Latin American Cityscapes

Calabashes of Fate

by | Dec 7, 2003

City as sacred space: remembering the dead. Photo by Al Rendon.

“We are living at a culminating period in the history of the city, at a time in fact when we can confidently anticipate the conclusion of two cycles in the process of urbanization. The first is that which took its origin some five thousand years ago with the so-called (but somewhat inappropriately named) Urban revolution; the second constitutes an epicycle on this secular process which was initiated as recently as the eighteenth century, when the emergence of modern industrial technology began to exacerbate inequalities in the incidence of urbanism among the world’s populations. Now, when the rate of urbanization in industrial communities is tending to decline at the same time as it is accelerating in most underdeveloped countries, we are approaching the time when no only will all men live in terms of the city, but urban dwellers will again be disturbed more or less in accordance with regional population densities. It seems inevitable that by the end of the twenty-first century a universal city, Ecumenopolis, will have come to comprise a world-wide network of hierarchically ordered urban forms enclosing only such tracts of rural landscape as may be judged necessary for man’s survival.”
Paul Wheatley, City as Symbol, p. 3

Scape, Escape, Escapade, Landscape, Cityscape. These variations on the word ‘scape’ combine the notions of place and location with a sense of social movement, fiesta, political performance and rebellion that resonate with this issue’s theme of Latin American cities and beyond. Just the word scape, which has seven entries in The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, seems to be telling a partial secret history of Latin America. It means, among other things, “a thoughtless transgression”, “impression of an essential unique quality of a thing or action, especially as embodied in literary, artistic expression” and “a representation of a scenic view.” As this issue shows when it maps cities at Latin America’s borders, on its coasts, along its rivers, in the deepest valleys and the highest sierras, Latin America not only contains cities but also is becoming, in conspicuous and inconspicuous ways, a shifting, crawling New World Ecumenopolis, a Cityscape.

In his 1971 book Where the Air is Clear, Carlos Fuentes gave us perhaps the best wordscape of the diversity, danger, mythology, anguish, labor, dynamics and delight of city life in Latin America: “…in Mexico City there is never tragedy but only outrage…city of the violated outrage, city witness to all we forget, city of fixed sun, city ancient in light, old city cradled among birds of omen, city tempested by domes, city woven by amnesias, bitch city, hungry city, city in the true image of gigantic heaven. Incandescent prickly pear.”

Many essays in this ReVista reflect these metaphors and sometimes use some of these very words to describe for instance what a woman experiences when walking in a city, or breathing the city’s air, beating urban drums, describing “emergency villages” or “urban-tinged countrysides.” Three phrases catch my eye: “city in the true image of gigantic heaven” and “city tempested by domes” and “city of the violated outrage.” These phrases directly mirror my thoughts in the introduction to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures. I wrote that Mesoamerica in particular and Latin America in general were sites of two major cultural transformations in Western Hemisphere history, namely the rise of primary urban generation and the explosive, violent and sometimes wild process of encounter and exchange we call colonialism.

Both of these monumental developments lasted for long historical duration. They were symbolized by diverse and sometimes competing cityscapes that dominated economic development, political order, religious imagination and social relations. I’ve attempted to develop models to interpret the history of the city in Latin America, following the insistence about the reconfiguration of social thought that “theory…moves mainly by analogy,” described by Clifford Geertz in his Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York, Basic Books, 1982). Through these analogies, I’ve begun to construct a series of resemblances that relate social theory and cityscapes. Each analogy brings creative thinkers into contact with both the analogy and each other. These include the city as cosmological symbol (Otto von Simson, García Márquez, Paolo Soleri, Mircea Eliade); city as religious community (Fustel de Coulanges, Virgilio Elizondo, Emile Durkheim, William B. Fash); city as fulcrum of political power (Max Weber, Stanley Tambiah, Tomás Eloy Martinez, Angel Rama) and city as center of economic exchange (Raymond Williams, Pedro Carrasco, David Harvey). Latin American cityscapes participate in all these analogies and orders but are also places of multiple assaults and fractious creations. They threaten to become what Patrick Chamoiseau in his novel Texaco calls the ‘ominous reign of a boundless city.” In what follows I’ll explore four ideas about Latin American cities: city as a perspective to understand Latin America; city as sacred space; city as a performative place; and city as a conflict zone.

