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Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 59
Year: 1999
Author: José Luis Romero
Title: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas


This book is an inquiry into the role that cities have played in the historical process of Latin America. That process has been diverse to the point of appearing chaotic, but it contains nonetheless a common thread. It is certainly difficult to find that thread now, because the original commonalties across the continent began to fade, as deep-seated conflicts arose with the wars for independence. But certain constant traits suggest that such a thread may lie hidden beneath some more visible aspects of the process. Thus, for a social historian, the only road to follow in search of this common thread is the one that Latin American societies traveled— through the particular circumstances in which they took shape and through the many and often obscure incidents that ultimately made each one of these societies unique. On that road, the role of the cities—that is, of urban societies and their complex creation—seems to offer some clues to understanding a rather perplexing design.

It is true that the city has not played the same role everywhere. Brazil, for instance, is an extreme case, where society and culture were primarily shaped in rural areas during the first centuries of the colonial expansion; to a lesser extent, the same happened in other places in the Hispanic world where the presence of large haciendas,1 born out of the encomienda,2 accounted for certain predominant features. But even in those places, cities would eventually acquire the same importance they had elsewhere in the new continent since the very start of the colonial enterprise, perhaps because Latin America was, from the sixteenth century on, a projection of Europe’s mercantile and bourgeois world. As bustling centers of power, the cities ensured the presence of European culture; they set the direction of the economic process and, above all, determined the profile of the regions under their immediate influence and of Latin America as a whole. This was the role played by urban societies, some from the first day of settlement, others after a process in which they took control of the rural areas and shaped their forms of life.

The fabric of Latin American history is both urban and rural. But if we are trying to find clues to understanding its development into the present day, we must search for them in the cities, in the role that urban societies and the cultures they created played in the process; for, while the rural world remained more stable, it was the cities that ushered in change—a change triggered by external influences and by the ideologies those societies fashioned with materials from the outside as well as materials of their own. This study intends to engage in a search for those clues. It is, indeed, a work of history, but one that seeks to offer more than what is usually expected of a history.

We usually demand of a historical work only what political history can offer and give. This is an old and sad limitation not only for historians but also for those who seek answers to the enigma posed by a group of seemingly disjointed facts. But this study intends to establish and order the process of the social and cultural development of Latin American cities; and we can expect much more from this kind of history, precisely because it relates facts to one another and uncovers their deep structure. In that structure we may find the clues to understanding the history of urban societies and, in a less direct way, that of society as a whole.

In Brazil the dominant society was for quite some time the primarily rural one of the beginnings. In the Hispanic areas, in turn, what prevailed from the start was a conglomerate of urban societies; rural communities were settled as economic tools for the groups dwelling in the cities, in particular for the power elites who reaped most of the benefits from the exploitation of the land. And it was not by arbitrary design that Spain stressed this type of society; such stress found its base on a conception of the city that had a long doctrinal tradition and had gained strength with the experience of the five centuries preceding the arrival of the conquistadores3 to the new world. As Aristotle had sustained, the city—more precisely, urban society—was the highest, most perfect form that human life could attain. Friar Bartolomé de las Casas would also recall this in the mid-sixteenth century in his Apologética Historia Sumaria [Brief Apologetic History], supporting his argument with a wealth of pagan and Christian sources. The mercantile and bourgeois world, which was, increasingly, a world of cities, tended naturally towards that ideal of urban life. This is perhaps the reason why the primacy of the cities, which began in the early days of the conquest, was so pronounced in Latin America.

The world of America’s native peoples was predominantly rural. Vast areas of that world knew little or no urban life. The higher cultures indeed had some major cities, like Tenochtitlán or Cuzco, and there was a great number of minor urban centers that arose the admiration of the Spaniards, Cortés and Cieza de León in particular. It was precisely on the existence of these cities that Las Casas based his claim that the Indians were rational beings. But the real lifeblood of these peoples ran through the countryside, and the distinctive traits of their cultures were also rural. The Antilles and Brazil had no urban centers. Indian towns were not bastions of defense against the invaders. If Cortés decided to destroy Tenochtitlán, it was not because he feared its defensive strength but because he understood its tremendous symbolic value: there, and nowhere else, was to be founded the capital of New Spain, of Spain of the Indies.

