive empathy, the improvised and sincere affection, the naive and reciprocal confidences, the tender solicitude, the general desire to do good, the spirit of charity in the family—all this together constitutes, among us, a certain realm of the heart that is perhaps not to be found in other countries on earth. Those of us who were born in our society and then one day were uprooted and transplanted to the enormous turbulence of the big modern cities have seen the emptiness that in those societies replaces intimate feeling, an emptiness lived in a solitude that lacks any selfless affections, where the heart feels like a desert. We are the only ones who can appreciate all the sweetness and magic of our life of emotions.

Yet the patrician cities began to experience not only the temptation of foreign fashion and foreign objects, but also a new way of understanding life.

Writers concerned with local color found a wealth of material to ponder in these societies searching for their identity between the new and yet old, between Creole and foreign. In Las tres tazas [The Three Cups], José Maria Vergara y Vergara provides the dates for insignificant yet revealing changes in Bogota’s literary salons: chocolate was introduced in 1813, coffee in 1848, tea in 1865. The salon was a traditional expression of Latin American culture, but it was also the cradle of new customs and all that they implied. Figarillo described in general terms the lifestyle of Buenos Aires and Montevideo; but few novelists from the period could resist the temptation to portray in detail the salons in their cities, with their characters in step with current norms: Cisneros depicted Lima’s salons, Cuéllar those of Mexico City, María Nieves those of Arequipa, and Blest Gana those of Santiago, which were class-based. The novel of manners highlighted the small details of the setting, the dress, the drinks, and the hors d’oeuvres that were offered. The same kind of detail was used to describe parties. In Amalia, the Argentine José Mármol emphasized the characteristics of the society that gathered for a dance hosted by Governor Rosas:

People were dancing in silence. The new-age military men were bursting from their buttoned dress uniforms, their hands aching from their tight gloves, perspiring with the pain caused by the boots they had just put on. They thought the only way to behave at a dance was to be very stiff and serious. Products of the new social hierarchy introduced by the Restorer of the Law, these young citizens thought in all good faith that there was nothing more elegant or courtly than to go about giving sweets and cakes to young ladies. Finally, there were the ladies: some, the unitarias1, were there at their husbands’ request; others, the federales, were there, angry to find themselves in the company of people of their own society only. They were all in a bad mood: the former were condescending and patronizing, and the latter envious.

The Colombian Cordovez Moure recalled a dance hosted in Popayán for Bolívar by José María Mosquera, “the patriarch of the city,” where the Liberator demanded that a young patrician lady dance with a Colonel Carvajal, a black man from the plains dressed in the uniform of a Polish hussar. Mosquera also recalled a dance, hosted in 1852 by several gentlemen from Bogotá, which Mosquera said was the first “to introduce the custom of arranging musicians as spare partners for ladies who might need them;” the President of the Republic was in attendance, and the dance was so splendid that a Mr. Goschen, a member of the British Parliament on a visit, said that “he felt as if he were at a court ball given by his own sovereign.” Cordovez Moure added that this observation had been made “with the honesty peculiar to the English.”

English gentlemen hosted the dance given in 1840 at the Palacio de Mineria, which the Marchioness de Calderón de la Barca attended “In jewels no foreign ladies could attempt to compete with those of the country.” But she added: “Many dresses looked overloaded, a common fault in Mexico; and many of the dresses, though rich, were old-fashioned.” It was a United States citizen living in Chile, the bold entrepreneur Henry Meiggs, who in 1866 hosted a magnificent dance at his luxurious mansion on the Alameda in Santiago, surrounded by gardens. There, Benjamin Vicuña Mackenna saw an immaculate society, quite different to be sure from the one that Blest Gana had a few years earlier portrayed at the dances that he described in El ideal de un calavera (The Ideal of a Gay Dog) and in Martín Rivas. There Mackenna found the “serious fools,” the chinchosos, and above all, the “dandies” whom “few women can resist; they speak only in thousands of pesos, nothing less! They either have gone or are planning to go to Europe and keep up an endless chatter of nonsense,” because, as his fictional observer says, “Wherever people gather together, there are always some who are stranger than anything one could possibly see in a zoo.”

