Latin American Cities

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The urban history of Latin America predates the arrival of the first europeans. Amerindian peoples established urbanbased societies whose origins date to about 3000 B.C.

These ultimately included both city-states and extensive empires. Amerindian populations, through tribute and forced labor, provided a critical resource during the conquest and early colonial period. The Spaniards and their Portuguese counterparts in Brazil founded many settlements in order to pacify and control the labor of Amerindian peoples. (Greenfield ii-viii) Initially, the world of America’s native peoples was predominantly rural.

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Vast areas of that world knew little or no urban life. The higher cultures indeed had some major cities, like Tenochtitlan or Cuzco, and there was a great number of minor urban centers that arose the admiration of the Spaniards, Cortes and Cieza de Leen in particular. The Antilles and Brazil had no urban centers. Indian towns were not bastions of defense against the invaders.

(Gilbert Ch. 1)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, which 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. (Gilbert Ch. 2)  Spain, in turn, conceived its colonial empire as a network of cities. But unlike Portugal, Spain viewed colonization as meaning much more than mere economic exploitation.

And the instrument to accomplish it was the city. (Greenfield v-viii)  In order to prevent the risk of racial mixing and acculturation 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.

(Gilbert Ch. 2)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.

The city became aware that it was an urban society composed of real, concrete members: Spaniards and criollos, Indians, mestizos, blacks, mulattos and zambos. (Gilbert Ch. 3) All of them were inextricably bound together, despite their fixed places in the social order.The essential functions of the city had to be also defined in precise, concrete terms.

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.

(Gilbert Ch. 3)  But all of the cities, big and small, were centers of power and therefore stood apart from the cities that only had to deal with municipal issues and with the concerns of the wealthy owners in their region. The capitals were not simply centers of power but also hubs of cultural activity. In the capitals were the archbishops and bishops, the Inquisition, preachers, priests, theologians, professors.

All this activity, very limited at the beginning, increased rapidly in the capital cities, both large and small. But with time, some of its forms began to appear even in the provincial cities. (Greenfield)Over the two centuries that followed their founding, new societies took shape in the cities of the Indies. These new urban societies were, in fact, the only ones that were alive and evolving.

In contrast, the societies that grew in the rural or mining areas were so rigid that most of their groups had no chance to find their place within the system. All they could do was to try and find their own social order outside the system, within a frame where submission to the rural lords was their only possibility. (Gilbert Ch. 3) Dual societies, with no middle groups, were taking shape in the Indies and the most intense social process at work beneath the surface of these societies was, precisely, the silent formation of the middle classes that formed in the 18th century.

By that time, many hidalgos of the Indies started to forsake their peculiar concept of society, and many of them became bourgeois, though still retaining a touch of their pride and, perhaps even, of their old convictions. But for the two centuries that followed the founding of the cities, the hidalgos vigorously defended their privileged status and their style of life. (Bronner 33-42)The women were equally pretentious. Whether born in Spain or daughters of conquistadores, women acquired as much authority as their status in the new society would grant them.

Some were encomenderas in the countryside. In the cities, surrounded with slaves and servants, they tried to reproduce the atmosphere of distinction typical of the courts and cities of Spain. Some let themselves go for the charms of courtship and love games, the famous tapadas (“veiled women”) of Lima became the model of courtly coquetry. (Asuncion 31-36)  And there were cases of women who assumed important political responsibilities.

But their prescribed place was the noble household and their basic concern was to strengthen and perpetuate the new lineage formed in the Indies. The adventuresome male was always lured by new possibilities to increase his wealth or his station. By contrast, it was the woman that made urban families stable and managed to create a tradition that quickly transformed some of those families into aristocratic lineages. A house of three well-known generations was, in any Latin American city, an old line, whose hidalguia was beyond doubt.

(Asuncion 45-49)The intellectual circles that were formed in many cities belonged to the ranks of the hidalgos. Certainly, many of their members were clergymen. Men of letters or learned scholars, clergy and lay alike, carried on the best traditions of intellectual aristocracy. Poverty was the lot of the lesser people, but the odd coupling of poverty and high social rank gave birth to a new, particularly dramatic, breed of rogues.

Ambitious and violent, the penniless gentry were a threat to the cities that were trying to build an ordered civilian society. To get rid of them, the cities encouraged them to take on new enterprises. (Bronner 53-57)There were many paths, some rather intricate, that brought the two halves of the society into contact. The mestizos were the greatest challenge to the formal order of the Baroque society of the Indies, one that would actually undermine the dual structure of urban societies.

Sealed by its possibilities and limitations, each half of the society seemed to live confined within its own sphere without interference with the other. These opportunities increased as the cities, against the design of the metropolis, gained ground in the mercantile world. In that process, a large group of criollos gained autonomy and discovered that the social structure established in the first two centuries of colonial life was both an anachronism and an obstacle to their development. Taken together, all these facts brought about the crisis that the society of hidalgos experienced in the second half of the 18th century.