The City as Perspective

“City joins and ties, each end is tied to the other, no ravine, no cliff, no river cutting through, all is joined and tied…It’s not a place of happiness. It’s not a place of misfortune. It’s the calabash of fate.” Texaco


Latin Americanists often don’t take into account that Mesoamerica and South America were two of the seven areas of primary urban generation—the uniquely complex evolution from the social world of the village to urbanized cultures. Only the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, China and Nigeria share the significance of this historical evolution with ancient societies of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru. In all these seven areas and especially in the Inca and Mesoamerican empires, ideal type cities mediated the existential multiplicities of humans through their grand ceremonial centers and market places built in the image of gigantic heavens or cosmologies. As archaeological work and ethnohistorical manuscripts clearly show, Latin America was the site of both incredible ecological diversity and monumental cityscapes for millennia before Europeans arrived.

The cityscapes changed and thickened. As Angel Rama and others have shown, Spanish and Portuguese grids, imperial and religious architectures, new forms of writing, encomiendas and the Inquisition formed cities throughout Latin America tempested by European style domes covering and occluding indigenous and African gods, modes of exchange, cultural amnesias and human outrages. The results were Mestizo cities with names like Cusco, Lima, Mexico City, Guanajuato, and Bogotá. In whatever form of tragedy or light, these cities came to increasingly dominate politics, consciousness and material exchange. Perhaps it is another Latin voice, Italo Calvino, who summarizes the nature of cities best when he writes in Invisible Cities that they seem to be “the sum of all wonders” and places with the capacity “to soak up memories like a sponge and expand.” Some cities contain “all the other places of the world within them, things that are naturally separate, mingle together in cities.”

New knowledge about Latin America comes not only from seeing this vast landscape as a container of many cities but in seeing the morphology and history of many cities as a way to understand Latin America. Consider how Pablo Neruda’s Nobel Prize Lecture, which emphasizes the landscapes of Chile across which he fled, is entitled and ends “Hacia la Ciudad Esplendida.”

Cityscape as “true image of gigantic heaven”… and elite society!

Much scholarship in Latin American studies examines the rupture of indigenous traditions caused by the encuentros of the Atlantic world and the invention of New Spain. However, scholars have not given enough attention to the monumental ceremonial centers that functioned as the sacred pivots of the Pre-Columbian social world, the cityscapes that eventually greeted Europeans at crucial junctures in their conquest projects. The traditional cities of Teotihuacan, Copan, Cholula, Uxmal, Cuzco, Tenochtitlan, were the sites where one of the greatest (r)evolutions in human history took place, a social transformation that dominated millions of indigenous people prior to the 16th century and continued to play decisive roles in how Latin America evolved. One scholar who has developed a stunning model of cityscapes is the urban ecologist Paul Wheatley, whose interpretation of urban genesis has served as a kind of consensus among many scholars of traditional cities. Wheatley sees cities as ways of life, with profound social stratification producing ideal-type settlements where redistributive powers in the hands of sacred and pseudo-sacred authorities resulted in monumental capacities to export control.

Cities as a Way of Life

Many scholars of Latin America don’t quite realize what urban ecologists have made clear, namely that the urban way of life was not a system contained within the city’s walls, or formal boundaries, but rather it spread far beyond the limits of the built form. See Teófilo Altmirano’s essay on internal migration in Peru for someone who has understood the reach of the city into all dimensions of society. Saskia Sassen’s innovative account shows how digital cities link up Latin American “sub-economies” as much to global markets as to national cultures in which they reside. Wheatley is persuasive when she insists that cities were the style centers of the traditional world.

“It is the city which has been, and to a large extent still is, the style center of the traditional world, disseminating social, political, technical, religious and aesthetic values, and functioning as an organizing principle conditioning the manner and quality of life in the countryside. Those who focus their regional studies on peasant society to the exclusion of urban forms are—as I have stated elsewhere—as deluded as Plato’s prisoners (or in another sense, Beckett’s) who mistake the flickering shadows on a wall for reality. They, too, are turning their backs on the generative force of ecological transformation and seeking the causes of the great tides of social change in ripples on the beach of history.” (“City as Symbol”, Inaugural Lecture delivered at University College, London, November 20, 1967).

In my own work on Mesoamerican cities I have shown how the dissemination of urban styles results in eccentric rhythms of conflict and exchange between social and geographical peripheries and capital and regional cities sometimes resulting in imperial domination but also in rebellion and fracture.

