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

Europe Imitated in Everyday Life

When Pierre D’Espagnat was in Colombia in 1897, Bogota was still a very colonial city. The French traveler thought he was repaying the warm welcome that the good families of Bogota had given him when he gave them this advice, in his Souvenirs de la Nouvelle Grenade (Memories of New Granada):

The only fear I have is that the people of Bogota might give in to the modern style of dress. That would be so out of place in a setting like Bogota, which is so unique, so passionate, and so very Catholic. Whatever the universal tyranny of Paris fashion might dictate, the dress best suited to the women of South America, the one most in harmony with that world of passion and faith, is and will always be the mantilla, an article of clothing that gives the women of South America a style of their own.

Almost everyone who scrutinized the Latin American situation dwelled upon the risk and the importance of the shift away from the traditional, entrenched way of life, in favor of one that, in the end, consisted of a set of foreign prescriptions and formulas for changing just the appearance of usage and customs. But that shift did not happen everywhere. Many cities preserved their colonial air, which the gradual introduction of new techniques did very little to change. “Colonial”, in fact, meant “provincial”; it connoted above all a resistance to adopting those foreign prescriptions and formulas. The “provincial” mentality came not from location in any particular city but from inexperience with modernization and the phenomena that transformed cities, such as rapid demographic growth or the formation of new bourgeois classes. Alfredo Pareja Días-Canseco dated the beginning of his novelistic cycle Los nuevos años (The New Years) just at the moment he sensed those changes in Ecuador:

They are really several stories, a different one for each book. They begin in 1925, when new forms of human coexistence start to take root in our country. That was when the agony of the patriarch began. There is little doubt that a new country wants to replace the old one; it is organizing quickly to achieve what other places already have and to breathe the great atmosphere of the world. That is when our new years begin.

The old patrician classes kept their grip on cities that were not part of the transformation, and their norms protected the other classes as well. Unless something happened, usually coming from far away, the provincial or colonial city preserved its tranquility, which only the snob from the capital city would condemned as inimical to progress.

The most significant aspect of the transformation in the cities was, as always, the change that their social structure underwent. The old strata took on a new look and new strata appeared. Vast middle classes surfaced, and the new bourgeoisie quickly rose to the top of society. They introduced a new lifestyle that tried to be cosmopolitan by rejecting the provincial and previously dominant ways of life.

Two European models had particular resonance in Latin America: Victorian England and France under Napoleon III. The new Latin American bourgeois classes developed under the almost tyrannical influence of these two models. As they translated those models, they articulated their own ways of life, combining something that was foreign with something of their own. The new bourgeois were most at home in the capitals and ports, where the mail from Paris or London arrived first, where foreigners who had that European prestige about them lived, and where the branches of foreign banks and business establishments were set up. And in those cities appeared the obsession with creating a cosmopolitan, or to be more precise, a European lifestyle.

The main preoccupation of the new Latin American bourgeoisie—as that of the rest of the world—was to try out and then confirm a mode of life that would reflect unequivocally their position at the top of the social pyramid, through clear signals that revealed their wealth. Exaggerated displays of wealth and sophisticated ostentation were their way of giving individuals and families dignity, of gaining acknowledgement of their superiority, a superiority that had until then been reserved for the old patrician class. So it was not just material objects that concerned the new bourgeois; it was rather the function those objects filled for this vague but very baroque bourgeoisie.

It was this mode of life—baroque, bourgeois, and parvenu, or perhaps simply parvenu (which might define the bourgeois baroque)—that nurtured the creation of Latin American naturalist novels by the Chilean Luis Orrego Luco, the Mexican Federico Gamboa, the Peruvian Mercedes Cabello de Carbonera, the Venezuelan José Rafael Pocaterra, the Argentine Julián Martel, and the Brazilian Julio Ribeiro, among so many others. And it was this mode of life, idealized, that served as the framework for the poetry of Modernism. Each novelist selected the features that he or she believed best exemplified the workings of these new bourgeois who, as the months passed in those crazy years of speculation between 1880 and World War I, took on aristocratic airs and managed to convince themselves that they had some kind of “ancestry” or lineage.

