Revolutionary leaders favored depictions of Mexico City in the mid-20th century that highlighted the progress and orderly growth of a modern industrial city. The ruling party made Mexico City the focus of post–World War II development policies and the showcase for the success of those policies in achieving the new goals of the Mexican Revolution during a period of sustained economic growth known as the “Mexican miracle.” When, in the early 1960s, the American anthropologist Oscar Lewis published The Children of Sánchez, his popular study of urban poverty, and turned the public’s attention away from the sites that underscored the official narrative of orderly industrial growth, it incited a heated public debate in Mexico City. The book contained the oral histories of a family living in the low-income neighborhood of Tepito, in the center of the capital, and was a shocking account, told in their own words, of a family’s attempt to survive urban life. Supporters of the modernizing policies of federal officials and the capital’s mayor, Ernesto Uruchurtu, attacked the book in the press and even filed formal complaints with Mexico’s attorney general demanding that the book and its author be banned from the country and the publisher reprimanded. They claimed that the book was too vulgar for public consumption and called it a foreigner’s attack on the reputation of the country and the city. Critics of the Institutional Revolutionary Party used the publicity generated by the attacks to open up a dialog about the marginalized people left behind by urban development and engaged in the debates as a safe way to express its own concerns about Uruchurtu’s inhumane development policies and the government’s insistence on hiding reality to present the city to the international community as a modern showcase.
Joshua K. Salyers
Beginning in the 1880s, the modern foundations for architecture as a profession and academic discipline were established in Latin America’s major cities. Soon thereafter, urban planning (urbanismo) began to emerge as a distinct discipline in a period of scientific and technological innovation. This rich history has been compiled, digitized, and made available to the public by two key institutions: the Facultad de Arquitectura of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (FA-UNAM) in Mexico and the Facultad de Arquitectura, Diseño y Urbanismo of the Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina (FADU). Collectively, these two digital projects contain a wealth of information for scholars to research the cultural and intellectual histories of cities in both Argentina and Mexico. The primary resources available on both platforms provide valuable insights into how Latin America’s leading architects and planners analyzed, debated, and envisioned urban life in the 20th century.
Housing has been a central feature of Latin America’s dramatic transformation into the most urbanized region of the world. Between 1940 and 1970, the portion of people who lived in urban areas rose from 33 percent to 64 percent; a seismic shift that caused severe housing deficits, overcrowding, and sprawl in Latin America’s major cities. After the Second World War, these urban slums became a symbol of underdevelopment and a target for state-led modernization projects. At a time when Cold War tensions were escalating throughout the world, the region’s housing problems also became more politicized through a network of foreign aid agencies. These overlapping factors illustrate how the history of local housing programs were bound up with broader hemispheric debates over economic development and the role of the nation-state in social affairs. The history of urban housing in 20th-century Latin America can be divided into three distinct periods. The first encompasses the beginning of the 20th century, when issues of housing in the central-city districts were primarily viewed through the lens of public health. Leading scientists, city planners, psychiatrists, and political figures drew strong connections between the sanitary conditions of private domiciles and the social behavior of their residents in public spaces. After the Second World War, urban housing became a proving ground for popular ideas in the social sciences that stressed industrialization and technological modernization as the way forward for the developing world. In this second period, mass housing was defined by a central tension: the promotion of modernist housing complexes versus self-help housing—a process in which residents build their own homes with limited assistance from the state. By the 1970s, the balance had shifted from modernist projects to self-help housing, a development powerfully demonstrated by the 1976 United Nations (UN) Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat I). This seminal UN forum marked a transitional moment when the concepts of self-help community development were formally adopted by emergent, neo-liberal economists and international aid agencies.