Social Stratification or Sundering People from the Gods and the Goods

As many of the essays in this issue testify, cities are fundamentally places of permanent and pervasive social differentiation. This fact is crucial for theorists, activists and policy planners as they seek to understand and influence the struggle for democracy in Latin American societies and beyond. See Felton Earl’s revealing essay on Chicago to get an understanding of how this plays out in Latino, as well as Latin American, cities. Urbanists such as S.N. Eisenstadt, Wheatley and Pedro Armillas have revealed that cities emerged only when the major institutional spheres of society became dissociated once and for all from the masses of the populace. These central economic, ideological and political spheres usually manifested themselves in a concrete form at the settlement hub where the major religious and political mythologies were imprinted on the physiognomies of spectacular buildings. Social differentiation was not only the key to the generation of these effective spaces, architectures and overall urban settlements, but it was also the critical link that bound the larger city-state together throughout history. Following Eisenstadt, who held that the most important breakthrough of ancient social history consisted of the emergence of a religio-political elite controlling all institutions, Wheatley noted that “it signified for the first time in the history of the world the sundering of the populace at large from direct access to supernatural power, at the same time that it deprived the people en masse of participation in political decision making. In other words the populace had been alienated from the loci of both sacred and secular power.”  (The Pivot of the Four Quarters, Chicago, Aldine Publishing, 1971).

This is a profound point, namely that social stratification or class conflict is endemic to all cityscapes, Latin American, traditional, colonial, modern or postmodern. While everyone may still have types of access to the gods and the goods of the cityscapes, the most potent avenues toward religious authority and social wealth are forever in the hands of the elites. To avoid the significance of this challenging social architecture is a form of interpretive blindness. This insight about stratifications is reflected in Carolyn Sattin’s account of the energetic “neighborhood assemblies” of Buenos Aires. She shows how violent and corrupt forms of social domination were changed into seeds of social revolution against the hierarchy.

Redistribution and Control

Monumental Central Places, whether pyramids, palaces, plazas, ball courts, stadiums or civic structures, functioned as elite religious and political axis mundis, quintessential places of sacralized authority. These central ceremonial precincts, often constructed as replicas of cosmic or idealized political order, were theatres for the vital spectacles dramatizing cultural mythologies directed by specialists hired by the ruling elites. Wheatley and others have shown how cityscapes have an immense magnetism, a centripetal power that draws all manner of goods, ideas, technology, art, produce and commerce into its central institutions and precincts. The city becomes a bulging container that transforms and redistributes everything that comes under its control. Eventually these objects and ideas undergo a centrifugal force by being sent back out, in various ways to specialist communities or the population at large but only after they have been ‘redistributed’ by the systems and values of exchange in the heart of the city. In other words, cityscapes are not territories where the goods, ideas, technology, agricultural are actually ‘shared’ in some balanced or just fashion. Rather they are redistributed, always unevenly, according to formulas of dispensation determined by the sacralized or idealized authorities and luxurious needs of the people who occupy the top rungs of the social pyramid. These elites contrive, prescribe, modulate and disseminate order and value throughout the subsystems of society. Their most crucial export, as Wheatley says, “is control.”

This fact of urban power can serve as a caution and balance with the cultural fashion of seeing everything Latin American in terms of diasporas. The tremendous waves of immigration throughout and from Latin America into the United States cannot be adequately understood unless the symbol of diaspora is studied in relation to the dynamics of cities that both stimulate and attract immigration.

Cityscapes as Performance Places:

Working with students in courses on cities and symbols in comparative perspective has not only exposed me to the complex sets of performances that animated cities but also with ways in which cities were religio-political performances themselves. City after city in Latin America and beyond that we examined unfolded their histories as dramaturgical landscapes. At least two of the essays in this volume write of the performances within and of Latin American Cities. George Reid Andrews’ “Rhythm Nation: The Drums of Montevideo” shows how the voices of African drums reweave and repair the racialized alienations of that city’s history. And Sattin illustrates how the “cacerolazos” of Buenos Aires performs the spirit of “pueblo argentino” in a quest for healing. Wider studies show how major ideas, ebbs and flows of migration, urban renewals, personal tragedies and hopes of the populace were acted out through various forms of theatre and social drama. As Liz Melendez San Miguel and Richard Mora write about Tijuana and San Juan, it becomes evident that cities’ intensively dynamic performance spaces and cultural performances do not just re-present the values of elites or the official city but often function to critique, rebel against or re-generate the cities or their neighborhoods as meaningful if suffering cityscapes. These various ceremonies— whether marches, masses, organized massacres, domino games, balconazos, or walking tours— bring the city’s complexities, harassments, corridors of hate and safety to life. In ways analogous to Victor Turner’s notions about social drama, these overt and covert performances are cultural-aesthetic mirrors that reflect the major socio-economic formations of Latin American peoples, neighborhoods, classes and artists. (Victor Turner, “Are there universals of performance in myth, ritual, and drama?” By Means of Performance: Intercultural studies of theatre and ritual, ed. Richard Schechner and Willa Appel, New York, Cambridge University Press).