English-style clubs began to become fashionable in certain Latin American cities. These clubs had sitting rooms furnished with comfortable chairs, reading rooms with few books but many newspapers and magazines (the Revue des Deux Mondes, in particular), elegantly appointed salons for parties, a dining room open until late at night, and, best of all, a staff of experienced waiters and faithful valets who knew each member by name and each one’s weaknesses and preferences. The redoubts of the new bourgeois, these clubs usually included members from the old patrician class as well.

Clubs served several purposes. Club members gathered to seek the sanctuary of their “circle,” where everyone knew one another; they discussed the economic and political news of the day and exchanged social gossip; they established the contacts and informal talks that would have been inappropriate in a government agency or financial offices; they ate and drank among trusted friends. Clubs were retreats for the man on a spree and for the gambler tired of the game. Some of the most fashionable parties, attended by high society, were held at the clubs.

Club membership was for a relatively small, closed group that intended to remain as restrictive as possible. Wealth was the only ticket that could get one inside. The club was thus a clear signal that the new bourgeoisie intended to become a tight-knit oligarchy as quickly as possible. It was less important to keep the number members from increasing than to keep the number of nouveaux riches from increasing too much. The dominant group’s exclusivity had to be made public in a place that made plain that only this class—and no one else—was allowed there. The club was the place from which social life was controlled, and to some extent economic and political life, too.

The idea of forming a “circle,” a closed group at the highest level of an open society, was typical of, even an obsession with, the new bourgeois, perhaps because they were not the original, traditional established class. Their members undoubtedly followed the example of the patrician class, but their exclusivity was more pronounced not only because their financial deals might be somewhat sordid, but also because of the personal insecurity of many who had barely, and laboriously, reached the upper levels of society. Though the new bourgeois classes were, in effect, open groups, they tried, like the patrician class before them, to close ranks.

The Jockey Club, the Club de Progreso, the National, and the Unión fulfilled the function that was also served by other conventional meeting places. At any given time, there might be a restaurant that was “the place” where everyone in the “circle” knew that he or she could find friends. These were imitations of Paris restaurants, both in their decor and in their cuisine and etiquette. One drank champagne as one talked politics, business, the theater, or women. What mattered was to be where one could see and be seen. The theater was another absolutely essential place to see and be seen, especially the opera house, if there was one. No fashionable gentleman or lady could miss the theater. People who had season boxes or orchestra seats met between acts, made their presence known, noticed who else was there, and engaged in the small talk that kept one abreast of the smallest flutterings in politics or business. It was the place to show off a fine dress brought from Europe or an exotic jewel. And everyone took note, if only to adjust their assessment of that individual if the outfit or the jewel justified it. Society could also be seen on carriage drives. As the coaches passed one another, in an instant one saw who was inside and what toilette the women were wearing. Some gentlemen rode their beautiful horses along the promenade. They would pull up alongside their friends’ carriages and share a moment of conversation. The same thing happened at weddings and baptisms, on the church steps at the end of high mass, at the seaside resorts that were becoming fashionable imitations of Trouville, and at the racetrack.

In the constant comings-and-goings, a party given by a good family was a special occasion. They were luxurious parties, carefully organized, sometimes making a display of good taste, but always boasting their wealth. The Argentine Julian Martel in La Bolsa and Venezuelan José Rafael Pocaterra in La casa de los Abila [The Abila’s House] offered two similar versions of this ritual, which brought together the most distinguished people of Buenos Aires or Caracas: the same social climbers, the same obvious concern for immediate wealth or easy success, the same odd mixture of personalities, consumed by trivialities. A banker, the Papal nuncio, a minister of state, and perhaps even the president of the republic made the party so important that the host seemed, for that day at least, to be a triumphant hero. Regardless of appearances, everyone was there on business: to see and be seen, to confirm their places as important members of “the” group, to underscore what the whole society was compelled to recognize—that they and they alone were the new class in power.

