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

Transformation or Stagnation

The change in relationship between the Latin American economy and the major industrialized countries had an impact on the cities, but it was not felt in all the cities at the same time or with the same degree of intensity. Some regions were unable to respond to the call, and their cities remained outside the new economic circuits; they stopped growing and seemed even more stagnant when compared to the cities that were rapidly beginning to prosper and were attracting all the attention. Import and export businesses, financial transactions and their subsidiary activities multiplied the hustle and bustle of the cities that attracted all the commerce and investment. It was in these cities that money changed hands; there, financial speculation occupied the minds of almost everyone, from heavy investors to people with small savings; and the hope to make a quick fortune tacitly nursed the hope for social ascent. In the midst of an excited atmosphere of adventure, these cities prospered in a tumultuous way and developed a rather unique profile.

Travelers were deeply astonished by these new cities, and their comments on them ranged from exalted praise to condemnations that sounded like the old diatribes against Babylon. These were reactions shared by all local groups in the cities that were undergoing this transformation. Rubén Darío often spoke of the “splendor” of Buenos Aires, but the Mexican Federico Gamboa saw in the protagonist of his novel Santa, who was a prostitute, a symbol of the “corrupted city.” Everyone realized that a new Latin American lifestyle was been forged in the cities, one obviously marked by foreign influences but also entirely original, if only in ways that were hard to define; as original, in fact, as the social and cultural process that was unfolding in those cities. Everything in them seemed, at first sight, to be a mere imitation, but each city had its own distinctive quality, one that would take time to become entirely manifest.

The new prosperity and the changes in social make-up, customs, and architecture were more readily visible in the capitals that were also ports: Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Panama City, Havana, San Juan in Puerto Rico. They were all maritime ports in direct contact with the outside world; their intense economic activity took place along with their political and administrative functions as capitals and, therefore, as centers of economic decision-making. This same structure was evident even in cities like Caracas and Lima, which were in the interior, but had their neighboring ports of La Guayra and El Callao. A vigorous economy, boosted by foreign trade, was coupled now with the traditional activities required by the exercise of political power, by the influential bureaucracy, and by the many sorts of pressure exerted to obtain some benefit or advantage. After the years of civil unrest were over, Mexico City, a capital in the interior, had a brilliant period of activity and growing prosperity under Porfirio Díaz, who presided over its development from the heights of Chapultepec Castle.

Of course, not all the capital cities achieved the same degree of development or success. Rio de Janeiro, whose transformation began during the imperial era, accelerated the process during the republican period, as its population grew. Rio’s population of 550,000 at the turn of the century had increased to over 1,000,000 by 1920, and its outlying districts grew so much that Olavo Bilac wrote in 1908 that Rio had become “a conglomeration of several cities, each gradually distinguishing itself from the others because of some special feature or a certain degree of material and spiritual autonomy.” Mexico City grew in another way. The middle and upper-classes were the ones who moved to the new neighborhoods—the colonias—that sprang up in the area around Chapultepec, while the old downtown city became home to more and more working class people, who transformed the old houses and palaces into tenements. In 1900 Mexico City had a population of 390,000, but its population had grown to over 1,000,000 by 1930, when the deep crisis unleashed by the revolution of 1910 had began to stabilize. Buenos Aires, the most heavily populated of all, already had 677,000 inhabitants by 1895, and was nearing 1,000,0000 by 1930. It was undoubtedly the city whose growth most impressed the Europeans; indeed, the European continent was the source of the immigrant flow that was transforming the city. In fact, Buenos Aires became almost legendary. One Frenchman, H. D. Sisson, wrote in 1909 that Buenos Aires was “a new city that has grown as fast as a mushroom on the empty pampas.” Although his facts were wrong, his fascination with Buenos Aires was obvious in his description: “This city of Buenos Aires is a phenomenon that has to be seen. Whereas in 1875 it had a population of 60,000, by 1906 it had a population of 1,250,000 and occupied an area larger than Paris, two thirds of which were fully developed and built. And this very fact is more wondrous than the sight of the greatest city in the United States.”

Although these figures for Buenos Aires may be exaggerated, almost all the Latin American capitals saw their population either double or triple in size in the fifty years following 1880, and they multiplied their activities accordingly. Growing national wealth produced increased tax revenues and public spending for the capitals, which also had the advantage of being the most important domestic markets. In different ways, under different forms of institutional order, the combination of economic and political powers, which had always existed, got consolidated everywhere, as the volume of financial and commercial transactions continued to grow. Big brokers, bankers, exporters, financiers, stock market barons, all conducted their business in the capitals. And the ruling bourgeoisie tried to make the architectural profile of the cities reflect the image of a prosperous and modern country.

