Nineteenth-Century Spanish America: A Cultural History

Nineteenth-Century Spanish America: A Cultural History

by Christopher Conway

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826520609
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2015
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Christopher Conway is Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is author of The Cult of Bolivar in Latin American Literature (University Press of Florida, 2003) and editor of Peruvian Traditions (Oxford University Press, 2004).

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Nineteenth-Century Spanish America

A Cultural History

By Christopher Conway

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2015 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-2061-6



Cities are real places of habitation, commerce, and administration, but they are also symbols of authority, progress, and underdevelopment. For our purposes, cities are important because they were the staging ground for implementing new ideas from abroad in places still conditioned by traditional ideas and practices. Urban planners populated urban space with their utopian imaginings and struggled to overcome the often chaotic and dispiriting realities of city life, if they even acknowledged them at all. One panegyrist of the city of Buenos Aires, for example, wrote that all "manifestations of progress and social life at its most refined" were embodied in the city, giving it a physiognomy of material and moral greatness. A Chilean commentator observed that country life, characterized by small, isolated, and scattered human populations, was a barrier to the circulation of ideas and the spread of progress. "Cities," he wrote, "and all kinds of towns of substance, foster justice and the rule of law." Because nineteenth-century Spanish American cultural and political history was defined by the desire to become modern, we could argue that cities embodied modernization better than any other idea or place. They were laboratories for grafting foreign ideas onto local environments, and making progress visible through buildings, monuments, tree-lined avenues, and parks. In Spanish America, as in Europe, the nineteenth century was the age of the city.

The nineteenth-century Spanish American urban experience was defined by tremendous change: cities and their populations grew at an astonishing rate, breaking down the colonial city and replacing it with something more expansive and difficult to control. But what was the colonial city? Inspired by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, whose treatise De architectura was well known in sixteenth-century Spain, New World colonial cities were designed on a grid pattern with a central plaza that prominently featured buildings symbolizing the authority of the church and of the state. City planners situated unhygienic establishments, like slaughterhouses, on the periphery of cities or near rivers, to ensure sanitation. The Crown also dictated that central plazas be rectangles half as long as they were wide, and out of which four major streets should radiate outward. After these general considerations, urban space was divided into lots called solares and distributed by way of a lottery to merchants and then to residents of means and distinction. The driving force behind these and other dicta was order, an idea that was intimately tied to the concepts of political power and administration. In one representative sixteenth-century ordinance, for example, Spanish authorities instructed a conquistador to ensure that any town he founded "appear well-ordered as regards the space designated for the central plaza ... because where such orders are given from the outset, orderly results will follow." Against the unknown vastness of the New World, cities were supposed to be sites of repeatable and recognizable architectural structures, as well as of political and cultural patterns of collective behavior.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, to look out from any natural promontory over any Spanish American city was to see a low skyline of one- and two-story buildings punctuated by the bell towers of churches and a cathedral. Caracas, nestled in a mountain valley twenty miles from the Caribbean coast, was dwarfed by El Ávila Mountain, looming majestically over it at nearly nine thousand feet above sea level. Mexico City, Havana, and Lima also kept low architectural profiles until the twentieth century. One traveler to Montevideo in 1891 called it a bustling city of stucco and bright colors laid out in a chessboard pattern over undulate ground, allowing the pedestrian to enjoy layered vistas of buildings and shimmering glimpses of the River Plate. Most of the buildings were flat-roofed and low, with the exception of the new Hotel Victoria, which rose above the skyline. Around the same time, a traveler described Bogotá as a squat city of terra-cotta roofs surrounded by mountain ranges and lined with straight, narrow cobblestone streets busy with covered carriages. It wasn't that impressive, he wrote, but it was charming.

The size of the populations that lived in cities matched the modesty of their skylines. At the end of the eighteenth century, most cities had populations under one hundred thousand: Lima (sixty thousand), Buenos Aires (forty thousand), Santiago (forty thousand), Bogotá (twenty thousand), and San José [Costa Rica] (fourteen thousand). Two of the largest cities in the New World at the dawn of the nineteenth century were Mexico City and Havana, which had populations of around one hundred thousand, but this number paled in comparison to the nearly two hundred thousand inhabitants of Madrid, the half a million in Paris and the nearly one million inhabitants of London. Throughout the century, the cities grew and became more crowded. The population of Mexico City and Havana rose to over two hundred thousand, Bogotá and Lima hovered at one hundred thousand, and Buenos Aires reached over half a million, quickly surpassing a million in the first quarter of the twentieth century. This demographic growth happened in tandem with urban renewal and change. The rhythms of life accelerated. Railroad tracks and steam engines multiplied. Buildings rose higher, monuments appeared, and streets became wider. The plazas bustled with foodsellers, tobacconists, and ambulatory santeros who sold figurines representing Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. A Venezuelan essayist sarcastically wrote in 1877 that he knew his country was progressing because he could not move forward when he tried to walk the streets of Caracas; there were building supplies littering the sidewalks and throngs of workers digging ditches, to say nothing of hundreds of supply mules blocking his way. In the pages that follow, we'll explore this world of change and delineate key themes of the urban experience. We'll find that the urban ideal was an optimistic and forward-thinking one, but that it was also haunted by the horrors of poverty, violence, and disorganization. In other words, the cultural meanings associated with nineteenth-century city life were the product of Sarmiento's famous formula of "civilization" and "barbarism."