In their patterns of living, the new bourgeoisie showed a strong attachment to their European models; it was inevitable that those models should play the same role in the social realm as they did in economic life. This imitation was apparent in the desire to replace each old patrician, practically colonial mansion with a modern residence, preferably in the French style, decorated and furnished to fit the owner’s station, with the kind of paintings, sculptures, and ornaments that were fashionable among the snobs of the moment. An almost religious respect for European fashion and dress accompanied the introduction of foreign customs and habits. They invariably clashed with traditional customs and habits, which seemed increasingly provincial and outdated. In sports, fencing, tennis, and hockey began to attract elegant young people for whom the excitement of a brisk carriage ride was not enough. The automobile would arrive shortly thereafter, as would team sports practiced in virtually private clubs.

Looking outside, concerned with being the class in power and recognized as such, the new bourgeoisie, at least formally, had very strict standards. Among their youngest and more cynical members, these rules encouraged a kind of escapism, which was considered no less elegant since it, too, was a Parisian tradition. The cabaret or house of prostitution was an outlet for dissipated youth. There they had contact with prostitutes, card sharks, racehorse grooms, sometimes even white slavers or criminals. The world of bullfighting, racing, and gambling helped to establish those dangerous associations and earned the dissipated bourgeois the title of madcap. That term never had an entirely pejorative meaning; there was even an element of praise in it. The madcap transgressed the norms of the new bourgeoisie but did not deny them, and there was always a hope—almost a certainty—that he would abandon the slippery slope of vice, come to his senses, and even become the staunchest defender not only of the established moral norms but also of the more conventional external forms.

The lifestyle of the new bourgeoisie began to change after World War I. The belle epoque was coming to an end in Latin America, and among the many things that were forgotten was the rhetoric of the nouveaux riches. Suddenly a sporty and casual conception of life emerged, one that first attracted youth, with the rest of society slowly following their lead. The influence of new ways from the United States, emphasized by the movies, conspired to undermine some traditions: the shimmy and the Charleston soon replaced the waltz.

For some groups in the new bourgeoisie, the development of a certain aesthetic taste, an interest in art or literature, seemed to be a necessary complement to a modernization that should culminate in personal refinement. Some, of course, were born with a sense of good taste, which they endeavored to satisfy in genuine ways. For the most part, however, the goal was to appear refined: to be up to date with the “latest from Paris,” to comment on the work of the writer who was most in vogue, to admire what ought to be admired, to be perceived as someone who was very much a part of the new world and of the age of progress. It was one more display of social superiority.

Of course, there were genuine intellectuals, writers, and artists within the new bourgeoisie. They reflected the intensity of the upheaval that Latin American societies had experienced. For some the fundamental issue was politics; others broadened their interests, inspired by the sociology being studied everywhere in England and France at that time. Many began to grasp the profound sociological conflicts behind political change, mirrored not only in the class structure but also in the conflicting attitudes among the various sectors of a society that was resisting the pressure exerted both by the old patrician class and by the new bourgeoisie. The sociologists—the Peruvian Francisco García Calderón, the Venezuelan César Zumeta, the Colombian Carlos A. Torres, the Argentine José Ingenieros, among many others—witnessed and analyzed change. Along with them were those who devoted themselves to philosophy—and sometimes they were the same people. They were attracted by the philosophy of positivism: the French school that developed from the work of Auguste Comte, and the Anglo-Saxon version in which John Stuart Mill, William James, and Herbert Spencer figured prominently. The philosophers included the Peruvian Alejandro Deustúa, the Cuban Enrique Varona, the Mexican Gabino Barreda, and the Argentine José Ingenieros. Latin American philosophical thought examined profound theoretical problems that had important practical implications, especially in the area of education. It provided, above all, the philosophical justification for a “progressive” society, focused on material progress, and was driven by an ideology of success—such was the society over which the new bourgeoisie presided.

The poets, writers, and artists might occasionally appear somewhat peripheral, but that was only an appearance. The bohemian cafes, the literary and scientific societies and salons scorned the generally accepted values and ideas, but they were still headed in one of the several directions in which the new bourgeois classes were moving. The naturalist genre in fiction, which tried to penetrate the secrets of a society consumed by the temptation of easy fortune and rapid social rise, condemned what it believed to be inhumane and cruel in that new society, but it nevertheless embraced what one might call its more wholesome principles. The modernist poets-the Mexican Gutiérrez Nájera, the Cuban Julián del Casal, the Uruguayan Julio Herrera y Reissig, the Argentine Leopoldo Lugones, and especially the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío—captured and articulated the sensibility of men of refinement. But it was the refinement of the powerful, who were seduced by the refined world of luxury and sometimes by the refined luxury of power. It was not so much nonconformity as a rejection of vulgarity, which was easily confused with the quickly acquired elitism of the new bourgeoisie. In the end, sensitive refinement could help justify the rise of the new aristocracy of money.

