Category Archives: Metropolis of the Month

Cities of Exile and Other Crossings: Buenos Aires and Montevideo’s Shared Histories from the 19th to 21st Centuries

By Daniel Richter

Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the capitals of Argentina and Uruguay, are located approximately 120 miles away from each other across the Río de la Plata. Over the decade from 2003 to 2013, I traveled by boat between Argentina and Uruguay approximately 20 times while living in the two cities for an aggregate of six of those years. A fair number of these trips were primarily to renew 90-day tourist visas in Argentina, where I lived from 2003 to 2008. I was far from alone among the many Americans and other foreigners residing in Buenos Aires that would travel back and forth across the world’s so-called widest river. I had a Brazilian friend that would join me for the occasional overnight trip to Montevideo and to the closer Uruguayan port of Colonia del Sacramento for his own visa renewal reasons. I also made numerous trips to Uruguay for beach holidays in the months of December, January, and February.

Most memorably, I was once stranded on a ferry boat that failed to dock in Colonia del Sacramento due to a large thunderstorm. Our boat ran out of gas in the middle of the river, and we were towed back to the port of Buenos Aires by a tug boat. About 12 hours after leaving Buenos Aires on a planned boat trip to Colonia that would lead to a connecting bus to Montevideo and a weekend meetup with friends, I returned to Buenos Aires without having successfully stepped foot onto the sought-after Uruguayan soil.[1] The return of our stranded ferry was broadcast live on Argentine television news. My doorman in Buenos Aires told me the next day that he had seen me on television looking rather worn down by the odyssey at sea as I returned to the ferry terminal in Buenos Aires along with my fellow travelers to have our exit visa stamps cancelled.

Long before the early 2000s and my experiences with river crossings, Buenos Aires and Montevideo developed a long and shared history dating back to the late 16th century and the arrival of Spanish colonial rule in the region. During the early colonial era, Spanish settlers created a network of urban spaces in South America to administer colonial trade and settlements. Buenos Aires became the largest urban center. Across the river, Portuguese colonists founded Montevideo. By the early 18th century, Montevideo had become a Spanish colonial possession. Buenos Aires became a Spanish viceregal capital in 1776 with dominion over the whole of the Río de la Plata region. During the late 18th century, merchants in the two cities were key participants in the growth of Atlantic commerce. Buenos Aires and Montevideo both functioned as major centers for the transatlantic, trans-imperial, and regional slave trade, which expanded to the South Atlantic in the late 18th century.[2]

By the early 1800s, Montevideo’s citizens began to pursue their own political autonomy. When a Spanish colonial militia was needed to liberate Buenos Aires from a British invasion in 1806, they came from Montevideo. When Argentines and Uruguayans fought for independence from Spain during the 1810s, militia leaders in both cities forged alliances and lasting rivalries. Buenos Aires-based forces invaded Montevideo during the 1810s and then Uruguayans, led by national hero Jose Artigas, fought back to redefine the political alliances of the different regions of Argentina’s hinterland. From 1816 to 1825, Montevideo also fought for national independence against the occupation of Portuguese imperial forces from Brazil. Ultimately, Argentina won its decisive independence over a decade before Uruguay, but by the late 1820s, both Buenos Aires and Montevideo were the political centers of new nations in formation. Since then, connections between Buenos Aires and Montevideo have been shaped by ever-expanding commercial exchanges, but also by waves of migrations, political exile, boats and planes, tango and rock music, Carnival festivals, soccer rivalries, and familial ties.

In my book manuscript in progress, I examine the shared urban and cultural histories of Buenos Aires and Montevideo in the 20th century. My research focuses on the rise of Buenos Aires as a mass cultural capital in Latin America during the period from 1910 to 1960 and the under-explored role of cultural connections with Montevideo in shaping Buenos Aires’s emergence as a Broadway and Hollywood of Latin American mass culture. (I also have published an essay on the close ties between Uruguay’s small film industry and Argentina’s far more sizable cinematic industry from the early 20th century to the present).[3] My work builds on an interdisciplinary body of scholarship by Argentines, Uruguayans, Brazilians, Americans, Spaniards, and others who have paid attention to the varied aspects of connections between the two cities.[4] This essay is an exploration of the shared political histories of Buenos Aires and Montevideo that underpin my work and the second part is a brief introduction to the long history of cultural exchanges between the two cities. It is also an opportunity to argue that the long-standing connections between Buenos Aires and Montevideo as urban spaces for political exiles also speaks to the global historical importance of cities in shaping the transnational dynamics of oppositional political movements. As historian Michael Goebel has documented for Paris, an anti-imperial metropolis during the interwar period of the 20th century, it is crucial to understand how modern political movements have been shaped by the environs of interconnected cities.[5] In Buenos Aires and Montevideo, I would argue that the shared significance for urban history comes from how the two cities contributed to a shared intellectual world of universities, print culture, and the cultural effervescence of mass culture.

Building in Montevideo, between 1920 and 1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Political currents have repeatedly shaped Buenos Aires’s relationship with Montevideo (and vice versa) since the independence of both countries. In the 1830s to 1840s, Buenos Aires and Montevideo developed a new form of connection as Montevideo functioned as a primary site of political exile for opponents of the Argentine government led by Federalist caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas. Political exile of prominent Argentines in Montevideo and Uruguayans in Buenos Aires is a pattern that has repeated itself again and again. During most of the period from 1829 to 1852, Juan Manuel de Rosas was the Governor of Buenos Aires Province (including the city) and his opponents were members of the Unitarian political party. The most famous Federalist slogan was the succinct “Death to Unitarians.” The Unitarian Juan Bautista Alberdi, Argentina’s most prominent constitutional thinker and arguably the country’s James Madison, was exiled in Montevideo in the 1830s and early 1840s. Alberdi and other intellectuals wrote for Montevideo publications such as El Iniciador and imagined a post-Rosas Argentina from Uruguay. Alberdi was joined in Montevideo by Florencio Varela, Esteban Escheverria, Hilario Ascasubi. As literary scholar William Acree has written, Ascasubi was the most potent pen in angering Rosas and his allies.[6] (Another prominent anti-Rosas intellectual and eventual Argentine president, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, was exiled in Santiago del Chile, in large part because it was closer to his native San Juan in northwestern Argentina.)

Cover of El Iniciador (1838), available at:

In Montevideo during the 1840s, Alberdi fled during a siege of the city led by the forces of the Uruguayan general Manuel Oribe and backed by Rosas from Buenos Aires. In 1848, Varela was assassinated in Montevideo on orders from Oribe and Rosas, an act of political violence that would echo throughout the late 20th century with Argentines and Uruguayan civilians targeted while in exile from their respective homeland. After the fall of Juan Manuel de Rosas in 1852, Montevideo was not as synonymous with exile from Buenos Aires for the duration of the 19th century.

Cathedral, Montevideo, Uruguay, between 1910 and 1920, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

During the 20th century, the cities would continue to switch roles back and forth as sites of exile. The Uruguayan capital would become a privileged space of exile for a few anti-Peronist politicians during the first government of Juan Perón from 1945 to 1955. Argentine intellectuals would also seek employ at the Universidad de la República in Montevideo during this period, including the University of Buenos Aires professor and historian José Luis Romero.[7] In the 1960s, more Argentine intellectuals would go to Montevideo when the University of Buenos Aires’s administration was taken over by another in a long array of military governments. In the early 1970s, Uruguayan politicians, intellectuals, and leftist activists would flee to Buenos Aires after the Uruguayan military began to violently repress Uruguayans considered opponents of the new junta. In March 1976, Argentina suffered a violent military coup and the new regime murderously targeted both Argentine and Uruguayan political opponents in Buenos Aires. A number of prominent Uruguayan politicians had chosen exile in Buenos Aires since 1973. Among them were Zelmer Michelini and Héctor Gutierrez Ruiz. Michelini was a Uruguayan senator and political leader of the Frente Amplio political movements in Uruguay. In May 1976, Michelini and Gutierrez Ruiz were kidnapped and killed on the same day in Buenos Aires. The murders were the work of military officers involved in Operation Condor, the transnational network of political assassinations involving military and intelligence officers in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil.[8] Since the return of democracy, human rights organizations in both Buenos Aires and Montevideo have worked together in pursuit of justice and accountability for this period of state terrorism.

Immigrant Hotel, Buenos Aires, Argentina, between 1900 and 1922, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer and committed leftist, wrote in the heartrending “Chronicle of the City of Buenos Aires” in his The Book of Embraces about his experience of returning to Buenos Aires in 1984 after fleeing Montevideo in 1973 and then having to escape in 1976 from Buenos Aires to Spain.[9]

In the middle of 1984, I traveled to the River Plate. It was eleven years since I’d seen Montevideo; eight years since I’d seen Buenos Aires. I had walked out of Montevideo because I don’t like being a prisoner, and out of Buenos Aires because I don’t like being dead. By 1984, the Argentine military dictatorship had gone, leaving behind it an indelible trace of blood and filth, and the Uruguayan military dictatorship was on its way out.

The exile of Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti coincided with Galeano’s in Buenos Aires before he too departed for another exile in Lima, Peru. Benedetti’s short story “La vecina orilla” (in translation with the title of “The Other Side”) is an evocative tale of the exile of a young Uruguayan political activist in Buenos Aires.[10] The two stories shared the experiences of both writers and the conditions of double exile that shaped the lives of many Montevideo natives who felt almost at home in Buenos Aires during a dark chapter of Latin American history.

Rows of tables crowded with men, dining room, Immigrant Hotel, Buenos Aires, Argentina, between 1890 and 1923, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

While political exiles colored the relationship between residents of Buenos Aires and Montevideo at decisive moments in the 19th and 20th centuries, decidedly more cultural exchanges proliferated during the same period and were not shaped by formal politics. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Podesta family popularized the Creole circus in cities including Buenos Aires and Montevideo and numerous towns throughout Argentina and Uruguay. In the early 20th century, playwrights and performers from both cities increasingly traveled back and forth between Buenos Aires and Montevideo to forge a shared world of popular culture. The two cities also functioned as incubators for the world’s greatest tango singers, musicians, and composers during the 1910s and 1920s.[11] For Uruguayan dramatists like Angel Curotto, Buenos Aires’s Avenida Corrientes was the South American equivalent of Broadway and increasingly offered what Montevideo could not. However, with the rise of Peronism in Argentina during the 1940s, numerous leading Argentine performers pursued theatrical opportunities in Montevideo where there was less political tension and censorship. Curotto became a major figure in attracting Argentine directors and performers to Montevideo’s Teatro Solis in the late 1940s and early 1950s.[12] With the rise of film culture in the 1930s and 1940s, Buenos Aires simultaneously attracted more and more performers from Montevideo and Santiago del Chile to pursue their dreams on screen while working for Argentine film studios. At the same time, mass audiences filled Buenos Aires’s dozens of movie theaters, thereby popularizing Argentine films. In addition, Buenos Aires developed as urban metropolis for various exiles; many of these figures contributed to the city’s mass cultural marketplace in different forms of intellectual production. In the late 1940s, the African-American writer Richard Wright opted to film an adaptation of his novel Native Son in Buenos Aires while collaborating with the émigré French director Pierre Chenal.[13]

The Hotel de Los Pocitos circa 1920 (Photograph in Edward Albes, Montevideo, The City of Roses. Washington, DC: Organization of American States, 1922)

During the 20th century, Buenos Aires and Montevideo continued to influence each other’s imaginations. The Hotel de los Pocitos, located on the Río de la Plata beachfront in Montevideo, was a prominent vacation destination for middle and upper-class Argentineans in the early 1900s before being destroyed by a hurricane in 1923. Montevideo’s “salubrious climate” attracted international visitors and helped to transform it into a summer resort for Uruguayans, Argentines, and Brazilians during the early decades of the 20th century.[14] By the 1950s, Argentines began to vacation en masse in Uruguay’s ocean town of Punta del Este, which had more coastline than the Argentine capital and was largely on the Atlantic Ocean. In different moments, residents of Buenos Aires imagined Montevideo as a city of anti-Peronism, frequent business trips, extramarital affairs, and offshore accounts. Buenos Aires occupied the urban imagination of montevideanos as South America’s modern metropolis, and in the 1960s and 1970s as a city of revolutionary and then violently repressive politics. These urban imaginaries ebbed and flowed to shape generations of porteños and montevideanos. In the framework of transnational urban history, my work grapples with the appropriate comparisons to explore the relationship between the two capital cities. Many comparisons come to mind, but the cities lack the clear political schisms of Havana and Miami, are not equally global and political metropolises like London and Paris (and do not differ in languages), and unlike New York and Toronto the cities exist in closer proximity and function as national capitals. My framing of the comparative and transnational histories of Buenos Aires and Montevideo seeks to trace the connections between the cities as contributing to Buenos Aires’s place as a capital of Latin American mass culture and builds on the longer histories of political and cultural connections between Argentina and Uruguay.

RichterHeadshot.JPGDaniel Richter is a Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Maryland. He received his doctorate from Maryland in Latin American history in 2016. His research focuses on the urban and cultural history of 20th century Latin America, transnational urban history, and global histories of mass culture and commodities.


Featured image (at top): The Atheneum, Montevideo, Uruguay, between 1908 and 1919, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[1] “Pánico y quejas en Buquebus,” La Nación, February 24, 2006,

[2] Alex Borucki, “The Slave Trade to the Río de la Plata, 1777–1812: Trans-Imperial Networks and Atlantic Warfare,” Colonial Latin American Review, Vol. 20, No. 1 (2011): 81-107.

[3] Daniel Richter, “Big Screens for a Small Industry: A History of Twentieth-Century Uruguayan Cinema,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Available online:

[4] Roger Mirza, Teatro rioplatense: cuerpo, palabra, imagen: la escena contemporánea, una reflexión impostergable. Montevideo: Unión Latina, 2007.

[5] Michael Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[6] William G. Acree, Jr., Everyday Reading: Print Culture and Collective Identity in the Río de la Plata, 1780-1910. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2011, 72-74.

[7] Juan Carlos del Bello, Osvaldo Barsky, Graciela Giménez, La universidad privada argentina. Buenos Aires: Libros del Zorzal, 2007, 69.

[8] John Dinges, The Condor Years: How Pinochet And His Allies Brought Terrorism To Three Continents. New York: The New Press, 2012, 145-147.

[9] Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces. Translated by Cedric Belfrage with Mark Schafer. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992, 188-189.

[10] Mario Benedetti, “The Other Side,” in Blood pact and other stories, edited by Claribel Alegría and Darwin Flakoll. Translated by Daniel Balderston. Willimantic, Connecticut: Curbstone Press, 1997.

[11] Juan Carlos Legido, La orilla oriental del tango. Historia del Tango Uruguayo. Montevideo: Ediciones de la Plaza, 1994.

[12] Daniela Bouret and Gonzalo Vicci, “Relaciones creativas y conflictivas entre el teatro y la política. La institucionalidad de las artes escénicas en Uruguay en la Comisión de Teatros Municipales,” Telondefondo. Revista de Teoría y Crítica Teatral Publicación semestral (December 2011), 123-143.

[13] Edgardo Krebs, Sangre negra: breve historia de una película perdida. Mar del Plata: Festival Internacional de Cine de Mar del Plata, 2015.

[14] Edward Albes, Montevideo, The City of Roses. Washington, DC: Organization of American States, 1922.

Popular Theater in Buenos Aires:  The Madrid of South America?

How many times have the city, its architecture, and the theatre been intertwined, for the theatre is often a foil for the representations of public life, and public space frequently is arranged as if for a theatrical performance. Both the theatre and urban space are places of representation, assemblage, and exchange between actors and spectators, between the drama and the stage set.

M. Christine Boyer, The City in Collective Memory

By Kristen McCleary

The cliché phrase that Buenos Aires was the Paris of South America exemplifies the exaggerated focus that elites placed on the French capital as they promoted and shaped the national identity of Argentina. Marcy E. Schwartz explains the fascination with Paris as follows: “Since the early independence period, criollo culture has had to confront and define itself with European urban models in its continuing attempt to determine political and aesthetic boundaries. The Paris written into Latin American cultural consciousness has emerged from this persistent confrontation.”

While all of Latin America’s elite were fascinated by Paris around this same time—indeed Porfirio Díaz of Mexico went into exile there on the cusp of that nation’s revolution—the link between Argentine elites and Parisian culture was especially strong. Buenos Aires served a particularly important role in connecting Paris to the rest of Latin America through publishing. Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters underscores the links between Paris as the world capital of literature and Buenos Aires, where Nicaraguan modernist writer, Rubén Dario, first published Prosas profanes in 1896. Casanova argues Dario,  “rearranged the literary landscape of the Hispanic world” by importing the latest edition of modernity from Paris to Buenos Aires. Dario worked for and disseminated his work in the largest Latin American daily newspaper of the era, Buenos Aires’ La Nación.

In contrast to a large body of scholarship supporting a relationship between Paris and Buenos Aires, there is very little that discusses the relationship between Madrid, the Spanish capital, and Buenos Aires. In his study of Spanish immigration to Argentina, José Moya writes, “volumes on the ‘conquistadores’ fill shelves but not one scholarly book has been written about these more recent and more numerous [Spanish] newcomers to Buenos Aires.” In the Independence-era historiography, there is a deliberate neglect of Buenos Aires’ connections  to Madrid, or to Spain more generally, particularly in relationship to culture. It makes sense that Argentina would distance itself from the country that had once colonized it. And that is largely what the elites did. Argentine elites looked for their national foundations outward to Paris or inward to the Pampas and the mythification of the disappearing gauchos.

Gaucho, 1868

Julio Ramos explicitly links the writings of the Argentine elite after independence to modernity:

Beginning with the 1820s, the activity of writing became a response to the necessity of overcoming the catastrophe of war, the absence of discourse, and the annihilation of established structures in the war’s aftermath. To write, in such a world, was to forge the modernizing project; it was to civilize, to order the randomness of American ‘barbarism.”

