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

The Urban Explosion

In the first decades of the twentieth century, a demographic and social explosion occurred in almost all the Latin American countries, with varying degrees of intensity. While its effects quickly became apparent, it would be a long time before the phenomenon was pinpointed and even longer before the strictly demographic aspect would be distinguished from the social aspect. The increase in the population was obvious, and it tended to sustain itself or even accelerate. But the enormous rural exodus brought the largest numbers of people to the city and transformed the massive demographic migration into an urban explosion. This was what the problem looked like in the decades leading up to the 1930 crisis.

In Mexico, the 1910 revolution uprooted people who by 1920 were marching in droves on the cities: the phenomenon is documented in the literary genre known as the novel of the revolution, beginning with Los de abajo [The Downtrodden], written by Mariano Azuela and published in 1916, and La sombra del caudillo [The Shadow of the Caudillo], written by Martín Luis Guzmán and published in 1929. In Peru in the 1920s, highlanders began to come down from the hills and the mountains, heading for Lima by the road that had been opened from Puquio. As José María Arguedas recounts in Yawar Fiesta: “The highlanders from the north, south, and the center of the country began to descend upon the capital city at the same time, travelling by all the new roads.” The saltpeter crisis drove thousands of unemployed into Chile’s cities; the agricultural crisis on the Argentine Pampas drove the unemployed to Argentina’s cities; the coffee crisis and the drought in the Brazilian backlands drove the people to its cities. The same phenomena were occurring almost everywhere. Demographic explosion and rural exodus combined to make a complex phenomenon: an uncanny combination of quantitative and qualitative factors that would play themselves out in the cities to which these desperate yet hopeful immigrants would flee.

Migrants to the cities would continue to have the same large families they had always had. Where they settled they became just one piece in the mosaic of traditional society. Once established, they continued to increase in number, and these large families crowded together in the old poor neighborhoods or in marginal areas of the city. People from the same town or the same region might settle in the same area. And as the group grew in size, its presence became more and more visible, evidence of the demographic phenomenon that was occurring. If migrants ventured out of their ghetto and appeared in another neighborhood, the traditional society took note and had a special name for them: in Mexico City they were the peladitos (“plucked dry”); in Buenos Aires they were cabecitas negras (“little black heads”). The city was being flooded; the numbers of new arrivals from outside the city continued to grow faster than the rate at which they could achieve even minimal levels of integration.

Internal migrants brought with them vivid memories of home: the depressed rural areas, or the villages and impoverished small cities. In his novel Gabriela, cravo e canela [Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon], the Brazilian Jorge Amado painted a vivid portrait of those fugitive migrants fleeing the drought in the backlands. Many farmers, because they wanted to continue to farm, tried their hand at growing crops whose prices were on the rise. Other farmers, however, could see the opportunities that the city had to offer; those who knew some trade, or who decided to learn one, settled in the cities. This was how Ilheus, Bahia, Recife, and São Paulo grew: they were attractive to those who were beginning to feel the effects of the coffee crisis and to those who migrated from the northeast.

But not all of the immigrants came from the countryside. Many moved from small or middle-sized cities that were going rapidly downhill: Ayacucho and Cajamarca in Peru, the towns on the savannah in Colombia, San Carlos de Salta or Moisesville in Argentina. This is what created the image of the abandoned city, like the city on the Venezuelan flatlands that Miguel Otero Silva called Ortiz in his novel Casas muertas [Dead Houses], or Comala which is the scene of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, or the fantasy city of Macondo that Gabriel García Márquez invented for his Cien años de soledad [One Hundred Years of Solitude]. Poverty and despair drove away young people, who were determined not to let themselves be buried alive in a dying city, young people who still had the resilience to try to rebuild their lives elsewhere. The old city was dying fast, with most of its housing abandoned and in ruins, inhabited only by old people chipping away at their work and whiling away their last days.

Thus, there were towns and cities of various sizes that never managed to ride the wave of the urban explosion and that gained nothing from the socio-economic movement it produced. Quite the contrary, such cities and towns were victims of the urban explosion. Other towns emerged out of a wilderness where new source of wealth that fired the imagination had been found. A character in Casas muertas explained it as follows: “I have heard tell that while Ortiz and Parapara are dying, towns are springing up elsewhere.” These towns became part of the urban explosion, but at the cost of other towns’ demise. The latter were dying because their old inhabitants were powerless, unable to understand who were pulling the strings of their lives.

