Latin-American Urban Chroniclers
The term Latin-American urban chroniclers describes writers whose literary journalism focuses on the city from a variety of perspectives. Originating in the final decades of the nineteenth century, the Latin-American urban chronicler played a crucial role in defining and articulating Spanish-American modernism. The concept encompasses chroniclers ranging from the end of the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. However, the forms of engaging with urban space, central themes, and aesthetic approaches vary between periods and chroniclers.
Modernist chroniclers, most of whom were also poets, made up the first generation of writers who lived in modern cities or cities that projected ideals of modernity through discourses of the incipient nation-state and its cultural agents. As a vast body of scholarly literature has shown, toward the end of the nineteenth century, many capitals and large cities in the young Latin-American republics began to undergo transformations by implementing modernization processes, which sought to emulate primarily European but also US urban models.
In this context of changes to the urban landscapes and everyday life, Latin America developed the chronicle genre, which specialists would later call the literary-journalistic chronicle. Highbrow journals, cultural magazines, weekly periodicals, and daily newspapers contain these hybrid texts which blend brief narratives, stories, documentary records, informative factual writing, and travel writing. While some of the most widely referenced chronicles of this early period strictly deal with everyday urban events, others delve into elaborate fictional narratives. All of these texts incorporate elements of the travelogue, and many forsake information (a distinctive feature of developing journalistic discourses) for more reflexive, aesthetic, or stylized writing (González; Rotker; Ramos). In this sense, many of these chronicles pass as short stories. This mixture gave rise to a genre which, despite the constant production of definitions by its creators and scholars, remains ambiguous to this day. However, if the genre is difficult to define, its practitioners are not. During the modernist period, some of the most prominent chroniclers included José Martí (Cuba, 1853–1895), Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera (Mexico, 1859–1895), Julián del Casal (Cuba, 1863–1893), Rubén Darío (Nicaragua, 1867–1916), Heriberto Frías (Mexico, 1870–1925), Amado Nervo (Mexico,1870–1919), Juan José Tablada (Mexico, 1871–1945), Enrique Gómez Carrillo (Guatemala, 1873–1927), Julio Herrera y Reissig (Uruguay, 1875–1910), Luis Tejada (Colombia, 1898–1924), and José Carlos Mariátegui (Peru, 1894–1930), whose brief connection with modernism transpired under the pseudonym “Juan Croniquer.” Special mention must also be made of the Colombians Baldomero Sanín Cano (1861–1957) and Porfirio Barba Jacob (1883–1942), often excluded from the corpus of modernist writers, whose journalism extends beyond this specific period. Sanín Cano and Barba Jacob were also very prolific figures in the editorial world of newspaper production.
Many of these writers were recognized as flânuers (while others were dandies) who used the chronicle to introduce a “rhetoric of strolling,” as Julio Ramos has suggested (Ramos 2003). This ambling through urban streets, an artistic transformation of the new leisure opportunities provided by the city, displayed a fascination with shopping arcades, window displays, and the spectacle of incipient consumerism and formed a corpus of chronicles that became a spatial and social record of the city.
Although most of the authors mentioned here are classified as modernist chroniclers, each developed his own style of writing chronicles, emphasized through the prolific use of pseudonyms. Examples include Julián del Casal, who wrote under the pen names Hernani, Alceste, and El Conde de Camors, and Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, who signed as Duque de Job, Recamier, Puck, Fru-Fru, Ignotus, Mr. Can-Can, and Coix Dieu, among other names. Another interesting author from Colombia is Sofía Ospina de Navarro (1892–1974) who, although more associated with costumbrismo (Costumbrismo is a peculiarly Spanish and Latin-American form, developed in both the visual and literary arts in the nineteenth century. It is characterized by the documenting of everyday life, local customs and mannerisms, and physiognomic “types.” In its combination of documentary and attraction for folkloric detail, it combines influences from both Romanticism and realism.) than modernist chronicles, illustrated urban life in her texts published in local newspapers and magazines, such as El Espectador, El Tiempo, and El Colombiano; her writing typifies an approach to the urban chronicle which specifically concentrates on public space.
