The city is no new feature of most Latin American countries; most have been well-versed in the urban landscape since the first “encounter” around the turn of the sixteenth century. As the Preface to Mark D. Szuchman’s “City as a Vision” notes, “[T]he Latin American city was virtually coterminus with the Columbian encounter. With its precocious establishment came the privileged attributes: the locus of political authority, the hub of ecclesiastical activity, the nerve center of commerce and finance, and the essential venue for conspicuous consumption” (xi) The city indeed yielded novel opportunity and potential, be it as a central political hub, a burgeoning industrial job market, or a focal point of cultural attractions.
Yet, as Alma Guillermoprieto points out in her “The Heart that Bleeds,” with urbanization has come modernization. Guillermoprieto gives us a small morsel of what it is like to live in a modernizing Third World Latin American city such as Mexico City: “[It] is carpeted with Kentucky Fried Chicken, Denny’s, and McDonald’s outlets … even low-paid office workers are indentured to their credit cards and auto loans; … In the smog-darkened center of Mexico City, or in its monstrous, ticky-tacky suburban spokes, the average citizen on an average day is more concerned with beating the traffic, making the mortgage payment, punching the clock … Progress has hit Mexico in the form of devastation, some of it ecological, much of it aesthetic. Life is rushed, the water may be poisoned, and the new industrial tortillas taste terrible” (238).
One more consequence of modernization in many urban Latin American settings, such as Rio de Janiero of Brasil? mass rural exodus to cities, leading to surges in potential work force. The industrial job market, unable to keep up, or turning instead to technology and mechanization, pushes many urban refugees to the periphery, where the only remaining option is to build ones own ramshackle town and hope for the best, peddling cheap toys and cookies, pirated DVDs, or illegal drugs to make ends meet.
Sandro Rosa de Nascimento was born into one such situation. After seeing his mother stabbed to death as a child, then being passed on to his Aunt, he eventually ran away from that home to become a “street kid,” sleeping on the sidewalks, eating donated food or bought cheap with money begged off passers-by. One day he witnessed eight fellow street kids slaughtered by the police in the Candelaria Church massacre. Sandro turned to drugs to cope; he was in and out of jail several times before he was even twenty-one years old, each time growing more restless, anxious, and enraged with the society he was witnessing in this urban, modernized world. The climax and denouement of Sandro’s life would come in the form of a hostage crisis situation aboard Bus 174 in Jardim de Botanico, Rio de Janiero.
Was this just another act of criminal violence, one that could have been committed by any beggar, any street kid, any crazed, drugged person on the streets of a favela or slummy part of town? Perhaps. As Alberto Salcedo Ramos writes in his account of being a “The Drive-By Victim,” simply walking down the city street late at night, or near a rough part of town “turns us into Russian roulette players: … the only defensive maneuver we have left is hoping, sometimes with ingenuousness, sometimes with arrogance, that the fatal shot doesn’t hit us” (130). But the fatal shot always has to hit someone (in Sandro’s case, that first fatal shot was fired by a policeman, missing Sandro’s flesh and fatally wounding, instead, his hostage and human shield Geisa Goncalves.
So what can we make out of this whole Latin American urban mess, marked by the absurdly wealthy alongside the helplessly poor; corrupt or at best apathetic government and police force; civilians, deemed subhumans, turning to drugs, violence, and crime; and a “Russian roulette” of innocent victims and players? As Guillermopierto emphasizes through her memorable, effeminate example of Juan Gabriel, a wiggling, rocking, electrifying reminder of progress and modernization, for many, the damage has already been done. We cannot turn back time; the contracts of NAFTA and other free trade agreements binding, globalizing autonomous nations together in the name of profit, capitalism and “free trade.” What we can do, perhaps, is be aware and critical of effects of such modernization. Does Mexico, a society traditionally filled with hand-made tortillas and slow-cooked dinners, really need Taco Bell franchises speckling their cityscape? Would Sandro’s hostage crisis on that unfortunate Bus 174 line had occurred, had his ancestors not at some point taken the plunge from subsistence agricultural life to working-class life on the outskirts of “the big city?”
Possible, but not likely.
Modernization carries a wave of unfortunate victims, be it the Mexican man standing in line for “cheap, clean, and fast” tacos from KFC, Geisa Goncalves on Bus 174, or Sandro Nascimento, scrounging for food and cigarettes on the streets of Rio de Janiero. These victims exists throughout Latin America, a world of citizens that intellectual Aguilar Camín says “was supposed to be ‘proudly Third World,’ but today, we want to belong to the First World” (Guillermopierto 253).
Each city in the developing Latin American world can be viewed through two lenses, however, as Guillermopierto reflects about Tijuana: “a scorching-hot border town that can be seen either as the hideous, seedy product of more than a century of cultural penetration, or as the defiant, lively result of cultural resistance” (255).
The choice is ours. We cannot change the past, only the future.