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

CHAPTER 7

THE CITIES OF THE MASSES

The crisis of 1930 visibly unified the direction of Latin America. Every country had to adjust its relations with the countries from whom it bought and to whom it sold, and to accept the conditions imposed by the international economy: a depressed market in which even the most powerful were fighting like tigers to salvage what they could, even at the cost of trampling upon yesterday’s friends. An era of scarcity began that would soon become visible both in the cities and in the rural areas. Scarcity could mean hunger and even death, but it was also the engine that drove dramatic and varied changes. Suddenly it seemed as if there were many more people, that they were more on the move, that they were clamoring for more, that they had more initiative; more people that abandoned idleness and showed a readiness to participate in collective life in whatever way they could. And in fact there were more people. Within a short time a new force was shaped, one that grew like a torrent, with a deafening voice. It was an explosion of people who had no way of knowing how many they were, or how many they needed in order to be certain they were heard.  Once again, as on the eve of independence, many people of obscure origins began to make their way through the cracks in the structure of society. Once they had made their way in, they made it a new society. When this new society first made its presence felt in certain cities, it had qualities never before seen. These cities were beginning to be taken over by the masses.

It all began in the decade following World War I. The European countries and the United States laboriously rebuilt their economies, partly to heal their wounds and partly to poise themselves in the most advantageous position for the future. But it was an arduous task, and in 1929 the complex financial and monetary structure of the victors of World War I was violently torn asunder. The collapse of the New York Stock Exchange undid the entire system and almost instantaneously dragged down its lesser components. Shortly thereafter, the secondary effects of the catastrophe began to be felt.

The Latin American protagonists in this drama resolved to take drastic measures to save themselves. One of the most important steps they took was to adjust relations with the countries on their borders, where they sold products and purchased raw materials. Sales shrank, and prices plummeted. Panic heightened the effects of the new strategy, and the crisis began to exact a social and political cost as well as an economic one.

It was inevitable that Latin America’s wealthy should repeat the maneuvers of which they themselves had been the victims. Forced to accept the terms of the international market, they tried to adjust domestic life in each of their countries so that they would not have to be the only ones to pay for the damage, or better still so that others would pay the entire price. There were coups d’etat, economic policy changes, complete overhauls of the financial and monetary machinery, and corrections in the relation between capital and labor, effected often and, when necessary, though an energetically repressive policy toward the working classes. For them there was no pity, not even the consolation of advice. Enormous sectors of the population fell into poverty and searched desperately for some escape.

For many, migration to the cities seemed to be an alternative. At that moment, some industries were beginning to develop in certain cities, either because foreign capital had begun to establish industries, or because, with the excitement of those initial incentives, local capitalists were tempted to make investments in industry, sometimes to substitute for imports. Thus, high-paying jobs began to appear in the city, arousing the imagination of many of the rural unemployed. There was a snowball effect, with bitter consequences. While there was urban development, there was also urban unemployment and poverty, for there were always more people looking for jobs than there were jobs. The situation improved somewhat beginning in 1940, when World War II triggered activity in businesses that were supplying provisions for the warring parties; within a short time, unexpected sources of employment appeared. But the demand for jobs was always greater than the number of vacant positions.

In the years that followed World War II, it was easy to see that in almost all the Latin American countries the old socio-economic structure that was weakened in 1930 had not recovered; a spontaneous and unforeseeable change was at work within it. Isolated facts pointed to the opening of new avenues, but a new system within which they could operate was barely perceptible. People were becoming aware of the phenomenon; armed with new understanding and new opportunities, they were beginning to work on projects to organize economic development to correct the old structure. In the 1940s multiple opportunities seemed to open throughout Latin America.

The situation subsequently deteriorated somewhat, but certain prospects still remained available to many Latin American countries: only the old schemes could not be repeated. Although there was risk involved in choosing a new system and exploring its actual possibilities, that risk had to be taken. This was an era of guesswork, when multiple ways of dealing with the problems of a society in upheaval were being sounded out. But as happened with the social explosion in the late eighteenth century, the one that followed the 1930 crisis consisted mainly of a rural offensive on the city, resulting in an urban explosion that transformed change Latin America’s prospects. There were, of course, many cities whose growth rate did not change, and many that remained at a standstill. Yet Latin America did see a certain number of its cities take off: some became metropolises very quickly; others were just then beginning to develop, but under such auspicious conditions that they soon demonstrated what they would become before long. They all became important hubs within their respective regions and countries and had a decisive impact on society and culture. The great cities, either real or potential, became the centers around which regions and countries would revolve, even more than before. Each one became a unique socio-cultural hub with facets of life never before seen.

The Latin American phenomenon closely followed what was happening in the European countries and in the United States, but its socio-cultural characteristics differed. In some cities, clearly defined social groups that were not part of the traditional mainstream structure, which were labeled “the masses,” began to form. And where they appeared, the entire urban society began to take on “mass” qualities. The cityscape of the habitat changed; there were mass lifestyles and mass mentalities. While this was happening, some cities undergoing intense and rapid growth began to see a change in their urban physical features: they ceased to be just cities and became a combination of separate and anomic ghettoes. Anomie began to be a characteristic. It began silently with the 1930 crisis and continues even today, perhaps even more so. By now it is one of the defining features of contemporary Latin America.