Domingo F. Sarmiento in his 1845 narrative Civilization and Barbarism bifurcated the political ideologies of his era into urban and rural and positioned the “civilized” city against the “barbaric” countryside: “The nineteenth century and the twelfth century coexist, the one in the cities; the other in the countryside.” Sarmiento and many of his like-minded brethren were influenced by French enlightenment thought.  In particular, Sarmiento disparaged Argentina’s Spanish ancestry—absorbing the tendency in literature and history to demonize Spanish culture as uniquely backwards and obscurantist.  Sarmiento and other liberal elites, like Bernadino Rivadavia, advocated the de-Hispanicization of Argentina in the aftermath of independence. On the stages of Buenos Aires, however, an entirely different story might be reconstructed than the one told by the elites. This counter narrative concerns the dominance of Spanish popular theater from the colonial era up until 1904—the first year that Argentine theatrical productions outnumbered Spanish zarzuelas.

Justo López de Gomara who wrote de paseo en buenos aires

The main theatrical entertainment during the era of Argentine independence was a number of short musical genres that originated in Spain and which were performed by Spanish acting companies: loas, tonadillas, and sainetes. Oscar F. Urquiza Almandoz notes that in the colonial era Madrid and Lima set the standard most South American cities followed.  In Madrid and Lima, a night at the theater would be loa, tonadilla, sainete, and then comedy. Loas were prologues from the Golden Era of Spanish theater that attempted to get the audience’s attention before a play began. Tonadillas were one of several small genres of music that gave rise to the zarzuela, a Spanish operetta with both sung and spoken dialogue. Sainetes (farces) were short one-act plays drawing characters from the urban working classes and employed their vernacular as well.

In 1817, the year after the nation declared independence at the Congreso de Tucumán, independence war hero Juan Martín de Pueyrredón formed La Sociedad de Buen Gusto [The Society of Good Taste] in order to harness and promote theater as a ‘civilizing’ tool. Promoting particular plays about the ‘American experience’ and about independence, the Society attempted to suppress popular theater, in particular the Spanish tonadilla and its main instrumentation, the guitar. Audiences knew what they liked, however, and more than once demanded the return of tonadillas to the stage. The failure of the Society of Good Taste to achieve its mission speaks to the power of the ingrained customs and habits of audience members, who continued to demand Spanish tonadillas, sainetes, and zarzuelas, over dramatic or lyrical theater.

The nineteenth century was a turbulent one for Argentine nation-building and theatrical entertainment waxed and waned along with economic and political stability. Spanish-originating theater and actors remained a constant presence on Argentine stages, simmering on the back burner, so to speak, until society transformed enough to sustain urban commercial theater.  This would happen after 1880, the moment that the port city of Buenos Aires became designated as the federal capital, cementing its power over the provinces. Between 1879 and 1914, almost six million people came to Argentina with a little more than half of them permanently settling.

El Comprarito

The constancy of Spanish theatre and acting troupes in Buenos Aires throughout the nineteenth century provided a base from which the Spanish zarzuela would arise to dominate urban entertainment in the 1890s. Zarzuelas were written in Spain and often reproduced on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in a few days. Playscripts were transmitted via the telegraph and acting companies arrived to Buenos Aires on steamship. A touring company might leave the port city of Cádiz, Spain, arrive to Buenos Aires, rehearse, and perform in under three weeks time. Zarzuela performers were drawn to Buenos Aires for many reasons. The city had strong cultural ties to Spanish theatre and a large enough population to make a sojourn there profitable. The high season of theatre in Buenos Aires coincided with the off-season in Europe. In addition, the natural audience, Spaniards, comprised a large immigrant group in the 1880s, making up over 20 per cent of the population, and could sustain upwards of ten zarzuela companies. In 1886, zarzuelas comprised 8 per cent of the city’s indoor leisure time entertainment. By 1895, this number had jumped to over 60 per cent.

The zarzuela was an inherently urban form of theatre.  Originating in Madrid, the topics of the zarzuelas were Spanish. Some of the titles centering on Madrid and the provinces of Spain:  La verbena de la Paloma, de Madrid a Paris (From Madrid to Paris), La gran vía (The Great Thoroughfare), La Romeria de Miera (Miera’s Pilgrimage), Un gatito de Madrid (A Cat From Madrid), La Salamanquina (The Girl from Salamanca), and Olé Sevilla. 

Spanish zarzuela companies dominated urban culture in Buenos Aires in the 1890s. They quickly began to adapt Madrid-centered themes to Argentine ones. For example, La gran vía, written by Federico Chueca (1846–1908) and Joaquín Valverde Durán (1846–1910) and first performed in Madrid in 1886, was performed in and adapted to Buenos Aires as well as Havana, Cuba and Santiago, Chile. It was even adapted and performed in the United States.  The first scene of La gran vía opens with performers personifying Madrid’s streets and plazas, lamenting their fate in the face of urban renovation where a new Grand Boulevard will result in their destruction.


Justo López de Gomara, a Spaniard by birth and prominent Spanish journalist and playwright in Argentina, debuted his play De paseo en Buenos Aires [Strolling Through Buenos Aires] as a loose adaptation of La gran vía in 1890.
De paseo
travels through the quintessential institutions of Buenos Aires, from the San Martin Theatre, to the police commissary, the Plaza Victoria (later the Plaza de Mayo), the Immigrants’ Hotel, La Boca del Riachuelo, a fruit market, the port, the stock exchange, and the Avenida de Mayo [May Avenue]. It also includes local character types, like compadritos, gauchos, and Italian and Spanish immigrants, and borrows from La gran vía several allegorical representations of urban life: squabbling street sweepers and cooks, boys selling newspapers, an Italian opera singer, French chorus girls, and [yes, apparently the porteño infatuation with dogs dates back to the nineteenth century] a professional dog walker.


If in the early 1890s there was a demand for zarzuela performances to be exact replicas of those in Spain, by the decade’s end audience members were increasingly contesting performances that they viewed as inauthentic, especially in regards to the presentation of national themes and character types. The zarzuela resulted in collaborations between Argentine playwrights and Spanish actors who set the template for Argentine national theatre. It also fostered a network of intellectuals and performers who unified their work with political activism during moments of democratic openings. The genre also generated conversation and debate about what it meant to be ‘Argentine,’ as Spanish performers and Argentine playwrights colluded to create a hybrid genre known as the zarzuela criolla where Argentines wrote the plays and Spaniards performed them.

final scene zarzuela cleopatra 1915
Final scene from zarzuela Cleopatra, 1915

If zarzuela performers tended to integrate themselves smoothly with Argentine audiences most of the year, twice a year it was impossible to forget the historical relationship between the two countries: May 25 and July 9, Argentina’s two days celebrating important moments in their independence from Spain. During independence days, theatres were decked out in the national colours of whichever nation was being celebrated. Streamers were hung, national anthems were sung. As such, theatres were arenas where patriotic gestures and national traditions were embraced and displayed. In addition, theatres were largely masculine spaces and young elite men went there to enact their own sense of manhood by protecting (and over-interpreting) slights to Argentine national identity. The fact that Spanish performers were required to sing the Argentine national anthem, which included lyrics derogatory against Spain also assured that theatres would be loaded affairs on these days.

El compadrito

The preponderance of Spanish performers on Argentine stages resulted in the curious case of the first actor to dance the tango on the stages of Buenos Aires: a Spaniard that performed in blackface. Ezequiel Soria’s Justicia criolla [Creole Justice] (1897) is a Spanish zarzuela that focuses on Benito, an Afro-Argentine doorman for the national congress who peppers his dialogue with political commentary and who also attempts to seduce Juanita, a white Argentine woman. Benito’s primary characteristics are his flirtatiousness, verbosity, and musicality. Benito is famously remembered for being the character credited with introducing the tango to the stages of Buenos Aires. Enrique Gil, an actor from Spain, who directed theater in Buenos Aires, first played Benito.

It was inevitable that the Spanish zarzuela would decline as Argentine theatre matured. 1904 was the last year that the zarzuela genre dominated in Buenos Aires. After the passage of a law that gave Argentine writers a guaranteed 10% of the box office for their plays, something which Spanish writers had secured in 1890, Argentine national theatre became a relatively lucrative business. While Buenos Aires has often been referred to as the Paris of South America, throughout the nineteenth century in matters of popular culture, Buenos Aires looked towards Madrid.

Featured image (at top): Avenida de Mayo, Buenos Aires, between 1908 and 1919, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

la biela me and n - 1Kristen McCleary is an Associate Professor of history at James Madison University. She is currently finishing her book manuscript, “Engendering the Urban Sphere: Theater and Society in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1880-1920.” She has published a number of articles about popular culture in Argentina on topics ranging from the transformation of carnival celebrations in Buenos Aires, to the performance of masculinity on the city’s stages, to narratives of theater fires as a way in which to understand processes of urban modernization in Buenos Aires. Her courses on Latin America focus on visual and popular culture, gender, and social change. She has co-directed a study abroad program to Buenos Aires, Argentina since 2008.

Graffiti art, Protest and Memory in the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires city

By Yovanna Pineda

On a casual stroll through Buenos Aires City, the pedestrian’s eyes can follow the public spaces lined with colorful graffiti. Though the latter is illegal, it is socially accepted, and for some urban residents and tourists it is even valued. Indeed, they locate their graffiti, including name tags, screen printing, and murals, in highly visible and trafficked areas to share messages or evoke memories across time and space.

Europeans learned the history of graffiti in Spanish America thanks to Hernán Cortés—even though he, in the words of Angel Rama, “condemned graffiti because anyone could produce it.” Yet that very condemnation of its popularity is—perhaps ironically—why it is such an effective art form throughout modern Latin America.[1] In Buenos Aires in particular, graffiti has become an art of protest, messaging, and spectacle.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo serve as evidence regarding graffiti art’s importance and its intersection with protest and public space. The Plaza de Mayo has symbolized Argentina’s urban core space since the early twentieth century. Through a discussion of the Mothers and how others use the Plaza space, we can better understand the strength of their physical protest and their ability to evoke memory

 The Plaza de mayo

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, elite leaders sought to control spaces within the city. Influenced by positivist philosophy, they engineered public space to represent their bourgeois ideals of order and progress—and materialized their imagined modernization. [2] With rising city income from sales of exported cereals and beef, they were able to finance their new city, an “ordered city,” which they envisioned as an architectural urban style and grid that emphasized order and progress.[3] Such a new, ordered city would promote politics, public health, and culture.[4]

01 IMG Plaza de Mayo AGN 1890.jpg
 “Plaza de Mayo, 1890 (Photo).” Archivo General de la Nación, Buenos Aires Argentina

The core of this ordered city was a public square, the Plaza de 25 de Mayo, established in 1884.[5] Ironically, though termed a modern square, the Plaza de Mayo appeared similar to a traditional sixteenth-century Spanish plaza, surrounded by the essential buildings of administration, finance, and religion, including the presidential palace, the Casa Rosada  Nevertheless, elites perceived that this central area demonstrated their high culture, including beautiful landscapes in geometrical shapes. This architectural landscape of Plaza de Mayo has remained relatively consistent for more than a century

02 IMG Plaza de Mayo Pineda 2014.JPG
Plaza de Mayo, photography by Yovanna Pineda, 2014

By the mid-twentieth century, the Plaza de Mayo became less a symbol of beauty and modernization, and more of a central, public space for rallies and protests. During the Presidency of Juan Domingo Perón (1946-1955), for instance, his allies often organized pro-government rallies in the Plaza de Mayo, conveniently across from the Casa Rosada, where Perón could wave from the balcony of his office. The political and cultural significance of the Plaza was clear with numerous demonstrations taking place in this space—though the larger, truly mass demonstrations took place near the former building of the national labor organization, Confederation of General Labor (CGT), about a mile south of the Plaza.[6] International audiences likely became aware of the importance of this Plaza through English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Evita. [7] In Webber’s version, he placed Evita on the balcony of the Casa Rosada during her iconic speech in which she announced her resignation as the vice-presidential candidate. In reality, her speech took place in front of the CGT building.

03 IMG Casa Rosada Pineda 1999.jpg
Casa Rosada, photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 1999
04 IMG Evita_bicentenario wiki commons.JPG
Evita Duarte de Perón

Evita’s Resignation Speech (Spanish Subtitles)

Protest and memory of the mothers of the plaza de mayo

During the second half of the twentieth century, mothers whose children had “disappeared” (desaparecidos) used the Plaza as a space of protest against the military dictatorship and its Dirty War (1976-1982). During this period, the military tortured, killed, and disappeared persons that it viewed as subversive. By 1977, fourteen women collectively demanded information regarding their missing children.[8] They eventually called themselves the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. They silently walked around the Plaza every Thursday afternoon—and still do to this day. They wear white head kerchiefs, carry signs of their missing children to recognize each other, and allow onlookers to join them. They intentionally remained visible to be “politically effective” and stay alive during the Dirty War.[9] By the end of the Dirty War in 1982, they held large demonstrations in the Plaza demanding information on their disappeared children.

05 IMG Mothers 2ª_Marcha_de_la_Resistencia_9_y_10_diciembre Wikipedia 1982
Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Protest, 1982.; “Segunda Marcha de la Resistencia, Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, Diciembre 1982,”

Though the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo group have split into two, both groups, the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Línea Fundadora, continue to walk around the Plaza every Thursday afternoon. Both groups wear the head kerchief, which was once embroidered with the name and date of their disappeared loved one. Today, the kerchiefs are embroidered with “aparición con vida de los desaparecidos” (making visible the lives of the disappeared). Though most mothers have accepted the death of their loved ones, their weekly march continues to memorialize the living, and most importantly, remind Argentines how their lives were taken during the Dirty War.[10]

06 IMG A Mothers Head Kerchief Pineda 2007
“A Mother’s Head Kerchief,” photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 2007.

The two groups are distinguishable from each other only through their marching banners and followers. The first group, Línea Fundadora (founding mothers), is the smaller of the two and focuses on the original goal of the Mothers, demanding answers as to what happened to the disappeared. The second group, the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, has a much larger following because they march for the disappeared and in support of other social justice issues.

07 IMG Linea Fundadora Pineda 2007
Línea Fundadora, courtesy of
08 IMG Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Pineda 2007.jpg
Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, courtesy of 

In addition to walking around the Plaza to protest, the mothers evoke memory even when they are not physically present. Through graffiti, they continue to demonstrate their power. In 1999, for instance, they drew outlines of the bodies of the disappeared on the Plaza de Mayo with white paint . Within each body they wrote the name of the disappeared and the date that they went missing. Through the display, the mothers made the disappeared “re-appear” on the Plaza. But the sketches of the bodies slowly faded with time. By 2002, they remained but were clearly fading as expected, having a ghostly appearance, such as an apparition

09 IMG Mothers draw Bodies Plaza de Mayo Pineda 1999
Mothers draw bodies, photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 1999.

During the early twentieth century, the mothers varied the symbolic graffiti art painted on the Plaza. The head kerchiefs had become a symbol of the Mothers; hence, their allies painted them in white paint on the Plaza de Mayo in 2002. That same year, there were numerous protests on the Plaza in response to the major economic crisis of December 2001. The piqueteros (protesters) set up signs, posters and audio speakers to demonstrate in the Plaza. They were physically located near the painted head kerchiefs on the Plaza. The synergies of the protests highlighted the importance of creating spectacle to enhance the power of dissent.[11] 

By 2016, the Mothers and their allies combined the white outline of the disappeared bodies and the kerchiefs on the Plaza. This time, the bodies were painted in dynamic poses, resembling ghostly figures moving along the plaza, rather than the original drawings of static figures in 2002


10 IMG Mothers Bodies fade Plaza de Mayo Pineda 2002.jpg
Bodies Fade on the Plaza de Mayo, photograph Yovanna Pineda, 2002.

Today, the Plaza continues to be a diverse urban core space for protests. In addition to the Mothers, veterans and a host of groups representing social, environmental, and economic justice issues use graffiti or install art in the Plaza. In 2016, a reproductive justice group demanded legal abortions in hospitals to reduce the number of injuries or deaths due to illegal procedures. Painted clearly on the divider fence is “aborto legal en el hospital,” which ironically, is behind the painted kerchiefs of the Mothers (Image 14. Aborto Legal). It is a message for women’s rights to control their own bodies, and that women should have the right to choose whether they want to be mothers or not.


11 IMG Mothers Head Kerchiefs Plaza de Mayo 2002.jpg
Mothers Head Kerchiefs Plaza de Mayo, photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 2002
12 IMG Protests Plaza de Mayo Pineda 2002.jpg
Protests on the Plaza de Mayo, photography by Yovanna Pineda, 2002


13 IMG Dynamic Bodies Plaza de Mayo Pineda 2016
Dynamic Bodies Plaza de Mayo, photography by Yovanna Pineda, 2016.


14 IMG aborto legal Plaza de Mayo Pineda 2016
Aborto Legal Plaza de Mayo, photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 2016

Representations of the mothers across the city

Graffiti in the city includes themes of encouragement, love, identity, soccer, labor, and of course, protest. It is so varied that a few tourist companies specialize solely in graffiti tours in the northern and southern parts of the city. They offer bike, walking and shuttle tours, helping commodify graffiti. The influence of the mothers has been strong in this process across space and time. On graffiti tours, the guide cannot skip the homage to the Mothers. In the upscale Palermo district/neighborhood, the mothers’ white head kerchiefs are painted on the side of a building facing a playground. The kerchiefs float above all the other graffiti on this wall, and appear like powerful ghosts


15a IMG Palermo Madres Pineda 2017.JPG
Palermo Madres, photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 2017


15b IMG Palermo Madres Pineda 2017.jpg
Palermo Madres, photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 2017

In the south side of the city, artists in the working-class neighborhood of Boca represent the mothers as powerful indigenous warriors, showing their physical and emotional strength that helped carry the movement of memory and protest.