Bold and stubborn, the new bourgeoisie needed and wanted to take on the battle for power. It was not easy. Power had its owners, and for them, the new bourgeois groups were just one more factor to contend with, certainly not the only one among the many ready and willing to challenge the dominant powers. Strange alliances formed in which it was unclear who was serving whom. These alliances gradually changed the form and the content of politics. The new bourgeois groups could not or would not always wield power themselves, perhaps because they did not always have the commanding figure that was needed in such unsettled societies. But they were the power behind the throne; better said, they were the power behind el señor presidente. The socioeconomic process that saw the rise of the new bourgeoisie, followed quickly by the middle classes and the popular classes, had roots altogether different from those of the political process. Consequently, one process did not seriously interfere with the other. Instead, the social process began to penetrate the political process and then gradually distorted it. In the capitals, representatives of old power groups were not the only ones to exercise political functions, both direct and indirect. New elements, emerging in every city undergoing change, would vie with the established leaders for power. The latter were, for the most part, the old patrician lineages, the military and ecclesiastical groups, and the political cronies whom they had long supported and who had supported them in return. To a lesser degree, they were also the old economic groups, composed of wealthy businessmen and property owners, and the intelligentsia, who warranted special attention. The new elements, on the other hand, represented the rising economic power. Their strength lay in the discovery by the political leadership that they needed them. Thus began the tight alliance between old caudillos and lucky generals, on the one hand, with unscrupulous groups of no particular nationality, a combination of foreign investors and businessmen and native representatives and agents. It was inevitable. Faced with the challenge of the international economy and the need for domestic development, the political leaders threw themselves into modernizing the country and exploiting its natural resources more heavily and more methodically. When they discovered that they needed capital, they went looking for it or simply accepted the capital offered them. In return the investor and the businessman sought privileges and guarantees, and they solicited such benefits from the political leadership that was trying to attract them. In that give-and-take, the number of brokers, agents, and people working on commission in the newly created sectors increased. Many easily became wealthy. All those who were associated with foreign capital acquired uncommon prominence and favor in government circles. Privileges and guarantees were embodied in laws that managers or agents proposed, ministers and other public officials studied, deputies and senators voted on, and bureaucrats implemented. The bond was established, and little by little political power found itself snared in a net, from which it did not necessarily wish to extricate itself.

The chief power players were, or so it appeared, the political parties. Some were traditional parties with outdated agenda, but even within those traditional parties groups formed that adapted themselves to the new circumstances; the theory of progress was sometimes a shield that concealed their aspirations. Except for some groups who kept alive a traditional image of productive activity, both liberals and conservatives tried to take advantage of the new circumstances. After the economic transformation was unleashed, however, a new twist developed. The new middle classes and certain sectors of the working classes began to organize politically and to assert their right to participate in each country’s political life. Either within the old parties or through parties that were trying to establish themselves, these new urban masses began to demand real democracy. The cities became increasingly unsettled. There, new political groups—avant-garde liberals, radicals, socialists—soon began to organize. Their membership and their behavior disrupted the peace maintained by previous gentleman’s agreements. Now the struggle for power took on a different character. Gatherings of several thousand people in a public square, an impassioned speaker, inflammatory reformist rhetoric, or revolutionary slogans disrupted the cities and took politics out of the drawing rooms and salons where it had traditionally been practiced with prudent discretion. Labor demonstrators seemed ominous to the wealthy classes, because they foretold a social revolution, called strikes, and sang the incendiary verses of the Internationale. There were “popular revolts,” so named when in reality they were driven by the middle classes although they sometimes had the support of the more humble sectors. The new political progressive and revolutionary, increased their press runs, circulated either publicly or clandestinely, and shaped the opinions of the new groups that were joining the struggle for power.

