Ronn Pineo, James A. Baer, eds. Cities of Hope: People, Protests, and Progress in Urbanizing Latin America, 1870-1930. Boulder, Col. and Oxford, England: Westview Press, 1998. xiv + 285 pp. $79.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8133-2443-2.
Reviewed by Lara Elizabeth Putnam (Department of History, University of Michigan)
Published on H-Urban (March, 1999)
Of Trams and Tenements
Editors Ronn Pineo and James Baer have done a great service in putting together this collection of nine case studies of the politics of urban reform in turn-of-the-century Latin America. Their well-planned volume includes coverage not only of the most visible primate cities of the era (Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, and Montevideo), but also less-studied capitals (Bogota, Lima, and Panama City) and two secondary cities (Valparaiso, Chile and Veracruz, Mexico). Introductory and concluding chapters by the editors place these case studies of urbanization, working-class mobilization, housing, and public health in comparative perspective, and should make this volume an accessible resource for students of cities in other places and times.
David Sowell's chapter traces occupational structures and working-class political activism in Bogota, Colombia from the 1850s to the 1910s. His attention to the capital's workers is a welcome corrective to the focus on partisan conflict between Liberal and Conservative elites that has long dominated the political historiography of Colombia. Sowell contrasts the organized forms of political participation developed by artisans and the growing numbers of industrial workers with the more informal forms of political action (including demonstrations and occasional violence) which incorporated a wider spectrum of Bogota's working men and women.
Anton Rosenthal describes the impact of the electric trolleys that were introduced in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1906. He argues that trolleys democratized public space and recreation in the city, as the two streetcar companies developed recreational sites like soccer fields and tourist beaches for the masses in order to increase the volume of riders and maintain profitability. To his vivid portrait of the trolleys' role in the unfolding spectacle of the streets Rosenthal juxtaposes an analysis of the politics of public utilities in Montevideo and the role of transportation workers in labor unrest. The streetcar companies were foreign-owned monopolies, yet their power was counterbalanced by the city and national governments, who often favored the interests of working-class riders and trolley workers over those of the companies' stockholders. Emblematic of this was the basic four centesimo fare, set in 1906, which remained unchanged for three decades in the face of company entreaties.
John Lear examines patterns of urban mobilization and working class organization in Mexico City in the period during and just after the Mexican Revolution (roughly 1910 to 1925). His approach combines the best of what used to be called the "old" and "new" labor history. Lear shows how workers' life experiences guided their goals and actions, giving rise to the specific institutional forms that labor activism took. He argues convincingly that the differing experiences of skilled and unskilled workers militated against any simple articulation of common "working class interests." At times, as in the general strike of 1916, these groups acted together to defend overlapping interests. Yet in general, unskilled and casual workers had fewer means of exerting independent leverage, and more to gain from direct state patronage, than did their skilled counterparts. The early incorporation of such workers into the Mexican Confederation of Regional Workers (CROM), which became one of the first corporatist structures of the post-revolutionary state, helped shape the form of state power in Mexico for generations to come.
Andrew Grant Wood describes the politics of tenant protest in post-Revolutionary Veracruz, where the ascendance of a progressive state governor and mayor in the early 1920s created an opening for new forms of popular activism. Residents of the patios, overcrowded tenements which housed the majority of working folk in the port, seized the initiative. A rent strike in 1922 began with prostitutes' refusal to pay rent due on their ill-maintained quarters and soon spread throughout the poor neighborhoods of the city. Internal divisions and lack of support from political leaders at the national level contributed to the organized tenants' movement's decline within the year. Popular mobilization had prodded the state legislature to pass the nation's most progressive housing reform, although in practice its promises remained only partially fulfilled.
James A. Baer argues that the endemic housing shortage which accompanied Buenos Aires' seven-fold population growth between 1869 and 1910 made evident the inability of market forces to address fundamental social problems. Baer details the history of activism by tenants' associations and Catholic reformers alike, focusing on the decade of 1910 to 1920. Such activism challenged the fundamental political philosophy of the Liberal Argentine state and laid the groundwork for the Radical Party's shift to interventionism in housing and labor policy in the 1920s.
David S. Parker's chapter describes conflicts over hygiene and housing in Lima, Peru in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Parker gives close attention to the role of racialized ideas about civilization and progress in shaping official policy, while avoiding easy caricatures of either elite projects or popular resistance. Local medical authorities espoused a "neo-Lamarckian" version of eugenics, which justified social activism for the benefit of future generations. At the same time, vicious racial stereotypes of Asian and indigenous immigrants guided scientific analysis, state policy, and the stance of organized labor as well. This is an important article which draws on the best of recent scholarship on the ideological construction of race and disease to provide a nuanced account of the persistence of poverty and suffering in a particular place and time.