Theaters and fashionable summer spots—like Chorrillos for the inhabitants of Lima—were another place where the upper classes went to be seen. As in salons and dances, the theater began to exhibit the same quality observed by novelists: the increasing tendency toward luxury. It was not a natural tendency for Creole society, but rather an imitation of the styles that were beginning to emerge in Europe with industrial development and the formation of the first great cities, particularly the styles that arouse among the new Paris bourgeoisie during the reign of Louis Philippe and took definite shape under Napoleon III. But not every luxury was of the same vintage. By mid-century, Latin America still preserved its colonial opulence, such as that displayed by many families more or less aristocratic, or the one observed by Flora Tristán at the Convent of Santa Catalina in Arequipa. This colonial opulence was the source of the Creole luxury that followed revolutions and that, although more moderate and a bit coarse, carried on the habits and customs of patriarchs accustomed to life on the hacienda. But the new patrician elite made a deliberate effort to present themselves and their new luxury as part of the extravagant world of the new European bourgeoisie, seen through the Parisian model. Some habits and fashions were imitated, but a long time would pass before the quality of the Creole way of life, fashioned after Independence, would actually change. It was thus an opulence without style, incoherently displayed in a way of life that had its own style and that—in its dominance—betrayed the imposition of a foreign veneer.

In some cities, elderly nouveau riche, elegant young men, and equivocal ladies were part of the frivolous society beginning to show through the fabric of traditional society. They were, as José T. Cuéllar wrote in Ensalada de Pollos, “the children of pleasure.” He was speaking of those who would begin or end a night’s spree at Fulcheri’s, the Mexican café where a meal looked like “one of those almost-Pompeian dinners at the English Café in Paris.” The Mexican pollo, like Bogota’s cachaco or the elegant men of any city who had traveled to Europe and could never overcome the impact of the lights of Paris, were united—for the traditionalists—with the image of all young men who fall for the overwhelming temptation of luxury, just as “the Paris prostitute falls from the palace to the hospice,” as Cuéllar put it. Looking for explanations, he spoke of the “torrent of Paris corruption” and of “the social upheaval in this transition period we are experiencing.” In 1860, ten years before these words were written, Cisneros examined, in his novel Julia, the causes of the decadence that threatened traditional society: Luxury is the golden serpent in this society. It has wrapped itself around society’s heart and will devour it. Luxury is no longer just a question of habit: it is a passion, a vice of our families. Luxury dazzles and attracts; it produces vertigo and fever. The society in which we live has come to that point.” And he went on to say: “Lima is gripped not so much by a passion for opulent style as by a passion for everything foreign.”

Despite the self-righteous indignation of moralists, the threat was barely perceptible at that time. Society continued to be creolized even when this trend—which would ultimately triumph several decades later—was first surfacing among the wealthy classes in a few cities. “The rebozo,” said Cuéllar, “is the most intimate companion of a lady in Mexico. French customs generally go by the wayside when it comes to this essential item of clothing, this reassertion of nationality, this rebozo of such strange suppleness, so typically Mexican.” Criollismo and Europeanism were engaged in an all-out war to determine which customs would prevail.

Although on a lesser scale, the middle classes were also drawn to European-style luxury. The Creole way of life could withstand the onslaught of European influences largely because of the strength it still had among the middle classes and the common people. But an open society, where the vicissitudes of politics or fortune allowed a nouveau riche to appear, place its middle classes in a stage of upward social mobility that raised certain expectations and, to a moderate extent, satisfied them. In Chile it was precisely the siútico (pseudo-refined) who typified this situation. Blest Gana described the type in detail in Martin Rivas. Almost everyone was a siútico—affected and pretentious, one might say—at the rather dubious salon on Colegio street where Blest Gana sends his character, for they all had that “je ne se quoi with which a good Santiagan distinguishes questionable people (gente de medio pelo).” A keen observer, in his description Blest Gana combined elements of the Creole way of life with the imported elements which that family, modest in circumstance but pretentious, copied from others who were more worldly and wealthy. Describing the end of the party when the refreshments at this vulgar little gathering were over, he commented:

And after the stiffness with which they had mimicked the customs of high society at the beginning of the festivities came this mixture of intimacy and forced courtesy that is so typical of this type of gathering. The people that we call de medio pelo find themselves caught between the common people whom they despise and the good families whom they envy and want to imitate. The result is a curious combination in which the customs and habits of the working classes are adulterated by vanity and those of the upper social groups are exaggerated to the point of caricature under a veneer of wealth and good manners.