Political life was even more agitated in the cities undergoing change, and the exercise of power had to follow different rules. Until then, power had rested in the hands of a few dozen or a few hundred families, around whom swirled a political clientele that was easily manipulated. The emergence of new forces, however, changed everything. For power to remain in the hands of a few families, or not slip through the fingers of new power groups that were forming, it had to be wielded with greater harshness, even to the point of methodical and severe dictatorship. Oligarchies and dictatorships, either in pure form or in some combination, were the typical forms of governments practiced from the national capitals.

In those cities, el señor presidente (to use the expression coined by Miguel Angel Asturias with the Guatemalan government of Manuel Estrada Cabrera in mind) reigned supreme. Among the many others who exercised similar power were Rafael Núñez and Rafael Reyes in Bogota, Porfirio Díaz in Mexico City, Gerardo Machado in Havana, Eloy Alfaro in Quito, Cipriano Castro and Juan Vicente Gómez in Caracas, Augusto Leguía in Lima, and Hernando Siles in La Paz. They were autocrats with a governing style bordering on personalism, described by one observer as a “democratic kaiserism,” but in fact a vicious distortion of the kind of power that the oligarchies wanted from the one to whom they had entrusted their interests, either expressly or tacitly. At other times, when the oligarchies remained more united as a class and more active as a political group, the power wielded by el señor presidente had its limits; this was the case in Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Asunción, La Paz, Bogota, and Lima.

El señor presidente had enormous powers, and the nation’s capital was his court, where every one had to go to have any problem solved, although his representatives also had their own courts in the provincial cities. But, in fact, the court was “the palace.” At times it ran according to a somewhat exaggerated protocol: chests generously covered with medals and other decorations were everywhere, as were servants in livery and short pants. What predominated was the spirit of the new bourgeoisie, bewitched by the luxury of the salons, by the beauty of the gardens, by the champagne and the European aristocracies of the belle époque, who were, by the way, bourgeois like themselves. At times el señor presidente had a style all his own, and he could even be austere like Porfirio Díaz who lived secluded in Chapultepec Castle. The important thing was never to let the reins of power drop for even a moment, and his lieutenants counted on that. El señor presidente was surrounded by his small circle of unconditionally loyal elite, a small court that placed itself between him and the rest of the world. He had his ministers, who stayed in touch with what was being said in the streets, his officials, his favorite friends, whom he invited to “the palace” and who occasionally took the liberty of introducing him to some aspiring courtier. He had his generals, his police chief, his henchmen and spies, all lured by the favors of el señor presidente, richer by the day, more and more powerful by the day, and more and more a prisoner of his court. The capital was transforming itself by widening its avenues and promenades, building beautiful public edifices, installing gas electric lighting. El señor presidente was increasingly a captive of the very power groups to whom he gave orders, which they awaited and were eager to carry out.

El señor presidente would usually come to power through elections—generally rigged—after long deliberations among the prominent figures, one of whom was often a banker for whom some flattering comments were reserved. Agreements could always be worked out in a club, a hotel whose salons the initiates frequented, or a newspaper office. The election itself would put the candidate in office, and then the machinery of state would take over. But the middle classes increased in number, in power, and in the clarity of their ideas, and large sector of the working class supported them, although some still had their own objectives. Politics were becoming more complicated. It was no longer just a matter of imprisoning the leading opposition figures. Instead, one had to resort more and more to crude election fraud, and occasionally to call out the police or the army to put down the demonstrators who poured into the streets and were forever congregating under the balcony of el señor presidente. These new urban multitudes had aspirations to participate in political life. In composition at least, they were a reflection of the change that had taken place in many cities. Now it was not just the traditional families and an indiscriminate mass of indifferent people. These were new working classes and out of their midst progressive groups would form: some could be socialists or anarchists, capable of reading Marx or Bakunin. The number of those who wanted to participate in civic life was increasing daily. The new middle classes had their own political aspirations, and because of their education and the functions they performed in the life of the city, their importance could no longer be denied. The middle classes were the machinery of commerce and held important jobs. They read newspapers, used the trolley, chatted in the cafes or in the political clubs, and went to the cinema. In the meantime, there had been a triumphant revolution in Mexico and another in Russia. Neither el señor presidente nor the circles he represented could fool themselves about the influences behind these groups. Never before had such multitudes gathered to demand “democracy” or “social justice.” Although they were a mixed lot, the most enlightened representatives of the new middle classes headed those groups.