Some examples of the titles of sections or columns written by chroniclers include “Plato del día” [“Dish of the Day”] (El Universal), “Memorias de un vago” [“Memoires of an Idler”] (El Cronista), “Crónicas kaleidoscópicas” [“Kaleidoscopic Chronicles”] (La Libertad) in the case of Gutiérrez Nájera; “A través de la ciudad” [“Across the City”], “Veladas teatrales” [“Theatrical Evenings”], and “Croquis femenino” [“Ladies’ Sketches”] by Del Casal in La Habana Elegante; and “Fuegos Fatuos” [“Will-o’-the-wisps”] (El Nacional) by Tricio, Triplex, Rip-Rip, Benedictus, and Joie, all pseudonyms of Amado Nervo, who also headed the series “La semana” [“The Week”] (El Mundo). At other times, these texts would appear in newspapers and magazines simply as “Crónica” [“Chronicle”], “Crónica semanal” [“Weekly Chronicle”], or “Conversaciones dominicales” [“Sunday Conversations”] which, as in Nervo’s “La semana,” emphasize the chronicle’s informative nature.
The scope of these chroniclers was also quite diverse, but many, especially those who were international correspondents, like José Martí, or who held diplomatic positions, like Enrique Gómez Carrillo, wrote for many publications. Gómez Carrillo published regularly in La Nación and La Razón in Buenos Aires; El Mercurio in Chile; El Cojo Ilustrado, an erudite Venezuelan magazine, El Tiempo, and Cosmópolis in Caracas; El Diario de la Marina in Cuba; El Universal and El Partido Liberal in Mexico; and La Vida Literaria in Spain. In fact, he contributed extensively to the Spanish press, working as a correspondent for El Liberal and submitting regular pieces to ABC between 1920 and 1927. José Martí, on the other hand, wrote for La Nación in Buenos Aires, La Opinión Nacional in Caracas, La Pluma in Bogotá, and La América in New York.
As witnesses to the changes in urban landscapes and experiences, these chroniclers contributed to building an imaginary of modernity and life in the city, whether writing from their home countries or abroad. Gómez Carrillo, known as the “Prince of the Chroniclers,” wrote of European, Asian, and Latin-American cities, and his texts on Buenos Aires helped consolidate the Parisian image of one of the most modern South American cities in the late nineteenth century. Rubén Darío wrote an enormous number of chronicles on Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires; and, as a correspondent for La Nación of Buenos Aires, he traveled to Paris, Madrid, and Barcelona, as well as several other cities in Italy. Meanwhile, Martí’s chronicles provide in-depth descriptions of the major cities in the United States. Although Gutiérrez Nájera never traveled to the United States or Europe and Del Casal only visited Madrid, both chroniclers, by writing of the human and material components of urban life, constructed a sociocultural map of their respective immediate environments, Mexico City and Havana. As Jacinto Fombona has commented, Paris resonated so strongly that even Del Casal could write about the city (Fombona 2005: 74), an exercise which, although not exactly the same, was repeated by Argentine chronicler María Moreno in her text “Venecia sin mí” [“Venice without me”]. The so-called boulevard life is a major topic in the modernist chronicle, captured exemplarily by the Mexican Heriberto Frías, especially in his Crónicas del Boulevar [Chronicles of the Boulevard]. Thus, the modernist chronicle constitutes its own archive of the new kinds of citizenship emerging from a new urban environment, in particular those which were skeptically looked upon by inquisitorial fin de siècle nation-states.
As a result of the work of this group of writers and poets, the chronicle began to appear next to the adjective “urban.” The economic and material development that Latin America’s new liberal bourgeoisie experienced with the help of globalizing local markets, together with the impetus print culture received in the late nineteenth century, contributed to the proliferation of these texts, which introduced readers to changes occurring in urban life, both in their own cities and abroad. In this sense, while Romantic genres, like the cuadro de costumbres (vignettes of local customs, considered a precedent to the urban chronicle (Rotker 2005)), focused on nation-building, rural landscapes, customs of provincial communities, and popular and religious traditions, modernist chroniclers fixated on new urban landscapes, cities under construction, and modern life more generally. However, these chroniclers often maintained an ambiguous relationship with this new reality. They visited areas outside the city centers where urban reforms were taking place, and their chronicles sometimes document abandoned spaces completely void of modernity, as is the case, for example, with Gutiérrez Nájera. Some cities did not undergo intense modernization experiences, and the chroniclers of those cities were quick to express their boredom. Others voiced disappointment with not having anything to write about (the decadent ennui), since days or weeks could pass without any “events” happening, as Julián del Casal complains – coincidently, in his case, this was the perfect excuse to shamelessly unleash his imagination. Alongside this, chroniclers also developed an ambiguous relationship with technology, as seen with the arrival of the telegraph, intended to expand the culture of information in print media. Chronicles and writing in general were forced to adapt to these new circumstances. As such, the relevance of the chronicle’s origins as a primarily urban genre can only be understood within this context of early urban modernization.