True, the Spaniards destroyed Tenochtitlán, but the Indians themselves destroyed Cuzco; and the other towns and cities were included in the parceling out of the land without paying much attention to them as urban centers. It was only their well-chosen location that attracted the conquistadores. They took up residence in the extant cities; they founded them anew and reorganized their forms of life to fit the ways of the conquest. Thus Tlaxcala, Cholula, Bogotá, Huamanga, Quito and, especially, Mexico City and Cuzco arose as Spanish towns. The indigenous cities and villages were subsumed into the new world of the conquistadores.

Their design was to wipe out all traces of the old indigenous cultures, and they went about it relentlessly, perhaps because they believed it was the right thing to do with infidels. In many regions, like the Brazilian coast or the Río de la Plata, the conquistadores came upon only primitive cultures, but in other areas they found advanced cultures that astonished them. Yet, no matter where they went, the same unshakable assumption led them to act as if the conquered lands were empty, culturally empty, and populated only by individuals who could and should be torn off their cultural fabric in order to be assimilated into the economic system that the conquistadores were establishing. The Spaniards also tried to force their own cultural system on the native peoples by means of religious catechesis. The annihilation of the old cultures, primitive and advanced alike, and the deliberate disregard for their significance were essential to the basic plan of conquest, which was to build another Europe upon an empty landscape whose mountains, rivers and provinces, according to royal decree, were to be given names as if they had never had any.

Spain and Portugal conceived rather different methods to be used in colonizing the new world. Portugal entrusted the task to the gentry that had been given good farming lands, where sugar, tobacco, and cotton began to be grown and where the plantation and the sugar mill became the economic and social units on which colonial life was grounded. As administrative centers, the cities were for a long time mere trading posts for the wealth bound for Europe. It was the landed gentry that drew the first profile of colonial Brazil, while the urban population—artisans and petty bureaucrats, clerics and small traders—left no mark on it. Until the eighteenth century, it was only the rare city—Salvador de Bahía and especially Dutch Recife—that gave hint of their capacity to influence the powerful aristocrats, who loved rural life and lived in the lands they possessed.

Spain, in turn, conceived its colonial empire as a network of cities. Of course some regions felt the strong influence of the large haciendas, or more precisely, of the old encomenderos4 who were gathering power in their rural domains. But unlike Portugal, Spain viewed colonization as meaning much more than mere economic exploitation. Vaguely at times, at times very clearly, Spain asserted a mission to be carried out by a small and tight group, a new society that would maintain its ties and see that its mission was fulfilled. It was a mission that went beyond individual desire for profit and beyond the personal existence of the encomendero. It was a mission that everyone had to serve. And the instrument to accomplish it was the city.

Thus, since its very foundation, the city was assigned a definite role in the colonial project. The founding of a city was much more than the establishment of a physical location, it was the creation of a new society. The task of this compact, homogeneous, and militant society was precisely to shape the surrounding context and bring all its elements—natural and social, from within and from without—into conformity with a pre-established design, forcing the fit when necessary. From its creation, urban society was informed by a definite ideology and expected to defend it and impose on it a reality thought to be amorphous and inert. This was an old conception of the possibilities and promise of cities and urban societies: a notion crafted and put into practice by Alexander the Great and the diadochi,5 the Roman proconsuls, and the daring adventurers of medieval Europe who began pushing at the edges of the known world as early as the eleventh century. At the root of that conception was a definite theory of society and culture and a concrete experience that Spain made into policy.