But, in fact, wealth was coming in and out of the ports, which had already grown and prospered in the last decades. Some ports, like Buenaventura or Esmeraldas, never acquired a high profile, but others became vigorous business emporiums and gathered a mercantile bourgeoisie that had solid resources, although they did not always show the same concern for the opulence of many capitals that imitated the old courts. Valparaiso had won the battle against its rivals on the Pacific and shone as the busiest and most prosperous port. Its population of 100,000 in 1880 had doubled by 1930; by then, its facilities were being modernized, the number of ships that pulled into its docks had considerably increased and customs revenues were up sharply. After Valparaiso came the major ports of Peru and Ecuador. El Callao, which had suffered the effects of the war with Chile and was occupied until 1883, recovered slowly, in step with the country’s economic recovery. Its population of 35,000 before the war had grown to 50,000 by 1930; by then it had already experienced ten years of bustling activity. But El Callao was nothing more than Lima’s suburb, squeezed against its colonial fortress. The old city, with its narrow streets and asymmetrical layout, watched as another new city developed alongside it, laid out in a chessboard pattern that extended as far as La Punta. Guayaquil, on the other hand, was Ecuador’s principal trading center. There the mercantile bourgeoisie had made its home and repeatedly vied with the capital for control of the country on the strength of being the key to Ecuador’s import/export economy. Located on the estuary of the Guayas River, with arcades along its streets providing shade from the equatorial sun, Guayaquil had, in 1880, a population of 40,000, which almost tripled in the next fifty years.

While the Colombian ports of Santa Marta and Cartagena also prospered, their prosperity was nothing when compared to that of Barranquilla, which emerged in 1872 at the mouth of the Magdalena River, 27 kilometers from the sea. Within fifty years the port of Barranquilla had more activity and a larger population than its neighbors, and by 1930 it had almost 150,000 inhabitants, while Cartagena had only 100,000 and Santa Marta 30,000. Barranquilla took over more and more of the international traffic and was the key to navigation on the Magdalena River. Both its unusual growth and the rather haphazard look of its architecture were somewhat tempered by the new, cosmopolitan bourgeoisie that promoted its development. There was nothing in Barranquilla that could have evoked the colonial past as Cartagena’s walls did.

But Cartagena began to come back to life, as did other old colonial ports that had been affected by the new economic circumstances. Belem also grew to some extent with the rubber boom, as did Recife and Bahía when sugar production experienced a new boom during World War I. Puerto Cabello also came back to life, as did Maracaibo with the growth of the petroleum industry, which helped its population reach 100,000 by 1930. Old Veracruz went from a population of 24,000 at the turn of the century to 70,000 by 1930. The traditional port for trading with Europe, Old Veracruz had to share its business with the more modern Tampico, which was equal in size, and with Matamoros, whose population outstripped the other two, reaching 100,000 by 1930 because of its middleman role in the trade with the United States. Iquique and Antofagasta, mining ports in Chile; Matanzas and Cienfuegos, Cuban centers of sugar exporting; Rosario and Bahía Blanca, ports from which Argentina’s grain was shipped; Santos, Brazil’s coffee-exporting emporium; and even the small ports in Central America, countries from which coffee and fruits were shipped, were invigorated by the increase in trade and changed in appearance to some extent thanks to the rise of the so-called “port bourgeoisie” and to all the subsidiary activities that port life stimulated. Immigrants, mainly from Europe but also from the United States and Asia, especially along the Pacific, combined with the large Indian, mestizo and black populations to give port societies an unusual, multi-ethnic look and to frame their styles of life in ways that stressed their differences with the traditional ways of the patrician cities. Ports were the hubs of commercial activity, but traditional groups only saw them as agents for the dissolution of national identity. Among these groups, some pushed their conservatism even further, asserting that port societies were too high a price to pay for prosperity.

