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  • Holding the City Hostage: Popular Sectors and Elites in San Miguel, El Salvador, 1875
  • Aldo A. Lauria Santiago (bio)

During the past 20 years, historians have made great strides in studying the engagement of rural communities with the formation of nations and states in nineteenth-century Latin America. The formation of citizenship, popular liberalism, local pueblo sovereignty, and alternative nationalisms and the influence of local struggles on state institutions have all been plotted, from very local communities to regions. However, the recent emphasis on the integration of peasant communities into regional and national history has largely failed to highlight the importance of provincial cities, even as it gives ample evidence of how important they became as bridges between the local, the regional, and the national.

In the revisionist literature that incorporates subalterns into the study of the formation of nations and states between 1820 and 1880, the critical role of the provincial city in what were often decentralized and contested polities has not [End Page 63] been firmly established.1 In a period of extensive political factionalism, weak or fragmented state institutions and practices, strong local and communal solidarities, contested or ambiguous citizenship, and the existence of multiple or overlapping sovereignties, it is understandable that the city as singular space and location for popular politics could be overlooked. Yet, the recurrent presence of small cities that link the rural and local to the nation and the state calls for increased attention that should help us expand these rural-centered discussions with an urban-centric literature that faded in the late 1970s.

Most of the historical literature on the city as the site of political struggles, class relations, and popular mobilization in Latin America has clustered around two themes: the riots, protests, and popular revolts in the colonial and independence periods and the large, modern industrializing city as the setting for the struggles of artisans and industrial workers.2 Between these two chronological and spatial poles lies a vast and perhaps more relevant arena in which small cities interacted with rural villages—a classic theme of colonial historiography. Historians who have focused on the ruralization and dispersion of power after colonial rule and through the early twentieth century have failed to highlight the role of the nineteenth-century provincial city, not only in regard to popular politics and mobilization but in regard to its merging of rural with national processes.3 [End Page 64]

One reason for this disconnect is that historians who examined the nineteenth-century city during the 1970s boom in urban studies emphasized the decline of urban spaces as a component of both the end of the colonial order and the fragmented, federalizing era of the caudillos.4 For these urban historians, popular mobilization and politics—especially with a rural base—were not quite visible; they dismissed the possibility that regional and secondary urban centers could become important sites of encounter between the trend toward ruralization in this period and the politics of nation-state formation.5 More recently, the growth in regional rural studies has produced a large but dispersed literature on provincial cities of the nineteenth century, often published in small journals or regional university presses in Latin America. While this literature is filled with examples of how important provincial cities became to the politics of state and regional formation in this period, little effort has been made to highlight the role of small urban spaces as a site of encounter, mediation, and conflict between the national and the local and rural.6

In an attempt to highlight the importance of provincial cities in bridging local popular politics and national state formation, this article will examine the experience of a small city with very close commercial and political ties to the surrounding rural area. This sort of city, typical of most Latin American non-capital cities in the decades after independence, played an important role in the conflicts that drove the consolidation of nation-states and national elites during the nineteenth century. This article will use the city of San Miguel in eastern El [End Page 65] Salvador and a major popular mobilization that took place there in 1875 to conceptualize the role of this city...


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