Only a few years would separate that party from the one that Cuéllar describes in Baile y cochino [The Pig at the Party], with the Colonel and Doña Bartolita. Describing the scene, Cuéllar noted that it was not of his choosing: “Unfortunately it exists; worse still, it is spreading in Mexico, to the detriment of morals and good customs. The growing invasion of luxury in the middle class is causing more and more collapses.” He then describes the dance with the Colonel and Doña Bartolita, attended by snobbish young girls like the Machuca sisters and elegant dandies who wanted to amuse themselves and get drunk. But luxury could not disguise the old customs, which resurfaced as the conventional and trained starchiness wore off. It was not without reason that the author, at the beginning of the piece, noted that the lady of the house was “very simple and very provincial.” Her husband was a colonel who had just “made a quite profitable business deal.” They had cognac, but one of their guests thought that the water was pulque.

At public festivals, whether they were patriotic or religious in nature, everyone came together; Independence Day in Mexico, July 20 in Colombia, September 7 in Brazil, and May 25 in Argentina; then there were the feasts of Corpus Christi, Our Lord of the Miracles, and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Describing the multitude who gathered to celebrate September 18 in Santiago, Blest Gana wrote: “Old customs and modern ways rub elbows everywhere; they look upon each other as sisters, tolerate each other’s respective weaknesses, and join in singing anthems to country and freedom.” But these were exceptional occasions. The old aristocratic families and the upper middle classes avoided contact with the common people: the “lepers” in Mexico City, the vagrants in Buenos Aires, the rotos in Santiago. Common people lived in their own neighborhoods and preserved their own customs, in which one could see the strength of the Creole tradition. Those who considered themselves superior saw ignorance, vulgarity, and poverty in the common people. Yet they never ceased to cherish what the lower classes had preserved of their native heritage, including their regional foods, their colorful dress, their ancient crafts, and their proverbs that captured a lifetime of experience. Everyone went to their festivals on the outskirts of the city to hear their songs and see their dances. Although no one with any social aspirations would have dared to include such songs and dances in their own parties, they sensed in them a power lacking in the fashionable arias from Italian opera or the polkas and waltzes popular in the salons. Perhaps some vestige of Spanish and Portuguese tradition was the bridge between that living past and the attraction for the other Europe that was neither Spain nor Portugal.

In the cities, the common people traded rural poverty for urban poverty, especially in those cities that grew in population and wealth. They were confined to marginal, poverty-stricken neighborhoods, an altogether different world from the center of the city. In Buenos Aires one needed to be bold to venture into the Tambor district, which was a predominantly black neighborhood. On her way to the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Marchioness de Calderón de la Barca passed through Mexico City’s suburbs, which she described as “poor, ruined, dirty, and with such a mixture of bad odors that it could only be overcome by a dose of cologne.” To the south, in São Paulo and La Palma, the situation was the same. The suburbs of Malambo in Lima and Chimba in Santiago were a collection of primitive, dirty shacks, where the monotonous misery was broken only by the cheer one found at the brothels or the sleazy gambling houses. And in Arequipa’s suburb called Otra Banda or in Las Nieves, one of the districts of Bogotá, the poor lived in a closed and separate world. The lower classes of Valparaiso built their houses in its ravines, and in imperial Rio de Janeiro the cortiços or tenement houses were built atop one another in Botafogo. One of these cortiços was described by Aluizio de Azevedo in the novel titled O Cortiço: “This enormous tenement consisted of 95 hovels. Once it was completed, Juan Roman built a high wall out front, topped with crushed glass and bottle bottoms, with a main entrance in the center, where he hung a colored crystal lantern on a panel that read: San Roman Tenement District. Shacks and bath tubs to rent.” Azevedo went on to describe the first stirrings in the morning: “And on that swampy, wet earth, in that warm and muddy dampness, a world began to stir, just like an ant hill, bubbling and growing, a living thing that seemed to erupt right there, from that quagmire, and multiply like larvae in a manure pile.” Italians and Portuguese intermarried with Brazilians who had escaped from the fazendas, forming hybrid families that were a confusing combination of the most varied traditions, habits and customs. What happened in Rio happened in other Brazilian cities and in cities in other countries: in Barranquilla, in Colón, in Panama City, in Veracruz. La Boca in Buenos Aires was a very special case where almost the entire population was from Genoa. They preserved their customs and traditions for a long time.