(Cornblit 59-64)The actual scale and layout would reveal how the founders viewed the prospects of their new cities. Some capitals—Mexico City, Lima, Buenos Aires—were assigned an initial urban area of over one hundred blocks. But for the vast majority of cities the initial area assigned to them was of about twenty-five blocks. In both cases, it took a long time for cities to be compactly built outside of their downtown areas.

By the late 17th or early 18th century, very few cities had grown beyond that perimeter, although some scanty suburban areas were beginning to form here and there. (Bronner 42-43) Urban population grew rather slowly. These were thus small urban societies that could not hasten construction on all their vacant lots and felt no need to do so. Besides, with the exception of the major capitals and some mining or port cities, there weren’t enough resources, during this period, to raise cities out of nothing.

Urban construction went on: private homes, public buildings, churches, and convents. But well into the 18th century, the physical development of cities was still slow, and only exceptionally did it go beyond the blueprint of the founders. (Gilbert Ch. 4)All the same, what had once been country land was parceled out and transformed into an urban space.

On the blueprint, the city square was an open area, vacant like all the others. The first thing to be built there was the pillory; the market came soon after: the empty space began to fill and take shape, and it took on all its functions as a square when the city hall, the church, even the jail, were built on its edge. (Fraser) The square became the center for social contact in the city, no matter how modest its buildings might be or how rudimentary its public services, often limited to a water well. But it was a few steps away from the city hall, the governor’s mansion or the court building was there that most economic transactions took place, as did the few public celebrations held by the city.

(Gilbert Ch. 4) The main streets would always lead to the square, and this original layout was carefully maintained in almost every city. On these streets, near the square, the wealthiest citizens built their homes. Those of lesser means settled further away, frequently around the churches.

Near these churches, smaller squares were created, each with its own water well; these minor squares became small neighborhood centers where the common people, sometimes Indians and blacks, found their meeting place. (Szuchman 6-12)Once a city was founded, one of the first buildings to be erected was the cathedral or head church. The buttressed houses naturally came first. As soon as the circumstances allowed, cathedrals were built, and when they tumbled down, they were rebuilt, each time better than before.

Different religious orders entered into fierce competition to impose their influence on the cities. From the very start and in almost every city, Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, Mercedarians, and Jesuits obtained large plots of land where they would build their convents and churches.The Dominicans also had their share of city plots, where they built their churches and convents. The influence of the Jesuits was also very strong, and their power was reflected in their churches and colleges.

(Gilbert Ch. 5) Countless new churches were built in the cities. each of them drew the particular devotion of some group of the faithful. As time passed, churches grew in number, and vast sums were invested in them.

It was not the secular constructions but the religious buildings that left their mark upon the cities of the gentry. They embodied the significance of the church in those societies, as well as some essential traits and attitudes of their upper classes. They also embodied some important social and cultural facts, since the architectural styles responded not only to the weight of Spain’s influence but also to the particular conditions of city and region. (Gilbert Ch.

5)The new order of things began to take shape in the last decades of the 18th 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.

(Szuchman 9-12)Women from the upper classes were free to move in that multicolored world. But the attire could equally conceal a marchioness or a mulatta, and the bold behavior of these tapadas (“hidden by the shawl”) began to blur the usual distinctions between social groups. (Arrom 55-61)  Clothing became a peculiar problem in these urban societies, where the desire to show off one’s social position and the concern for social climbing were not simply a personal obsession but the visible signs of a certain philosophy of life, of an ideology. Signs of the same ideology were house and carriage, jewels and servants, everything that meant social status.

(Arrom) “Women with little prudence make quite a contribution to the ruin of an entire household with their importune vanity. It is not uncommon in such homes to see luxury enthroned. The wife or daughter of a physician, attorney or some such type wants to have a house, servants and a position that rivals or at least equals that of some wealthy aristocrat; such women get their fathers or husbands into debt. Sooner or later such men become debtors; what little they have is sold, their credit is lost and the family is ruined…So, in all truth, it is sheer madness to pay in order to appear to be what one is not, only to reveal in the end what one actually is at the price of dishonor.

” (Asuncion 113)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. (Szuchman 11-13)With the rise of the Creole bourgeoisie, the system of baroque cities faded away, but there remained some vestiges that kept alive a nostalgic model of the court city. A half century before Independence, however, the Latin American cities began to be Creole and assumed their own social and cultural identity. Thus, they began to be authentically themselves and started their true process of steady and cohesive development, leaving behind the artificial structure of the city of hidalgos.

(Gilbert Ch. 6) The mercantilist impact that prompted the development of the cities was not the only factor that triggered the crisis of the Baroque city. When the crisis occurred, a true transformation of Latin American society was taking place, or better, the signs of that transformation were becoming visible. As social groups changed in their make-up and number, so did their relations to each other.