The City of Light

In 1875, the French writer Victor Hugo praised the cultural superiority of Paris in comparison to other European cities by calling it the "Ville Lumière" or the City of Light. The word for "light" in French, as in Spanish, denotes intelligence, rationalism, knowledge, and culture. To illuminate a city with light—to make it more like Paris—was to structure, beautify, and rationalize it in order to promote the vitality, customs, and industry of its inhabitants. Indeed, this relationship between the city and the metaphor of light was common knowledge among educated city dwellers in Spanish America. In an 1850 letter to the municipal government of the Chilean city of Valparaiso, a group of concerned citizens wrote that "lights" were the most effective kind of police for improving life in the poorer suburbs of the city. "Light convenes everyone to order,"they wrote, and "every streetlight is a night watchman who works for free." The city of light was a rational and civilized city, one defined by order and symmetry. In a similar vein, Mexican commentator from Guadalajara wrote that a country's state of progress could be measured by the conditions of its streets. Straight, smooth, and ordered cobblestone streets modeled on those of Europe's capitals were both a thing of beauty and an inducement for a city's inhabitants to interact in civilized ways.

Nineteenth-century European ideas about urban planning were a product of capitalism, the industrial revolution, and the astonishing poverty and crowding that emerged in growing cities. Urban planners agreed that the health of the city organism required both infrastructure and new symbolic spaces and ornamental fashions. What was needed were wider streets to improve the circulation of people and goods, mechanisms for delivering water and removing waste, and buildings, plazas, and monuments to represent modern values. When European urban planners reconstructed their cities to meet these goals, Spanish American travelers and governments took notice and sought to emulate them. In particular, they found inspiration in Paris and the work of Georges-Eugène Haussmann, whom Emperor Napoleon III appointed to the position of prefect of the Seine in 1851, with the charge of repairing the chaotic and unsanitary conditions in Paris. Haussmann ordered the construction of wide and imposing streets like the Boulevard de Sébastopol and the Avenue de l'Opéra, as well as secondary streets, razing slums and older buildings in the process. These changes helped to unify the city, relieving congestion and improving access and circulation. Haussmann's other notable achievements included the building of numerous city parks, waterworks, and sewage systems. His accomplishments were so well known that Spanish American commentators praised their own visionary and successful urban planners by explicitly comparing them to Haussmann. Indeed, most of the major changes to the nineteenth-century Spanish American city were inspired by Haussmann's Paris, such as the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City, the Avenida Mayo in Buenos Aires, and the Paseo Calvario in Caracas. Beautiful urban parks such as Santiago's Santa Lucía, the park of Palermo Buenos Aires, and Lima's Exposición were also inspired by the parks of the French capital. To "Haussmannize" a city was to mod ernize it, which meant widening streets, razing slums, erecting monumental buildings, creating sewer systems, and building parks to infuse cities with health.

Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna, one of Chile's most distinguished intellectuals and political figures, sought to implement some of Haussmann's ideas during his tenure as city manager of the Chilean capital of Santiago in 1872–1875. Twenty years earlier, during a turbulent period of conflict between conservatives and liberals, Vicuña Mackenna had fled the country to avoid arrest and traveled widely in Europe and the United States, learning a great deal about different kinds of cities. He repeatedly marveled at cities with parks and straight, orderly streets lined with trees that breathed freshness into the air. The European city that best captured Vicuña Mackenna's definition of the perfect urban habitat was Edinburgh, Scotland. Cities like Paris and London were indeed impressive, and worthy of imitation in many ways, but they were also big, bustling, and overwhelming. For Vicuña Mackenna, Edinburgh struck a perfect balance between the old and the new, and between nature and civilization. "Without having the majesty and size of a large population," he wrote, "it's nonetheless a city of small palaces and gardens, clean and brilliant on its exterior, with a small-town spirit that is tranquil, laborious, and intelligent, without the noise and tumult of carriages, men, and business." When Chilean president Federico Errázuriz Zañartu called on the former exile to oversee the urban renewal of Santiago, Vicuña Mackenna saw an opportunity to try to recreate in Chile some of what he admired about Edinburgh and other European cities.