Even the poorest could be seen in the downtown district of the cities. They could be found alongside distinguished people at public festivals, bullfights, and cockfights. But they gathered together alone in the taverns—chicherías, picanterías, pulperías—that dotted the city, even its downtown area, to accommodate the lower classes who worked in the city center. But their kingdom was the marketplace and its surroundings. They came from as far away as the suburbs, carrying their produce and wares for sale. Open-air markets, or occasional enclosed ones like the Concepción in Lima, completed in 1854, or the Abundancia in Montevideo, completed in 1859, were the meccas of produce. The selling was done in traditional fashion: Indian women sat with their legs crossed, their fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, and especially country-style prepared foods (a combination of Indian and Creole ingredients) stretched out on a piece of fabric. As fond as the upper classes were of foreign cuisine, almost no one could resist the traditional fare, washed down by the local traditional beverage. A multi-colored little world surrounded the market and spilled over into the neighboring streets, which were lined with shops and vendors hawking their wares on the sidewalk. In the area surrounding Lima’s Concepción Market was the Chinese district. In 1876 a German traveler, Ernst Wilhelm Middendorf, wrote:

Amid elegant shops selling oriental wares, one finds greasy, narrow little shops selling every imaginable type of unpalatable food, with pale, squalid men crouching on the floor; the unpleasant odor of opium fills the entire area. The little restaurants in this part of the market are run only by Chinese, and all the dishes are prepared Chinese style and served in the same fashion.

Less exotic but no less colorful were the areas around the Volador and Merced markets in Mexico City, or the markets in the provincial cities of Oaxaca, Toluca, or Veracruz, Puerto Cabello or Barquisimeto, Colón, Bahía, or Copiapó.

The outskirts were dens of urban crime, where no one knew who anyone was and no one asked the new arrival about his past. Gradually, police forces were organized in the more important cities, but the lack of security was great. Larceny, robbery, and assaults were alarming to citizens. Criminals who made incursions into the downtown area had their hideouts in the outskirts or even further out. In the outskirts, they combined their criminal activities with others like gambling, pimping, or cockfighting. Santiago de Marfil, a suburb of Guanajuato, became legendary, as did other mining cities. In the city itself, the occasional “gentleman bandit” would organize a gang of professional thieves to conduct large-scale operations under his intelligent supervision. Such was the case with a Bogota attorney by the name of José Raimundo Russi, whose gangs terrorized the city in 1851: “Every house in the city became a fortress,” recalled Cordovez Moure in recounting the feats and the end of this gentleman bandit.

Houses tended to become fortresses for other reasons as well. Political centers above all, cities were the stages for power struggles. But often they were just that—a stage—since most of society did not participate, knowing that the dispute was between armed groups who each backed pretenders to the presidency. The capitals knew that they were the spoils of war, and their anguish translated itself into a kind of accommodating apathy. The Peruvian Felipe Pardo y Aliaga described people’s spontaneous reaction in the face of danger:

Sensing they are the spoils of war,
Citizens shout: “Shut the doors!”
And right away streets and squares are,
As if by electric shock, deserted.
Is it strange, then, that the aspirant
To rule should find the gates
To power open, if,
after he announces his criminal intent,
Each citizen closes only his own doors?

That was what Pardo y Aliaga had to say about Lima’s political sensibility. A few years earlier in 1846, the Venezuelan Juan Vicente González, thinking that the republic was lost, cursed Caracas “because it corrupts the ways of youth, weakens itself by vice, creates and promotes fictitious needs that will devour poor people, and—as a new Sybaris—grows lethargic, sleeps, and is annoyed by a fall of a rose petal, when it should be an example of frugality, love of work, and active, committed patriotism.”  Denouncing the city’s political indifference, he concludes, “When will you have your share of misfortune, selfish Caracas?” Shortly thereafter, recalling the final episode in the Mexican civil war of 1860, in his Evolución política del pueblo mexicano [Political Evolution of the Mexican People] Justo Sierra wrote: “From its balconies and rooftops Mexico City, a city of reactions, clerical city par excellence, applauded all the victories of Miramón and Márquez; at every irreverent festival of the civil war, Mexico City poured into the downtown streets to carry the victor on its shoulders, to shout and whistle with enthusiasm, and to steal handkerchiefs and watches; waving rifle stocks and flags, dragging the artisans and the poor from their slums and out of the colossal shadow of the convents, Mexico City greeted the entrance of the reformist army of González Ortega with a kind of delirium. And this was so because Mexico was not a clerical, but a plainly Catholic city, and the civil war had made everyone indifferent to everything except peace. One’s meager earnings were by this time no longer requested but rather literally stolen by the treasury agent; the honest man was taken from his home and workshop and put on the barricades and in the slaughterhouse of the battlefield. Everyone clamored for peace, the common folk in the city square and the bourgeoisie from their balconies and roofs.” While the cities were the setting of the struggles for power, very few people had an active role to play; the others were mere spectators.