Yet there were times when a city was not completely destroyed. Those who did not migrate tended to find some means to eke out a living that kept at least part of the town alive. Theirs was a tiny economy. But new times would open up new opportunities to many such towns: the route of some highway might set them on the road to development, or someone might discover that the sleepy little town was a hidden treasure that could attract tourists. In fact, tourism was a sign of the times. It increased in the big cities and spilled over into those small corners where some trace of the past, irretrievably lost in the big cities, was still preserved. The prodigious organization of this new tourism, gave direction to curiosity, invented the indescribable charm of some place, or suddenly infused new life into an old city that seemed dead. A carefully designed pamphlet with enticing photographs rediscovered some spot: its quiet square, its ancient church, its old mansions, some of which held precious memories of a nation’s history. Caravans of tourists, foreigners, and nationals alike, began to breathe artificial life into some cities. Some were quite rightly designated “museum cities,” like Taxco or Guanajuato in Mexico, Antigua Guatemala, Villa de Leyva in Colombia, and Cuzco in Peru. Unlike the “hotel cities,” these places were uninhabited by night but bustled with activity by day, with tourist buses and cars coming and going, groups milling about taking pictures or buying souvenirs. Cities left empty by emigration were not the only ones whose dormancy was disguised in this fashion, as many cities that had long been bogged down in their own inertia suddenly became tourism attractions.

Yet countless other cities, founded during the colonial era at some other auspicious moment in the region’s history, were obviously floundering; there was no longer anything to stimulate the growth of these cities. Too numerous to mention, their numbers far exceeded the number of cities that were growing—and it would be senseless to list them, because their names mean nothing outside their own country. Perhaps the most significant on the eve of the urban explosion were the following: Popayán, San Cristóbal, Ouro Preto, Maldonado, Concepción in Uruguay, Loja, Sucre, León. The urban explosion did not hit them, or many others like them, because the migratory movements and attendant phenomena could only happen where there was some gravitational pull and the possibility, fleeting or enduring, of development.

As gold and later rubber once had, petroleum awakened new hopes during these years. It was the dream of oil that the Venezuelan immigrants in Casas muertas were pursuing, that “orient” beyond which Ciudad Bolivar lie. Whereas in the 1930s its population was less than 20,000, it would quadruple by 1970. Even more spectacular was the growth of Venezuela’s oil emporium, Maracaibo, with just 100,000 inhabitants in the 1930s, then 235,000 in 1950, 420,000 in 1960 and 660,000 in 1970. The city of Comodoro Rivadavia, on the oil-bearing desert of Patagonia, went from a population of 5,000 in the 1930s to almost 90,000 by 1970.

But the most powerful attraction for those who wanted to leave the countryside or dying cities was the metropolis, the great city whose reputation was enhanced by the exaggerated accounts given by anyone who knew anything about it, then compounded by the mass media: newspapers, magazines, radio, and especially movies and television, whose living images of the urban landscape elicited awe and astonishment. There was tremendous tertiary activity in the great city, with lighting, services of all kind, businesses big and small, many people of good position who might need domestic help or the many services that urban life involved. The attraction was even greater if the city had taken a leap toward industrialization, which was perceived as a positive sign. Those who were beginning to plan factories were looking for a favorable infrastructure, a good supply of energy and water, good systems of transportation, and communication; they were looking for an efficient marketing apparatus and perhaps hoped to get their share of the privileges accorded to new industries and to take maximum advantage of the proximity of the great financial, administrative, and political centers. The big city was the preferred choice. There, an immigrant might find “city work:” in the services, in business, in industry. One might even find a high-paying job if one had the qualifications to be classified as a skilled worker.