Ronn Pineo analyzes the besetting problems and limited advances of public health care in Valparaiso, Chile from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1920s. Pineo brings together a wealth of details regarding city services, hospital facilities, epidemic disease, and infant mortality. The analytic punch of his essay comes at the end, when he ties the port city's meager record of urban reform to the institutional paralysis of the Chilean national government. Noting the immense wealth generated by mineral exports in these years, Pineo uses international comparisons to underscore the social cost of Chile's oligarchic apathy, which structurally weak workers' movements were unable to challenge until the very end of the period of study.
Sam Adamo provides a detailed review of evidence regarding trends in housing, nutrition, and mortality in Rio de Janeiro between 1870 and 1930. Adamo is particularly concerned about documenting the plight of the city's Afro-Brazilians, who became proportionately worse off over time as the conditions facing elites and European immigrants improved more rapidly. Afro-Brazilians were increasingly marginalized by the preferential employment and educational opportunities offered European immigrants, while at the same time elite racism made the miserable situation of the (disproportionately nonwhite) under- and unemployed seem inevitable. One wishes Adamo had carried his discussion further on this point. After all, as David Parker demonstrated for the case of Lima, official racism and medical activism need not be mutually exclusive. Yet in the case of Rio, racial ideology, immigration policy, and the practice of public health came together in such a way that cariocas dreaming of national progress found it all too easy to turn away from the city's favelas and gaze out towards the Atlantic instead.
The nation of Panama tends to slip through the cracks of academic geography. The isthmus has apparently been too U.S.-dominated to be legitimately Latin American, yet remains no more than a footnote to U.S. history. Thus, the inclusion in this collection of Sharon Phillipps Collazos' chapter on the development of Panama City and Colon between 1850 and 1930 is to be applauded. Her essay makes clear that these, the Canal's terminal cities, were not exceptional but rather quite comparable to the other Latin American cities covered here, in their rapid growth through immigration (by West Indian workers), in the importance of direct foreign investment, and in their sensitivity to the international economy.
Unlike the preceding essays, this chapter is based almost exclusively on secondary sources. Collazos relies on two classics of national historiography by Omar Jaen Suarez and Alfredo Figueroa Navarro, respectively; on David McCullough's The Path Between the Seas; and on a handful of institutional histories of Panamanian labor. Collazos has done a fine job of synthesizing relevant information from these books. Yet the subtlety of her interpretation is necessarily limited by that of her sources. She is left with a "parasitic" Panamanian elite, a long-suffering workforce fatally divided by race and culture, and an omnipotent foreign power ready to stifle the slightest hint of unrest. The grievances and alliances which made possible West Indian-led strike of 1920, or the rent boycott of 1925, and the circumstances which undermined each await the detailed primary research which made possible Lear's and Wood's subtle accounts of similar conjunctures in Mexico City and Veracruz.
It should be clear from the above descriptions that as these investigators wander through the mean streets of early twentieth-century cities, they have resisted any temptation to take a "linguistic turn" off the straight and narrow of social history. In these pages we read more about the construction of hospitals than about the social construction of disease, more about community housing than about "imagined communities." With the exception of Parker's account of race and hygiene in Lima, these authors have largely eschewed the analytic techniques currently associated with "theory," whether in its discursive, cultural, critical, subaltern, or feminist varieties. That characteristic is likely to make this collection more of a resource than an inspiration for the present generation of graduate students. Yet the same characteristic will make the volume all the more accessible to non-specialists seeking comparative material on patterns of urban conflict and reform.
This volume offers solid research on important topics, presented in a straightforward way. That, combined with its well-designed distribution of case studies, should make it a natural for classroom use in upper-level undergraduate courses. Unfortunately, the $79.00 asking price of the hardcover edition makes this an impossibility. The Westview Press has no specific plans to issue a paperback edition in the near future. It is to be hoped that with encouragement from interested instructors, the publishers will change their minds. This well-crafted collection deserves a wide readership.
. A similar point comes across in Sidney Chaloub's account of the linked controversies surrounding slavery and disease in Rio in a somewhat earlier era: "The Politics of Disease Control: Yellow Fever and Race in Nineteenth Century Rio de Janeiro," JLAS 25 (1993): 441-463.
. Conspicuous by its absence is Michael Conniff's Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904-1981 (Pittsburgh, 1985).
Commissioned for H-Urban by Ronald Young <email@example.com>, Department of History, Georgia Southern University
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Lara Elizabeth Putnam. Review of Pineo, Ronn; Baer, James A., eds., Cities of Hope: People, Protests, and Progress in Urbanizing Latin America, 1870-1930.
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