By the 1920s, newspapers and magazines published the work of male and female authors whose production began in the final stages of modernism and, in some cases, extended into the second half of the twentieth century. Among these chroniclers, the most prominent include Salvador Novo (Mexico, 1904–1974), who received the official title of chronicler of Mexico City, publishing in El Universal Ilustrado, Excélsior, edición de la tarde (under the name “El niño Fidencio”), México al día, Hoy, and Novedades, among many other Mexican publications; César Vallejo (Peru, 1892–1938), who wrote for Mundial, La Reforma, El Norte (Trujillo), La Prensa, Variedades, and El Comercio while living in Madrid, Paris, and Moscow, experiences that allowed him to compare capitalist cities with the Soviet Union; and Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier (1904–1980), who lived a similarly international life while exiled in Paris and Madrid, published in the magazines Carteles and Social and the newspapers Diario de la Marina, El País, La Discusión, and Revista de Avance, among other Cuban publications. Upon returning to Havana after a long stay in Paris, Carpentier published many chronicles in El Tiempo, documenting the changes he perceived in Havana’s urban landscape and cultural life. As for the French press, he contributed to L’Intransigeant, Candide, Revue de l’Amerique Latine, and La Revue Hebdomadaire. In Venezuela, his work was published in El Nacional, Elite, Revista Nacional de Cultura, Tópicos Shell, Cultura Universitaria, and Contrapunto. Another important author who began publishing chronicles in the 1920s is Joaquín Edwards Bello (Chile, 1887–1968), a name practically inseparable with La Nación in Santiago de Chile, where he published weekly chronicles. Edwards Bello wrote of the capital city’s urban space, everyday life, and international current events. With irony and humor, he also keenly criticized Santiago’s idiosyncrasies, highlighting issues of classism, racial prejudices, and his own conflicts with Chilean society.
This was an important period for female urban chroniclers, who gained more visibility in the literary world. Antonia Bonifant López (Mexico, 1904–1933), better known as Cube Bonifant, began writing chronicles for the women’s section of El Universal Ilustrado, a magazine in which she also wrote film criticism, but under the pseudonym of Luz Alba. She published regularly in El Mundo, Ilustrado, El Universal, and Todo (Mahieux 2011). Another female chronicler who has not gone unnoticed, although this has not facilitated her inclusion in the canon, is Alfonsina Storni (1892–1938, born in Switzerland but considered an Argentine author), whose journalistic texts speak of the intimate connection between the chronicle and the city. Storni, like Bonifant, began by contributing to the women’s section of the eclectic magazine La Nota and continued her short career as a chronicler in La Nación of Buenos Aires, writing for the section “Bocetos femeninos” [“Ladies’ Sketches”] under the pseudonym Tao Lao. In both publications, Storni’s exemplary work displays the feminist movement and its contradictions, with its portraits of women from different social classes in urban space. In particular, she highlights a new generation of professional women without excluding the working class and other unqualified women workers. Her chronicles compile an archive of urban women who work, enjoy themselves, consume, and follow or resist the dictates of fashion (Diz 2006).