16a IMG Boca Madres Pineda 2016.jpg
Boca Madres, photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 2017 
16b IMG Boca Madre Pineda 2017.JPG
Boca Madres, photograph by Yovanna Pineda , 2017
17 IMG Ni Ovido Ni Perdon Pineda 2017
Ni Olvido Ni Perdón, photograph by Yovanna Pineda, 2017

In the final image, the names of the missing in Boca are listed on the wall, and clearly written is “Ni Olvido, Ni Perdón.” It powerfully conveys the message that the struggle will continue until each and every disappeared person is accounted for.

2018 05 13 Pineda IMG_0575.jpgDr. Yovanna Pineda is Associate Professor of history at the University of Central Florida. Currently, she is finishing her manuscriptInnovating Technologies: Farm Machinery Invention, Rituals, and Memory in Argentina and its companion documentary The Harvester.  She has published works on various topics including industrialization, farm machinery users, development, patent records, and labor. She writes articles about advising and empowering our first generation students. Her courses on the history of South America, science, and the global drug trade focus on how culture, politics and economics intertwine. 

[1] Angel Rama, The Lettered City (Duke University Press, 1996), p. 38. [Italics added].
[2] Auguste Comte, Cours de Philosophie Positive (Paris: Bachelier, Imprimeur-Libraire, 1839); The porteño (as Buenos Aires was known) elite were very much aware of the international Park Movement, and interested in shaping spaces like Georges-Eugène Haussmann had done for Paris. Adrián Gorelik, La grilla y el parque: Espacio público y cultura urbana en Buenos Aires, 1887-1936 (Bernal: Universidad Nacional de Quilmes Editorial, 2010).
[3] Gorelik, Chapter 1, “Ciudad nueva: La Utopía del ‘Pensamiento Argentino’,” La grilla y el parque.
[4] Angel Rama, The Lettered City; Gorelik, La grilla y el parque.
[5] May 25, 1810 is the declaration of independence day. Today, this space is simply known as the Plaza de Mayo.
[6] Regarding the struggle for physical and symbolic space, see Mariano Ben Plotkin, Mañana es San Perón: A Cultural History of Perón’s Argentina, translated by Keith Zahniser (Wilmington, Delaware: SR Books, 2003)
[7] Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the lyrics to “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” depicting Evita Duarte de Perón’s resignation speech of the vice-presidency in his musical Evita (1978).
[8] An estimated 30,000 persons were disappeared during the Dirty War (1976-1982).
[9] Diana Taylor, “Making a Spectacle: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, Volume 3, number 2 (2001): 97-109.
[10] Vikki Bell and Mario Di Paolantonio, “The Haunted Nomos: Activist-Artists and the (Im)possible Politics of Memory in Transitional Argentina,” Cultural Politics, Volume 5, number 2 (2009): 149-178.
[11] Diana Taylor and Juan Villegas, editors, Negotiating Performance: Gender, Sexuality, and Theatricality in Latin/o America (Duke University Press, 1994).




Buenos Aires Flaneur: The View from the Streets

By Kristen McCleary 

Strolling through Buenos Aires in the twenty-first century, the city might be read as an alternative text to that of established Argentine national history. The streets, walls, and tunnels of the city itself form the backdrop from which passersby create and narrate their own histories of the city from the words and images written upon them. How does the city itself form an urban narrative?

nunca mas street image

Angel Rama’s The Lettered City (1996) is a key work that shows how Latin American elite use the written word to define and reproduce power in urban centers. For Rama, the naming of city streets “demonstrates how utterly the rational lettered city determines the structures of the material city.”[1] In this blog, I will highlight the ways in which the non-elites recognize and push back against this narrative of power through the naming of streets and the inclusion of names of everyday people in public spaces.   The recognition and reclaiming of street, sidewalks, and other public spaces by non-elites reflects a continual movement in literature as well as in human rights work towards an increasing democratization of public space. The city itself is a text—a primary source that urban historians might consider evaluating.

The actual names of streets, as Rama notes, do reflect national history. In the older parts of the city’s center, they often highlight a male elite narrative: (Antonio Luis) Beruti, (Juan José) Castelli, (Domingo) French, and (Manuel) Belgrano, for example, are all names of leaders of the independence movement there. But throughout the popular culture of the city, there has been an awareness of this monolithic view of the powerful elite and the naming of city streets. Alberto Vacarezza’s 1919 play, El Barrio de los Judios (The Neighborhood of the Jews), a sainete (short comedic play of customs) about Jewish immigrants to Buenos Aires is set in the Jewish neighborhood of Once. Mauricio, a recent immigrant, enthusiastically assimilates into Argentina: “Here there is no more religion than that of love, and here, there is nothing more Argentine than Santos Vega, San Martín, Rivadavia, Paseo de Julio, and Belgrano!” Mauricio has listed off the name of a famous gaucho (cowboy), Santos Vega, and three national heroes, San Martín, Rivadavia, and Belgrano, all of whom also have well-known streets named after them. Mauricio’s mentioning of Paseo de Julio, a street only, is a humorous jab at how he has misread the nation’s history by assuming all street names were iconic male war figures.

These comedic plays emphasized lunfardo, the street slang or coded language derived from regional dialects of immigrants transplanted to Buenos Aires.[2] Plays thus transformed the linguistic landscape of the city by moving words from the immigrant community like araca, piñata, ranun, piernun, and bronca from the arrabales, or city outskirts where the words were born, into central Buenos Aires through theater.[3] In El barrio de los Judíos, for example, Samuel verifies his daughter Olga’s Argentine-ness by invoking a specific street intersection which would be easily recognized by a porteño audience: “Yes, indeed she was born at Talcahuano and Lavalia [sic Lavalle] in 1899, at three in the morning.” Plays frequently referred to such locales as the Gathés y Chavez department store, the traditional Café Richmond on Florida Street, Bric y Brac pawn shop, the Parque Japones amusement park, the Tigre river delta, and the local zoo, as well as particular theaters, underscoring the important role that shopping and other leisure time activities played in society. This emphasis on specific geographic locations served to emphasize the urban identity of audience members, while it also educated non-porteños about Buenos Aires during an era of massive immigration, when three out of four adult members of the city were foreign-born.

Jorge Luis Borges’ (1899-1986) mentor, Macedonio Fernández (1874-1952), was an urban novelist who wrestled with concepts of self and identity in the twentieth century. He also critiqued this monolithic naming device where masculine ‘heroes’ were almost always behind the city’s street names. In his novel, Museo, a character, the President, muses that streets and monuments ought to be named for virtues rather than for people:

Cities with better taste would have streets called Rain, Awakening, Mother, Brother, The Call, Live Without Never, You Shall Return, Farewell, Wait for Me Always, Homecoming, Loving Family, Kiss, Friend, Greeting, Dream, Yet Again, Insomnia, Perhaps, Makeover, Forgetfulness, Endeavor, Come Back to Me, Gathering, Live in Fantasy, Fantasy Pin, Flowering Hedge, … [4]

In such a masculine urban context, it might seem almost as unlikely that streets might be named after women as they would for emotions, but that is what happened with the mid-1990s renovation of the former port district, Puerto Madero. In all of Buenos Aires, only fifty-nine streets are named after women, the majority of them located here. The naming system of city streets deliberately calls attention to the historical absence of women on the city’s streets and in the city’s history. The port area fell into disuse in the 1940s and was revived in the 1990s. In 1994, the city council voted to name the streets after women in an attempt to re-orient the political power of the nation towards that half of the population who had been invisible in the public sites of the city. The neighborhood now highlights the name of pioneering women such as Cecilia Grierson, a doctor and female rights activist, and the first woman in South America to earn a medical degree (1889); Azucena Villaflor, one of the original mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who was arrested, imprisoned, and killed in the notorious night-flights that the military carried out from the Naval Mechanics Officers School (or ESMA, as it is known by its Spanish initials); filmmaker Maria Luisa Bemberg; and many others. The famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s Bridge of the Woman, (Puente de la Mujer) also resulted from this urban renovation.

If women have been historically neglected in urban narratives, with perhaps the exception of their role as prostitutes who quite literally walk the streets, street art has embraced both the iconic human rights group Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and Ni Una Menos (Not One Woman Less), the new social movement that campaigns against gender based violence.



Buenos Aires is one of the few cities in the world where graffiti—or, more to the point, street art—is legal. Since the return to democracy in 1984, the nation has eschewed censorship because it was one of the primary tools of repression exerted over the population during the last military dictatorship. Throughout the city there are visual murals that pay homage to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. In particular, murals in the neighborhood of La Boca give testament to the power and strength of the first social group to confront the military dictatorship in 1976.

Historically referred to as the “Dirty War,” human rights activists and scholars now apply the terms ‘state terrorism’ and ‘genocide’ to the period of military rule from 1976-1983. [insert photo of the names of state terrorism here] Taking a lesson from Chile, where Augusto Pinochet drew both international condemnation for his violent suppression of dissent and Cold War era support from the United States, Argentina’s military avoided public displays of power and violence when they overthrew the crumbling government of Isabel Peron on March 24, 1976, while also earning U.S. backing. The military junta carried out arrests clandestinely and suspended the right to habeas corpus. Thus, the idea that people could be ‘disappeared’ entered the Spanish lexicon. Marguerite Feitlowitz writes, “The terrorist state [of Argentina] created two worlds—one public and one clandestine, each with its own encoded discourse.”[5]

30,000.jpgWho was disappeared? Primarily students, union leaders, and supporters of Juan Domingo Perón. Perónism, as Perón’s political style of populism came to be known, advocated a Third Way of trying to carve out a space between socialism and capitalism. While Perón came to power via the military in 1943 as one of a Group of United Officers, in 1955 he was overthrown by the military. He returned to power in 1973 and died in office in 1974. These were fractious years in the political history of Argentina.

Students on the left in the 1970s (and most students were on the left) embraced Peronism’s promise of social justice. They were also drawn to Marxist ideas and Peronist organizations, like the Montoñeros, that engaged in urban guerrilla warfare tactics. The military attempted to portray the “Dirty War” as one in which they were fighting against leftist guerrilla organizations. Most scholarship has dismissed this “theory of the two demons” arguing that by the time Perón returned from exile in Spain, the urban guerrilla movement had already been defeated. Contemporarily, the Argentine military has been viewed as an agency that carried out state-sponsored terror on the Argentine left.[6]

The radicalization of students and the popularity of Peronism with young people explains why students were often the targets of disappearances by the military regime. Stay-at-home mothers who adhered to a traditional patriarchal family structure were the first members of civil society to politically and publically organize against the regime, as they tried to find out what had happened to their children who had simply not come home one day—they had disappeared. The first mothers began to recognize one another as they regularly visited hospitals, police commissaries, and even jails, in desperate attempts to locate their children.

On April 30, 1977, a group of mothers, led by Azucena Villaflor, met on the Plaza de Mayo, which faced the Casa Rosada, the seat of the government, to demand information about their children. Embracing the very public space of the city’s principal plaza, the mothers walked in order to avoid being detained for loitering or for public assembly, which was illegal at the time. The mothers at first wore pañales, diapers made of gauze, on their heads to symbolize their roles as mothers. They later changed the flimsy pañal for a sturdier but still symbolic white pañuelo, or headscarf, and also carried posters of their missing children and the date on which they were “disappeared.” Villaflor’s daughter disappeared in 1977. In 2005, the Argentine Forensic Association identified her body and that of four other women who had been victims of the infamous ‘night flights’ where a helicopter dropped drugged detainees from ESMA (Naval Mechanics Officer School) into the Río de la Plata. Once they washed ashore dead, locals buried them.

DSC01044In 1986 the group splintered into two with the Línea Fundadora remaining focused on finding out what happened to their disappeared family members, and the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo evolving into a larger and more politically radical social justice movement headed by Hebe de Bonafini. Human rights activists estimate that anywhere between 15,000 and 30,000 people were killed during the military dictatorship. While the military dismissed the mothers as Las Locas (the crazy ones), they remain icons of resistance to many Argentines. The image of their headscarves can be seen throughout the city.

las malvinas son argentina


boca moms fist detenidos


If in the nineteenth century urban street names were dedicated to glorifying an elite citizenry, in the 21st century human rights activists are invoking the forgotten names of victims of events like Argentina’s military. The human rights activist group Barrios x La Memoria y Justicia (Neighborhoods for Memory and Justice) have been laying memory tiles throughout Buenos Aires; already over 500 have been set into the capital’s streets. In the neighborhood of Palermo, a plaque reminds passersby that Carlos Prats, a Chilean general who was also the Vice President of Chile under Salvador Allende, and his wife, Sofia, were killed there by a radio-controlled car bomb on September 30, 1974.

names in streetsigns 2015The block in downtown Buenos Aires surrounded by Perú, Moreno, Bolívar and Adolfo Alsina Streets has traditionally been known as Manzana de las Luces—which stands for “The Block of Enlightenment” in Spanish. With the city’s first university and a Jesuit church located there, it served as the educational and religious center during the colonial era,.. The remnants of this Block of Enlightenment remain, including the city’s famous prep school, Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires. Passersby will see one of the most visceral reminders in the city regarding the political chaos unleashed during the era of military rule. Name plaques were placed there in 2014 to pay homage to the 108 students from the highly respected Argentine prep school Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires, who were disappeared and/or killed between 1973 and 1976.[7]

carlos prats

Other public spaces that pay homage to the marginalized voices of Buenos Aires include new stations of the city’s underground metro system, known as the subte in Spanish [an abbreviation for subteraneo or underground]. In March 2017, the long awaited north-south extension of the subte opened. The station at Santa Fe and Pueyrredon, is one of the only, if not the only, subway station to be named after a gay activist, Carlos Jáuregui (1957-1996). Jáuregui worked tirelessly to support the rights of and gain equality for the LGBT community in Argentina, and headed several organizations dedicated to these pursuits. In 1992 he organized the first gay pride march in Buenos Aires. He was also a historian who specialized in Medieval Studies. He died of AIDS in 1996. The subway station contains murals of Jáuregui and celebrates the LGBT community as just another community in Buenos Aires. The stairs to the subway stop are rainbow colors.[8]


The subte also memorializes other tragedies in the nation’s history. For example, Line H also has a station dedicated to the 164 youth who were killed on December 30, 2004 at a rock concert. That night a rock group, Callejeros, had barely begun its concert at the nightclub República de Cromañón when pyrotechnics from its light show jumped from the stage to the walls and ceilings of the venue. Cromañón was overcrowded and its emergency exits were insufficient to rapidly evacuation of audience members. The subte station dedicates art to the memory of the youth who died. They are symbolized by the depiction of tennis shoes that were found in the remains of the fire. Right next to the station are the burnt out remains of the nightclub, left open like an archaeological site, where passers-by can be witness to the tragedy.


cromagnon with photos.jpg

Parque de la Memoria (Memory Park), located near the University of Buenos Aires, displays the names of the thousands of Argentines who were killed or disappeared during the military dictatorship for all to see. The name plaques are deliberately moveable so that when new victims are identified they can be included in the public space devoted to remembering the victims of state terror. [insert photo here]

Just like the history of the nation itself, Argentina’s streets and public spaces offer a changing view of history—one which demands that all voices are included. In 2018, the city of Buenos Aires is dedicating a park in its center (at the meeting of Rivadavia and Esmeralda streets) named after Roberto Arlt, the city’s great urban author of the early twentieth century, to the theme of sexual diversity, celebrating people who are bi, gay and trans.

As Jorge Luis Borges wrote, the soul of Buenos Aires is in its streets

bs as sm 15 - 2
At Tacuari and Venezuela


la biela me and n - 1.jpgKristen McCleary is an Associate Professor of history at James Madison University. She is currently finishing her book manuscript, “Engendering the Urban Sphere: Theater and Society in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1880-1920.” She has published a number of articles about popular culture in Argentina on topics ranging from the transformation of carnival celebrations in Buenos Aires, to the performance of masculinity on the city’s stages, to narratives of theater fires as a way in which to understand processes of urban modernization in Buenos Aires. Her courses on Latin America focus on visual and popular culture, gender, and social change. She has co-directed a study abroad program to Buenos Aires, Argentina since 2008.

[1] Angel Rama, The Lettered City, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 26-7.

[2] Athos Espíndola, Diccionario del lunfardo, Buenos Aires: Planeta, 2002.

[3] La Unión, April 26, 1919. The term araca is a word of alert or alarm. It was often juxtaposed with cana, slang for cop, and the term was viewed as particularly derogative. Piñata was a diminutive of the word piña, which meant “slap” or “punch.” According to the Diccionario del lunfardo, ranun derived from the word rana, a person with street smarts who was also full of life and fun; the “un” ending shows the word has a Genovese influence. While a piernun usually referred to a woman with exceptionally nice legs, pierna [literally “leg”] referred to a person who also had great street smarts and was cool under pressure. Bronca remains a common Argentine expression referring to anger: Me da bronca is the equivalent of “It makes me angry.”

[4] Todd S. Garth, The Self of the City: Macedonio Fernández, the Argentine Avant-Garde and Modernity in Buenos Aires, Lewisberg: Bucknell University Press, 2005, 164-165.

[5] Marguerite Feitlowitz, Lexicon of Terror : Argentina and the Legacies of Torture (Revised and Updated with a New Epilogue), Oxford University Press, USA, 2011, p. 2.