Small groups were involved in these power struggles. Sometimes they were organized as political parties, but for the most part they were simply interest groups or opinion groups that supported certain leaders of recognized standing. They were either politicians or military men, and the difference between the one and the other was not always clear. Civilians were tempted by military rank because they knew that could be decisive in politics. But the military themselves, trained to act and with an authoritarian mentality, understood that they had to accept the rules of political play if they were to consolidate their own power and stabilize the position of the group that supported them. Politics were decided in the cities, either through elections or uprisings. Even Brazil, with its imperial rule, could not escape this fate; and when Pedro I abdicated, Brazil not only had to endure the threat of national disintegration but it also had to face successive revolutions in Recife and Bahía. In other countries, military uprisings—in some cases the revolutions—disrupted the life of the cities with dramatic regularity. Arequipa and Lima went through several military uprisings. La Paz saw “revolutionary” governments come and go. From time to time, Guayaquil would make a bid for the power wielded by Quito’s aristocracy. The phenomenon was so widespread that recounting its details would be tantamount to writing a history of each country and of its cities.

Two kinds of revolutions could be distinguished: there were simple military coups, like the one that brought Santa Ana to power, of which the Marchioness of Calderón de la Barca left a written account; there were also uprisings that polarized public opinion and disturbed society in the cities where they broke out. Of this second kind, Blest Gana described one that took place in Santiago; María Nieves y Bustamante described another in Arequipa. Whether engaged or indifferent, urban societies came out of the experience diminished and disillusioned, almost always frustrated in their hopes, because victory never brought about that “rebirth” to which it aspired: one power group would replace another, without ever establishing a consensual and consistent political program.

Blest Gana perceived that the struggle for power between the dominant groups was not the only element at play in the revolution that he described in Santiago. Cordovez Moure was even more explicit in his description of the political conflicts that took place in Bogota between 1851 and 1853. The struggle for power was sharpened by a class confrontation when the cachacos, from bourgeois families, challenged the tradesmen, organized in popular societies that had somehow captured the revolutionary wave of 1848. The district of Las Nieves was the scene of an all out battle; shortly thereafter General José María Melo started his popular revolution, which was subsequently thwarted by the alliance of all the political and military forces in the country.

Cordovez Moure also recounted an exemplary election on March 7, 1849, in which the Legislative Chambers, meeting in Bogota’s Church of Santo Domingo, was to choose between General José Hilario López, the candidate of the people, and Dr. Rufino Cuervo, the candidate of the conservative party, who had the support of Dr. José Joaquín de Gori. Tensions were running high in the city, and for a time it seemed that the election would end in tragedy. But the process went on without incident, and General López won the election. “News of the election of General López,” wrote Cordovez Moure, “was enthusiastically received by the people outside the church. The shouting was deafening. Squeezed together inside the multitude, some would hug each other, even at the risk of being asphyxiated. Others would toss their hats in the air. The deputies who supported General Lopez were cheered as they left the church, arm in arm with the Congressmen. The fireworks and the pealing of the cathedral bells announced to the city that a president had been elected, and supporters of the victorious candidate swarmed through the streets preceded by the military band of Battalion No. 5 and of the National Guard, shouting ‘Long live López!,’ ‘Long live the sovereign people!’ ”

Had it been the election of congressmen, the list might have been put together as it was in that gathering in Buenos Aires that Lucio V. López described in La gran aldea [The Big Village]. There, the author says, “My aunt’s party introduced candidates who nominated themselves in a family gathering.” It was around 1860.