But the great urban center had even more to offer. Someone who worked in the city did so in the company of others, working together to get a job done and then exchanging views and reactions, and perhaps even jointly negotiating disputes with management through unions that also offered an opportunity for a vigorous social life. The worker was living in an urban, compact, enticing milieu. By day the streets were full of people, and just seeing them was a spectacle; by night the streets were lit up, as were the businesses, movie houses, theaters, and cafes. There were places to go. On Sundays, popular amusements drew crowds taking advantage of the holiday to forget the daily grind. Perhaps the most difficult problem was just to secure shelter; but in the end everyone found a place, good or bad. And having a place to live, primitive perhaps but urban nonetheless, seemed to grant the right to demand all the benefits of urban life, the same benefits that someone already established and assimilated would enjoy. Even consumerism seemed possible: a radio, a refrigerator, perhaps even a television one day. The big city seemed to offer all this to the immigrant, who approached it with unbridled hope.

The problem was to get to the city, and immediately thereafter to integrate oneself into the mysterious social fabric of the city. It was difficult to find a home, a job, someone familiar with the city who could initiate the new arrival into its secrets. But little by little this was accomplished, sometimes in the poor neighborhoods of the city, other times in the outlying areas. And when it was accomplished, the immigrant mass was added to the traditional working classes, increasing their number and exponentially increasing the numerical ratio between the working classes and the other classes. Many had the sensation that the city might explode at any moment, because the normal growth rate of the working classes was so high. Social tensions heightened because the disproportionate growth of the urban population triggered a vicious circle: the more a city grew, the more expectations it created, whereupon it attracted still more people. Although it might seem able to absorb the repeated influx of new arrivals, the number of those who actually became part of the urban structure was always greater than the structure could bear.

Migration and high birth rate combined to trigger the quantitative growth of the cities. Other factors also combined to produce a qualitative change in the new social structure of the growing cities, a change that would alter the features of the urban explosion. But the most visible feature was the numerical increase in the population. In 1900, only around 10 cities had populations over 100,000. But by 1940, four cities—Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo—had over a million inhabitants. Buenos Aires had two-and-a-half million and was one of the biggest cities in the world. By that year, five other cities had populations of over a half million: Lima, Rosario, Havana, Montevideo, and Santiago. In fact, Santiago had already reached the one million mark. Eleven cities had populations of over 200,000: three in Brazil—Recife, Salvador, and Porto Alegre; three in Argentina—Avellaneda, Córdoba, and La Plata; one in Mexico—Guadalajara; one in Bolivia—La Paz; one in Colombia— Bogota; one in Venezuela—Caracas; and another in Chile— Valparaiso.

Over the next 30 years the situation changed rapidly. Some eight capitals passed the one-million mark and sprawled over vast metropolitan areas whose total population was comparable to that of the largest cities in the world: two of them, Mexico City and Buenos Aires, had over 8.5 million inhabitants. Four capitals—Santiago, Lima, Bogota, and Caracas—experienced a dizzying rate of growth. Santiago, which was close to one million in 1940, had a population of 2,600,000 thirty years later; but in that same space of time, Lima went from 600,000 to 2,900,000; Bogotá from 360,000 to 2,540,000, and Caracas from 250,000 to 2,118,000. The growth was so astronomical that what Antonio Gómez Restrepo wrote of Bogota at the very start of this process could be said of them all:

We Bogotanos are becoming an ever smaller colony in our native land; and while the super-abundance of people has helped to create new residential neighborhoods and other very well-planned and developed neighborhoods for employees and lower echelon civil servants, it has also left a confusing mass of people in the suburbs who have gone there seeking shelter in a collection of miserable hovels lacking any form of hygiene and sanitation.

The migrations outnumbered the capital’s traditional social groups; they infiltrated them or surrounded them. This phenomenon was less noticeable in the capital cities that had not yet achieved populations of 2 million: Montevideo and Havana.

In the meantime, cities that were not capitals had also experienced considerable growth. Rio de Janeiro, which ceased to be Brazil’s capital in 1960, had gone from 1,800,000 inhabitants in 1940 to 6,700,000 in the metropolitan area by 1970. But its growth was not as intense as São Paulo’s, whose prodigious development had all the ingredients of the Latin American urbanization process. With a population of 1,326,000 in 1940, the industrial city was spread over a large suburban area and even spilled over those limits. Metropolitan São Paulo had a combined population of 7,750,000 by 1970. Other Brazilian cities also experienced considerable growth. From 1940 to 1970, Recife went from 250,000 to 1,200,000, Porto Alegre from 350,000 to over 1 million, and Salvador de Bahia from 350,000 to 1 million.

