The Suburbs as a “Topos” of Latin American Culture

In defining the suburbs as a “topos” of Latin American culture, I must first define the words “suburbs” and “topos.” A common perception of the suburbs is a place that is located immediately outside of a town or a city. The word “topos” means a place or location. This article will communicate the idea of the suburbs as a place or location where culture exists within Latin America. However, I will also provide an alternative definition for the suburbs as a place of inferiority and immorality in the context of Latin America. In offering these two definitions of the suburbs as a “topos” of Latin American culture, I will communicate that the idea of the suburbs do not express one fixed idea, identity or meaning.

It is also important to note that while defining the suburbs of Latin America, one must remember that definitions and characteristics of the suburbs within a particular region may vary. In fact, the meaning of the suburbs has changed and different connotations have been given to this notion since they first emerged within Latin America in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century.1

Latin America is a vast area, and while defining the suburbs, one must remember that the development of the countries within Latin America did not occur simultaneously. However, when the suburbs first emerged within Latin American society, they were initially defined in a negative way. They were thought of as poor areas designated for minority cultures, immigrants, and emigrants and were often compared to urban districts predominately areas in which the wealthy lived. To expand on the negative perception of the suburbs, I will focus again on the definition provided by the English Oxford Dictionary2 which as mentioned previously, defines the suburbs as a place of inferiority. The suburbs were initially thought of as similar structures to that of inner city communities of Latin America because of their transitional and lower class characteristics.3 In addition, the suburbs were also thought of negatively not only because they were constantly contrasted to urban centres, but because these centres were also thought of as places where soci-economic activity took place and where the more educated people lived.

However, according to theorists like Bethell, the concept of the suburbs began to change with the increase of wealth within Latin America.4The suburbs developed into a whole new idea with new connotations. As affluence increased, more and more families wanted to move to the suburbs. This relocation from urban centre to the suburbs is most apparent within cities such as Buenos Aires and Lima5 in the 1950’s.6 Along with an increase of wealth, this change and widespread growth was also caused by modernization. 7 After the growth of the upper class in specific suburban areas, the middle and working classes from more urban settlements of Latin America became interested in moving to these areas.  Thus the suburbs were transformed and were no longer regarded negatively but now thought of as a place of “in-between”, meaning they were not home to groups of homogenous people, but a mixture of different classes. Although different classes resided in these suburban areas, the standard of living differed in that the wealthy built large luxurious houses while the middle class lived comfortably but in simpler dwellings. The suburbs were starting to become areas of “neither nor” meaning neither rural nor urban. Therefore, these areas were home to a hybrid of cultures.

The model of Brasilia can relate to the idea of the suburbs as a “topos” of Latin American culture. Oscar Niemeyer, the main architect in Brazil thought that in expressing Latin American culture and identity, it was important to emphasize the idea of the street within the realm of public space in Brasilia. This emphasis on public space and the streets highlighted the identity of the community and less attention was paid to the actual dwellings. He wanted to create a neighbourhood that celebrated the culture of the people of Brasilia first, and then create the city around the neighbourhood. What he was ultimately trying to convey was the idea that culture matters within the community. However, Brasilia did not develop as envisioned although Niemeyer’s work was praised by the public. Brasilia was considered unsuccessful mostly because towns were built around the outskirts of the city. Because of this peripheral plan of the city, the people living within these areas faced hardships concerning transportation and therefore were forced to travel approximately three hours to get to work which in practical terms, did not make any sense. This did not allow the neighbourhoods to flourish because people didn’t spend enough time in their neighbourhoods because of the time and distant it took to travel to work.

Most commonly, the suburbs of Latin America are often thought of in comparison to or relation to the suburbs of America. This could be because the United States is one of the most dominant countries in the world and is synonymous with a vast majority of suburban areas whereas Latin American is not. It may be the case that one might compare Latin American suburbs to western suburbs because the United States is a dominant country in which all other countries are compared to, while the areas of Latin America are seen as inferior or secondary. However, the comparison of the Latin American suburbs to the suburbs of the United States is not accurate because they are two extremely different geographic locations that differ so dramatically. The comparison of these two areas should not be made in defining the culture within Latin American because these two areas are so different.

The idea of culture within Latin American is more accurately represented through Thomas Tufte’s model of the suburbs of Brazil. In Tufte’s model, he highlights the characteristics that help to make up culture within Brazil by describing the “suburban identity” of the people and in expressing the suburbs as areas that are composed of three distinct influences: the neighbourhood culture, the catholic church, and the divisions in terms of gender.8 This way of looking at the suburbs of Latin American is very different than that of other western suburbs. Tuftes model can be applied and compared to many suburbs within Latin America where he describes the suburbs as a neighbourhood culture that is comprised of a composite of economic, political, social and cultural organizations. This model reasserts the idea of the suburbs of Latin America as a place of cultural and social interactions but most importantly, a place that is unique in its own design. The suburbs are a “topos” of Latin American culture for the people who reside within these areas. It’s a way of life.

Sydney Torgov

Fall 2011

Notes

1) Bethell, Leslie. Latin America: Economy and Society, 1870-1930. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Print.

2) Bromley, Rosemary D.F and Gareth A-Jones. “ Identifying the inner City of Latin America.” The Geographical Journal 16, No.2. (1996) 179-90. Web.

3) Ford, Larry, and Ernst Griffin. “A Model of Latin American City Structure.” American Geographical Society 70 No. 4 (1980): 397-422. Web.

4) Kent, Robert. B. Latin America: Regions and People. New York: The Guilford Press, 2006. Web.

5) Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 18, Nov. 2011.

6) Tufte, Thomas. Living with the Rubbish Queen: Telenovelas, Culture and Modernity in Brazil. Bedfordshire: John Libbey Publishing, 2000. Web.

7) Urbanization in Latin America.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 4 (2). (1963): 227-242. Web.

Works Cited

Bethell, Leslie. Latin America: Economy and Society, 1870-1930. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Print.

Bromley, Rosemary D.F and Gareth A-Jones. “ Identifying the inner City of Latin America.” The Geographical Journal 16, No.2. (1996) 179-90. Web.

Bethell, Leslie. Latin America: Economy and Society, 1870-1930. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Print.

“Urbanization in Latin America.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 4 (2). (1963): 227-242. Web

Kent, Robert. B. Latin America: Regions and People. New York: The Guilford Press, 2006. Web.

Ford, Larry, and Ernst Griffin. “A Model of Latin American City Structure.” American Geographical Society 70 No. 4 (1980): 397-422. Web.

Tufte, Thomas. Living with the Rubbish Queen: Telenovelas, Culture and Modernity in Brazil. Bedfordshire: John Libbey Publishing, 2000. Web.

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This entry was posted in 1950s, Brazil, Latin America, Latin American culture, location, New York, Oscar Niemeyer, relocation, topos, Uncategorized, United States. Bookmark the permalink.

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