But it was not just the capitals and ports that prospered. Some cities in the interior also became production centers for regions that were undergoing expansion. At times, it was an ostentatious development, like the one that pushed the growth of Ribeirao Preto, in the heart of the coffee region, starting in 1870; others experienced an ephemeral explosion, as in the case of Manaus. In the heart of the Amazon Basin, Manaus became Brazil’s rubber capital. After visiting it in 1865, William Scully wrote, “With a population of around 5,000, the city has some 350 houses.” But soon, the exploitation of rubber brought people of every origin and condition to Manaus. Adventurers from ten countries and workers from Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru gathered for the great adventure, which culminated around 1910 thanks to skyrocketing international rubber prices. By that time, the city had a population of 50,000. Rich magnates, led by the German Waldemar Scholz, transformed a small village into a sumptuous city, with luxurious private residences, beautiful avenues, shops with an unparalleled variety of European products, fine restaurants, and above all, an opera house that left all visitors awe-struck. A modern port on the Negro River, Manaus received hundreds of ships to be loaded with rubber that they would transport to maritime ports. Manaus had a cosmopolitan and daring society, where fortunes were made and lost at a dizzying pace and where ties and alliances were only as strong as the common interests that had created them. But as rubber production in Asia began to increase, rubber prices suddenly fell on the international market. The enchanted city that had sprung in the midst of the jungle went quickly into decline at an even faster pace than the one at which it had grown. Climbing plants grew from the cracks in the once beautiful homes and building, while the layout of streets and squares vanished as weeds filled their traces when the city was abandoned. People began to disappear, each following his own destiny, until the city was once again a quiet provincial town.

São Paulo’s growth was steadier. Its leap from provincial town to modern metropolis began around 1872, when it became the “coffee capital,” home to rich fazendeiros ready to transform it into a city worthy of their wealth. A heavy influx of foreign immigrants contributed to the change. From the 70,000 of 1890, it reached approximately 1,000,000 by 1930. There were Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Germans, but there were also Brazilians from other states that arrived to share in the economic splendor the city was enjoying. New neighborhoods sprang up, the layout changed, and all the services appropriate to a modern city appeared. This steady growth gave the city’s bourgeoisie considerable national strength, and within a few generations a new aristocracy gave the city a complexity that would soon make it not only an important cultural center but also a booming hub of industrial development.

On a lesser scale, Rosario, in Argentina, experienced a similar kind of development. It, too, attracted immigrants, most of them Italian. From a population of 100,000 at the turn of the century, Rosario came to have 500,000 by 1930, thanks to the feverish activity in its grain-exporting port and to the development of a number of industries, especially flour processing. Because it was an excellent port with a central location on the railway system, Rosario played an important role within the national economy. Its society, formed by people from all over the country, quickly acquired the cohesion to profit by its advantages and to give the city a stylish urban ambience.

In Colombia, what grew was the old city of Medellin, founded in 1675. An industrial developer, Pedro Nel Ospina, started a textile plant which, when coupled with others established later—a brewery, glass, chocolate, and tile factories—got the city bustling again. From a population of 37,000 in 1880, it had reached 100,000 by 1930, and would continue to increase at an even faster pace. Just as impressive was the growth of Manizales, a new city founded in 1848. Although it originally lived off its production of cacao and cheese, the new society in Manizales—for the most part migrants from elsewhere in Colombia—quickly discovered that the surrounding land could be used to grow coffee, which was very much in demand on the world market. Large tracts of land were planted with coffee trees, although the city strictly controlled production because coffee was an export whose marketing was as important as its production. By 1905, Manizales was already a coffee emporium and remained so until 1930, when international coffee prices fell off sharply. But, by then, it was a strong commercial center, with a vigorous and enterprising bourgeoisie. While the first fortunes were built upon cacao and cheese, the new fortunes were basically built on coffee. After the crisis—around 1930, when the city reached a population of 30,000—the accumulated capital enabled Manizales, like São Paulo, to embark upon a new phase of economic development by establishing new industries.

Many new cities, originally little towns, appeared during this period. Some, like La Plata in Argentina, developed quickly. Founded in 1882 as the capital of the Province of Buenos Aires, La Plata experienced considerable development both in trade and as a port thanks to the efforts of a predominantly immigrant urban population. (The growth of Belo Horizonte in Brazil was similar: founded in 1897 as the new capital of the state of Minas Gerais, it had a population of 100,000 by 1930.) Countless other towns and cities in Argentina also grew, albeit at a different pace, created by the continual expansion of agriculture and ranching in the country: Resistencia and Sáenz Peña, Santa Rosa and Venado Tuerto, among many others. Born of the process of economic expansion, the societies in these communities tailored their lifestyle to that expansion, completely freed from any tradition.

