Cities and Revolutions in Latin America

A call-for-proposals (CFP) with this title caught my attention, because it's something I've been pondering for practically all my adult life -- since my days in rebellious Caracas back in the 1960s. The session organizers, Federica Morelli and Jordana Dym, have also given it a lot of thought. But if their summary of current historiography is right, I have some doubts about the split between pre-modern (colonial and 19th century) and 20th-21st century views of city dynamics.

They write that scholars specializing in the colonial period "tend to emphasize cities as places of social revolution and economic dynamism. Scholars of independence and the nineteenth century see cities as places for popular mobilization (riots) and organized political opposition (juntas, coups) by elites. Scholars of the twentieth century and beyond tend to contrast Indian or peasant villages with the 'mega-cities' of Latin America where factories take in internal and external migrants, housewives demonstrate against dictators, gangs use urban institutions to organize, and politicians develop popular support that launches presidential careers."

The cut seems to be ca. 1920 or so. As described above, “colonialist” & 19th c. histories both see cities as “as places of social revolution and economic dynamism,” including riots & coups. That is, the rapid, innovative social dynamic of “cities,” built places with the greatest density of population – and an inertia of change – is clearly differentiated from the inertia of much slower change in their rural hinterlands, where Marx remarked on “the idiocy of rural life.” It is in the 20th century that ‘megacities’ incorporate the urban v. rural conflict within the urban density: that large numbers of rural people “invade” the cities, that is, are impelled to migrate there, but are not fully assimilated culturally.

Q1: Is this view of the premodern periods generally accurate? In Argentina and Venezuela (the 2 countries whose social history I know best), in the late colonial period and throughout the first century of independence, pressure for change came mostly from the rural areas: montoneras (rebellious bands of mounted men) in Argentina, in Venezuela the many rural revolts leading to changes in the central government in Caracas. The men who came to power, almost always by revolution (i.e., rural revolt), included Páez, a cattleman from the southern llanos, followed by the Monagas brothers (especially José Tadeo) from the rural east, others from rural Miranda or Falcón, and then a whole series of cattlemen and shepherds from the western Andes, especially the state of Táchira, where there was no city of important size.

The earlier independence wars were also largely rural affairs. The assemblies of dignitaries who declared independence met in cities (Tucumán, a quite small provincial capital in the remote north or Argentina, and the colonial capitals were usually centers of conspiracy, but the troops and very soon their officers came from smaller towns & villages). And even earlier, in Peru, Mexico and other places, the most serious threats to the colonial administration had come from small towns and villages.

Q2: In 20th & 21st centuries, why has the assimilation of rural migrants been such a difficult issue? Why have they formed villas miserias (Argentina), barrios (Venezuela), favelas (Brazil), campamentos (Chile), etc., that is, dense and precarious shantytowns surrounding and in interstices within the city, but seemingly antagonistic to its urban culture? Here are some likely explanations:

• Too many arriving too suddenly
• Rejection of the newcomers by the urbanites
• Preference of the newcomers for maintaining family ties & other traditions

The problem with the first hypothesis is that Buenos Aires, Caracas, Mexico City, Lima, Sao Paulo and other great cities have had much more difficulty assimilating their own rural compatriots than they have had with the large numbers of foreigners who began arriving around the beginning of the 20th century. I don't mean that all those Italians, Gallegos, Japanese, and Eastern European Jews were welcomed by the native urbanites, but that many of them found oportunities in their new environment to become effective urban actors, whether in politics, arts, business, or crime. The rural-urban migrants mostly did not.

I'm tempted to submit a proposal, even though I probably won't be able to get to Lyon (France) next August (I plan to be in the U.S. around that time). At the very least, I wanted to develop some ideas about it.

See the call for papers, IXth International Conference on Urban History, Lyon, France, 27th - 30th August 2008: Cities and Revolutions in Latin America

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