One characteristic of these classes was their determination to improve their educational and cultural background. Many began to read books not to amuse themselves, as was the habit among the upper classes, but to learn, to acquire “useful knowledge,” and to steep themselves in the “modern ideas” of science, society, and politics. Because the phenomenon was widespread in Europe, there was no shortage of books like those published by the Spanish publishing house Sempere, inexpensive volumes that flooded the public libraries organized by the municipal governments, mutual aid societies, and labor syndicates. Yet they were also the basis of countless small private collections assembled by people of modest means who were proud of their collection even though the books were not bound in Russian leather. Other collections of inexpensive books appeared around that time, and many made their way into Latin American cities.

To feed the insatiable appetite of those who were curious for the first time, there were magazines, newspapers put out by socialist and anarchist groups, and magazines for the general public with science articles and literary pieces. The middle classes and the better prepared sectors of the working classes gleaned a considerable amount of information and knowledge, sufficient to discuss matters until they defined their own positions on the problems of the world. It was an intellectual position very much shaped by a particular ideology, which made their relations with the upper classes and working classes more difficult, the both of which had a more natural and immediate understanding of the world.

Out of the midst of those middle classes came the new professionals: physicians, engineers, attorneys. Yet many that became members of the middle classes were originally from more modest social levels. A new man of letters would also join that middle rank of society. Unlike the distinguished and refined gentleman who whiled away his time with literature, these new writers were less aesthetically inclined, more interested in political causes and as a rule more utopian. They could be seen together with painters and sculptors in bohemian cafes like the one in Buenos Aires cafe that Manuel Gálvez describes in El mal metafísico [The Metaphysical Disease], in the literary and artistic salons, at the openings of dramatic plays or one-act farces written by colleagues, or at the exhibits or studios where their friends worked. And so a different type of cultural activity took shape in cities undergoing change. It was more militant, less academic. The traditional culture survived and had its own place, where it fortified itself against the onslaught of that other brand of culture which it regarded as middle-class and somewhat uncouth. These bastions of traditional culture were the academies, the learned societies, the universities, and the elite literary salons, refined and somewhat purist, held in the drawing rooms or libraries of prominent social figures, where the elegant carved woodworking encased richly bound books. The contrast was obvious and, like the new political and social struggles, it unsettled daily life in the cities. There were debates, clashes between groups, rivalries between journals that espoused different aesthetic or ideological creeds. Frequently the problems and groups overlapped, making it difficult to distinguish the proponents of one position from those of another.

Important literary and political salons—perhaps like the one described in De sobremesa [Postprandial Converstion] by José Asunción Silva—had been held in Lima since 1885, first in its Ateneo, then in its Círculo Literario, and after 1887 around Clorinda Matto de Turner. There radical politics, the Indian movement, and other burning issues were intermingled with strictly literary concerns. At the turn of the century, Buenos Aires had important salons—Cafe La Brasileña first and then Los Inmortales. In Mexico City the Ateneo de la Juventud was important around 1910; later, others were formed. The one in Lima was centered around of Victor Andrés Belaúnde and his writings in the Mercurio Peruano. Then came all those cafes forged in the crucible of the aesthetic revolution that followed World War I: the one promoted by the modernist movement in São Paulo, the Martín Fierro group in Buenos Aires, the group involved in the magazine Contemporánea in Mexico City, and in Havana the group that revolved around Revista de Avance. Most people in these groups were from the middle classes and earned their living in a variety of ways, although there was always the occasional son of some rich coffee plantation owner or powerful estanciero. They all had the sense of being, in some way, a minority that had achieved a certain degree of refinement. They were, however, also reacting to the new social problems cropping up everywhere. Many who regarded themselves in the minority began to cater to the majorities whom they started to refer to as the “masses.” They wrote in newspapers and magazines. In fact, the number of urban newspapers and magazines in circulation increased as more and more people learned to read. Not only were there more people but more people could read and, more importantly, wanted to read. They wanted to learn about the problems of the world in which they lived. People went to the movies to learn and be entertained. In the early decades of the century, the movies attracted a vast public from all social classes. While the elite’s devotion to fencing and tennis persisted, popular sports like soccer began to draw crowds to the sports stadiums, which were becoming bigger by the day. On days when they were crowded because of some big event, one could see and sense the new attitudes emerging among these people. Like some political movements, they were expressions of a mass movement that was gradually taking shape.

