Optics and the Culture of Modernity in Guatemala City Since the Liberal Reforms
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In the years after the Liberal Reforms of the 1870s, the capitalization of coffee production and buttressing of coercive labour regimes in rural Guatemala brought huge amounts of surplus capital to Guatemala City. Individual families—either invested in land or export houses—and the state used this newfound wealth to transform and beautify the capital, effectively inaugurating the modern era in the last decades of the nineteenth century. This dissertation considers the urban experience of modernity in Guatemala City since the 1870s. It argues that until the 1920s and 1930s, modernity in the city was primarily influenced by aesthetic modernism in the form of shopping arcades and department stores with their commodities, sites of bourgeois pleasure and pomp such as the hippodrome and Temple to Minerva, society dances, expositions, and fairs. After this point, the social fallout of economic modernization increasingly defined the experience of urban modernity in Guatemala City. Capitalist development altered the social relations of production in the countryside, precipitating massive urbanization that characterized urban life in the second half of the twentieth century. My analysis helps to account for shifting perceptions of Guatemala City; regarded during the fin-de-siècle as the “Paris of Central America”—owing to its wide boulevards, dawning consumer culture, and cosmopolitan nature—the capital today is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the Americas. I argue that, since the Liberal Reforms, urban Guatemalans learned to see, act, and think as modern subjects. The idea of the “optics of modernity” is introduced to understand epistemological shifts in perception associated with technological, scientific, religious, social, economic, and cultural changes. The optics of modernity denote both the markers of modernity (such as trains, department stores, and new social types like dandies) and new subject positions that altered the experience of the modern world. With these optics of modernity, I argue that urban Guatemalans learned to acclimatize themselves to living in a modern city. The culture of modernity during the Guatemalan Belle Époque (roughly from 1892 until 1917) is of particular interest. This dissertation proposes that the economic expansion of the period was frequently punctuated by recessions and depressions as the prices of export agricultural commodities dropped and rebounded on global markets. These economic crises constrained the bourgeoisie’s visions of liberal utopia. A unique cultural phenomenon known as the cultura de esperar (the culture of expecting, hoping, and waiting) is introduced in this work to describe the epistemological predicaments that arose when the hopes and expectations of modernity were stifled by economic gluts. The analysis explores a wide variety of topics from nineteenth-century séance culture, bull fighting in cinema, the modernist avant-garde, and the dawning of consumer culture to the contrast between verticality in urban architecture and the expansion of urban slums.
DegreeDoctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
CommitteeGarrard-Burnett, Virginia; Dyck, Erika; Meyers, Mark; Deonandan, Kalowatie
Copyright DateSeptember 2013
cultura de esperar