To be fair, and above all to be accurate, most of the bourgeoisie of Buenos Aires were members of my aunt’s party; the decent and wealthy families; the families with the traditional surnames, that kind of Buenos Aires aristocracy that was clean, illiterate, dumb, proud, boring, provincial, honorable, rich and fat; there were social and political reasons for the existence of that party. Born as a legitimate party when Rosas fell from power, its members had endured Rosas’ domination and control for twenty years and had, unwittingly, absorbed all the vices of that era. With all their great and enthusiastic ideas about freedom, they had broken the chains without breaking away from their political inheritance. Thus, the party did not transform the moral stance of its children; it made them ranchers and shopkeepers in 1850. It looked with distrust at the university and regarded the daring talent of new men, who were capable but poor, as a threat to its existence; it created and raised its families in luxurious places, with all the unconscious pretensions to the big life, to elegance and social standing. Unwittingly, unintentionally, perhaps, unavoidably, the party kept its historical character intact, a character that was honorable and virtuous but also routine-bound and dull.

These were political groups rather than well organized parties. Perhaps they simply were power groups that only circumstantially adopted an electoral strategy and an ideological label. But it was hard to know, in those unstable and constantly changing societies, the degree of consensus that each group could legitimately claim. As it was hard to find a definite ideological response to immediate problems that had never been envisioned in the standard political doctrines. For this reason, power was always pragmatic, and it was only vaguely based on theory.

Power had its real base on might: first, on the might of arms, and also on the might that power itself creates. This is why national and provincial capitals were so important, because those cities were the centers where power was wielded and controlled. But, in the end, power was always personal, and the physical presence of the person in power or of those who acted directly on his behalf was a magnet and a source of influence. The “palace” or “fortress” or “government house” were in some cases sumptuous—like the imperial courts of Boa Vista or Chapultepec—and in some others modest. But they were always seen as enclosures where secret schemes were constantly plotted, so secret that only their later effects would ever be known or felt. There, to palace, had to go anyone who wanted to obtain something, especially if it was something that power could bestow even if the seeker was not legitimately entitled to have it: a lesser degree of power and, above all, easy wealth gotten with official blessing. Relatives, friends, political allies wandered through waiting rooms and hallways and, if they could, moved their homes closer to the seats of power, especially if power was in the hands of some Creole autocrat, laden with epaulets and medals and anxious to be courted.

Every capital city had its moment of high drama from the overwhelming presence of power. In 1868 the Chilean José Victorino Lastarria explained how pressure from an authoritarian government had altered Santiago’s social landscape:

An omnipotent and repressive government has been in control for thirty-six years, its base of support being the interests of a narrow, small oligarchy, in other words a few genteel men and families that have encircled and sustained it. That all powerful government has always had its way; it has always taken the initiative, claimed sole right to decide what was good and what was bad, what was just and what unjust. Any citizen who has had the audacity not to submit to it, to criticize and oppose it, has been scorned and persecuted by the official power and by the wealthy and mighty oligarchy that supports it.

Lastarria also pointed out the effects of such an abuse of power:

Thirty years ago Santiago was not what it is today. We who are now old knew Santiago when it was happy, gay, jovial and sincere. It is curious to see how the nature and the inclinations of Santiago’s people have changed in the last thirty years and how they have acquired their present habits of deceit, apathy, and of quiet sadness, striking not only to foreigners but also to the people of other provinces.

Quito under the rule of García Moreno was described exactly the same way, as was Buenos Aires under Rosas and La Paz under Melgarejo. And even worse could have been said about the provincial authorities when chance and circumstances helped them become local satraps.

When a republican system of government was in place, the opposition could express its views in Congress. These assemblies were thus another focus of political life in the cities. Congressional debates often turned out to be oratorical contests, and speeches became influential thanks to the newspapers that published and commented on them. There were memorable debates in all the congresses; in some cases, what made them memorable were the doctrines invoked in the debates and the ways in which those doctrines were presented; in other cases, it was reach and importance of the questions being discussed; still in others, it was the play of dramatic tensions that surrounded the sessions. Since all political persuasions were housed under the same congressional roof, the legislatures were sometime the scene of tragic episodes that rocked the entire city. The President of the Chamber of Representatives of Buenos Aires was assassinated in his office in 1839 when a conspiracy headed by his son was uncovered; in Caracas, on January 24, 1848, mobs stormed Congress, killing or wounding several lawmakers. Constitutional congresses that were to draft a constitution sometimes met in provincial cities: deputies from all over the country would travel to some quiet spot, away from the passions of the capital city and the entire country. The Ecuadorian Constitution of 1835 was signed in Ambato; Argentina’s Constitution was signed in Santa Fe in 1853; Venezuela’s 1858 Constitution was signed in Valencia; and Colombia’s 1863 Constitution was signed in Río Negro. Once the constitutions had been signed, the conventions were dissolved and peace returned to the provincial communities.