City as a Conflict Zone and of Fractious Creations

Cities are constantly performing their social hierarchy and elite pathologies linking sex, death, and inflated authority. Examples appear in works as diverse as Tomás Eloy Martínez’s Santa Evita and in Bruno Bettleheim’s Freud’s Vienna and Other Essays. These authors show how some urban zones contain terrible conflicts as well as clash with other urban zones. These conflicts lead to destructive, heroic, chaotic and sometimes spectacular performances. In Bettleheim’s work, we learn that as Vienna grew to dominate the social world of the Hapsburg empire, its city fathers not only arranged for the World’s Fair of 1873 to perform their empire, but also constructed the Ringstrasse, the monumental avenue that circled the inner city “to outshine the world-famous Haussmann boulevards of Paris.” (Bruno Bettleheim, Freud’s Vienna and Other Essays New York, Alfred P. Knopf, 1989).

In this case, the performance is between capitals, with elites and architects competing with spectacular statements of political or cultural imperial leadership. I am reminded of how Buenos Aires—as well as Mexico City and other capitals—imitated certain European capitals through its architecture and lifestyles, as aptly illustrated by Ines Zalduendo’s article on the architectural evolution of Buenos Aires. And we must not forget the intense competition of Maya city-states during its glowing Classic cultures, when ceremonial cities competed publicly (sometimes to the point of ruin) to perform the most powerful and extravagant ceremonial festivals. In the Maya case, the purpose was to call down the gods (or up) into the city’s midst and draw populace into their markets.

In some cityscapes, especially at economic turning points of the colonial periods, the linkages between cities resulted in conquest and ruin. A case from Southeast Asia may direct us to explore parallel catastrophes in Latin American competitive cityscapes. In the 15th century, the city of Melaka controlled the Melaka Strait thereby manipulating the collection of spices and the distribution of textiles for large parts of East and Southeast Asia. This meant the city had undue influence, in the words of Paul Wheatley, in the “spice trade between the Nusa Tenggara and Renaissance Europe” (including Spain and Portugal) and this “brought about its downfall. The power that controlled the Melaka Strait…was in a position to apply a tourniquet to the world’s major artery of trade—as Tome Pires put it, ‘Whoever is Lord of Melaka has his hand on the throat of Venice’.” As a result of this power during what could be called an earlier phase of ‘globalization’, the Portuguese led by Alfonso d’ Albuquerque attacked and destroyed forever Melaka’s hold on the prices and the fears of Europeans. Today we see threatening linkages between Venezuelan oil and U.S. transportation, Havana’s politics and Miami’s mental health, and the Argentine crisis with U.S.-imposed economic rules.

The performance of the psychological depth and power of cities illustrated in the work of Raymond Williams, especially in his The City and the Country, resonates in fascinating ways with the essays herein by Arturo Ardila-Gómez on Bogotá and Teófilo Altamirano on Peruvian cities. Reading a wide series of literary works about British cities, Williams shows how the city and the novel of the city combine to reveal the “true significance of the city,” which is the revelation of the “double condition” of humankind. When he comments on Charles Dickens’s ability to create a new kind of novel after many false starts, Williams notes that London brought together in unique ways “the random and the systematic, the visible and the obscured which is the true significance of the city, and especially at this period of the capital city, as a dominant social form” (The City and the Country, New York, Oxford University Press, 1973).

This sentiment has been echoed in the works of many Latin America creative writers such as García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Nelida Piñon, namely that the city is a place of completely new kinds of in-depth human experiences of “unknown and unacknowledged relationships, profound and decisive connections, definite and committing recognitions and avowals” that were brought into contact and exchange. In the words of Fuentes, cities in Latin America are not only places of unacknowledged multiplicities and differences, they are the places supreme for the activation of differences and multiplicities. In the cities of Latin America and beyond, mutual friends and competitors, bitter enemies and outcasts came to realize that “what was important or even decisive could not be simply known or simply communicated, …it had to be revealed, to be forced into consciousness”, or in my words performed into consciousness, as well illustrated by Diana Taylor’s thrilling Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s “Dirty War”.

I give the last word to the Maya about the cityscape as a sum of all wonders and an endless ruin. Centuries after their magisterial ceremonial cities had been engulfed in the jungles and eventually Spanish grids, their descendants secretly wrote the Popul Vuh, the Book of Council. Miguel Leon Portilla, in his Native Mesoamerican Spirituality (New York, Paulist Press, 1980) quotes a passage about their ancient migration. It reads,

“Let us go ourselves and search
and we shall see for ourselves
whether there is something to guard our sign…
and thus we shall live…
They heard news of a city
And went there.”


Winter 2003Volume II, Number 2
David Carrasco is the Neil Rudenstine Professor for the Study of Latin America at the Harvard Divinity School and the Department of Anthropology. He is author of City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization and Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures.

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