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Social Science History 24.1 (2000) 33-73

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Spectacle, Fear, and Protest:
A Guide to the History of Urban Public Space in Latin America

Anton Rosenthal

The history of the city in twentieth-century Latin America can be seen as a long contest over the exercise of urban public space.1 While the nature of this space is often less physical than it is social and situational, the struggle between different elements of the city to manipulate its politics and control its daily life has often been violent, leaving deep imprints in the collective memories of places as culturally and physically diverse as Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Havana, Bogotá, and Rio de Janeiro. [End Page 33]

If approached from the perspective of contested space, the urban milieu offers an intriguing site for the historian interested in exploring changing relations of power, class conflict, opposing visions of the future, breakdowns of social order, gendered spaces, health and disease, visual culture, spectacle and symbolic codes, and ultimately, the creation of community. Yet until the 1980s, most Latin American historians who were interested in these themes confined their studies to the countryside. As late as 1975, Jorge Hardoy (1975: 44) could write that “the urban history of the second half of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth is virtually unknown, in spite of the extremely rich material left to us by innumerable travelers, scientists, and men of state.” While historians and social scientists working from the 1950s through much of the 1970s delineated the complex relations between peasant villages and national states, the ideologies of rural rebellion, and the sources of identity and community in a countryside transformed by the demands of export capital, cities in twentieth-century Latin America were accorded secondary treatment, sometimes at the level of popular anecdotal narratives. For the most part, historians discussed cities as the landscapes against which population growth, labor strife, and populist politics took place, rather than as organisms with their own peculiar dynamics. The primary exceptions to this trend were the works of Richard M. Morse (1958) on São Paulo, James Scobie (1974) on Buenos Aires, and José Luis Romero (1976) on the region as a whole. These three writers explored the economic factors behind the particular shape of urban growth that they encountered and to varying degrees were interested in the ideologies and “mentalities” current in the cities under study. Scobie’s posthumously published review of the literature on the history of the Latin American city up to 1980 suggests that sociologists may have produced some of the most interesting work in this era, concentrating on urbanization and political economy (1989). The interrelationship of space and time, however, was rarely pursued in urban studies, one exception being the work of a geographer that explores transportation, housing, and urban planning (Sargent 1974).

The early 1980s signaled a shift toward urban social history and the increased use of quantitative methodologies. Studies from this era were particularly concerned with social mobility, class conflict, and immigration, and they moved the city itself into the forefront of the analysis, devoting some discussion to the changing dynamics of neighborhoods and daily life in the city, [End Page 34] though space was still a secondary factor in their work (Sofer 1982; Szuchman 1980; Rial and Klaczko 1981). Later in the decade, Jeffrey Needell (1987a) offered a cultural history of Rio’s elite in the early twentieth century that examined the city’s literature and budding consumerism in addition to outlining the history of social institutions created by the upper class as it sought to fashion a European-style capital. This history paid particular attention to physical aspects of the city, including architecture and life on the streets, at least the fashionable ones. This work was quickly followed by another social history of Rio, which focused on the world of domestic servants and provided a discussion of the intersection of work and public space in the nineteenth-century city (Graham 1988).

In the 1990s, the Latin American city...


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