The assumption that the ideological city had the capacity to shape reality rested on two premises. One was the belief that the preexisting reality was both amorphous and inert. The other was the decision to fashion that reality according to a preconceived plan so that it should never develop in an autonomous or spontaneous way. Planned to the last detail and translated into minute prescriptions meant to anticipate every possible contingency, Spain’s social and cultural policy seemed to discount any possibility of the unexpected, as if the new society it had designed was to be completely impervious to change, completely resistant to any process of differentiation. This policy presupposed an acknowledgment that there was a risk involved, one Spain had already encountered in her contact with Muslim culture: the risk of racial mixing and acculturation. In order to prevent that risk more than the one of possible rebellions, Spain thought it best to establish a network of cities, of compact, homogeneous and militant urban societies, within the framework of a tight, rigidly hierarchical political system. This system, in turn, was built upon the solid ideological structure of the Christian monarchy as it had been fashioned, with the support of the Church, first in the battles against Islam and later in the struggles of the Counter-Reformation.

The network of cities was to create a Hispanic, European, Catholic America. Above all, however, it was to create a colonial empire in the strictest sense of the expression: a dependent world with no identity of its own, a periphery of the metropolitan world that it was to mirror and imitate in its every action and reaction. Such an empire, fashioned in the Spanish way, had to be homogeneous and, above all, monolithic. It required that the machinery of state be uncompromising and that the doctrinal grounds of the established order be fully embraced both in their religious and their legal and political roots. It also required that the new society acknowledge its dependence and forbid itself any spontaneous move towards differentiation; for only a hierarchical society, stable to the point of being immobile perinde ac cadaver, as the Ignatian formula put it, would ensure dependence and make certain that the colonies could be used to accomplish Spain’s higher goals. All this, no doubt, amounted to an ideology, but an extreme one—almost a kind of delirium—that aimed to mold every aspect of reality. But the social and cultural reality of Latin America was already chaotic. And the audacity of this social and cultural experiment unleashed, from the very beginning, countless processes that proved impossible to contain and began to frustrate Spain’s grand design.

Portugal’s design was rather different and, for that reason, the process of Portuguese colonization was much more pragmatic. The agrarian society ran its full course and drew an area in which the landed gentry accepted the natural development of a new society and, little by little, of a new culture. That design was only altered by the increasing pressure of the mercantile bourgeois world in which Brazil, like the rest of Latin America, was included as a peripheral zone. As that pressure mounted, the cities and urban societies—with their ever stronger middle classes— attained an importance they had not had during the early colonial period. Independently of all political ties, economic development and social differentiation gave these cities an ever increasing de facto autonomy which produced, throughout the eighteenth century, the steady development of local middle classes. By then, the Brazilian cities ceased to be the feeble administrative centers, populated by urban societies of little means and few aspirations, they had once been. Instead, they started to grow and exert an influence of their own, until by the nineteenth century they became as important as the Hispanic cities of the new world.

Naturally, this urban process was more visible in the areas controlled by Spain. Founded and maintained to ensure that the colonial world would remain dependent and homogeneous, the cities took on their assigned ideological role. But they did more than simply be the stewards of the metropolitan ideology: they created their own new ideologies in response to situations that had spontaneously developed in each region. Little by little, these cities ceased to be imitations of Spanish cities, which they replicated even in their names, and began to lose their generic character.

Certainly, Latin American cities were still responsive to outside influences. They were obviously affected by Spain, and they were reached and affected as well by the rest of the world, which never abandoned its efforts to include Latin America in the vast domain of the mercantile system. Yet all these influences did not remain unaltered; within a short period of time the new urban societies began to find answers that no longer came from the monolithic imperial system but from a prudent assessment of the circumstances under which each city operated. Thus, cities maintained and even strengthened their ideological role, but as they played it, they provided their areas of influence with an image of the world, with an explanation for the way things were and, above all, with a project tailored to the varied expectations of each region.

The ideologies that the cities began to develop on their own were always, to some extent, shaped by outside forces: the socio-economic structure of the metropolis; the socio-economic structure of the bourgeois and mercantile world of capitalism; the new schools of thought with their diversity of ideological versions of reality, some explanatory, some projective. They were all predicated upon the image of a European America, of America as a new Europe, immersed in the system of relations created and controlled by Europe. But even within this framework, ever so slowly, the new urban ideologies began to make their own way and acquire some autonomy. And soon they would appear as spontaneous responses and concrete definitions in the face of real situations.