Antofagasta was a new Chilean city that began to grow around 1870 thanks to exports of saltpeter. And in fact Punta Arenas was also a new city. Prior to 1875 it had been a tiny hamlet whose population reached 1,000 by the turn of the century. Then it began to experience enormous growth, and by 1930 had a population of 30,000, primarily because it became an important center of the Patagonian economy thanks to the perseverance of José Menéndez, a Spanish businessman who proved to be a remarkably enterprising pioneer. With intensifying regional production, especially sheep, the city’s nascent mercantile activity grew stronger, and within a short time the city became a strange oasis in the lands of the south. As in Manaus, streets and avenues appeared, good and even luxurious homes, and the inevitable opera house so typical of cities anxious to show their aspiration to well-being and prosperity. An active society and the low-cost labor that the region afforded to a dramatic degree consolidated the functions of this city in an area where there had been none.

Rapid industrial development promoted prosperity in some Mexican cities. By the early part of the century, Monterrey came to be the most important, as its population exceeded 60,000, and that figure would increase in the decades that followed, as the iron and steel industry developed. But Guadalajara, Puebla, and Orizaba also grew. In fact, Orizaba was baptized the “Manchester of Mexico” because of its textiles, although it also had beer and paper industries. Two novels by Rafael Delgado, Los parientes ricos [The Rich Relatives] and Historia vulgar [Common Story], describe the strange ways in which provincial ambience was altered by economic change.

At the same time, the cities that were left on the margins of modernization retained their provincial atmosphere. Because they did not change as others were changing, they seemed stagnant. Many of them managed, however, to keep up the rhythm of their own mercantile activity, at least within their own sphere of influence, but they also maintained their traditional way of life however, without accelerating its pace. The streets and squares maintained their peace and quiet, the architecture remained traditional, and communal life kept its customary forms. Certainly, such cities did not seem to offer much in the way of prospects; other cities offered opportunities for adventure, for easy wealth, and for upward social mobility. By contrast, cities that were not experiencing explosive modernization might have appear to be more dormant than they actually were. There was a curious downward hierarchy of stagnation over the course of the years: there were cities stagnant in the 18th century, like Villa de Leyva or Antigua Guatemala, that saw cities that had once surpassed them brought down to their level.

The contrast provoked strong feelings, which many expressed as testimony to a contradiction. The Venezuelan Rafael Pocaterra described the atmosphere of Valencia in El doctor Bebé [The Baby Doctor] that of Maracaibo in Tierra del sol amada [Beloved Land of the Sun]. With a tone between irony and nostalgia, Pocaterra evoked the provincial social club, the quiet nights when one saw “neither dog nor the last pathetic carriage. Between the groves of palms in Bolívar square, two cats chased each other, howling incessantly.” And the protagonist, nostalgic for Paris or even Caracas, asks himself: “Where do I go?” The quiet of the sleepy Ecuadorian capital moved Jorge Reyes to write Quito, arrabal del cielo [Quito, the edge of paradise]. The Argentine Manuel Gálvez portrayed the tranquility of Catamarca in La maestra normal [The Scholteacher] and the weight of colonial tradition in Córdoba in La sombra del convento [The Shadow of the Convent]. In a melancholy recollection of his childhood, the Peruvian Victor Andrés Belaúnde described Arequipa as a “democracy of hidalgos.” The Venezuelan Mariano Picón Salas recalled placid Mérida with equal nostalgia.

There was always someone who grasped the provincial quiet underneath the modernizing energy of the cities: in Las mal calladas [The Poorly Silent Ones], the Argentine Benito Lynch described that persistent provincial tranquility in La Plata, that was only fifty years old, and the Mexican Rafael Delgado described it in his novels set in Orizaba and Córdoba. But these were weak contrasts that slowly vanished just as did the quiet in those cities that had languished.

Certainly, the example that the bustling cities set was beginning to have a strong effect that became even stronger as communications became easier. In the provincial cities there was a longing for the bright lights, for the opulence of those modern cities that were imitating Paris. People also longed for the more worldly ways they read about in novels and newspapers and for that anonymity, so typical of life in the big city, thanks to which life seemed freer and the possibility of adventure greater. Faced with that model, provincial quiet seemed more unbearable to someone tempted by metropolitan adventure. It might be the young woman of good family, bored with her narrow circle of friends; but more frequently it was the ambitious man, bored with the routine of a job or business that did not seem to offer any prospects for wealth or higher social position. Strictly speaking, the metropolis on the horizon of those burdened by provincial life—whether big or small—offered above all things the attraction of upward social mobility. These metropolitan centers already had typical bourgeois societies, with all the traits of their models in the industrialized world, or perhaps with those traits that, engendered by imitation, are always more emphatic than the original ones. Provincial people longed for those opportunities that bourgeois society offered. And that sentiment intensified the real differences between stagnant cities and those undergoing transformation.