Aspeaos de la vida social y cotidiana de Medellín, 1890-1930 by Catalina Reyes Cárdenas challenges some customary genres and usual interpretations of Colombian, especially Antioqueño, historiography. This work reacts to a centuries-long tradition of urban hagiography and costumbrista literature whereby the history of the chosen city, in this case Medellín, is lauded through “coffee table” anniversary-of-the-foundation books. While extremely valuable for their reprint of documents, photos, and essays, such books tend to uncritically exalt the past. This monograph explores many parallel themes, as Reyes Cárdenas investigates how turn-of-the-century Medellín was transformed from a small town into an urban metropolis, and from a commercial center to an industrial heartland. Yet there is a difference. Rather than the typical description of the Antioqueño capital as an “oasis of tranquility, cleanliness, social order, and [a] model of Catholic society” (p. xi), or as a city where industrialization was “mystified” and portrayed as “less than a traumatic process, without great social differences or inequalities ” (p. 50), this author illuminates the darker side of Medellín and its history.
Successive chapters provide negative twists to traditional hagiographic themes that include changing images of the city (space, transport, public services); portraits of diverse social groups (elites, artisans, workers); popular customs and mentalities; hygiene and health; and urban institutions (mental hospitals, juvenile homes). The author adds innovative chapters on women (marriage, occupations, education) and infants and children (poverty, juvenile institutions, sexuality). The contrast with previous interpretations is striking: here entrepreneurs not only succeed, they fail; the city is not only paved, it stinks; an idyllic-looking river repels with its filthy contents; supposedly docile female textile workers rebel; and, much less surprising, those at the top benefit while those at the bottom do not.
This exploration of the other side of turn-of-the-century Medellinense urban history is based on a wide variety of sources: municipal publications, magazines, newspapers, novels, judicial and religious reports, hygiene and teaching manuals, and city guides. Rarely utilized judicial and institutional archives as well as newly-accessible private family papers combine with oral interviews and the use of photographic collections to provide particularly insightful glimpses into attitudes toward physical and mental illness, relationships between husbands and wives, family attitudes toward vocations, courtship customs, and aspects of childhood education.
The monograph is less strong in its linkage of Medellinense trends to broader Latin American themes—consultation of classic works by Frank Safford (on education and professionals), Asuncion Lavrin (on women), and Donna Guy (on prostitution and medical reformers) would have improved the analysis. Attempts to draw linkages with late colonial and nineteenth-century Antioqueño trends—especially by tracing topics such as local diversions, the historicity of the entrepreneurial ethos, and variants of economic diversification—would also have benefited from deeper reading. Yet overall, this prizewinning monograph is innovatively constructed, profoundly researched, compellingly argued, and beautifully written. It will be of exceptional interest to Antioqueñólogos, Colombianists, and anyone interested in turn-of-the-century Latin American social and urban history.