One of these concrete definitions was, for instance, that which referred to the actual position of each city within the vast and diverse continental domain. The formal city of the early colonial period—that of the chart and the scribe, the sword and the cross—began to discover that it was in fact a real city, small and almost always poor, with few neighbors and many risks and uncertainties. The city began to discover that it occupied a real place, in the midst of a real region, connected to other real cities by roads that cut across real rural areas, all with unique traits that eluded any dogmatic generalization. It also began to discover that this diverse reality was the actual source of both its present problems and its future possibilities.

The real city became aware that it was also a real society, not the one of the first inhabitants but of those who remained there, and there built their houses, or moved into the house of others, or had to resign themselves to the miserable dwellings that betokened their marginal existence; those who lived and worked in the city and filled its streets and public squares; those who quarreled over the small problems of daily life or over the gravest issues that would determine the city’s fate; and then their descendants, and others who came to the city and were ultimately assimilated. The city became aware that it was an urban society composed of real, concrete members: Spaniards and criollos,6 Indians, mestizos,7 blacks, mulattos and zambos.8 All of them were inextricably bound together, despite their fixed places in the social order. All were part of a process that led inexorably to their intermingling and to the uncertain adventure set off by the hazards of social mobility. Each urban society became aware of its own uniqueness, of the fact that it was different, in general, from the urban societies of Spain and, in particular, from those that developed in the other Latin American cities, regardless of how near or how far away they were; for each was tied to its own unique set of problems and was shaped by the singular and irreducible equation that governed the relations among its social groups. Each urban society also became aware that it was beginning to have a history that it could not ignore, a history whose presence was felt in every real situation and at every moment a decision had to be made: the history of an urban society made up of successive generations that were bound to the same structure and to the same kinds of circumstances. In the very process of becoming aware of its own uniqueness, each urban society devised yet another concrete definition that would became part of its ideological frame.

Finally, the essential functions of the city had to be also defined in precise, concrete terms. Doubtless, all cities shared the same basic function that Spanish colonial policy had assigned to them: to ensure control of their regions, to be the bastions of the racial and cultural purity of the colonizers and to further the development of the surrounding areas. But each city had been assigned a specific function as well: they were ports, or military outposts, or mining centers, or trade emporiums. These were very restricted functions determined by the general way in which the colonial system operated. But a city and an urban society are never founded in vain. After a few generations, each urban society had moved beyond its assigned instrumental mission and was beginning to sketch out its real functions: the ones that the city was forced to perform, the ones that it could perform, and the ones that its urban society—one and diverse over the course of time—wanted to perform. Diverse combinations came out of these varied perspectives, and the different social groups began to show their dissimilar tendencies. Little by little, underneath the basic functions that the city was taking on, there began to appear the lifestyles of the community as a whole and of each one of its social groups. Together these lifestyles gave concrete shape to the uniqueness of each urban culture.

All these definitions entailed an interpretation of the past and a plan for the future: they were the specific ideologies with which every individual city was gradually replacing the generic ideology of colonization; and as their differences began to appear, they reshaped the landscape of the original empire—utopian in its intended homogeneity—and hinted at a new order of things to come.

The new order of things began to take shape in the last decades of the eighteenth century, when the Latin American world was hit head-on by the assault of mercantilism. It was then that the gentrified cities of the Indies, established during the early period of foundations, began to diversify according to the possibilities offered by their circumstances and their social structure. Some, perpetuating the ideology of the gentry, clung to their traditional role and thus doomed themselves to the lot of all stagnant cities. Others, welcoming the bourgeois ideology, took a leap and became active mercantile cities, run by a new and ever stronger middle class with a vocation for internationalism that went well beyond the borders of the Hispanic world. This was a profound change, one marked by other circumstances that would quicken the pace of diversification: some cities, half gentrified, half bourgeois, preferred to remain within the Hispanic world; other cities, more decidedly bourgeois in their make-up, became aware of the advantages of political independence.

