Plaza Mayor

Yesterday we went to Lima’s city centre, a UNESCO world heritage site, designated as such in 1988 for “bear[ing] witness to the architecture and urban development of a Spanish colonial town of great political, economic and cultural importance in Latin America. It represents an outstanding expression of a regional cultural process, which preserves its architectural, technological, typological, aesthetic, historic and urban values adapted in terms of availability of materials, climate, earthquakes and the requirements of society.” And it is indeed impressive: the grand Plaza Mayor, with the Presidential Palace on one side, flanked by the Municipality on another, and the Cathedral opposite, and then buildings that (now) include the headquarters of the Caretas news magazine. In true colonial style, then, some of the major centres of power are represented (or instiantiated) at this symbolic and real heart of the city: politics, religion, and the press.

Other elements of power were also evident. Yesterday, the whole square was essentially closed off (though you could walk the pavements at its edges), with barricades preventing anyone crossing the roads to the park at its centre, and there were plenty of police lurking around the perimeter. Later, I saw a bunch of riot police (with shields) watchfully wandering around. I talked to several people to try to find out what was up: the first person I asked, a guy trying to drum up custom for a nearby restaurant, shrugged his shoulders and said simply the single word: “Politics!” He then apologized, but I told him there was no need. A few minutes later, a policewoman told me the closure was something to do with a “protocol” meeting at the palace. A third opinion (from another police officer) was that it was in preparation for an incoming march by disaffected workers who had just been laid off by the municipality. This last version seemed the most possible, though we didn’t see any evidence of the demonstration over the next few hours, and in any case the laconic first response I’d received had already summed everything up nicely. Politics!

Later some sort of event did start up at one side of the square, with music and speeches and dancing. There were flags, too: someone was carrying around a large Wiphala, the flag associated particularly with the Aymara people in Peru’s far south, near Lake Titicaca, and also in neighbouring Bolivia. It was hard to get close to the event or to hear what was going on (and at point in any case I’d made arrangements to meet the students in the Plaza San Martín a few blocks away), but I heard some reference to Manco Inca, one of the last Inca rulers, installed after the Spanish conquest and originally allied with them as the Inca Empire split and dissolved in internecine disputes much aggravated by the Spanish. He later escaped the Spanish and laid siege first to Cusco and then to Lima. He was murdered in 1544 by Spaniards who had previously also murdered the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, as the invaders similarly broke up into contending factions. Yesterday, around the perimeter of the square, one guy was wandering around holding up a home-made sign saying “Manco Inca Anticolonial.” I asked him if I could take his picture, but didn’t talk to him any further. I have no idea whether he was part of the event on the other side of the square, or whether he was protesting against it for some reason. Perhaps there was simply no relation between the two things.

Meanwhile, life went on around and about. Tourists (including ourselves, of course) looked on, visited the museums, and checked out handicraft shops, while regularly approached by ambulant vendors offering everything from postcards and maps to trinkets and shoeshines. Many but not all of the people trying to make a little cash from the milling crowd were Indigenous. There was at least one wedding about to take place in the Cathedral, the guests waiting in their finery while little boys in matching suits who were perhaps nephews or cousins of the bride or groom ran around and their parents looked on to ensure they didn’t stray too far. And, despite my predictions to the students that Lima the Grey would be perpetually covered by its characteristic cloud as we enter winter and approach the solstice, in fact the sun burned off the sea mist and burnished the buildings’ yellow-painted walls. Later that night, in the Plazas San Martín I saw the riot police get picked up in a van, presumably to go back to the station. It looked like they hadn’t seen any action. The crowds and the music continued long after they, and we, had gone.

The Lettered City

In The Lettered City, Angel Rama stresses the utopian dimensions (literally) built in to the colonial cities of Latin America. For here, the plan came first, often with scant regard for the material (or human) environment. The classic grid system, with a plaza mayor or main square on each side of which were arrayed the various centres of power whether spiritual (the cathedral) or temporal (the town hall or municipality), reflecting an ideal conception of order and hierarchy. These were cities of “signs” that, in Rama’s words, could “be made to represent things as yet only imagined–the ardently desired objects of an age that displayed a special fondness for utopian dreams” (8). In the New World, the Spanish imagined a <em>tabula rasa</em> on which to construct a vision of civilization untrammeled by the messy history they had left behind in Europe. They were of course not the only ones to think this way–colonial settlers in North America, for instance, had similarly utopian dreams–but what was distinctive about the Spanish imperial enterprise was the focus on urban design and cities as nodes of power and influence from which order would flow from the centre outwards.

Rama explains the longevity of this urban dream, and the resilience and adaptability of those who came to construct, supervise, and implement it: the letrados, that class of professions (lawyers and accountants, civil servants and bureaucrats, priests and architects) who wielded power with a pen to work with the signs that were always to dominate material reality. The letrados outlasted even the imperial project of which they were such a key component, “weather[ing] the revolutionary storm” of the struggles for independence from Spain and “reconstitut[ing] their power in the independent republics” (45) that followed. 

By this point, however, the initial utopianism of the letrado project had long since faded–there was no longer any serious intent to bridge the gap between sign and reality–and the letrados had become a conservative force, dedicated merely to their own reproduction. Indeed, though Rama observes how reformers such as Bolívar’s mentor, Simón Rodríguez, drew on the <em>letrado</em> tradition as inspiration for change, he also shows how they were defeated by this same tradition, which ensured that “The new nations of Latin America [. . .] failed to construct democratic, egalitarian societies, and their educational institutions, instead of producing an informed citizenry, turned out custodians of the traditional, hierarchical social order” (47). The belief in the dominance of the sign built into the urban social fabric had by this time traced an affective inversion, from the utopia of infinite possibility (because the sign could be changed almost at will, so could the world), to the dystopia of entrenched cynicism (all that ever changed was the sign). 

Perhaps all this helps to explain the wild swings so characteristic of Latin American political history: between resigned fatalism on the one hand, and periodic outbursts of exuberant hope, on the other.

Behind the scenes, however, another logic is at work: not the lettered city, but the much more anarchic real city, which draws on and constitutes the context that letrado utopianism disavowed, including for instance “indigenous social networks–their agricultural zones, their market centers, and above all, their labor power” (12), but also the everyday reality that the ideal grid could never capture. For the intellectual class, the resilience of the real brought only dismay, as it resisted their vision of utopian transformation. But surely it is here we should look if we seek hope for the future.