[6] Daniel Feierstein and Douglas Andrew Town. “Explaining Genocidal Social Practices in Argentina: The Problem of Causation.” In Genocide as Social Practice: Reorganizing Society under the Nazis and Argentina’s Military Juntas, 131-60. New Brunswick, New Jersey; London: Rutgers University Press, 2014. The theory of the two demons is explained here where the Argentine military u



Race, Immigration, and Culture in Buenos Aires: A Bibliography of the Argentine Capital

When South Americans first laid eyes on British immigrants playing the game that they called football (and residents of the United States came to call soccer), they were, historian David Goldblatt writes, “genuinely bemused.” A Brazilian observer described a scrum of English men hoofing “something that looks like a bull’s bladder” about as “a bunch of maniacs” who seemed to simultaneously be filled with “great satisfaction” and “sorrow when this kind of yellowish bladder enters a rectangle formed by wooden posts.”[1]

Porteños, as Buenos Aires residents are known, initially shared similar impressions. Argentine journalist Juan José de Soiza Reilly recalled his father’s reaction to similar scenes of towheaded British boys knocking a ball around in Buenos Aires: “Crazy people … Crazy English.”

Argentina mundial 78 : o campeonato num pais prisao = The world’s Argentina 78 : the championship of an imprisoned country, Juventude Socialista (Brazil), 1978, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Yet, by the late twentieth century, Diego Maradona— undeniably an international soccer legend—nearly single-handedly defeated the British in one of the most famous games ever at the 1986 World Cup as the Argentine national team steamed toward their second World Cup championship. Argentina’s first World Cup triumph occurred in 1978 when the team hosted and bested a supremely talented Dutch side at Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires; the despotic military junta running Argentina at the time deployed the tournament and the national team’s victory as a symbol of its steady hand at the helm even as it imprisoned, tortured and murdered thousands of political dissidents. Eventually, Argentina returned to a more democratic path, even if troubled by political scandal and economic depressions. Today Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s greatest football player, continues this tradition as Argentina prepares for this summer’s Copa Mundial in Russia. Obviously the sport has come to occupy a central place in the Argentine identity, and Buenos Aires played a critical role in such developments.

First introduced by British workers in the 1860s, the emergence of football in Argentina in the 1880s provides a useful window and inflection point regarding the longer history of the nation’s capital, Buenos Aires. Soccer’s place in Argentina was secured by larger economic and political forces, namely immigration, a growing international economy, and industrialization; its burgeoning popularity in the late nineteenth century is emblematic of shifts in Buenos Aires’ own economic, political, and social history.

Early Buenos Aires

Founded under orders of the Spanish crown by Pedro de Mendoza in 1536, Buenos Aires would remain a sleepy port town for two centuries. However, due to its location at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, geography ensured that the city would play a large economic role in the region. By the late sixteenth century, the city had developed an economy based on the trade of contraband, largely with the city of Potosí. As historian Eul-Soo Pang noted in a 1983 review essay for the Journal of Urban History, such “illicit commercial intercourse gave rise to other economic activities in the River Plate region and was still functioning in 1860.” Agricultural products also flowed down from Las Pampas to the city. From “food stuffs to manufactured goods,” by the late 1700s the dependency on contraband as a trading asset expanded; Buenos Aires slowly displaced Lima, Peru as a popular entrepôt in this regard. Chosen as the seat of the viceroy of the Rio de la Plata, which included modern day Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uraguay, in 1776, Buenos Aires’s economic and political power only grew. By the 1790s, the port city handled sixty ships annually and had emerged as an important South American trading post.[2]

With the decimation of indigenous groups by disease and colonial conquest, Buenos Aires needed workers. As a result, Colonial Spain introduced slavery to the city beginning in 1587. While many would be sent elsewhere, such as Peru, Chile, and Bolivia, numerous other enslaved people remained in city. When Buenos Aires emerged as the “commercial and political center of the Platine region,” it experienced a “rapid population growth,” notes historian Lyman Johnson. Greater number of bureaucrats, along with an expanded military and naval presence, increased demand for “goods and services” and thereby attracted laborers to the city and lead to an even larger dependence on enslaved people for unskilled labor. Over time Buenos Aires’ enslaved population also competed with European immigrant craftsmen.

During the viceregal period, black and mulatto enslaved people made up roughly one third of the urban population and were deeply integrated into the Buenos Aires economy. “Only at the highest levels of the urban occupational hierarchy were [blacks] and mulattos effectively excluded from full participation in the colonial period,” Johnson argues.[3] Between 1776 and 1810, 1,482 manumissions were recorded by notaries in the city; approximately sixty percent of these had been purchased by the individual freed person or his or her family, thereby creating a substantial free black and mulatto population.

Map of northwestern South America including Lima and Buenos Aires, Francisco Requena, 1796, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

Near the end of the eighteenth century, African descendants of enslaved people occupied a critical place in “the guild system and other levels of corporate identity.” This established in Buenos Aires a racially and ethnically mixed public sphere. “Port cities such as Buenos Aires,” writes historian Erika Edwards, “had a unique milieu in which slaves, free people of color, whites, sailors, artisans, and merchants interacted on a daily basis.”[4]

In a burst of Argentine nationalism, Buenos Aires declared its independence from Spain in 1810. Six years later the provinces followed, and Buenos Aires was named capital of the United Provinces of Rio de la Plata. The British, who had trade interests in the region, soon rushed in to secure their investments; some 55 British mercantile houses operated in Buenos Aires by 1820. The British conducted two unsuccessful invasions of Buenos Aires in 1806 and 1807, but some observers in Britain, in this case the BBC, maintain these failed military adventures sparked an increased sense of nationalism among Argentines, and specifically, porteños.

Print shows a coastline at Buenos Aires with a distant view of the city; also shows a sailboat unloading cargo onto a horse-drawn cart just off shore, print by Jules Daufresne, c. 1841, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Regardless the validity of such arguments, Britons maintained an enduring economic force. Still, in the early years of independence foreign commercial interests, though influential, did not yet dominate the Argentine economy. Great numbers of Northern Spanish merchants who had settled in Argentina established strong commercial ties within Latin America and Europe. Indeed, Buenos Aires would eventually be home to “the third largest urban concentration of Spaniards other than Madrid and Barcelona,” notes Anton Rosenthal. Many settled in downtown Buenos Aires.[5]

The British invasion did lead to a loosening of slavery. Many enslaved people had fought valiantly against the British, and so in 1813 the Free Womb Act was passed to grant freedom to children born to enslaved mothers. Later the 1853 Constitution of Argentina abolished slavery, but it was not until 1861 when Buenos Aires formally joined the Confederation that the institution was fully eliminated. Despite rapid economic and demographic growth, the city’s black population shrunk from 15,000 Afro-Argentines out of a population of 63,000 in 1838 to 8,000 out of a total population of 433,000 in 1887.[6]

During the 1820s, the economy diversified and the demand for raw materials due to the spread of industrialization made for a healthy business in exports. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Buenos Aires’ merchant class, many with connections to Northern Spain, wielded political and economic clout. Wholesalers in particular dominated and stood as equals with “high colonial bureaucrats, military officers, and judges.”[7]

However, in the second of half of the century, the rise of the wheat and cattle industries shifted economic dominance to land owners. Under Spanish rule, the economy of Buenos Aires funneled mineral extraction to the Crown; with independence, the city provided grain and meat from the Argentine interior to Europe.[8] One need not shed many tears for the once dominant merchant class, because as historian Susan Soclow points out, “The sons of eighteenth century comerciantes became the estanciero-merchants of the nineteenth century.”[9] In 1862, the Bank of London and River Plate opened in the city; within a year, British merchant houses accounted for over 1/3 of the nearly 74 individual and partnered firms of eight nations working in Buenos Aires.[10] British merchants dominated by deploying the skills they developed as colonial businessmen and officials while also exploiting the nation’s naval power, thereby furthering Anglo roots in Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires. Plaza Constitution, c. 1890-1910, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

British capital helped to shape the city’s standing nationally. The Baring Brothers invested heavily in the Argentine central railway; they funded both the Great Southern and the Central rail lines. As the hub of the two east-west lines, and because no north-south lines were constructed during the 1800s, Buenos Aires secured its status as the commercial and bureaucratic capital of Argentina. In 1880, when Buenos Aires was formally named the capital of Argentina, British influence in the national economy seemed legion. “It almost seems that the English have the preference in everything pertaining to the business and business interests of the country,” the U.S. consul wrote to Washington, “they are in everything, except politics, as intimately as though it were a British colony.”[11]

Immigrants being transported on horse-drawn wagon, Buenos Aires, Argentina, between 1890 and 1923, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

By 1880, 40,000 Britons lived in Buenos Aires and in addition to capital and trade they brought something else.[12] “[S]occer became an export as typically British as Manchester cloth, railroads, loans from Barings, or the doctrine of free trade,” writes Eduardo Gallendo. “It arrived on the feet of sailors who played by the dikes of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, while Her Majesty’s ships unloaded blankets, boots, and flour, and took on wool, hides, and wheat to make more blankets, boots, and flour on the other side of the world.”

Argentine goalkeeper Miguel Rugilo and Harold Hassall, of England, in a dramatic moment during the England-Argentina International Soccer game at Wembley Stadium, London, 1951, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Under the influence of “football evangelist” and Scottish schoolteacher Alexander Watson Hutton, football became ensconced in elite English and Argentine schools all over the city. In the first decade of the twentieth century two of the nation’s leading football clubs opened, River Plate (1901) and Boca Juniors (1905), both established by “immigrants in and around the docks of Buenos Aires,” writes Goldblatt.[13] Sport, like carnival, enabled immigrants to claim a sense of place in the new nation, particularly as the city boomed with a more decentralized version of industrialization consisting of family-run workshops and factories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.[14]

Having eliminated indigenous peoples and discriminated against its shrinking black population, Argentine leaders and writers advocated for European immigration. “Argentina, like the United States, is a settler-colonial country,” points out historian James Shrader in an email to The Metropole. Argentine leaders wanted to think of themselves as bringing civilization to a benighted land occupied by inferior races “so its pro-immigration policy was meant as a means to populate an imagined empty land and civilize the front, expropriating it from barbarous unproductive peoples.” Historians like Laura Podalsky, Shrader notes, have made compelling arguments that the image of Buenos Aires as the Paris of South America was very much an “ideological project” meant to convey modernity and civilization.

Ultimately, the new arrivals competed with the diminishing Afro-Argentine population for both work and housing. From 1880 to 1914, Argentina absorbed four million European immigrants with roughly 60 percent settling in Buenos Aires. Nearly two million of the four million new arrivals from Europe hailed from Italy. In addition, from 1936 to 1947, one million Argentines migrated to cities as industrialization continued a pace. By 1947, 3 million people lived in the nation’s capital.[15] Unlike many U.S. cities, ethnic enclaves and ghettos never took shape in a systematic way, though mutual aid societies, immigrant associations and similar institutions played a key role in the lives of newly arrived porteños.

Buenos Aires. Plaza Victoria I, between 1890 -1910, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Of course, culture in the Argentine capital unfolded in numerous ways besides football, and like sport, other avenues of cultural expression intersected with issues of class and immigration. For example, in 1896 Buenos Aires established a thriving electric street car system. Across Latin America, the streetcar embodied modernity, lent cities a European flavor, and served as an arbiter of respectability. Even dockworkers dressed up when taking the streetcar to work, only to change into “grubby overalls” once arriving at their place of employment. The streetcar, to paraphrase the American poet Walt Whitman, contained multitudes. “The trolley provided a mobile balcony from which passengers could observe changes in urban fashion and street behavior, the array of consumer goods displayed in shop windows, and the increasingly frequent strikes generated by the imposition of industrial work regimens,” writes Rosenthal. For many, the streetcar operated as a “mobile salon,” enabling residents to traverse the city while reading the newspaper and observing daily life. One Buenos Aires magazine suggested that the inability of pedestrians to deal with trolleys paralleled the struggle to adapt to modern times: “[m]etaphorically speaking, being run over and crushed by a streetcar means to be incapable of keeping up with modernity.”

Buenos Aires, between 1909 and 1919, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Then again, for all the trappings of modernity, plenty of observers believed the streetcar represented something far from civilized; in Buenos Aires critics labeled the trolleys “cockroaches.” Overcrowded conditions created chaos, leading another magazine to ask, “Why do we travel on the Trolley?” Foreign ownership of the system did not endear the trolley to many residents, either. Based in London, the Anglo-Argentine Tramway Company dominated not only Buenos Aires, but much of Latin America. “The manufacture and control of the new technology by foreign companies established a distance and a dependency which Latin American cities wrestled with for decades,” Rosenthal points out. Indeed, streetcar workers could exploit this ambivalence in labor disputes. They expressed solidarity with other laborers by depicting trolleys as conveyors of “ruthless exploitation and dehumanization.”[16]

Avenida de Mayo, Buenos Aires, between 1908 and 1919, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

While the streetcar gained prominence as a mode of transportation, symbol of modernity, and a site of public gathering, another Buenos Aires tradition faded from public view. Once a “popular unrestrained street celebration during the colonial era” writes historian Kristen McCleary, in the early twentieth century carnival became increasingly commercialized and regulated. If electric streetcars symbolized civilization, to its critics carnival suggested barbarism. After all, Buenos Aires was meant to be the “Paris of South America”; city planners even tried to replicate the wide-open avenues of Haussmann’s French capital. Public officials argued that carnival threatened to “unleash urban disorder” and undermined public hygiene and safety while also interfering with the city’s economy. Between 1880 and 1910, police surveillance and municipal regulation of the event increased markedly.

The celebration of carnival and other religiously affiliated festivals had originally been promoted because Spanish and Portuguese slave owners saw it as a means to acculturate persons of African descent into the society’s dominant mores. While slavery might not have played as large a role in Argentina as compared with Brazil, it clearly exerted a significant influence on Buenos Aires. Even with declining numbers, during the second half of the nineteenth century, Afro-Argentines enjoyed a very vocal public sphere including some 15 weekly newspapers.[17] Religious celebrations more generally “provided a social space in which local African traditions could also be incorporated, resulting in a syncretic mixture of African and Christian rituals,” writes McCleary. Though she notes that periodic repression of Afro-Argentine practices did also occur during the first half of the eighteenth century, the festival routinely featured African cultural expressions. However, as immigration expanded, the black population diminished, and the nation’s desire to depict itself as European deepened, “continental” figures and themes wove themselves into the event, whereas previously it had functioned more as synergetic expression of African and European culture. Over time, the state more generally and systematically repressed African cultural expressions; their diminishing presence in carnival serves as just one example. Such developments worked to erase blackness in the Buenos Aires public sphere.

Much as with football, the influx of European immigrants helped to further this shift. For European newcomers, carnival offered a similar opportunity to immigrants and the rising middle and upper classes—a space in which to make “manifest and [consolidate] their social status.” However, municipal regulations hamstrung public festivities and carnival increasing took place in interior spaces such as theaters and social clubs. The ever-growing commercial nature of the celebrations represented the larger turn toward the consumerist aspects of leisure.[18]

Calle Maritimo, Mar del Plata, Buenos Aires, Argentina, between 1930 and 1950, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Post-World War II Buenos Aires: From Streetcars and Carnival to the Home

Much as with concerns about carnival, municipal leaders, socialists, and the Catholic Church began to focus on housing articulating concerns about hygiene, morality, and political radicalism. European immigration had contributed to a crisis in housing. In response, the passage of the Irigoyan Law of 1905 enabled the city government to build public housing. These early efforts delivered very modest numbers of single-family homes. The creation of the National Commission of Low Cost Houses (CNCB) in 1915 expanded efforts; the CNCB constructed, both single family homes and multifamily units, the former for sale, the latter for rent. The two most prominent housing forms prior to such reforms, were multi room homes known as casa chorizos and large tenement like structures referred to as conventillos. Through the 1920s and 1930s, these efforts amounted to modest numbers of completed homes and units, just under 1,100 over the course of 30 years, however, during the 1940s housing construction came to be seen not only as a means to create new homes but also as a tool for job creation. The “california style” of single family homes emerged as the favored mode of housing construction.[19]

Photograph shows men standing at a counter and drinking coffee in a Buenos Aires, Argentina, coffee shop, as a young man pours coffee into a demi-tasse cup, 1955, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Following World War II, a greater acceptance of government intervention arose such that when Juan Peron assumed power from 1946 -1955, his populist message managed to channel contradictory political impulses and ideologies. On the one hand, the Peronist government built single families homes that promoted homeownership and conservative Catholic values, which were seen as upholding traditional, gender roles, the nuclear family and the sanctity of marriage. On the other, the Peronist administration also erected worker’s neighborhoods that adhered to the Central European workers’ model “constructed on open pavilions” notes historian Rosa Aboy, with each block inhabited by different families sharing access, hallways, and the outside areas with the idea of emphasizing social equality and interaction between classes. For the former see communities like 1° de Marzo and Juan Peron; for the latter, Las Perales serves as one example.

Modernist architects, many having worked for the Municipal Office of Architecture or having collaborated with Le Corbusier on his urban plan for the city, designed the new communities and housing as part of the administration. In many of the neighborhoods designed according to the European model, residents mostly rented though in 1948 legislation passed that enabled for the purchase of individual units by renters over a 30 year period. Whichever design prevailed, these newer homes featured better infrastructure with running water, sanitation systems, gas connections and hot water in both bathrooms and kitchens; a clear improvement over earlier public housing efforts. “When we moved here it was a palace to us,” noted one resident of Las Perales years later. In total, from 1946-1955, eight new communities arose consisting of over 5,000 new houses.[20]

Argentina ’78 : sede mundial de la tortura y la violacion de los derechos humanos : su repudio puede salvar una vida = world’s site of torture and violation of human rights : to condemn it may save a life, poster, 1978, Prints and Photographs Division

Post-Peron Argentina

A 1955 military coup would oust Peron, an ironic turn of events considering Peron’s own rise to power had been aided by similar events. He would return to power in the early 1970s before dying in office in 1974, succeeded by a brutal military dictatorship. Some historians have argued that Peron himself had contributed to the authoritarian regime that followed him but so too did internal divisions within Argentina. An expert on Cold War era Argentina, Shrader agrees. Such arguments miss “a fundamental point–rather than being an historical aberration,” he argues. “Peron was very much a continuation of an authoritarian trend that cut across political ideologies and parties, and stretched back to the founding of the country itself in the nineteenth century.  Authoritariranism was not the sole domain of ‘caudillos,’ but also liberal thinkers and statesmen, like Domingo Sarmiento, Juan Alberdi, and Bartolome Mitre.”