By 1970 the population of two Colombian cities in the Cauca Valley, Cali and Medellín, had exceeded one million. Both were business and industrial centers in very prosperous areas. The rural populations in the area opted for emigration; between 1938 and 1968, more than 400,000 farmers moved to Medellín to settle in the city’s “pirate neighborhoods.” Two Mexican cities had populations of nearly 2 million by 1970: Guadalajara, the old capital of the state of Jalisco and traditionally the country’s second largest city, went from 229,000 in 1940 to 1.5 million by 1970 and even higher if one includes its metropolitan area; Monterrey, the new industrial metropolis at the foot of Cerro de la Silla, had only 150,000 inhabitants in 1940, but grew to 1,200,000 by 1970.

No less important on a national and regional scale was the growth of other cities that by 1970 had close to a half million inhabitants, like Guayaquil in Ecuador or Barranquilla in Colombia, and others that hovered around a half million, like Maracaibo in Venezuela, Puebla in Mexico, or Rosario and Córdoba in Argentina. These urban hubs were an option when the crisis struck the rural areas; on its own scale, each provoked migrations, population settlements, and urban explosions. But even more telling were the many smaller urban explosions that had the same effect. Dozens and dozens of cities with populations of between 20,000 and 40,000 around 1930 saw their populations triple, quadruple, or even more in the space of 40 years. Albeit on a smaller scale, they experienced the same social phenomena that were occurring in the megacities. Cities with populations of 200,000 were overwhelmed by the masses, and their infrastructure was unable to tolerate the population increase. Cities that were even smaller, but growing rapidly, experienced the same kinds of difficulties.

The urban explosion changed the physical features of the cities. One began to hear complaints from those who had previously enjoyed a city of relative peace and quiet, with an infrastructure sufficient for the population. The invaders disfigured their cities and made them into social monsters with the inhuman characteristics that technical development introduced. Someone even said that by now the cities were “invisible.” The Peruvian Sebastián Salazar Bondy compiled his own observations of his city in a book that he titled Lima, la horrible [Lima, the Horrible]. In 1962, in reference to the urban explosion and mass formation of the city, he wrote:

Some time ago, Lima ceased to be . . . the quiet city that ran by the timetable of matins and the Angelus, and that France’s Radiguet found so moving. It has become a world of two million people, pushing and shoving amid the din of honking horns, uncivilized radios, human congestion, and other forms of modern-day madness in order to survive. Two million inhabitants forcing their way through the beasts that massive underdevelopment makes of men. Chaos, born of the insatiable appetite for urban life that spreads with the speed of some cancerous disease, has become, thanks to the dizzying pace of life in the capital, an ideal: the entire country wants to kneel at its feet and, by their presence, fan the holocaust of the spirit. The bottleneck of vehicles in the city center and on its avenues, the rude competition of peddlers and beggars, the tiresome lines for the inadequate transportation services, the housing crisis, the disasters caused by pipes that break, the imperfect telephone system: all this is the work of the improvisation and cunning that, with the hypnotic eyes of a serpent, seduce and take advantage of provincial innocence, only to kill that innocence with its dirty dealings. Lima’s convent-like tranquility, which nineteenth-century and even early twentieth-century travelers described as conducive to meditation, was wiped out by the demographic explosion. But that mutation was only quantitative and superficial. The urban uproar has muted but not suppressed the nostalgia of the people of Lima, who yearn more and more for rustic colonial charm.

Such were the effects of the demographic explosion. Yet no one wanted to leave the city. Living in the city became a kind of right, as Henri Lefebvre described it: the right to enjoy the benefits of civilization, to well-being and consumerism, even the right to share a certain sense of alienation. The cities were growing, public services were becoming more and more inadequate, distances longer, air more polluted, noises more deafening; yet no one, or almost no one, wanted or wants to leave the city. Cities seemed to be the focus of all energy and exerted more and more influence on the region and the country. The urban masses, so characteristic of the cities since the explosion occurred, gained more and more influence. Certainly the urban explosion unleashed a latent and barely perceptible revolution. Or perhaps that explosion was the form in which a blind revolution, born of the social process, manifested itself. But from the start the city, faithful to its vocation, shaped that blind revolution, opened its eyes, and tempted it with the bittersweet fruit of ideology.