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  • Mérida, 1870-1920: Historia, memoria e imagen
  • Graciela María Viñuales
Mérida, 1870-1920: Historia, memoria e imagen. Eligia Calderón Trejo. Mérida: Universidad de los Andes, 2012. 476 pp. Maps, photos, tables. US$20.00 paper (ISBN: 978-980-11-1460-4).

This new volume covers a series of spaces in the urban history of Mérida, Venezuela, dealing with a broad and integrated set of critical phenomena. From the outset it is possible to appreciate the general path of the analysis through the sequence of its chapters, the introduction providing a clear indication for the reader to appreciate the multiple perspectives on which the work is based, as well as the state of the art of Venezuelan urban history, and also the specifics of this case study. Readers are also provided with a succinct account of the various methods by which the analysis was undertaken.

On entering into the text of the book, one's attention is attracted to the way in which the author addresses and dissects the city, not so much as often seen, focusing on the accumulation of urban demographic data, and cold and old historical information, but rather proceeding along distinct analytical paths. The title of the first chapter alone: "The city as cultural product" represents a primary viewpoint; it is there where the idea that becomes the core of the book emerges: the merging of history with memory and the image, matters that from beginning are fundamental to the whole investigation.

The following chapters describe the city's physical context, the administrative organization with its multiple and persistent problems, the surrounding territory, and the developing connections between Mérida and its region that gradually emerged. All this is colored by what the author calls "the perfume of the time"—an issue ever necessary when we judge the past. The analysis of the periodical documentation and the urban intellectual environment elaborated in the third chapter also provide a presentation of one of the richest sources on which the rest of the investigation is based.

Gradually the city progressed with its newly-established rules: the extended role of the municipality, the provision of services that would accentuate cleanliness and hygiene, and the material renovation of the structures of its significant institutions such as the cathedral and the university and the seats [End Page 208] of government, administration, education and health. The transformation of industries soon exceeded the artisanal, some of them created with greater hope than realistic promise, projecting Merida as an attractive commercial center, as well as the locus of important business houses. The author describes in detail the state of the main functions of the city, from doctors and pharmacies, to shops and stores and its various lines of business, while not neglecting the issue of the family homes, their designs, their furniture, their customs and the many changes emerging towards the end of the study period, when the patio-rich mansions began to be subdivided, and their former long-established residents moving out to peripheral urban sites.

The work next moves to a detailed study of a set of blocks (manzanas) in the center of the city, to deepen our knowledge of urban change at the micro-level. The choice is based on their location close to the main square and the availability of cadastral data which allows a better understanding of many of the issues dealt with in previous sections, especially regarding the use of houses and family customs of sharing urban space. This section of the book not only explains the evolution of private space, the intimate relationship between familia extendida and cuadra, it also shows what happens in public urban space when the city's festivals, carnivals, theater, bullfights, music and religious holidays and civic parades temporarily take over the urban core. Streets become sites for celebrations, sometimes within a certain area, other times via routes identified around the many squares, as shown on the well-drawn maps. It highlights case studies of some of the most important centennial celebrations of heroes, especially Independence on July 5, 1911, which included a week of festivities that took complete control of public space, linking the...


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pp. 208-209
Launched on MUSE
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