Another relevant chronicler from this period is Mario de Andrade (Brazil, 1893–1945), a representative of Brazilian modernism who published in A Ilustração Brasileira, Correio Paulistano, and Dário Nacional. His column “Taxi” (1929–1939), included in the Dario Nacional, was a regular platform for his urban chronicles and is studied in depth by Viviane Mahieux (2011). Mahieux also studies the chronicles of Roberto Arlt (Argentina, 1900–1940), whose work engages with the avant-garde of this period following Spanish-American modernism. Like Storni, Arlt dealt exclusively with the Buenos Aires of the 1920s and 1930s, then undergoing a new round of modernization. Recognized for his sketches of Argentina’s capital, published in the tabloid El Mundo, Arlt alternates between vernacular and erudite language to illustrate a portfolio of popular urban figures (voyeurs, hombres corcho [literally “cork men,” people exempt from responsibility or obligation, those who float by like a cork in water], seamstresses, potential spinsters, vagabonds, the unemployed, photographers), as well as streets, public squares, and shopping arcades. Self-taught, Arlt fed off street life and therefore introduced a style that was not always well received; in some chronicles, he even debates with readers on the language used in other texts. Although his style differs, José Antonio Osorio Lizarazo (Colombia, 1900–1964) also evoked the presence of the street, especially the most populous and darkest sides of the city. This is particularly true of his chronicles compiled in the book La cara de la miseria [The Face of Misery] (1926), which were originally published in the tabloid Mundo al Día, where he worked as a reporter. A prolific novelist, Osorio Lizarazo also wrote biographies and collaborated with many media outlets, all the while holding directorship positions in publications such as El Diario Nacional, La Prensa, Jornada, and Sábado. Over a period of two decades spanning from 1920 to 1940, he published a series of interviews and chronicles in Mundo al Día: these texts blend reporting with biographical work, focusing on urban figures distinguishable by their exceptionality or peculiarity, published under titles such as “vidas extraordinarias” [“Extraoridnary Lives”], “vidas sencillas” [“Plain Lives”], or “misteriosas” [“Mysterious People”]. Osorio Lizarazo is a part of an interesting group of chroniclers, including Salvador Novo, Teófilo Cid (Chile, 1914–1964), Jenaro Prieto (Chile, 1889–1946), and Emiliano Pérez Cruz (Mexico, 1955), among others, who, aside from working in the editorial world, also held positions in the state bureaucracy throughout the twentieth century. This other experience of the city, lived through the office, reports, administration, and paperwork, seeped into some of their chronicles.
In the 1930s, Rubén Andrade Moscoso (Ecuador, 1905–1983) began working as a journalist, which allowed him to travel to different Latin-American and European countries. He was thus able to publish in many international media outlets, such as El Tiempo in Bogota, a newspaper where he held a permanent position. The international reach of his work was enhanced by the American Literary Agency, which serialized his chronicles to newspapers around the continent, such as El Excélsior (Mexico), El Universal (Caracas), El Tiempo (Bogota), and El Mercurio (Santiago). In his home country, he also published in El Telégrafo (Guayaquil) and El Comercio (Quito). Although not all his journalism can be classified as urban chronicles (as opposed to many of the chroniclers mentioned here who strictly dealt with urban issues), Andrade in the 1940s, like the modernists beforehand, took on the task of rewriting Paris (Castro 2014). Also worthy of note in this period are Carlos Drummond de Andrade (Brazil, 1902–1987), chronicler of Rio de Janeiro, and Rubem Braga (1913–1990), also based in Rio de Janeiro, who Clarice Lispector repeatedly praised in her own journalistic writing as an exemplary chronicler.
By the mid-twentieth century, Latin-American media circulated texts by many of the chroniclers we have mentioned as active during the 1930s and 1940s (Novo, Bonifant, Carpentier, Edwards Bello, Ospina, and Braga, among others). In the second half of the twentieth century, the number of urban chroniclers increased considerably, and many are still publishing today. Near the beginning of the twenty-first century, this number further increased exponentially. Though studies have yet to confirm fewer chroniclers existed before the 1990s (an issue to be tackled through archive work), scholarly consensus establishes that by the end of the twentieth century and, particularly, as of the first decade of the twenty-first century, journalistic-literary chronicles were published widely in magazines and newspapers. Magazines specifically devoted to literary journalism began to appear (the Peruvian Etiqueta negra; the Mexican Gatopardo; Anfibia, a digital magazine edited by the Universidad Nacional de San Martín in Argentina; and El Malpensante, published in Colombia, are several good examples), positioning the chronicle as a central genre among their pages. Anthologies of chronicles also multiplied (Carrión 2012; Jaramillo Agudelo 2012).
If the lines separating literary and journalistic careers were still quite blurry in the first half of the twentieth century, the professionalization of writers and journalists later caused some to identify more with journalism and others with literature, while yet others chose not to distinguish between the two. While the modernist generation of poets sustained a more intimate relationship with literature but were forced to rely on journalism (still in an amateur format) as a means of subsistence, by the mid-twentieth century, some urban chroniclers also worked in other professions, not necessarily related to literature or journalism.
