- Constructing Mexico City: Colonial Conflicts over Culture, Space, and Authority by Sharon Bailey Glasco
By the latter decades of the eighteenth century, Mexico City, the Spanish empire’s richest and grandest showcase, was a mix of splendor and squalor, where aristocrats in their finery and gilded carriages had to pass over broken pavements and filth, odorous hovels appeared like mushrooms around palaces and mansions and brothels, and pulquerías spilled out loud and drunken patrons, while naked or near-naked street people lived, loved, and often defecated in plain view. In Constructing Mexico City, the author focuses on the efforts of Juan Vicente de Güemes Pacheco y Padilla, Count of Revillagigedo and Viceroy of New Spain (1789-94), to end such affronts to the Bourbon models of order and efficiency.
After an introductory chapter presenting the dilemma facing colonial reformers and reviewing the substantial extant literature on late-colonial Mexico City, Glasco describes in greater detail the subtitle of chapter 2, “The Physical, Material, and Political Environment of Bourbon Mexico City.” Here she first discusses the demographic shifts––the huge increase of the poor, a rural-based indigenous population, with their languages, customs, and needs––that completely subverted the Bourbon vision of a neat, orderly city with European manners. In the four remaining chapters, she focuses on Revillagigedo’s modernization (or Bourbonization) campaigns in the areas of health, water distribution, garbage removal, and “the renovation of urban space” (streets, drainage, etc.).
The first chapter introduces the main arguments. Glasco argues that “the design and implementation of urban renewal served as a proxy for elite anxieties about the socioeconomic realities of the city they lived in and the desire to quell these anxieties through a reshaping of plebeian culture” (p. 1). That is, the Bourbon obsession with order, and especially orderly behavior of the lower, mostly non-White classes, sprang from anxieties about their own comfort. She also maintains that Revillagigedo’s “urban planning projects illustrate new debates in late colonial Mexico about the theme of modernity … that grew out of Enlightenment ideas of order and progress” and that would continue for decades after independence in the nineteenth century (p. 2). In this chapter, the author also reviews previous studies of Mexico City in the late colonial period, especially work by Silvia Arrom and Gabriel Haslip-Vera.
Chapter 2 presents the squalor and disorder in greater and disturbing detail. From the point of view of the elites, the problem was the disorderly behavior of ignorant or insolent poor people, especially their insistence on invading areas of the city meant to be preserved for the more wealthy and civilized, and Whiter, sectors of the population. The very rich sealed themselves off from the populacho in their walled residences and carriages, but the not-so-rich creoles could not avoid them. Crown authorities could hardly tolerate such disorder. The proposed (ineffective) remedy was to impose fines or (where, as was usually the case, the culprits had no resources) physical punishment to discourage the unwanted behavior. But the elite’s obsession with order made them oblivious to the structural causes of the “disorderly” (from their viewpoint) behaviors of the poor. The first of these was the dramatic increase of the city’s population beginning in the 1770s, from just over 112,000 in 1772 to nearly 180,000 in 1820, an increase of almost 60 percent. The power and wealth of the city attracted all [End Page 229] kinds of people, including architects, engineers, and opportunity seekers. But the largest component of this influx comprised rural Indians, driven from their communities by a series of severe droughts and increased taxes. In the metropolis, they survived however they could, for the most part unwilling or unable to adapt to the alien norms of the colonial Spanish-speaking city. The desperately poor among them overwhelmed the capital’s church-based welfare services, which had not been designed to acculturate people to urban life but...