(Gilbert Ch. 5)In the last decades of the 18th century, urban societies and the organized rural world became aware of this new social formation, unmistakably indigenous, Creole in nature, informal society. This new formation was made of “country” folk, crude and lacking in the urbane refinements of city people. (Szuchman 14-15) even before the wars of Independence, different groups began to detach themselves from that natural rural society to be assimilated into urban societies.

Inside the revolutionary movements, urban groups began to coalesce, generally under the leadership of the new Creole middle classes, although individuals with no vested interest did sometimes take the lead. Only the upper classes knew what their place was and, consequently, what the rules were that governed them. The middle and lower classes were extremely fluid; and it was precisely this fluidity that provoked the acute crisis that followed independence. The crisis was, in the end, a fruitful one, because it produced a new social order, and it came out of the normal ebb and flow of the social process that went beyond the limits and constraints of the system the conquest had established.

(Pineo, Baer 87-94)By the mid-18th century, the pressure that the mercantilist world was exerting on the peninsula was so great that the more enlightened groups headed a movement to reshape economic, social and cultural life in the two kingdoms. It was the age reforms which had some impact on the political system, but it only served to heighten royal authoritarianism. (Cornblit 161-177) The reform was gradually transforming itself into revolution. A wave of anti-colonial insurrections, varying in scope, began to spread throughout the Spanish empire in 1780.

While the Indian insurrection that Tupac Amaru would lead later that year was still brewing in the countryside, urban riots broke out, during the first months of the year, in Arequipa, Cuzco, La Paz, Charcas, Cochabamba, and in some cities and towns in Peru. (Cornblit 153-160) These movements almost always protested something tangible: new taxes and, an attempt to put mestizos on the same footing with Indians and to make them pay an annual tax. Toward the end of 1780, some movements developed in Santiago. (Cornblit 172-178)everything that in 1780 had seemed premature began to take hold by 1810.

By that time, movements headed by urban Creole aristocracies had triumphed in Buenos Aires, Asuncion and Santiago. (Cornblit 160-173) Groups committed to the reforms inspired by the enlightenment shaped their vision of the political future of the colonies into a revolutionary ideology that carried that reformist thinking to its ultimate consequences. (Gilbert Ch. 7) These movements were essentially urban movements and they developed almost exclusively in the capitals.

They made visible the division between native-born Spaniards and Portuguese on one side and Creoles on the other, as well as the fissures that would soon begin to show within the ranks of the Creoles themselves. Different degrees of wealth and integration produced, in each city, different social strata. (Booth 44-49)Once independence had been won in the early decades of the nineteenth century, a number of circumstances brought about fundamental changes in the character of Creole cities. The Creole bourgeoisie that had formed in the last decades of the 18th century gave way to a new patrician class that took shape in the struggles to organize the new nationalities.

This patrician group became the governing class of the cities, above the urban multi-racial masses, which included increasing numbers of people moving from the countryside. Through often bitter conflict, its different groups traced the outline of what each nation would be. The cities became patrician; in them each country took shape, as did the new governing class, with its distinctive ways of living and thinking. (Greenfield)Between the colonial tradition, the patrician style and the development of mercantilism, cities began to take on a new look.

But as they absorbed the rural waves of migrants, they began to show a disdain for the countryside, one that was sometimes very pronounced. After the initial alarm, the new urban societies that had absorbed the many people who had left the countryside began to assert their superiority and force the rural world back into a subordinate position. The campesino from the independence movement or the civil wars was by now all too accustomed to freedom and became a divisive factor. There was some conflict between the rural lifestyle and the urban lifestyle during this period, perhaps because the rural world had grown in stature and, for a time at least, believed it could challenge the urban world.

(Greenfield)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. (Bronner 58-60) 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. 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. (Gilbert Ch.

8)  The financial crisis of 1929 hastened these changes. The crisis 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.

(Greenfield)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.


  1. Gilbert, Alan. The Latin American City. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998.
  2. Pineo, Ronn, and James A. Baer, eds. Cities of Hope: People, Protests and Progress in Urbanizing Latin America, 1870-1930. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.
  3. Fraser, Valerie. Building the New World: Studies in the Modern Architecture of Latin America, 1930-1960. London: Verso, 2000.Arrom, Silvia Marina.
  4. The Women of Mexico City, 1790-1857. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985.Cornblit, Oscar. Power and Violence in the Colonial City: Oruro from the Mining Renaissance to the Rebellion of Tupac Amaru (1740-1782).
  5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.Greenfield, Gerald Michael. Latin American Urbanization: Historical Profiles of Major Cities. Greenwood Press, 1994.
  6. Bronner, Fred. “Urban Society in Colonial Spanish America: Research Trends.” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 21, 1986.
  7. Booth, John A. “Socioeconomic and Political Roots of National Revolts in Central America.” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 26, 1991.
  8. Lavrin, Asuncion. Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America. University of Nebraska Press, 1992.Szuchman, Mark D.
  9. “Household Structure and Political Crisis: Buenos Aires, 1810-1860.” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 21, 1986.    

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