The life and peace of many cities was disrupted by foreign siege and occupation. Besieged by Castilla, Arequipa called itself “Sebastopol,” while Montevideo, besieged by Oribe, was called “the New Troy.” Foreign ships blockaded the Río de la Plata and bombarded the Fort of Valparaiso. United States and French forces occupied Veracruz; Chilean forces occupied Lima. National armies occupied cities during the civil wars and at times behaved more cruelly and ruthlessly than the foreign forces. Each time, cities were called to make sacrifices, and the cohesiveness of urban societies was put to the test.

Side by side with the development of the political city, the intellectual city came to life. The old colonial universities, like the University of Santo Domingo, the universities in Mexico and Lima, in Guatemala, Quito, Charcas, or Cordoba, languished in the midst of the political upheavals and of new intellectual aspirations. Some of them were reborn, like the one in Santiago under the guidance of the Venezuelan Andres Bello. New universities emerged, like the University of Buenos Aires and the University of Arequipa. São Paulo’s law school had such an intense intellectual life that for a long time it defined São Paulo as a university town, a sort of American Coimbra. Students were the city’s most identifiable social group, even though they came from very different Brazilian cities, including Rio, which had a medical school. In old high schools, like Bogota’s Rosario, and in old academies, like those in Bahía and Rio de Janeiro, intellectual battles were waged to replace old ideas with new ones, heavily influenced by French thought.

In order to encourage the study of his nation’s history, Brazil’s Emperor Pedro II had established his Brazilian Institute of History and Geography in Rio de Janeiro in 1838. Andrés Lamas founded the Institute of History and Geography of Uruguay in Montevideo in 1843, and Bartolomé Mitre founded the Río de la Plata Institute of History and Geography in 1854 in Buenos Aires. In Mexico, Lucas Alamán, historian and politician, founded the Museum of Antiquities and Natural History in 1823, and José María Vergara y Vergara promoted the establishment of the Colombian Academy in Bogota. In many other cities, new learned societies and new publications—historical, literary or philosophical journals and newspapers designed to disseminate ideas—gave proof of the persistent, and often ephemeral, attempts to bring together the intellectual resources of the cities. Then there were the salons, where books and ideas were discussed, like the one that Vergara himself founded in Bogotá, called “El Mosaico.”

But newspapers were the chief instruments of intellectual life, which could rarely be disentangled from political life. Poets, like the Argentine Juan Cruz Varela, the Ecuadorian José Joaquín de Olmedo and the Colombian Julio Arboleda, writers of prose narrative and essayists, all participated, to a degree, in the political struggles and dedicated long hours to journalism. Almost every city of any importance had one or more publications devoted to the dissemination of ideas. Newspapers circulated among the active, enlightened groups of the bourgeoisie, and their contributing writers included liberal intellectuals and staunch conservatives, as well as the occasional supporter of some cause or project or of some local chieftain. Almost daily, the best pens in Latin America wrote for militant newspapers with an unmistakable bias. And the enlightened groups of the bourgeoisie, who were the readers of these newspapers, took the ideas they had read about to the salons, cafes, squares, and atriums, and passed them on to others with their own personal comments, summaries and elaborations, until those ideas became the shared patrimony of everyone across all layers of society. Trends of thought and opinion were thus formed and even deformed in the urban world, where the writer-journalist, who voiced the concerns of small urban communities, was known to everyone and was expected to comment on or argue for or against the burning issues of the day.

The busiest street in every capital city had a bookstore filled with the foreign books most popular with the curious and the snobs. Bookstores also housed literary circles that gathered together people who read the same books and faithfully followed the same authors. These were the same people who also gathered at the theater, in newspaper offices, and in Congress. Politics and literature were inseparable in the patrician city.