Vicuña Mackenna developed an ambitious, Haussmannian blueprint for reimagining Santiago that can be broadly summarized as follows: redirecting or channeling rivers in or near the city, building new roads and making road improvements, developing waterworks, removing structures associated with the urban working classes (like unseemly saloons and markets) and replacing them with new and improved ones, and building new schools and parks. One of his most ambitious proposals was to divert the Mapocho River, which transected Santiago from east to west into two districts. Although the Mapocho supplied water to the city's fountains, it was not potable, requiring the channeling of drinking water from outside the city, as well as many water carriers who sold drinking water door-to-door from large earthen jugs carried on their backs or on donkeys. Not only was the Mapocho polluted with sewage, but it was also prone to dangerous flooding in the wintertime. Vicuña Mackenna's proposal to divert the river would have improved the city's flood defenses, helped to manage the flow of sewage, and integrated the district on the north bank to the southern district, which was the seat of the city's political and commercial interests. He also envisioned an artificial lake in the city's center that could be created through a system of dams and channels, to help purify the air and make urban life more sanitary. Unfortunately, these impressive waterworks were not realized during Vicuña Mackenna's tenure as city manager, but President José Manuel Balmaceda oversaw the successful construction of a channel to divert the Mapocho River between 1888 and 1891.

Another of Vicuña Mackenna's proposals, which was only partially completed by 1875, was the construction of a large avenue that would encircle the southern district of the city. He believed that this band, called the camino de la cintura (beltline road), would help demarcate the city proper and distinguish it from the poorer parts of town to the north. By drawing this boundary, the core of Santiago could better protect itself from the slums on the outside, and improve traffic congestion in the center of the city. Although this beltline road did not transect Santiago like Haussmann's Boulevard de Sébastopol did Paris, it was not unlike that famous French street because it was a bold attempt to unify urban space and improve the circulation of people and goods. Vicuña Mackenna also planned to place a series of circular pathways along the camino for people to use for leisurely walks or paseos.

One of Vicuña Mackenna's most interesting projects was the Paseo de Santa Lucía, a one-acre park situated on an outcropping of volcanic rock in the northeastern part of the city, at the end of the Avenida de las Delicias. One traveler described the lush, wooded park, with its summit overlooking Santiago, as a "garden in the air," full of "beautiful grottoes and cozy nooks" from which visitors could catch vistas of the city or commune with nature. At the top of the hill was an outdoor theater, a restaurant, ample patios and terraces, and pathways through gardens. Vicuña Mackenna considered it the premier park in the city, which it undoubtedly was, and an exceptional rival to any of the great city parks of Europe. One telling detail about the park and the expectations that Vicuña Mackenna and his collaborators brought to its planning was a structure that was ultimately excluded from its final design. In 1872, Manuel Aldunate prepared a watercolor for Vicuña Mackenna and the city council of what the completed park might look like. At the center of the summit of Santa Lucía Hill, Aldunate had put a tall, electric lighthouse with an imposing spiral shaped tower: Let there be light.

The City of Monuments

While debating a bill related to urban planning on the floor of the Argentine Congress on August 1, 1883, a congressman declared that it was quite obvious what the function of monuments was in cities that aspired to be centers of civilization and culture: they served as pleasant destinations for foreign visitors, and places of congregation for all. It was there, he argued, at the foot of bodies of bronze or stone, that the people absorbed culture and learning. In the previous section, we learned about how Paris inspired the construction of wide streets, infrastructure, and parks in nineteenth-century Spanish American cities. But the city was more than an architectural challenge relating to water lines, sewers, and the best way to relieve traffic congestion; it was also a vessel for shaping the experience of its inhabitants through ritual and collective memory. By standing before a monument, a citizen could experience a sense of belonging to a historical community defined by seminal events and actors; in turn, this feeling encouraged loyalty to the nation and comradeship with fellow citizens. This subjective experience can be illustrated by an essay that the Cuban patriot and Pan-American writer José Martí wrote for a children's magazine about the importance of hero worship. In the opening lines of his article, Martí described a weary traveler who, upon arriving for the first time in Caracas, rushes to the Plaza Bolívar to see the equestrian statue of the Liberator at its center. In light of Martí's eloquent character and beliefs, to say nothing of his own stay in Venezuela, it is fair to surmise that he was describing his own experience when he wrote that as the traveler stood alone among the tall and pleasant-smelling trees of the plaza, weeping as he looked up at Bolívar atop his bronze horse, the statue seemed to come alive and move toward him the way a father might do to welcome a long-lost son. Martí wrote that the traveler had done well in rushing to see the monument of the Liberator "because all Americans should love Bolívar like a father."


Excerpted from Nineteenth-Century Spanish America by Christopher Conway. Copyright © 2015 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction Cultures 1

Chapter 1 Cities 23

Chapter 2 Print 53

Chapter 3 Theatricality 91

Chapter 4 Image 131

Chapter 5 Musicality 169

Afterword Change 199

Suggested Reading 205

Notes 217

Bibliography 235

Index 259

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