- The Colonial Spanish-American City: Urban Life in the Age of Atlantic Capitalism by Jay Kinsbruner
Jay Kinsbruner has penned a compact, conceptually well organized, and smoothly written synthesis that draws heavily on his own previously published work and that of selected other historians. More descriptive than analytical, his narrative vividly captures the bustle, the grit, the noise, and the spectacle of Spanish American cities, detail that will surely appeal to undergraduates and general readers with little prior knowledge of colonial society. Kinsbruner is especially good at reminding readers that city life was often dangerous, unsanitary and downright smelly; he includes graphic accounts of raw sewage in the streets of Mexico City and other towns. General audiences will also find a fairly standard treatment of such topics as the typical grid layout of most cities, the duties of cabildo officers and other administrative personnel, and urban architecture. Good biographical vignettes also introduce readers to a variety of interesting characters. We meet, for example, merchants whose business connections extended from Chile to Buenos Aires and Barcelona, pretentious Basque immigrants who tried to bar the “riffraff” from their pelota games, and master artisans and the journeymen and apprentices who worked in their shops. In sum, Kinsbruner’s book is a good introductory text that lends itself to classroom adoption.
Specialists in Latin American history, on the other hand, will find this volume less than satisfying, and colonialists in fields outside of Latin America should use it with caution. The author’s incorporation of recent research is spotty at best. Much of the information comes from secondary works that are twenty to thirty years old, often quoted verbatim at considerable length. Use of primary sources is largely limited to oft-cited accounts, such as those of Thomas Gage, Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa, along with various governmental ordinances related to municipal administration. With few exceptions, his specific cases come from just a few cities that ultimately became national capitals: Mexico City above all, along with Lima, Buenos Aires, Caracas, and Havana. His inclusion of such relative “late bloomers” as Caracas and Buenos Aires along with the long-established capitals of New Spain and Peru gives readers some sense of the variety of urban centers that developed at different points in the colonial period, but he could have explored the similarities and differences among these cities much more explicitly. Indian pueblos and towns formed by free people of color receive some mention, but many provincial capitals and regional economic centers (Quito, Cuzco, Potosí, and Guadalajara, to name a few) have been the subjects of recent studies, and might have been incorporated into Kinsbruner’s synthesis.
Kinsbruner includes a chapter on the urban family and pays some attention to the voluminous scholarship on women and gender that has appeared over the past two decades, but he could have done much more justice to these findings. His references to the economic opportunities available to free women of color are brief and largely anecdotal. More troubling still, his assertion that women who headed their own households “enjoyed a vast array of legal rights not granted to married women without the consent of their husbands” (p. 114) mistakenly implies that they escaped virtually all the constraints of patriarchal society and glosses over the important class differences that otherwise inform his analysis of urban society. Similarly, his claim that “agency was built into the colonial Spanish American political system and was available to everyone” (p. 120) paints far too rosy a picture. He has almost nothing to say about convents, despite their visible presence in so many of Latin America’s major cities, their roles as educators of women and landlords to many urban dwellers, and their extensive familial, political and economic ties to urban elites. His suggestion that the urban environment produced important changes in traditional social relations is well taken, but could have profited from a critical discussion of Steve Stern’s conclusions on gender relations in Mexico City, in The Secret History of Gender: Women, Men, and Power...