If anything, notes Shrader both Peron and the junta sought to divide Argentines into rival camps. The military dictatorship rose to power on the fault line of a society struggling with violence of both right wing paramilitaries and left wing communist guerillas. “If anything, one could look at the ways in which Peronism and the Junta divided the population into Argentines and non-Argentines (the latter seen as traitors because of their political affiliation), but the roots of that go back too,” he asserts.

Argentina would host the 1978 World Cup, a moment in time now seen to be “the apogee of both its power and cruelty,” writes journalist Wright Thompson. The dictatorship tortured and murdered thousands of Argentines. During the June 25, 1978 final, political prisoners could hear fans celebrating the nation’s victory in their cells. Some 30,000 people disappeared – referred to as los desaparecidos—“the disappeared” – during what has become known as “The Dirty War.”

For many Argentines, the ’78 competition provided “a measure of psychic relief to a population that had created the dictatorship with its fear.” However, in the decades that have passed, many Argentines choose to remember the 1986 championship, rather than its 1978 victory. Rumors persist that the junta, with the aid of regime supporter Henry Kissinger, arranged to fix the match with Peru. Peru allowed six goals against Argentina, as the fourth goal hit the back of the net, a bomb exploded at the home of a government official who had been critical of expenditures toward the competition. At a thirtieth anniversary celebration, that also doubled as a memorial to all those who perished under the military junta, held at Estadio Monumental in 2008, “wide swaths of empty seats swallowing groups of people” predominated; only 19 players of the 22 from the 1978 roster attended. For survivors, the 1978 World Cup and every one after, dredges up nothing but pain. “Survivors live in a city of scars,” noted Thompson.

Yet, some historians question Wright’s argument. “While the dictatorship is now in disrepute, human rights isn’t the real reason,”  Shrader suggested.  “1986 is celebrated more because of Maradona.  Pure and simple.” Maradona gave Argentina its “own Pele” and he ascended to popularity “when the country’s democracy was fragile, divisions lingered, and wounds were still very much fresh.”

The 1982 Falkland Islands controversy with Britain helped to bring an end to the junta’s rule. The combination of a failing economy, an ill advised attempt to wrest the Falkand and Marina Islands from Britain, and U.S. pressure for the regime to stand down (after supporting it for years) conspired to pry them from power. A more democratic government followed. While things have not been easy for the South American power or porteños, conditions improved.

Even with political drama and economic instability, Buenos Aires, has always and will always be a dynamic, compelling city. “No matter how soap-opera-like its politics, or exaggerated its inflation, Argentina’s capital never loses its charm,” New York Times travel writer Nell McShane Wulfhart reflected in 2015. Between its ever evolving restaurants and art spaces, “its century-old cafes and gorgeous tree-lined streets”, and “gimmicky yet ineffably cool speakeasies”, the city exudes a chic, cosmopolitan sensibility. When La Albiceleste, or in English, the white and sky blue as the national team is sometimes referred, take to the fields in Russia, porteños will occupy these same restaurants and speakeasies as they dream of the 2018 World Cup ending in joy so that they might spill into the night street and celebrate in one of South America’s greatest cities.

As always, the bibliography provided below is only our cursory attempt to sketch out a reading list for interested readers. Regrettably, it does not include Spanish language histories. We hope that you’ll make your own suggestions in the comments or tweet at us @UrbanHistoryA. The editors would like to extend special thanks to Anton Rosenthal, Daniel Alex Richter, and especially, Kristen McCleary for their help with organizing our May Metropolis of the Month and its bibliography.

Opera House, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1956, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


—–. Business Imperialism 1840-1930: An Inquiry on British Experience in Latin America. Ed. D.C.M. Platt. (Claredon Press, 1977).

—–. Memories of Buenos Aires: Signs of State Terrorism in Argentina. Ed. Max Page.  (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

Rosa Aboy. “’The Right to a Home’: Public Housing in Post-World War II Buenos Aires.” Journal of Urban History 33.3 (March 2007): 495-518.

Jeremy Adelman. Republic of Capital: Buenos Aires and the Legal Transformation of the Atlantic World. (Stanford University Press, 1999).

George Reid Andrew. “Race Versus Class Association: The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1850-1900.” Journal of Latin American Studies 11.1 (May 1979): 19-39.

Javier Auyero. Poor People’s Politics: Peronist Survival Networks and the Legacy of Evita. (Duke University Press, 2001).

Adriana Bergero. Intersecting Tango: Cultural Geographies of Buenos Aires, 1900-1930. (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008).

Jonathan C. Brown. A Socioeconomic History of Argentina, 1776-1860. (Cambridge University Press, 1979).

Lila Caimari. While the City Sleeps: A History of Pistoleros, Policemen and the Crime Beat in Buenos Aires before Perón. (University of California Press, 2016).

Marcela Cerrutti and Alejandro Grimson. “Neoliberal Reforms and Protest in Buenos Aires” in Neoliberalism, Interrupted. Eds. Mark Goodale and Nancy Postero. (Stanford University Press, 2013).

Christine Ehrick. Radio and the Gendered Soundscape: Women and Broadcasting in Argentina and Uruguay, 1930-1950. (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

David William Foster. Buenos Aires: Perspectives on the City and Cultural Production. (University Press of Florida, 1998).

Adrián Gorelik. “A Metropolis in the Pampas: Buenos Aires 1890-1940.” In Cruelty and Utopia: Cities and Landscapes in Latin America. Ed. Jean-Francois Lejeune.  (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006)

Donna Guy. Sex and Danger in Buenos Aires. (University of Nebraska Press, 1990).

Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. (Stanford University Press, 2003)

Gabriela Ippolito-O’Donnell. The Right to the City: Popular Contention in Contemporary Buenos Aires. (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011).

Daniel James. Doña Maria’s Story: Life, History, Memory, and Political Identity. (Duke University Press, 2000).

Lyman L. Johnson. “Manumission in Buenos Aires, 1776-1810.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 59.2 (May 1979): 258-279.

Lyman L. Johnson. Workshop of Revolution: Plebian Buenos Aires and the Atlantic World, 1776-1810. (Duke University Press, 2011).

Lyman L. Johnson and Zephyr Frank. “Cities and Wealth in the South Atlantic: Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro before 1860.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 48.3 (July 2006): 634-668.

Temma Kaplan. Taking Back the Streets: Women, Youth, and Direct Democracy. (University of California Press, 2004).

Kristen McCleary. “Mass, Popular, and Elite Culture? The Spanish Zarzuela in Buenos Aires, 1890-1900.” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture Vol. 21 (2002): 1-27.

Kristen McCleary. “Papás, malevos, and patotas: ‘Character’izing Masculinity on the Stages and in the Audiences of Buenos Aires, 1880-1920.” In Muy Machos: Modern Argentine Masculinities. Ed. Carolina Rocha (London: Intellect Books), 2013

Kristen McCleary, “Ethnic identity and elite idyll: a comparison of carnival in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay, 1900-1920.” Social Identities 16.4 (July 2010): 497 – 517.

Jessica Stites More and Daniel Alex Richter. “Immigrant Cosmopolitanism: The Political Culture of Argentine Early Sound Cinema of the 1930s.” In Latin America and Caribbean Studies 9.1 (2014): 65-88.

Jose. C. Moya. Cousins and Strangers: Spanish Immigrants in Buenos Aires, 1850-1930. (University of California Press, 2001).

Laura Podalsky. Specular City: Transforming Culture, Consumption and Space in Buenos Aires, 1955-1973. (Temple University Press, 2004).

Vera Blinn Reber. British Mercantile Houses in Buenos Aires 1810-1880. (Harvard University Press, 1979.

Anton Rosenthal. “The Streetcar in the Urban Imaginary of Latin America.” Journal of Urban History 42.1: 162-179.

Charles Sargent. The Spatial Evolution of Buenos Aires: 1870-1930. (Arizona State University Center for Latin Studies, 1974).

Beatriz Sarlo. “Cultural Landscapes: Buenos Aires from Integration to Fracture.” In Other Cities, Other Worlds: Urban Imaginaries in a Globalizing Age. Ed. Andreas Huyssen. (Duke University Press, 2008).

Jason Scobie. Buenos Aires: From Plaza to Suburb, 1870-1910. (Oxford University Press, 1971).

Susan M. Socolow. The Merchants of Buenos Aires 1778-1810: Family and Commerce. (Cambridge University Press, 1978).

James Scorer. City in Common: Culture and Community in Buenos Aires. (SUNY Press, 2016).

Brigitte Sion. Memorials in Berlin and Buenos Aires: Balancing Memory, Architecture, and Tourism. (Lexington Books, 2015).

Juan Suriano. Paradoxes of Utopia: Anarchist Culture and Politics in Buenos Aires 1890-1910. (AK Press, 2010).


Tomás Eloy Martínez. The Tango Singer (Bloomsbury, 2004).

Nine Queens. Director Fabián Bielinsky, 2000.

Featured Image (at top): Buenos Aires, between 1908 and 1919, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[1] David Goldblatt, The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, Riverhead Books, 2006, 126-127.

[2] Eul-Soo Pang, “Buenos Aires and the Argentine Economy in World Perspective, 1776 – 1930,” Journal of Urban History 9.3 (May 1983): 366-67.

[3] Lyman L. Johnson, “Manumission in Buenos Aires, 1776-1810,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 59.2 (May 1979): 259-260.

[4] Erika Edwards, “Urban History, the Slave Trade, and the Atlantic World 1500-1900,” Journal of Urban History 42.2 (2016): 447.

[5] Anton Rosenthal, “Urban Networks, Global Processes, and the Construction of Public Life in Nineteenth Century Buenos Aires,” Journal of Urban History 29.6 (September 2003): 760.

[6] George Reid Andrew, “Race Versus Class Association: The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1850-1900,” Journal of Latin American Studies 11.1 (May 1979): 21.

[7] Eul-Soo Pang, “Buenos Aires and the Argentine Economy in World Perspective, 1776 – 1930,” 368.

[8] Rosenthal, “Urban Networks, Global Processes, and the Construction of Public Life in Nineteenth Century Buenos Aires,” 764.

[9] Susan Socolow, The Merchants of Buenos Aires 1778-1810: Family and Commerce, Cambridge University Press, 1978, 177.

[10] Eul-Soo Pang, “Buenos Aires and the Argentine Economy in World Perspective, 1776 – 1930,” 370.

[11] Goldblatt, The Ball is Round, 126; Eul-Soo Pang, Buenos Aires and the Argentine Economy in World Perspective, 1776 – 1930, 370.

[12] Goldblatt, The Ball is Round, 126.

[13] Goldblatt, The Ball is Round, 127, 130.

[14] Rosenthal, “Urban Networks, Global Processes, and the Construction of Public Life in Nineteenth Century Buenos Aires,” 764.

[15] Rosa Aboy, “’The Right to a Home’: Public Housing in Post-World War II Buenos Aires,” Journal of Urban History 33.3 (March 2007): 494-495

[16] Anton Rosenthal, “The Streetcar in the Urban Imaginary of Latin America,” Journal of Urban History 42.1: 162-163, 165, 167, 172.

[17] Reid Andrew, “Race Versus Class Association: The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1850-1900,” 22.

[18] Kristin McCleary, “Ethnic identity and elite idyll: a comparison of carnival in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay, 1900-1920,” Social Identities 16.4 (July 2010): 501-502, 504-506, 513.

[19] Rosa Aboy, “’The Right to a Home’: Public Housing in Post-World War II Buenos Aires,” 497, 499, 500-502.

[20] Rosa Aboy, “’The Right to a Home’: Public Housing in Post-World War II Buenos Aires,” 503-506, 509.


The Chris Webber Kings: A Harbinger of the NBA’s Future

By Kevin D. Seal

This is a picture of an authentic Sacramento Kings jersey that I bought in middle school. I walked to the NBA Store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue during a free period, pulled Chris Webber’s jersey off the rack, and handed over a silly amount of cash for the right to have it hang in my closet for the next 18 years. But I treasured this jersey because the Kings circa 2001 were an absolute sensation, a memorable blend of entertainment and effectiveness in an era of deliberate, sometimes stagnant basketball. Chris Webber was their fulcrum. The New York Knicks were my team, no doubt, but there was only so much Shandon Anderson and Othella Harrington a guy could take before needing to watch some quality ball. The Kings scratched that itch. So how did they become, as Sports Illustrated put it in 2001, “The Greatest Show on Court”?


The Kings’ rise and fall began in the late 1990s. After 15 consecutive losing seasons, the Kings made significant changes. They hired coach Rick Adelman before the shortened 1998-1999 season. They overhauled their roster of journeymen, past-their-prime stars, and talented but one-dimensional players. The Kings signed Vlade Divac, the slick-passing, veteran Serbian center who currently serves as the general manager of the team. Fellow Serbian Peja Stojakovic, whom the Kings drafted in 1996, finally arrived from the Greek professional league and signed with the team, giving them a promising young scorer to develop. They drafted the talented-but-volatile Jason Williams with the seventh pick in the 1998 draft, hoping he could develop into their point guard of the future. Their most significant move, however, was trading franchise cornerstone Mitch Richmond for Webber, who was entering his prime years as one of the league’s best all-around forwards. In Divac, Stojakovic, Williams, and Webber, the Kings had assembled a core that would open their competitive window.

Their moves paid immediate dividends. They finished 27-23 in 1998-1999 and lost to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs. With Williams at the helm and an unselfish core of nifty passers, these Kings played a slightly unhinged, uptempo brand of basketball that was low on efficiency but high on entertainment and good vibes. They played at by far the fastest pace in the league, with a huge gap between them and the next-fastest team, the Los Angeles Lakers. They led the league in scoring but also allowed the most points per game in the league, both a function of their pace. Interestingly, they would have been only the 23rd fastest team in the league today, an indicator of just how briskly the modern game moves. The 1998-1999 Kings signified a shift in the team’s culture and identity; they were going to play fast, team-oriented basketball, and lean on the passing skills of Williams, Webber, and Divac to do it.

court.jpgThe Kings’ growth continued. The 1999-2000 team was superficially similar to the previous year’s team–they played fast, scored a lot of points, and allowed a lot of points–but underneath the surface, real improvement was happening. Their defense improved to 10th in the league, as measured by Defensive Rating, an advanced metric that adjusts for pace. They made the playoffs with a 44-38 record, but lost to the dominant Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers in the first round.

After the 1999-2000 season, the Kings’ front office made significant upgrades to the roster’s depth. They traded for Doug Christie, a ferocious perimeter defender and one half of a very committed marriage. Bobby Jackson was brought in as a free agent, giving them a scoring guard off the bench to keep up the frenzied pace when Williams needed a breather. They also added another international player to the roster, drafting Hedo Turkoglu out of Turkey with their first round pick. Turkoglu’s acquisition in particular portended what the league was to become: a place where sweet-shooting, ball-handling, and playmaking big men would eventually revolutionize NBA offenses. By drafting Turkoglu, the Kings added yet another foreign-born player to a roster that was heavily international for its time. The league would continue to head in this direction over the next decade, with the Kings securing a place as an early adopter of looking abroad for talent. These varied additions helped the 2000-2001 Kings to a 55-27 record. The Kings were now fast, more efficient than ever, and boasted a strong defense to boot. This time they advanced to the second round of the playoffs, where they lost again to the Lakers.

Not content with their rise to Western Conference semifinalists, the Kings made the franchise-altering decision to trade Jason Williams – their starting point guard –  in the 2001 offseason. At this point, Williams was one of the most recognizable and marketable players in the NBA. Certainly, race had something to do with it. Known as “White Chocolate,” the white, West Virginian Williams brought flash and flamboyance–a style typically associated with black streetballers–to a league that had seen elements of this style before, but rarely from a white player, and never from one with a shaved head and prominent tattoos. He regularly attempted behind-the-back or no-look passes–including the greatest pass I’ve ever seen–or dazzling crossovers, or pull-up threes on fast breaks. Williams’ style of play would simply not be permitted in today’s game, which is so focused on shooting efficiency and ball security. With a career 39.8 field goal percentage and a mediocre assist-to-turnover ratio, Williams was the antithesis of the modern point guard. But at the time, he was considered a star.

The Kings evidently felt differently about Williams’ actual effectiveness. His replacement was acquired in the trade itself: Mike Bibby, a steady, young veteran point guard who was a much more effective shooter than Williams. Bibby could pass and play with pace as well, but his arrival signified the final step in the Kings’ maturation, the transition from a stylish team with some substance to a true threat to the Western Conference crown. The trade was a coup for the Kings. They finished the 2001-2002 season with a 61-21 record, the best in the conference. They finished with the second best offense in the league while also playing at its fastest pace. Their defense was sixth best in the league, a fact obscured by the high number of points they allowed in their fast-paced games. The Kings were now legitimate championship contenders. Entering the 2002 playoffs, it seemed fated that the Kings and Lakers would meet in the Western Conference Finals. It seemed like it was the Kings’ year, that they may have developed into the best team in the league. Indeed, the Kings and Lakers did rendezvous in memorable fashion.

