- Nineteenth-Century Spanish America: A Cultural History by Christopher Conway
Christopher Conway’s cultural history of nineteenth-century Spanish America is built on the premise that examining how high and low cultures intersected, overlapped, and excluded one another provides readers with a more comprehensive portrait of what life was really like during the era. Spatially, after all, they coexisted side by side, often on the same city block. Almost in a cinematographic fashion, Conway displays how people of different social classes ate, dressed, socialized, sought entertainment, and, in the process, adhered to the social codes specific to their group. He explains from the outset that the elites professed a Europeanized ideology of progress (modernity), whereas the commoners tended to adhere to tradition, affirming local identities and sensibilities that often challenged the protocols of the wealthy. The worth of this book lies precisely in the elaboration of these contrasting value systems, in how they differed but also how they coexisted side by side—especially given the vertiginous growth of nineteenth-century Spanish American cities. Rather than focus on a specific section or one cultural component, Conway provides a panoramic introduction to the way people of different social classes inhabited the Hispanic world.
Now, deeming something “introductory” may suggest a lack of depth. This is definitely not the case here, for Conway’s knowledge is far-reaching, and his topics are skillfully chosen to reveal the odd and the “normal”—topics more traveled and those less commonly known. Because of the immense breadth of his subject matter, Conway chooses to structure his book as an accessible entry to the Hispanic world, where both newcomers and scholars of the subject can “sample” the era and select the topics they want to study further. To that end, the book includes a chapter “Suggestions for Further Reading,” which expands on all the examined subjects. The book is divided into parts, some of which are more predictable than others. From “Cities” through “Print,” “Theatricality,” and “Image,” each chapter offers a plethora of subtopics that disclose diverse instances of everyday life. The inclusion of anecdotes and the author’s lively imagination as he reconstructs for us scenes from everyday life, drawn from archives and manuals, makes this book both entertaining and vastly informative.
For example, the chapter titled “Cities” is divided into sections, some of which are “The City of Monuments,” “The Dark City,” “The City of [End Page 228] Carnality,” and “The City of Exclusivity.” “The City of Monuments” re-counts how monuments were designed to serve as catalysts of memory, instruments for defining national identity, and often as vehicles of auto-propaganda (30). Such was the case of Venezuelan president Antonio Guzmán Blanco, who wanted to be celebrated by his nation as an equal of Simón Bolívar, and thus had statues of himself erected in Caracas. Conway describes how these statues were destroyed by his opponents only to be restored when Guzmán Blanco returned to power, and then destroyed a second time around when he fell out of favor. “The Dark City” depicts the eerie, empty streets of nineteenth-century Mexico City, Havana, and Buenos Aires during the outbreaks of infectious diseases like cholera, typhus, and yellow fever (34). Disease was inexorably linked to overcrowded housing and standing sewage that characterized poor neighborhoods across Latin America. Such dwellings, known as callejones in Peru and conventillos in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, had fountains that served as both water sources and latrines, while rats and roosters roamed among the scrawny children. Inexorably linked to poverty were forms of dysfunction such as alcoholism and prostitution, explored in “The City of Carnality.” Here is where Conway excels as a storyteller. He takes a celebrated volume of the Spanish criminologist Carlos Roumagnac, who interviewed numerous inmates of Belén prison in Mexico City, jotting down basic information regarding their offense, physical appearance, and family history. From this dry description Conway builds the vivid story of twenty-year-old M. Eduviges R., whose dismal childhood led to sexual...