This process was a kind of adjustment of the Hispanic world to the international, bourgeois world of mercantilism. The new social, economic and political experiment that began with independence affected the rural areas but was felt above all in the cities. The middle-classes, which took on the challenge of bringing about a radical change in the structure of the areas controlled by the cities, surrendered in many ways their own interests to the common good; joining their ranks were the newest elites formed by the social ascent of rural groups. Together, the middle-classes and these new elites took upon themselves the mission of giving their society a political project and a sense of direction. Thus they formed a new patrician class, deeply engaged with the national destiny, even though its members would often fuse without distinction the public interests with those of their own.

By then it was becoming clear that, as Latin American cities developed, they followed a diversity of paths. The stagnant cities became even more isolated, though there were very complex social processes at work within them; and the active cities tried to adapt to the demands of the international world, while confronting, at the same time, the problems raised by the ongoing transformations of their internal structure. Precisely at this point, Latin American cities began to quicken a dual process which had begun at the time they were first founded: they tried to fit into the European model by following its lines of change, but they also underwent transformations that arose within their own internal structure and altered the functions of the city, the relations among the different social groups and the nature of the ties between city and surrounding region. This double process of development—both heteronomous (from without) and autonomous (from within)—continued throughout the period of independence, when it became even more pronounced. The groups that had been overlooked during the colonial period, especially the rural ones, burst upon the scene, trying to move up socially and demanding their share of power. These new groups became part of their urban societies, upon which they impressed their vernacular mark. Thus, the process of autonomous development was hastened and intensified. In the meantime, however, a new external force—that of industrial society—affected the active cities in the last decades of the nineteenth century and forced their heteronomous development to the point when they were fully assimilated to the economic system of capitalism, which was increasingly bent upon an imperialistic policy.

This was the beginning of a period less agitated than the previous one. The middle classes, now fully constituted and well-experienced, embraced the ideology of progress; they tried to further the heteronomous development of cities and to contain their autonomous development by exercising their considerable power. They enjoyed an immediate and unquestionable success, and the rural world was compelled to accept their project. But it was inevitable that they should fail within a few decades. In many of the active cities, new social forces began to operate among the traditional ones. Some, like migrations, were ethnic and social in nature; others were functional, like the growth of the groups engaged in tertiary activities. Urban problems became more acute with the changes in the relation between the cities and the rural areas, and they were increased by demographic growth, social differentiation and, at times, by the ideological conflicts among groups. The financial crisis of 1929 hastened these changes.

From then on, the transformation of the most important active cities into metropolitan centers bore witness to the intensity of urbanization in Latin American and, conversely, to the crisis in the rural world. Launched upon heteronomous development, the metropolitan centers acquired increasingly more power. The upper middle-classes subscribed to the ideology of a consumer society and did their best to further the heteronomous development of their metropolitan centers. But these centers themselves had brought about a far-reaching social change: to the upper middle-classes and all the other well-integrated urban groups they had added a vast multitude of marginal people who made the image of their miserable shacks inseparable from that of modern urban centers. This was an unexpected, autonomous development that revealed how diverse the functions of the cities actually were and how varied the relations between city and region. But above all, this development marked the beginning of an era of significant changes in the social, economic, and cultural structure of urban societies. Not long thereafter, significant political changes began to take place.

This book sets forth the results of an inquiry into the way urban societies were formed, into the changes they underwent and the cultures they produced—different for every city in every period and, at times of intense change, different within the same city for each of its social groups. The book intends to examine in detail the play between the so-called “heteronomous” development of cities, controlled by external forces, and the autonomous one, driven from within the cities themselves. For it is in this play that urban cultures and subcultures are fashioned and the relations between the rural and the urban world take shape. And it is in the cities that ideologies gather their utmost force and are more clearly confronted, in a dialectical motion, with the actual structures of the real.