As the twentieth century came to a close, referring to the chronicle as urban became almost redundant, since the city had turned into a privileged locus of activity and most of the population lived in urbanized spaces. In this sense, there was no chronicle or similar literary-journalistic genre that failed to deal with urban issues. We should recall that urbanization processes in Latin America accelerated as the twentieth century progressed, although they were disparate and in many countries accentuated social segregation, which also accelerated rapidly, constituting a major public issue by the end of the century. By the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, the city was present in everyday life, both through urban figures and spatial qualities but also through crucial social situations. Human trafficking, femicides, drug networks, or child prostitution articulated different tones in the urban chronicle, now closely connected to investigative journalism. All the while definitions of the city became more complex, and tensions arose with former descriptions of the urban. As mentioned earlier, this is partly due to the consolidation of urban experience as a major form of life, and thus its singularity no longer seemed exceptional: in some sense, its rhythm and culture were no longer novel urban phenomena. Similarly, the distinctions between rural life and the city at this other turn of the century (from the twentieth to the twenty-first) were also questioned: rural life permeated the city as urban life permeated the countryside. Carlos Monsiváis’s chronicles are exemplary in this respect. Likewise, the surprise, astonishment, and fear caused by the changing urban experience and technological novelties, seen in the modernists and chroniclers at the beginning of the twentieth century, were transformed into other responses to the city: the masses were consolidated and became owners of the city, the expansion of public transportation partly rendered the fin de siècle wanderer obsolete, concerns about auditory and environmental pollution replaced the concerns about skyscrapers, and poverty and marginal areas of the city added tension to modernizing projects. As violence gained prominence, different types of fear did as well, especially in contexts of dictatorship. In this sense, the idea of urban vertigo reappeared at the end of the twentieth century. From another point of view, given the city’s omnipresence as the backdrop for all these chroniclers, the adjective “urban” lost a certain level of specificity. In this respect it is worth drawing particular attention to Carlos Monsiváis (Mexico, 1938–2010), whose abundant production places him next to Novo as the official chronicler of Mexico City. His first chronicles appeared in the book Días de guardar [Days of Obligation] (1970), in which popular urban culture of Mexico (and elsewhere) is a central theme. Los rituales del caos [The Rituals of Chaos] (1995) is, perhaps, one of Monsiváis most lucid and critical works on the Mexican megalopolis. These chronicles make recognizable concepts such as the hybrid city, the mega city, the visual city, and the “music video city” which Néstor García Canclini examined at the conference “¿Qué es una ciudad?” In the southern part of the continent, the marginal and transvestite city that Pedro Lemebel (Santiago, 1952–2015) describes in La esquina es mi corazón [The Corner is my Heart] (1995) and Loco afán: crónicas de sidario [Mad Desire: Chronicles of AIDSman] (1996) also seeped through both the radio and newspapers. Another urban chronicler is Roberto Merino (Chile, 1961), who writes of the streets, neighborhoods, plazas, bridges, and the passage of time in the capital of Santiago. In the 1980s, María Moreno also began publishing chronicles in local newspapers and magazines. Strongly oriented toward journalism, Moreno’s chronicles deal with a variety of cities, many of which are compiled in her book Banco a la sombra. Plazas [Bench in the Shadows. Plazas] (2007). Her chronicles of Buenos Aires, which, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, experienced one of its worst economic and political crises, are gathered in La comuna de Buenos Aires. Relatos al pie del 2001 [The Commune of Buenos Aires. Stories at the beginning of 2001] (2011). Moreno, like Monsiváis and Lemebel, has closely examined sexual and gender diversity in urban settings. From a more investigative and informative stance, the Mexican Alma Guillermoprieto (1949) also writes chronicles of various Latin-American cities in crises, whether riven by political, ecological, economic, or social problems, many of which are collected in Al pie de un volcán te escribo [From the Foot of the Volcano I Write to You] (1995).
The list would be endless if we were to mention all the chroniclers whose texts are currently in circulation. The Fundación Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano has compiled a catalogue which provides updated information on chroniclers and their work. Perusing the contemporary magazines mentioned earlier would also help to complete the current state of this genre. Not all the writers who publish in these magazines are necessarily recognized as urban chroniclers, but many continue to focus on the city and urban problems, even in their travel writing. The most prominent chroniclers in this current group include Juan Villoro (Mexico, 1956), Alberto Salcedo Ramos (Colombia, 1963), Julio Villanueva Chang (Peru; 1967), Martín Caparrós (Argentina, 1952), Jaime Bedoya (Peru, 1964), Milagros Socorro (Venezuela, 1960), and Leila Guerriero (Argentina, 1967), among many others from the newer generations born in the 1970s and 1980s.
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