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Public Culture 12.1 (2000) 207-213

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From National Capital to Global Capital:
Urban Change in Mexico City *

Néstor García Canclini
Translated by Paul Liffman

The critical study of modern cities, such as Paris, Vienna, and Berlin, has contributed greatly to the project to rethink modernity. If it is agreed that a definitive component of globalization is the global city, a similar focus on the city should serve the study of globalization equally well. Some scholars have begun to set out the criteria of what qualifies global cities as such (Borja and Castells 1997, Hannerz 1996, Sassen 1991). Mexico City would seem to meet these requirements, combining as it does the strong presence of international enterprise with a multicultural (national and foreign) population, a high concentration of artistic and scientific elite, and a large volume of international tourism. My concern in this essay is to explore what dynamics of globalization are illuminated by a consideration of the urban transformations that have distinguished Mexico City, as well as other cities in Latin America, as a global city.

During its colonial period, Mexico City was traversed by economic and cultural movements that stretched well beyond what we today call the country of Mexico. Like Buenos Aires, Lima, and other colonial cities of Latin America, it functioned as a regional capital and as an articulator of links with Spain. Latin capitals of the day were characterized by these supranational functions, which persisted through the transformations of independence and the formation of the [End Page 207] modern Latin nation-states. Until well into the middle of the twentieth century, however, urban structures and life worlds in these cities were primarily conditioned by their roles as national centers of economics, politics, and culture.

For Mexico City, even the physical geometry of its urban development remained unchanged, and this despite a population increase from 185,000 at the middle of the nineteenth century to over 3 million by the middle of the twentieth. Throughout this growth, the city retained the same quadrangular design set by Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century, and, until fifty years ago, the life of Mexico City was largely encompassed by this clearly delimited territory. The Centro Histórico, a district characterized by nineteenth-century colonial architecture and archaeological sites evocative of a prehispanic past, was the geographical, political, and cultural nucleus of this urban design; it remained Mexico City's principal "reference at the symbolic and political level"--home to its "monumental and ultramodern Legislative Palace" and its national museums--until the 1980s (Monnet 1995, 14).

During the period of the Centro Histórico's prominence, the principal actor in national and urban life in Mexico was the state, occupied as it was with consolidating the nation from fifty-six indigenous ethnic groups and disparate regional forms of development. State organs undertook to accomplish this integration with the familiar technologies of railroads, a national economic market, an educational system based on hispanization, the advocacy of political unity under a single party and labor board, and a campaign to synthesize a cultural patrimony and national iconography from artisan production, modern plastic arts, and cinema.

The visual repertory assembled by this state-driven project to build cultural patrimony circulated in national museums and world's fairs, in a gigantic public murals project, and in films that tied peasant memory to a new urban sentimental education (Monsiváis 1984). Mexico's population during this period concentrated ever more in its cities: From 1900 to 1970, the percentage of Mexicans living in cities grew from 10 to 70 percent. Mexican state cultural policies responded by concentrating educational centers, museums, monuments, and archaeological preservation efforts in its cities, especially the capital. While patterns of population migration validated the state practice of centralizing cultural capital, the high rates of illiteracy that prevailed during the period fortified state resolve to develop a national patrimony founded on the imagery of visual culture rather than print. This gave the Mexican public sphere a broader communicative power than that which operated in other nations...


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pp. 207-213
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