The narrative entering the 2002 Western Conference Finals was classic: the old guard against the young upstarts. The Lakers were steered by legendary coach and incompetent executive Phil Jackson, who disparaged Sacramento and Kings fans with elitist provocations during the series. Calling the city a “cow town” and the fans “semi-civilized,” Jackson sought to maintain hegemony on the backs of his future Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Kings sought to disrupt the established hierarchy by proving that their team-oriented, democratic, unselfish style of play could both entertain and win. The organization even embraced Jackson’s insults and stereotyping, encouraging fans to bring cowbells to home games throughout the series. The series was evenly matched, but the new order seemed to prevail. The Kings jumped out to a 3-2 series lead. They headed to Los Angeles for Game Six, needing one win to make the NBA Finals.


Game Six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals is widely considered to be the most controversial game in NBA history. The game’s referees–Dick Bavetta, Ted Bernhardt, and Bob Delaney–made a slew of calls (and non-calls) throughout the game, particularly in the fourth quarter, that went against the Kings. Some of these decisions were egregious, while others were simply very fishy. Big men Scot Pollard and Divac fouled out on a number of questionable calls while trying to defend Shaq, while some of Shaq’s infractions went uncalled. Webber was called for a phantom foul while legally blocking a Bryant shot on a drive. Bibby got elbowed in the face by Bryant with 11.8 seconds left and the Kings down by one, but there was no call for an offensive foul on Bryant. The Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone. Announcers Bill Walton and Steve Jones repeatedly criticized the officiating for both its accuracy and consistency throughout the game. The Lakers won the game and forced a Game Seven in Sacramento, which the Kings ultimately lost. The Lakers advanced to the finals and defeated the New Jersey Nets to win the title.

Kings_Lakers018.source.prod_affiliate.4-331x219.jpgThe uproar after Game Six was significant, sustained, and powerful. Many viewers believed that the NBA instructed the referees to make sure the big-market, ultra-popular Lakers advanced to the finals instead of the underdog, small-market Kings. High-profile sportswriters slammed the referees’ performance, with some calling it the worst-officiated game they’ve ever seen. Ralph Nader wrote to David Stern, the NBA commissioner at the time, asking for a formal review of the referees’ decisions during Game Six. And in 2008, ex-referee Tim Donaghy–who resigned from the NBA in the midst of a gambling scandal–alleged that Game Six was fixed by two referees to reflect the league’s interest in the Lakers advancing. The NBA has consistently rejected all of these wonderings and accusations out of hand.

In the following years, the Kings remained a potent side but failed to match the success of their 2001-2002 season. They earned the second best record in the West in 2002-2003, but lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the conference semifinals after Webber tore his ACL in Game Two. They slipped to fourth in the West in 2003-2004 after some significant roster changes; Pollard, Jackson, and Turkoglu left and Webber missed most of the season rehabbing his knee. He returned in time for the playoffs but was clearly diminished, and the Kings lost to the top-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves in seven games. Webber was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers halfway through the 2004-2005 season, bringing “The Greatest Show on Court” to a close.

While the early 2000s Kings did not totally revolutionize professional basketball, they did represent a transition period in several ways. The dominant style of play at the time was methodical and heavy on feeding the ball to a team’s best one-on-one scorer. The Kings adopted a more free-flowing, democratic offense in which the ball rarely stuck to one player. Their constant movement on offense would fit in neatly in the modern game. Rosters in the early 2000s largely comprised American players, either experienced former college players or straight-from-high-school phenoms. The Kings built and augmented their core with a heavy international presence. Coaches preferred a deliberate pace on offense and a bullying physicality on defense. The Kings pushed the pace in a way that was indicative of where the league would eventually go, but they did not rely on threes or free throws, which are the shots contemporary NBA offenses actively hunt for. Rather, most of their shots were twos, and many of them midrange jumpshots: the very shots that math now tells us are the worst value proposition in basketball. And it turns out that, contrary to the narrative, the Kings’ stout defense was a major factor in the team’s success. Their offense got the accolades–and really, it was something to behold at the time–but the defense made them championship contenders.

I suspect the Kings era of my life is over as well. Their games start too late for this lifelong East Coaster, and my bedtime is not trending in a direction that makes viewership likely. But I will always remember their dazzling play, their reckless abandon, and all the hours I spent trying to recreate those qualities in NBA2K. And I will always have that Chris Webber jersey hanging in my closet.

Kevin Seal is an elementary school teacher in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a former sports blogger and, despite the sustained efforts of Pittsburghers, a devoted fan of his beloved New York teams: the Knicks, Yankees, and Giants.

The Foreclosure Crisis and Its Impact on Today’s Housing Market

In recent years, the American public has been treated to a number of films about the 2008 housing crisis: the insightful documentary “The Queen of Versailles”, the dark, simmering “99 Homes”, and the Oscar nominated “The Big Short” to name a few. For all the critical acclaim bestowed upon each, with the exception of a couple of short scenes from “The Big Short”, none portray the travails of working-class black and brown homeowners or the ways in which a historically racially biased system of home financing contributed to the 2008 debacle.

Nearly a decade after the housing crisis, public policy professionals and academics have worked to unravel the complex factors that led to the catastrophe and why minorities and women proved particularly vulnerable. The intersection of racially constructed housing markets; changes in banking and housing finance, notably the securitization of mortgages; and the proliferation of subprime loans explain why the 2008 crash devastated communities of color.

University of California, Davis sociologist Jesus Hernandez, who grew up in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood, has spent years studying the housing crisis nationally, but also the more specific experience of metropolitan Sacramento homeowners. In addition to the devastating losses of private homes, the housing bubble cost the city dearly. According to the California Reinvestment Coalition, in 2007 Sacramento residents faced with foreclosure lost, in addition to their homes, $54 million collectively. Administrative costs related to foreclosure extracted $40 million from city coffers, and the city’s Gross Municipal Product suffered as well; one study estimated losses of $1.73 billion in GMP. Cascading social costs resulted, including increasing numbers of vacant buildings, rising crime rates from squatting and reduced revenues from property taxes, physical deterioration of neighborhoods and housing stock, and schools squeezed ever tighter for already insufficient funding.

Defaults and foreclosures in the City of Sacramento in 2007 as distributed across racial concentrations by census tracts. | The California Reinvestment Coalition

In numerous post-mortem analyses of the housing crash, subprime loans emerged as the culprit. Such loans feature higher interest rates often referred to as adjustable rate mortgages (ARM), rather than fixed rates mortgages which remain locked in at their agreed upon level. From 1994-2003, subprime loans increased 25 percent annually in what amounted to nearly a ten-fold expansion in nine years. While subprime loans did contribute to increasing numbers of minority homeowners, it did so in ways that left individuals and families more financially vulnerable than their white counterparts.

Even worse, more predatory subprime loans featured “teaser” rates that started lower but increased within a year or two. As with any financial product, subprime loans can work well facilitating homeownership for those black and brown households who were denied traditional financing. However, these same families disproportionately fell victim to the proliferation of subprime housing finance. The 2008 housing crash demonstrates how such products can be perverted and borrowers exploited particularly working-class black and brown homeowners.

While the narrative of personal responsibility frequently arises in discussions of the housing collapse, long-term structural issues go further to explain why the 2008 crisis ravaged communities of color. The idea that these communities were somehow less responsible does not fully square. Yes, undoubtedly some borrowers were overextended and irresponsible. However, plenty of better off homeowners, many of them white and upper class, walked away from their financial obligations when it suited them. In 2010, the New York Times reported that homeowners “with less lavish housing are much more likely to keep writing checks to their lender,” than their wealthier counterparts, who when faced with excessive losses, simply defaulted. Furthermore, delinquency rates on “investment homes”, properties purchased for financial return rather than residency, where the mortgage started at $1 million, rose to 23 percent in 2010, wrote David Streitfield.

Hernandez, in a phone interview, raises a second issue: the ethical responsibility of the real estate industry. “I don’t know of one homeowner who approved his own loan. If you want to talk about responsibility, lenders are responsible for vetting the client,” he pointed out. Brokers and other industry professionals jettisoned such responsibilities, shirking their fiduciary obligations. Talk of personal responsibility elides this failure by professionals. “Nobody held the industry accountable; they were the connection between money and property. They used their network [for personal gain] and so that fiduciary responsibility got lost.”

As one can tell, the housing crisis and its effects are complicated; they do not boil down to simple explanations of personal responsibility and free markets. Instead, as Hernandez told us in his interview, the crisis was the result of decades of racially prejudicial policies that impacted working and middle-class brown and black homeowners unfairly and unequally. In the end, the story of the housing crash and its impact on communities of color proves historically complex.

Occupy Wall Street activists protesting against Bank of America in March 2012. | Michael Fleshman/Flickr/Creative Commons

The Mythical Neutral Housing Market

Historians of urban and suburban America have long pointed out the fictitiousness of free markets in housing. Federal and state interventions, whether it be investment due to wartime mobilization, the codification of racialized housing policies through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), or the injection of federal money into suburban homeownership from the G.I. Bill and its home loan provisions, have shaped housing markets. “We guide markets to produce the results we want,” Hernandez points out. Market interventions by the state — be it mortgage loan structure, G.I. benefits, or urban planning — have functioned to reproduce racial inequality, he argues. The fact that people of color were not only targeted for subprime loans but also disproportionately affected by the subsequent housing crisis aligns with historical precedent.

Beginning in the 1920s, the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB) established racial covenants as a requirement for new home building. When the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and FHA came into being in the 1930s, they absorbed and institutionalized the idea that homogenous white neighborhoods represented the safest investment in housing.

Heterogeneous communities and communities of color were rated poorly or redlined, which severely constrained access to home loans thereby contributing to neighborhood decline as larger numbers of non-whites moved to cities like Sacramento, but could only access housing in redlined communities. Overcrowding in these neighborhoods placed greater stress on housing stock and local resources. The inability to secure loans for new housing or much needed renovation projects undermined housing values and established risk assessment and credit lending practices that penalized non-white homeowners.

Housing experts inspect Southern California building projects on May 27, 1947. Left to right: E.K. Sheble, coordinator of the Emergency Housing Committee, Mayor’s office; Mason Moise, Veterans Administration; Lawrence B. Gibbs, President of Builders Institute; John McGovern, Federal Housing Administration; Preston Wright of San Francisco; and Spiros G. Ponty, builder of tract. | Los Angeles Public Library
Fair Housing protestors in 1964, Richmond, CA. | UC Berkeley/Bancroft Library

Subsequent attempts to address declining housing stock privileged and subsidized business development and suburbanization; but came at the expense of urban minority homeowners who due to segregation could not access housing opportunity that defined post-World War II white-America. While the 1968 fair housing act attempted to remedy this structural discrepancy, it had its largest effect on then more stagnant southern metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Dallas and Houston where suburban home building occurred after rather than before the law’s passage.

Moreover, market-based attempts to provide newly built affordable housing rested on this racially and class-based home financing infrastructure such that rising numbers of non-white homeowners remained subject to established structural inequalities. Government expansion outside of housing, at both the federal and state level, further contributed to the growing diversity of California cities like Sacramento. The Korean and Vietnam Wars brought civilian and military workers to the area, roughly 25,000 with African American employees making up 10 percent of this new labor force. From 1942 to 1964, the Bracero program drew greater numbers of Mexican labors to the city as well. For example, after a stint working in Salinas for a sugar manufacturer, Hernandez’s father came to Sacramento in the late 1940s where he met his future wife who then worked as a waitress in downtown Sacramento. In the postwar periods, Sacramento diners and restaurants like the one at which Hernandez’s mother worked, later enjoyed a growing clientele due to the growth of state government. When California’s administration expanded, strict fair employment practices resulted in greater numbers of non-whites coming to the capital for work in state government.

Four Mexican workers harvesting sugar beets in 1942 for Spreckels Sugar Company, Woodland, CA. | UC Davis/Special Collections

The new arrivals, driven by government intervention in labor markets, could only find residence in neighborhoods redlined by state and private housing practices — Even military service failed to break lines of segregation as non-white military service members could only settle into low-income largely non-white communities. Adding to this demographic crunch was the city’s policy of urban renewal, which evicted thousands of non-white residents from neighborhoods like the West End in the name of economic development and highway construction, funneling them into previously redlined communities such as Oak Park.

Attempts at Reform

During the 1960s and 1970s, the FHA made efforts to reach minority homeowners. Congress passed the 1968 Fair Housing Act and the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA); the latter required banks receiving Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) funding to undergo reviews to determine if they offered sufficient levels of credit in communities in which they operated.

Each had flaws. Though the 1968 Fair Housing Act attempted to ensure equal housing, it lacked any real mechanisms for enforcement. “Anti-discrimination laws appearing in the 1960s,” notes Hernandez, “provided no basis for attacking mortgage redlining.” The CRA did threaten “sanctions against lenders who failed to underwrite loans for qualified buyers in previously underserved areas,” but as critics have pointed out, gave too much leeway to banks. No formal criteria for evaluating this mortgaging lending in minority communities emerged and capital flows to suburban areas still largely open to only whites persisted. Even worse, these reforms coincided with the economic troubles of the 1970s and the deregulation of banks in the 1980s.

Deregulation and the Rise of Subprime Loans

During the 1980s, local thrifts, sometimes referred to as savings and loan associations, collapsed or merged with larger financial institutions. Thrifts had once been the source of a significant proportion of the home mortgage market, however, reduced government oversight and mergers led to the dominance of larger regional and national banks. These banking institutions turned to securities markets for home loans in a process that is known as securitization, whereby high-risk loans are bundled into pools that could be sold on Wall Street as securities.

Cornell University Press

Historically, the mortgage market had been reliable and long term, producing low profits based on fixed rate steady mortgages. In contrast, securitization promised greater rewards to investors via fees, adjustable interest rates, and sales. By selling off mortgages to Wall Street investors, lenders were no longer responsible for losses on mortgages in redlined communities, but it did expand risk more broadly across economic sectors. Hence when the housing crash came in 2008, the risk had not been compartmentalized but rather spread further across the national economy.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that subprime loans reflected a larger shift in credit flows. Check cashing and finance companies also proliferated in the 1990s and many large banks invested in them. Through what Hernandez and others refer to as “fringe banks”, financial institutions delivered “hybrid credit delivery chains” to both borrowers and Wall Street investors, but this came with greater financial risk.

By the mid-1990s, subprime loans had become the most prominent of predatory credit lines. Between 1992 and 1999, subprime loans in the U.S. grew by 900 percent with most sold in minority communities and, in some instances, to “cash poor, house rich” homeowners. For the years 2005 and 2006, the volume of subprime loans exceeded $600 billion annually. One national study reported that blacks were two times more likely than whites to receive subprime loans; Latinos nearly the same. In Sacramento, subprime loans predominated in nonwhite communities, most of which had experienced redlining and been denied access to credit in the 1960s and 1970s.

Banks could ignore risk since credit rating agencies provided evaluations that downplayed the precarious financial nature of this new system. Credit default swaps, which essentially amounts to insurance on a loan, issued by Wall Street firms on securities containing subprime loans insured those holding the securities, but also encouraged rampant speculation. Banks began to focus far less on a borrower’s ability to repay loans. According to one study, in 2006, 40 percent of loan approvals had failed to consider the borrower’s income.

During the 1970s, the integrated communities to the north and south of Sacramento’s Central Business District (CBD) struggled with the persistence of redlining policies. As a result, these neighborhoods remained economically unstable. Homeowners in these areas endured much higher rates of denials for traditional loans than communities to the east and west of the CBD that had been walled off historically by housing covenants. Homeowners denied loans were five times more likely to pursue a subprime loan. At the height of subprime activity in Sacramento around 2005, 44 and 41 percent of loans sold in the area were subprime loans to blacks and Latinos respectively, nearly double the total of subprime loans to other racial groups.

Subprime loan activity by nonwhite population concentration for Sacramento County, 2004. | 2004 HMDA Raw Data for Sacramento County

By 2000, the Sacramento housing market had begun to accelerate as San Francisco Bay area residents moved to the state capital for more affordable housing. FHA loans could not keep up with the overheated market as home prices ballooned even in neighborhoods with non-white residents. Meanwhile, the city’s black and Latino residents turned to subprime loans, coupled with the fact that banks were incentivized to provide them such predatory loans, created the perfect storm.

Mortgage companies employed brokers who circulated in these communities and had direct personal connections with residents, which reduced “fixed costs investment for lenders-bundlers trying to reach loan applicants.” Brokers received higher fees for subprime loans. Thus, they sought out borrowers even if they qualified for conventional financing. One survey for 2005 and 2006 reported that 55 and 61 percent of subprime borrowers respectively had credit scores adequate for conventional loans. Decades of discriminatory policies that excluded many prospective homebuyers from the market left an informational deficit, which the real estate industry exploited. As a former real estate industry professional, Hernandez witnessed first hand the various ways brokers and lenders obscured the more dangerous aspects of subprime loans.

Navigating brokers, lenders, title companies and other aspects of the industry is complicated for even the most experienced buyer. It requires professional knowledge, or at the very least competent assistance; the latter was not provided to black and brown homeowners, Hernandez argued. Add to that the financial benefits and the place of homeownership in the American ideal, particularly for communities long denied access and you have a dangerous combination. Brokers saw better returns on subprime loans, banks packaged them for lucrative securities on Wall Street, and the housing market, everyone believed at the time, could go nowhere but up, so why not push subprime borrowing?

Unfortunately, when housing collapsed, working-class homeowners, particularly those in formerly redlined communities, got hit the worst. “Subprime lending exploited spatial racial disparities built up during decades of racial redlining and discrimination in credit markets, as well as by banks’ withdrawal form minorities neighborhoods,” argued a 2013 study.