The cinema and sports were the most typical signs of the transformation of the cities. The working classes that could be found there were very different from the traditional popular class. Now it was not just the procession of Our Lord of the Miracles or the pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe that drew crowds; a boxing match or the final game in a soccer championship could also draw thousands of people who obviously wanted to escape their work routine and enjoy life, vent their emotions and their views, and perhaps even give rein, for that one Sunday, to a hidden reserve of rebelliousness. Later, in suburban taverns or on neighborhood street corners, each one defended the mass opinion as if it were his personal opinion. Latent in the changes that the cities’ transformation brought about was a growing tendency on the part of the working classes to integrate and an obvious determination on each one’s part to assert his or her identity.

In most cities, the daily lives of the working classes gradually changed. They began to enjoy some of the new conveniences like running water, electricity, and indoor plumbing. This was not universally the case, however, for urban sprawl and the high cost of city property were forever displacing the low-income groups to areas where such services were not available. Education for children was more readily available because there were more schools; care for the sick was also more readily available, because the number of hospitals increased, and the care they provided improved. The most serious problem was housing. The slums proliferated, and the crowding became so overwhelming that many took the chance of building a modest room on a lot being purchased in monthly installments. That room provided a glimpse of popular culture: with its picture of the Virgin, the photograph of a boxer, and perhaps some flowers, it carried all the sentimental hopes and aspirations of the working classes. In cities like Montevideo and Buenos Aires, the working classes found a new melody to express their feelings: the tango, which came from the heart of the countryside but spoke with a foreign accent. The clash between those two influences was voiced in the sainete, a theatrical genre filled with new content in the cities on the Río de la Plata.

Then there was the change in the lifestyle of the middle classes. If they were characterized by anything, it was their ardent desire to climb the social ladder and, above all, to preserve their decorum and improve their appearance. That made the middle classes a prime target for advertising, whose underlying message was that they should be more and more concerned with possessions. Advertising was becoming increasingly effective as the number of media outlets increased. Together with possessions, the middle classes embraced the customs and conventions that owning and using those possessions them involved, each to the extent that he could, or rather beyond what he could. What changed most profoundly was not home life but the life of men outside the home, because the desire for participation in commercial culture was even greater than it was among the popular classes. To satisfy that desire, one had to partake of everything, and the street became more important than the home. Everyone noticed that life was becoming more and more vertiginous, and they wanted to be part of that vertigo because they suspected that otherwise they would move backward rather than forward. The street meant the cafes and the restaurants, the theaters and the cinema. But it also meant the offices, the clubs, and the political centers. If the family wanted to get ahead, the man of the family had to cultivate his connections and try to expand them. And “getting ahead” was an unwritten law for the growing middle classes in cities undergoing change.

This was not so true of the lower middle classes, so often burdened by their obligations. Neither the shop employee nor the petty bureaucrat had many expectations, because the world belonged to those who had the initiative to seek adventure. Day-to-day pressure tended to stifle initiative, as there was no room to break out of the routine. Perhaps it was because they did not see much hope for moving up personally, they placed all their hopes and expectations in the political movements that offered them the chance of immediate improvements and above all a new career. Someone who did not have the chance to set up a small business or enterprise might have the ability to work in a political club in his or her neighborhood and could end up being its caudillo or its election boss. The urban lower middle classes were the base of support for the renewal movements led by Gonzalez Prada and Piérola in Peru, Alem and Yrigoyen in Argentina, Alfaro in Ecuador, Batlle y Ordóñez in Uruguay, Alessandri in Chile. The working classes who felt no attraction to class politics, rallied behind these figures. The increasing political awareness of enormous sectors of the urban population was a major change in their lives. The upper classes realized that the cities no longer belonged to them.