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.