Percentage of African Americans and Latinos in the 100 hardest-hit cities with the highest rates of “underwater mortgages.”| Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley

In 2014, University of California Haas Institute for Fair and Inclusive Housing reported that of the 100 cities with the highest rates of “underwater mortgages,” 71 were metropolitan areas in which blacks and Latinos made up 40 percent of the population. The list contained 18 California cities, Sacramento among them. A new foreclosure to rental industry, in which large corporations scooped up foreclosed homes on the cheap and then turned them into rentals, arose to capitalize on the dregs of housing defaults. Take, for example, Colony Capital, which began buying up foreclosed homes in the Bay Area and Sacramento. Due to the uneven effects of the crisis on black and brown homeowners, this often happened in communities long affected by discriminatory housing policy. By 2013, Colony Capital owned 142 homes in the Oakland-Fremont metropolitan area and 114 in Sacramento. In rising housing markets, this also drove up rents, according to Oakland’s Department of Housing and Community Development, rents increased by 15 percent in 2013. Sacramento has experienced similar dynamics. “How many different ways can we reproduce the rental wealth gap?”, Hernandez asked facetiously.

Late in 2016, the National Fair Housing Alliance, representing a coalition of fair housing groups, filed a federal lawsuit against Fannie Mae and other large mortgage companies, arguing that when the crash came foreclosed homes in middle and working-class white communities received more care than those in black and brown neighborhoods. Evidence marshaled by the NFHA, the New York Times noted in an editorial, suggests “standards are being applied unequally.”

Grounded. real estate developers Micah Braginski and Sam Allen reviewing building plans for a renovated home in Sacramento.

How complicit or responsible companies like Fannie Mae were for the devastating impact that the housing crisis delivered to minority communities will be determined by the courts. But the lawsuit harkens back to the very issues that drove redlining and its effect on urban America. The struggles of Sacramento’s minority communities and others like them across the nation after the crash have direct connection to decades of policies before the emergence of subprime financing. Markets and policies cannot be neutral when they are built on a racialized foundation.

Top Image: A foreclosure sign in Salton City, CA. 2008. | Jeroen Elfferich/Flickr/Creative Commons


Jesus Hernandez, “Redlining Revisited: Mortgage Lending Patterns in Sacramento, 1930 – 2004”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33.2 (June 2009).

Jesus Hernandez, Interview with author, April 28, 2017.

Jesus Hernandez, “Race, Market Constraints, and the Housing Crisis: A Problem of Embeddedness”, Kalfou Vol. 1 Issue 2. (Fall 2014).

Dymksi, Hernandez, and Mohanty, “Race, Gender, Power and the U.S. Subprime Mortgage and Foreclosure Crisis.”

Gary Dymksi, Jesus Hernandez, and Lisa Mohanty, “Race, Gender, Power and the U.S. Subprime Mortgage and Foreclosure Crisis: A Meso Analysis”, Feminist Economics, 2013.

Darwin Bond Graham, “The Rise of the New Land Lords”, East Bay Express, February 12, 2014.

Christi Baker, Kevin Stein, and Mike Eiseman, “Foreclosure Trends in Sacramento and Recommended Policy Options: A Report for the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency”, The California Reinvestment Coalition  (April 2008).

Dan Immergluck, “Foreclosed : High-Risk Lending, Deregulation, and the Undermining of America’s Mortgage Market”, Cornell University Press (April 2016).

Alex Schwartz, Gregory Squires, Peter Dreier, Rob Call, and Saqib Bhatti, “Underwater America: How the So-called Housing “Recovery” Is Bypassing Many American Communities“, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society (May 2014).

2018 Preservation Sacramento Jane Jacobs Walk Schedule

By William Burg

Jane Jacobs Walks are a continent-wide series of walks and bike rides based on the principles of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Written in an era when American cities promoted the suburb and the automobile, turning their backs on downtowns and older neighborhoods, Jacobs’ seminal work changed the way American planners thought about cities. It is widely read today by modern urban planners and neighborhood advocates, promoting sidewalks, parks, mixed use development, residential density, local economies, and walkability.

Part history tour, part urban planning discussion, Sacramento will host six Jane Jacobs Walks during the weekend of May 4-6. Preservation Sacramento coordinates the walks, partnering with Sacramento Heritage Inc., Sacramento Art Deco Society, Sacramento County Historical Society, the Old City Cemetery Committee, and Del Paso Boulevard Partnership. These tours explore how Sacramento’s city neighborhoods function for pedestrians and cyclists, residents and businesses, public transit and cars (or, in some cases, don’t function as well as they could.) All tours are free and open to the public. Start times and locations are listed below.

For questions about the May 2018 Jane Jacobs Walk events, contact Preservation Sacramento at or call (916) 202-4815. Visit or for general information about Preservation Sacramento and Jane Jacobs Walks.

Poverty Ridge, courtesy of Don Cox

Friday, May 4

6 PM: Poverty Ridge Walking Tour (Sacramento Heritage, Inc.)

Starting point: Ella K. McClatchy Library, 2112 22nd Street

This tour, led by Jose Esparza of Sacramento Heritage, Inc., is an architectural journey through the Poverty Ridge neighborhood, located atop the only hill in Sacramento’s original city limits. It is home to grand residential architecture and a unique creative legacy. Despite attempts at rebranding the neighborhood “Sutter’s Terrace” in 1906, the name “Poverty Ridge,” first applied in the 1860s when periodic flooding sent evacuees near the waterfront to its peak, refused to disappear. In the 19th Century, the neighborhood featured gardens and orchards, small ranches, a winery, and Italianate and Queen Anne homes. The twentieth century brought two electric streetcar lines and an explosion of home building, including dramatic Craftsman, Prairie, Colonial Revival and Renaissance Revival homes. This sidewalk tour will pass by the homes of architect Rudolph Herold, Sacramento Bee editor Charles McClatchy, haberdasher Fred Mason, developer/politician Dan Carmichael, winemaker Manuel Nevis, and author Joan Didion.


SCC Walking Tour Flyer_Jane Jacobs_2018.jpg

Saturday, May 5

10 AM: Parks and Wreck (Old City Cemetery Committee)

Starting point: Old City Cemetery, 10th & Broadway

Description: Sacramento has an extensive park system that is the envy of residents of other cities, but it didn’t come easy. Meet people who fought for and against establishing many of our more familiar parks, such as William Land, Cesar Chavez, and Southside Park. Learn the secret history of your favorite city parks, and hear various tales of misadventure and misfortune that happened within them. Led by Eric Bradner of the Old City Cemetery Committee, this tour takes place in Sacramento’s historic City Cemetery, established in 1849 and a property listed on the National Register for its association with 19th Century cemetery design and its concentration of final resting places of prominent Californians.


Del Paso Theater, 1947, courtesy of William Burg

1:30 PM: Sacramento City College of the 1930s (Sacramento Art Deco Society)

Starting point: North side of Hughes Stadium, Sacramento City College

Description: Join Bruce Marwick of Sacramento Art Deco Society for a look at the Art Deco buildings, paintings and decorative arts of Sacramento City College, including the SCC Library’s Special Collections Room. The tour begins on Hughes Stadium’s north side and ends in the Library/Learning Resource Center. In between, we will look at Art Deco buildings, paintings, and decorative arts. Vintage photos of the campus, and student life, will also be presented. Parking is available for $2 in the City College parking garage. To RSVP, contact Bruce Marwick at (916) 549-5419 or


Southside Park Clubhouse
Southside Park Clubhouse, courtesy of Sacramento Public Library

4 PM: Southside Park (Sacramento County Historical Society)

Starting point: Bocce/horseshoe court, corner of 8th & V Street, across from St. Andrew’s AME Church

Description: The Southside Park neighborhood is intriguing and diverse, with its mixture of residential, business and public space. It’s surrounded by government buildings, the freeway, and a mass of humanity. We’ll tell you the story from its prehistoric swampland roots to its murky origins in a land speculation deal, to the fight to establish and improve the park and neighborhood, and its rich history of immigrant groups. We’ll visit the people, homes, businesses and churches that inhabit the area. Local historians Eric Bradner and Andrew McLeod, board members of Sacramento Historical Society, will lead the tour.

Alkali Flat
Alkali Flat, courtesy of Don Cox

Sunday, May 6

10 AM: Alkali Flat (Preservation Sacramento/Alkali-Mansion Flats Historic Neighborhood Association)

Starting point: Naked Lounge, 1111 H Street

Description: Alkali Flat, Sacramento’s oldest surviving residential neighborhood, contains some of the city’s best examples of Victorian architecture, and still bears the scars of redevelopment from the 1960s. Today, the neighborhood also bears public artwork by the Royal Chicano Air Force, and new infill development that is modern in style but functions more like its 19th century predecessors. Join Preservation Sacramento/Alkali-Mansion Flats board member Luis Sumpter on a guided tour of this historic neighborhood that will include historic 19th Century mansions, mid-century office buildings, and 21st century infill homes.

Sac Northern Bike Ride
Sacramento Northern Bike Ride, courtesy of Sacramento Art Deco Society

Noon: Sacramento Northern Bike Ride (Preservation Sacramento/Grant Union High School Mountain Bike Team)

Starting Point: Sacramento Northern Bike Trail, corner of 19th & C Street

Description: Ride the Sacramento Northern Bike Trail, former route of an electric railroad that once ran from Chico to San Francisco via Sacramento, carrying passengers and freight through the Sacramento Valley. Our route takes us over the American River and ends on Del Paso Boulevard, a total trip of about 3.5 miles. We will explore the history of North Sacramento, including its historic connection to Sacramento’s African American community during World War II and following the redevelopment era. Sites we will visit include the Sacramento Northern Bridge, Union Iron Works, the site of North Sacramento’s electric train station, and one of the filming locations for the movie Lady Bird. This tour ends at 1124 Del Paso Boulevard, the starting point for the following tour. The bike ride will be led by William Burg of Preservation Sacramento and Harley White Jr., Sacramento bandleader and coach of the Grant Union High School Mountain Bike Team.

1 PM: Old North Sacramento on Del Paso Boulevard (Preservation Sacramento/Del Paso Boulevard Partnership)

Starting Point: Sacramento News & Review offices parking lot, 1124 Del Paso Boulevard

Description: This walking tour will explore Del Paso Boulevard, once the main boulevard of old North Sacramento and route of Highway 40. North Sacramento was once an incorporated city; now annexed into the City of Sacramento, it retains its own unique identity via its architecture and its diverse neighborhoods along the boulevard. We will explore the Streamline Moderne and Mid-century Modern architecture of North Sacramento, visit notable neighborhood landmarks and businesses, and learn more about the past, present and future of North Sacramento. Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates (SABA) will provide a bike corral, sponsored by the Del Paso Boulevard Partnership, so those arriving by bicycle can leave their bikes securely. This tour will be led by William Burg of Preservation Sacramento.

Featured image (at top): Aerial view of the state capitol, 1922, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

received_10207314464093641William Burg is a historian based in Sacramento, California, who writes books and articles about local history, ranging from urban planning and railroads to civil rights and contemporary music. Burg is also a state historian in the California Office of Historic Preservation. This piece is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Wicked Sacramento. In addition to his 2014 work, Burg’s most recent book is Midtown Sacramento: Creative Soul of the City.

Lady Bird: Discussing Teen Angst, Class, and Early Aughts Sacramento

Like many collaborative digital projects, The Metropole is entirely assembled via remote correspondence; as co-editors, Ryan and I send daily emails between Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh. In between editing submissions, we brainstorm future blog posts and trade banter about music, books, and movies. Ryan approaches pop culture with a typically Gen X cynicism, while I own my sunny millennial optimism. So in March, when Ryan suggested we review Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird as part of our Metropolis of the Month coverage of Sacramento, I was curious about how each of us would respond to the film. You might be surprised to find which one of us was the bigger fan.

Without further ado, our conversation about the film:  

AO: So, Ryan, I thought I would kick off this conversation about Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird by asking you what you enjoyed about the film.

RR: Good question. Well first of all I am, even in my middle age, always a sucker for “coming of age” stories, particularly those with difficult protagonists. In some ways, Lady Bird McPherson (Saoirse Ronin) aka Christine McPherson is somewhat reminiscent of another problematic, angsty, coming of age teen character, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) from The Edge of Seventeen. Both fail to really appreciate the problems of others around them, take their respective best friends for granted, and drive their parent(s) crazy. Critically, both characters are also very compelling. So I’m glad that there seems to be a burgeoning effort to document the travails and challenges of adolescence for young women. Whether such efforts fall into the same traps as those focusing on young male protagonists such as Richard Linklater’s highly overrated and tragically boring (just one man’s opinion, don’t @ me) Boyhood, remains to be seen. Equally important, Lady Bird, to a much greater extent than The Edge of Seventeen, gives voice to the parents in the film. What can be said about Laurie Metcalf’s performance as mother Maureen McPherson that hasn’t been discussed already? Traci Letts, as Lady Bird’s father, is great also; a newly unemployed dad with the soft touch toward his daughter that complements Metcalf’s harsher (but sometimes justified) parenting style.


Three other things to note. I like the inclusion of Lady Bird’s brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), who may or may not have witnessed someone being stabbed in front of Sacramento City High School, and his girlfriend Shelly Yuhan (Marielle Scott). While I always enjoy movies depicting sibling relationships, both Shelly and Miguel enable the viewers to better understand Metcalf’s character, who Lady Bird believes doesn’t like her and at times feels overbearing. The truth is much more complex as both Shelly and Miguel convey to Lady Bird throughout the movie.

Second, I love both problematic boyfriends. Lucas Hedges, who plays the (obviously) closeted lead actor of the theater group Lady Bird joins, deviates from the role he played in Manchester by the Sea and provides a counterbalance to Lady Bird’s own self absorption. In contrast, Timothée Chalamet, the idiotic second boyfriend, loves to be seen smoking while reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, makes strange statements about state surveillance that sound smart at first but soon reveal a deep reservoir of stupidity, and delivers terrific pseudo-intellectual musings such as when, after Lady Bird loses her virginity to him and is upset that it wasn’t his first time, he says, “you’re going to have so much unspecial sex” in life. Oh, and he also tries to avoid capitalism by living by “bartering alone.”

Finally, as someone who attended 12 years of parochial Catholic school, I pine for uniforms and the regimentation of a religious education.

Greta Gerwig as the titular character in Frances Ha from 2012

One does wonder if Lady Bird isn’t really a younger Frances Ha, Gerwig’s previous directorial effort, though one she co-directed with her partner Noah Baumbach.  Baumbach tends to cover similar territory, meaning the troubled nature of the nuclear family, but his films focus more on elite or academic East Coast families that struggle with deep fissures of dysfunction (The Squid and the Whale, The Meyerowitz Stories) whereas there is much more warmth in Gerwig’s film, and for that I am deeply thankful.

You know at this moment a lot of people are hailing Roseanne Barr’s return to prominence with the new season of Roseanne–notably since, as in its first iteration, it focuses on the lives of working class/lower middle class families. In Lady Bird, I think Gerwig offers a real window into a similar demographic but one we rarely hear from, the West Coast working class. Often movies, like Nebraska, emphasize the difficulties of Midwestern or Rust Belt towns and their inhabitants, but Sacramento, “the midwest of California” as Lady Bird puts it, provides a different take on this well worn topic. Plus, Laurie Metcalf stars in both, a neat little “no degrees of separation.”

All that said, I feel like you didn’t enjoy this film as much as I did. So what bugged you about Lady Bird?

Sacramento River view from across the water from Sacramento, California’s capital city, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

AO: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why Lady Bird did not resonate with me, though I do think it’s a fine film. I think it has to do with being stuck between Lady Bird and her mother. I’m past adolescence, but not yet distant enough to romanticize it. I still remember my own embarrassing decisions too vividly to comfortably watch Lady Bird make her own impulsive, selfish choices. And I’m not yet a parent who can nod along in sympathy with the McPherson’s frustration.

That said, I thought the performances were brilliant. Saoirse Ronin was magnetic, Laurie Metcalf was fierce, and the movie sparkles (with warmth, as you said Ryan) when the two of them are together on screen acting opposite one another. How many times have I been in a store with my own mother, bickering, when the perfect dress stopped us in our tracks? That moment felt so real and relatable to me.

You make a great point about the particular geography and demographic that this movie portrays. I think the use of the big blue house–which Lady Bird and her best friend admire while walking home each day, and then turns out to belong to the grandmother of Lady Bird’s first boyfriend–worked so effectively to communicate how social distance and spatial difference in Sacramento do not share a proportional correlation. The big blue house was not terribly far away from the McPherson’s, though the difference in wealth was palpable; and yet, although Lady Bird lives “on the other side of the tracks” she shares her whiteness, education, and middle class values with the family of her boyfriend. I could have dispensed with the entire subplot about courting the new boyfriend (though I agree the pseudo-intellectualism was funny) and the new rich friends that come along with him. The big blue house did enough to make Gerwig’s point about class.

So that’s what I liked and felt like Gerwig really got right–and also what I think was weak about the movie. Some women make it through high school without selling out their best friend for a boy. It’s a tired plot line.

Racks Boutique in Sacramento, the capital city of the U.S. state of California and the county seat of Sacramento County, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

RR: Yeah, it’s not the most original take, though I wonder how much of that is about gender and how much is about the stereotypical structure of a teen coming of age story, even off-the-beaten-path adolescent experiences. The whole “journey” of self discovery often hinges on a protagonist approaching some unrequited love while ignoring the best friend standing next to them (which sometimes turns out to the be the love interest as well, the whole “not knowing what you have in your own backyard” deal). I guess what I’m saying is that dudes sell out best friends in movies for girls all the time–Rushmore and Better Off Dead are two examples that pop into my head. So in a very limited way, it felt like progress that quirky, difficult Lady Bird could be out there getting some without guilt or any terror, besides making a few mistakes in regard to her object of attraction and longstanding friendships. I could go on about heteronormativity, hence the next Rubicon to cross in the infrastructure of the “coming of age” film. I suppose last year’s Call Me By Your Name does this to some extent.

I agree the movie, as a colleague of mine put it, “treats Sacramento like a another character” even down to cliches like being from the “wrong side of the tracks” which both Lady Bird and Danny play for awkward laughs in very different moments. The town really does have a sort of West Coast Midwestern feel–warmer colors and light than you find typically in the Middle West, but with a very matter of fact approach to life. The Joan Didion epigraph that opens the movie is pretty telling in this regard: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent Christmas in Sacramento.”

Rosie the Riveter mural on an abandoned building in Sacramento, California, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Can I also applaud Gerwig for some pop culture bravery? I mean she rehabilitates Dave Matthews in a serious way in this film. In fact, the Matthew’s song in question, “Crash” (a tune that launched a thousand prom dances and wistful scenes of adolescents staring blankly out into their “future”) plays a critical role in Lady Bird’s maturation. The only thing braver would have been to do the same for Hootie and the Blowfish. Can Sacramento be the Dave Matthews “Crash” of American cities?

AO: I’m not sure Sacramento was ever cool enough to fall as far as the Dave Matthews Band did. I did recently find and listen to my copy of that album and, after years of dismissing and scoffing at DMB, I confess that I fell back in love with quite a few of the songs on it. So anything is possible!


Featured image (image at top): The 2012 California State Fair held in Sacramento, California, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Didionesque Sacramento: Race, Urban Renewal and Loss in Joan Didion’s “Run River”

On the song “All the Wine” from the 2005 album Alligator by The National, lead singer Matt Berninger croons, “I’m put together beautifully, big wet bottle in my fist, big wet rose in my teeth, I’m a perfect piece of ass like every Californian … I’m a festival, I’m a parade.” Hailing from Brooklyn and originating in Ohio, Berninger and the band exist, somewhat controversially, as an expression of middle class semi-bohemian white male anxiety, yet in “All the Wine” they capture a certain general impression of the Golden State—or perhaps more accurately, gently mock the idea of such an identity.

Should the band’s tone be mockery, native Sacramentan Joan Didion might agree. “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent Christmas in Sacramento,” she famously told interviewers in 1979. The quote proved so incisive that fellow Sacramento native Greta Gerwig made it the epigraph to her Oscar nominated film Lady Bird, a coming of age story that is equal parts adolescent angst, transformation, and loss. “Both Lady Bird and Gerwig cast themselves in junior Didion molds,” Vanity Fair’s Yohana Desta observed, “artistic spirits who want to flee somewhere more famous—only to look back on the town they left with a warm, nostalgic lens.” In her own work, Didion also wrestles with these issues… minus the teen anxiety, and with more than a dollop of adult malaise. Whether discussing the heroic California “pioneer” narrative or the state’s image of sensuality and libertine enjoyments, the reality of California, notably Sacramento, remains both more mundane and problematic.

In two works separated by roughly four decades, the novel Run River and her 2003 memoir Where I Was From, Didion’s take on Sacramento explores tradition and loss. Never one to suffer fools, she critiques California mythology, particularly in regard to urban renewal, race, and suburbanization during the years after World War II.


Sacramento ; First frame house erected Jany. 1st, 1849, by S. Brannan ; Present population estimated at 20,000, June 17, 1852, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Early History

Famously, Didion’s own family travelled west with the Donner-Reed party, judiciously parting ways before tragedy befell the nation’s most notorious cannibalistic clan. Her family settled in Sacramento, thereby enabling her to trace her family’s roots to California and its nascent statehood.

The Didion family entered the state at a key moment in its history as its racial policies shifted from a discriminatory but somewhat porous racial stratification of society to a far starker Jim Crow reality. From Spanish colonization to American statehood, the settlement of California was always premised on imposed racial hierarchies, yet there remained fissures in its race based class system. Due to its distance from Spain and later Mexico City, the California population was smaller, more racially mixed, and less tied to the class system prevailing under Spanish and Mexican rule. For example of the 42 founders of Los Angeles in 1781, 26 claimed Afro-Mexican ancestry while many of the others descended from Native Americans, mestizoes, Spaniards, and other mixed castes.[1] In some instances, an individual’s racial status could be circumvented by wealth, title, and cultural ties. When the U.S. government assumed control over the state after 1848, however, the racial loopholes that had existed were closed and a more rigid racial structure was established: one that supported immigration restrictions and openly marginalized non-whites.

Established as the California capitol in 1854, Sacramento served as the point of origin regarding state racial policies that disenfranchised minorities. Yet after 1945, when California was awash in federal spending, the state witnessed demographic booms that brought greater numbers of non-whites. Between 1940 and 1952, California grew by 53%; from 1950-1960, it grew another 49%.[2]

Despite this population influx, a certain cognitive dissidence prevailed, argues Didion. During the 1950s, Sacramento, and the state more generally remained “hermetic … isolated by geography and history and also by inclination.” The expansion of the military industrial complex through the Korean and Vietnam Wars also brought greater diversity to California. In Sacramento, 25,000 newcomers arrived with 10 percent of them African Americans, notes River City native and sociologist, Jesus Hernandez. The Bracero program, closely aligned with these developments and furthered this trend as numerous Mexican laborers settled in the city, including Hernandez’s father. Due to strict fair employment practices, the expansion of the state government added to Sacramento’s mélange.[3] Yet as they searched for homes, minorities encountered redlining and other forms of housing discrimination relegating them, as in many other American cities, to substandard homes and overcrowded neighborhoods. Redlining embodied the very outlook Didion critiques, as white Californians sought to hermetically seal off communities from one another.[4]

Pioneer Hall & Bakery, 120-124 J Street, Sacramento, Sacramento County, CA, after 1933 before 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Run River Redevelopment

Within the context of a transforming California, Didion wrote her 1963 novel Run River, which depicts the Faulknerian decline of the city’s (fictional) old line families, the Knights and the McClellans, as a “new” post-WWII Golden State took shape.   Hardly a perfect work of fiction, New York Magazine called it “charmingly wrong headed” in 2003. It remains, however, a poetic, tragic, and yes, flawed, account of familial decline amid transformation in the state capital.

Lily Knight and her husband Everett McClellan trace their collective lineages back to the first families of the city, but the marriage of the two descendants cannot weather the birthing of a new California: “[Lily] and [Everett] would never seem to get it through their heads that things were changing in Sacramento, that Aerojet General and Douglas Aircraft and even the State College were bringing in a whole class of people, people who had lived back East, people who read things.”[5] Not that Didion seems to think much of this history. Through their son, Knight McClellan, Didion acidly criticizes Lily and Everett and their generation’s attachment to the mythical “pioneer” California.“Not that he thought they would ever wake up. They’d just go right along dedicating their grubby goddamn camellia trees in Capitol Park to the memory of their grubby goddamn pioneers.”[6]

Planted in Capitol Park facing the state capitol building, Camellia Grove was the product of the author’s grandmother (her father’s stepmother), Genevieve Didion. For years, Genevieve served as President of the Sacramento Board of Education. Even today the city continues to hold a Camellia Festival with over one million bushes of the alien species in bloom annually.[7]

Old Sacramento is a 28-acre National Historic Landmark District and State Historic Park along the Sacramento River in California’s capital city, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Didion practically sneers at the use of this history to sell the city. In the late 1950s the city engaged in an urban renewal project that reshaped the old West End district into a celebration of the city’ s “pioneer” history known today as “Old Sacramento”; a form of heritage tourism that placed the city in the vanguard of historic preservation. Knight’s mocking of Sacramento’s “pioneers” and the camellias left in their wake clearly represented some expression of Didion’s own feelings at the time. Reflecting upon her novel decades later, Didion notes the use of “‘[t]he pioneers’” as a prop for selling Sacramento to tourists; but she says much less about the residents of West End neighborhood, a community defined by ethnic and racial diversity. Urban renewal would erase their presence in the city, replacing it with a narrative that further excluded them.[8]

Between 1957 and 1961, the 28-block development displaced 2,000 residents and ultimately destroyed a thriving Japantown and a smaller, but still distinct Chinatown. Adding insult to injury, many residents of Japantown, endured internment during World War II and had returned to rebuild their community only to have redevelopment wipe them away, again. Nearly 30 acres of riverfront property were dedicated to selling “trinkets and souvenirs and popcorn,” writes Didion. “There was something that got lost when those bulldozers came through,” historian Steven Avella noted in a recent documentary on the West End. Sacramento civil rights attorney Nathaniel Colley added simply that redevelopment bordered on immorality, since it cleared “out residents to face a closed housing market.”[9]

Buildings in Old Sacramento, a 28-acre National Historic Landmark District and State Historic Park along the Sacramento River in California’s capital city, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Run River Race

 In Run River, through various characters and their conversations, Didion makes over a dozen references to the city’s minority communities, often in the language deployed by white Californians of the day. Del Paso Heights, a local black community, operates as a repeated joke among white country club types. Everett’s father refers to Mexicans as “goddamn wetbacks” and all Asians as Filipinos: “There was no use telling him that somebody was Chinese, Malayan, or Madame Chiang Kai-shek; they were goddamn Filipinos to him.” He wasn’t too happy about his daughter, Sarah, moving to Philadelphia where “she picked up those goddamn Jew ideas.”

Lily’s father, Walter Knight, held similar prejudices, complaining about his ranch manager Gomez by accusing his employee of ingratitude and theft, even as Knight “sat in the familiar gloom of the Senator Hotel bar and called at the white frame house on Thirty Eighth Street” where his mistress, Miss Rita Blanchard resided. “Hegemony takes work,” as the kids (and Stuart Hall) say, though in this case it actually seems like sloth and access to an old timey bar and a mistress. Knight’s protestations functioned to lend an air of “noblesse oblige,” a perverse use of racism to justify what Knight believed to be progressive hiring practices.

Then again, while Lily criticizes both her father’s and McClellan’s racial beliefs, she too takes advantage of their presence in Sacramento for her own interests. Gomez picks her up from the train station when she returns home from college at UC Berkeley for her mother’s parties, but not before stopping in the West End at a place “where she could eat tacos with her fingers.” When her sister conveys a story regarding their father’s inability to determine another character’s place of origin, relating how he said “‘It’s all Del Paso Heights to me,’” Lily laughs and notes it is “a district north of Sacramento noted for its large Negro population and its high incidence of social disorders.” A serial adulterer, Lily carries on affairs with family friend Joe Templeton, meeting “in cars parked off the levee, bars frequented by Mexicans, and in an empty shack on the piece down river….” The proximity to minority populations among characters in Run River equates with a low rent existence.[10]

Fountain located in César Chávez Plaza in downtown Sacramento, California’s capital city, on the site of the old city plaza, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Few minority characters are ever given a real voice, though perhaps in the context of 1963, the few examples offered here were more significant then than they seem today. Crystal, Gomez’s “common law wife by virtue of mutual endurance,” bemoans her marriage to the Knight’s ranch manager when she tells Lily that Gomez “latched on to her in Fresno,” insinuating that their bond did not emerge from hours spent in the fields but rather through what some describe as the world’s oldest profession. The McClellan family’s cook and domestic servant, the problematically named China Mary, comes closest to full agency and even garners a brief back story in a scene in which she upbraids Lily for questioning her use of wartime rationing stamps to procure sugar for four cakes to be raffled off at the local parish. In thirty years on the ranch no “one had ever tried to tell her how to run her kitchen, and there were some spoiled young ladies who were going to be punished by god if they didn’t start thinking about their Church once in a while,” she informs Lily.

While Mary’s name raised few eyebrows in 1963, it has aged poorly. A more generous reading suggests that Didion utilized the name as a means to display the sort of tone-deaf insularity that besieged Sacramento’s august families and, more generally, the city and state. Mary demonstrates a certain level of agency, but in the service of powerful white landholders. Still, she exhibits both competence and resoluteness in a family that increasingly displays neither.

Painting “Dream Within a Dream: In Honor of the Pacific Asian Pioneers” at the Robert T. Matsui U.S. Courthouse, Sacramento, California, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2009, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

None of this ensures Mary’s equality. When Everett’s sister Martha drowns, Mary, who had raised her from childhood and had been visiting “her sister in Courtland,” doesn’t even merit a phone call. “They should have called her after it happened,” writes Didion. “They should have called fifty people but above all they should have called China Mary.”[11] To be fair, Everett’s sister Sarah did not receive a call either, but the point still remains.

What should one think of Didion’s views on race? First, it is worth noting that Didion remains, arguably, the frostiest of writers; do not go looking for emotional appeals in her work. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there is no there there. A magnanimous reading of Didion argues that the dozen or so references to minorities in her novel represent her awareness and acknowledgement regarding the awfulness of Sacramento racial history. The racism at the heart of tossed-off comments like “drunken wetbacks,” “goddamn Filipinos,” and “the smartest Jew lawyer” are meant to reveal much more about the speaker than the subject.

Yet even in such a reading, there are problems. Having read over half a dozen of her works, Didion does exhibit empathy toward people of color, but her interactions are often more detached. In her review of Didion’s latest book, South and West, Lorraine Berry argues Didion travels South to explore racism filtered through the solitary prism of white people. “Didion continually treats the people of color in the South as objects,” Berry points out. “They are objects of observation and they are objects of discussion, but never once do they get to offer to Didion their views of the states they live in.”[12] One sees symmetry between Run River and South and West, both of which were written around the same time (South and West is actually a collection of notes taken by Didion during a sojourn to the region in 1970 and, I must confess, it is a book I enjoyed despite such criticisms).

Sunrise Light Rail in Sacramento, the capital city of the U.S. state of California and the county seat of Sacramento County, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Run River Suburbanization

Didion also acknowledges the massive suburbanization transforming Sacramento, particularly through the character of Martha, Everett’s sister, who “almost every afternoon” tours new subdivisions, debates the merits of “redwood siding” versus “an imitation limestone veneer,” and discusses the advertising campaigns of newly built communities with names like “Robles de la Sierra, a tract north of town” and “Rancho Valley.” The former promised “a setting with the romance of An Old Spanish Land Grant plus No Sewer Bonds” while the latter’s “selling points included a leaded-glass window on the exterior of each three-car garage for ‘the same gracious finish throughout.’”[13]

Sacramento was changing as its established customs receded to be replaced by a “more urban, or suburban life, in which children swam in clear water in backyard pools lined with gunite and bought Italian typewriters and ate pears bought in supermarkets rather than dropped off in lugs by the relatives who grew them.”[14]

It goes without saying this burgeoning suburban existence that brought notoriety to California remained off limits to Sacramento’s minority populations, who as Hernandez notes found themselves squeezed into previously redlined communities like South Sacramento and Oak Park.[15] The city’s “first suburb,” Oak Park, became an oasis for African Americans and other minorities who were displaced from the city’s West End through urban renewal,” writes KCET’s Kris Hooks. Even before urban renewal at the turn of the twentieth century, African and Mexican American homeowners, having been shut out of the city’s other suburbs by racial covenants, established a presence in the suburb.

Thankfully, racial covenants never gained a foothold there, but redlining did.[16] It meant that home loans would be harder to come by in the neighborhood, thereby retarding housing renovations and upkeep while also preventing serious outside investment in Oak Park.  Today, like many formerly predominantly minority urban communities, gentrification threatens those same residents who kept Oak Park alive in earlier, tougher decades. What has helped to drive this process? “In 1973, the city established the Oak Park Redevelopment Project Area to help bring a resurgence to the city’s first suburb,” Hooks points out. “In the 2000s, changes began to become more visible.”[17]

To paraphrase official city historian, Marcia Eyman, who exactly gets to decide who belongs in a community and who doesn’t? Historically, government and capitalism don’t often make choices based on equity. Redevelopment in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and so forth picked winners and losers. Right now there are no guardrails to gentrification; ginning up the municipal growth machine only devours everything in its path.

For all its flaws, Didion’s work recognizes that without vigilance we all lose something, but our station in life often means this loss is not distributed fairly. Decades later, Didion admitted Run River had been the product of a young woman simultaneously nostalgic for the past and searching for a “protective distance between me and the place I was from.” Both things can be true, as is her larger point that “There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.” Her work is undoubtedly marked by privilege, and like many writers of her era she does not do enough to amplify marginalized voices, but if one looks and listens hard enough in Run River, you can see and feel the loss endured by all of Sacramento’s denizens.

Featured image (image at top): Park bench in Sacramento, the capital city of the U.S. state of California and the county seat of Sacramento County, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[1] Carlos Manuel Salomon, Pio Pico: The Last Governor of Mexican California, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), 12.

[2] Didion, Where I Was From, 173.

[3] Jesus Hernandez, “Redlining Revisited: Mortgage Lending Patterns in Sacramento, 1930 – 2004”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33.2 (June 2009): 300.

[4] Didion, Where I Was From, 64.

[5] Joan Didion, Run River, (Ivan Obolensky, Inc., 1963), 5.

[6] Didion, Run River, 6.

[7] Paul J.P. Sandul, “Both ‘Country Town’ and ‘Bustling Metropolis’: How Boosterism, Surburbs, and Narrative Helped Shape Sacramento’s Identity and Environmental Sensibilities” in River City and Valley Life: An Environmental History of the Sacramento Region, Eds. Christopher I. Castaneda and Lee M. A. Simpson, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013, 161.

[8] Didion, Where I Was From, 167; “Replacing the Past: Sacramento’s Redevelopment History”, director Chris Lango, 2016,

[9] Didion, Where I Was From, 167; “Replacing the Past: Sacramento’s Redevelopment History”, director Chris Lango, 2016,

[10] Didion, Run River, 38, 56-7, 35, 113.

[11] Didion, Run River, 223.

[12] Lorainne Berry, “Lorainne Berry on Didion, the South, and Race”, May 1, 2017, Essay Daily,

[13] Didion, Run River, 208-9.

[14] Didion, Where I Was From, 166.

[15] Hernandez, “Redlining Revisited”, 301

[16] Sandul, “Both ‘Country Town’ and ‘Bustling Metropolis’”, 172.

[17] Kris Hooks, “The Gentrification of Sacramento’s Oak Park, September 13, 2017, KCET City Rising,