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Urban Chroniclers in Modern Latin America

Urban Chroniclers in Modern Latin America
The Shared Intimacy of Everyday Life

A compelling study of the writers who used the genre of crónica—combining literary aestheticism with journalistic form—to capture seismic political and sociological shifts in the 1920s and 1930s.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

December 2011
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248 pages | 6 x 9 | 16 b&w photos |

An unstructured genre that blends high aesthetic standards with nonfiction commentary, the journalistic crónica, or chronicle, has played a vital role in Latin American urban life since the nineteenth century. Drawing on extensive archival research, Viviane Mahieux delivers new testimony on how chroniclers engaged with modernity in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and São Paulo during the 1920s and 1930s, a time when avant-garde movements transformed writers' and readers' conceptions of literature. Urban Chroniclers in Modern Latin America: The Shared Intimacy of Everyday Life examines the work of extraordinary raconteurs Salvador Novo, Cube Bonifant, Roberto Arlt, Alfonsina Storni, and Mário de Andrade, restoring the original newspaper contexts in which their articles first emerged.

Each of these writers guided their readers through a constantly changing cityscape and advised them on matters of cultural taste, using their ties to journalism and their participation in urban practice to share accessible wisdom and establish their role as intellectual arbiters. The intimate ties they developed with their audience fostered a permeable concept of literature that would pave the way for overtly politically engaged chroniclers of the 1960s and 1970s. Providing comparative analysis as well as reflection on the evolution of this important genre, Urban Chroniclers in Modern Latin America is the first systematic study of the Latin American writers who forged a new reading public in the early twentieth century.

  • Abbreviations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Cities, Publics, and Urban Chroniclers in Latin America: 1920s–1930s
  • Chapter 2. A Common Citizen Writes Buenos Aires: Roberto Arlt's Aguafuertes porteñas
  • Chapter 3. Taking Readers for a Ride: Mário de Andrade's Táxi
  • Chapter 4. The Chronicler as Streetwalker: Salvador Novo Performs Genre
  • Chapter 5. Overstepping Femininity: The Chronicle and Gender Norms
  • Afterword
  • Appendices: Five Chronicles in Translation, translated by Jacinto R. Fombona
  • 1. "Corrientes, at Night," by Roberto Arlt
  • 2. "The Cult of Statues," by Mário de Andrade
  • 3. "On the Advantages of Not Being Fashionable," by Salvador Novo
  • 4. "The Perfect Typist," by Alfonsina Storni
  • 5. "Long Hair and Short Ideas," by Cube Bonifant
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Viviane Mahieux is Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Irvine. She teaches and writes on modern and contemporary Latin American literature, with a particular focus on Mexico. Her edition of the chronicles of Cube Bonifant, Una pequeña marquesa de Sade: crónicas selectas (1921-1948) was published in Mexico in 2009.


A somewhat unstructured genre that combines literary aestheticism with journalistic form, the Latin American crónica, or chronicle, has been surprisingly successful in recent years at consolidating critical recognition with popular appeal. Since the 1970s and 1980s, many of Latin America's most prominent intellectuals have devoted themselves primarily, if not exclusively, to this genre. Such is the case for Carlos Monsiváis and Elena Poniatowska in Mexico, Pedro Lemebel in Chile, and María Moreno in Argentina, writers who command enormous esteem within their respective countries and wield authority on issues ranging from literature and popular culture to public policy and the politics of representation. The importance of the chronicle at the turn of the twenty-first century hinges on its inherent ability to capture urban life in all of its chaotic, fragmented, and often dysfunctional grandeur. At a time when so many cities have reached "postapocalyptic" levels, to borrow Monsiváis' description of Mexico City, chroniclers have become the intermediaries through whom the gritty reality of city streets, like the modest accounts of isolated neighborhoods and ignored public happenings, are recognized and resignified. They write about the characters, cityscapes, and practices that have been left out of official versions of national modernity, highlighting how an increasingly globalized mass culture can be locally and creatively appropriated. More than ever, guides are needed to grasp the overwhelming experience that is the Latin American city, and chroniclers have stepped in as the ironic, irreverent, and indispensable commentators of everyday life.


That the urban chronicle has become such a necessary genre would have surprised a number of its early contributors, who in the late nineteenth century disparaged it as a side job for poets in need of a salary and were pessimistic about its future. Many of the founders of the Spanish American literary movement of modernismo, such as José Martí, Rubén Darío, and Manuel Gutierrez Nájera were also journalists who published chronicles regularly throughout most of their writing lives. Their articles dwelled on the effects of modernity on the city, often revealing the anxieties of writers who felt trapped between a desired creative autonomy and their dependence on a profession limited by commercial norms. Regardless of their doubts, the journalistic chronicle has remained a staple of writers and their publics since the end of the nineteenth century. Many authors, Gabriel García Márquez among them, consider that writing chronicles played an essential part of their formative years. But even if the chronicle played a consistent role in shaping Latin American literature and culture since the nineteenth century, the genre's lasting importance was long undernoted.


It was not until the late twentieth century that the chronicle began to receive the systematic critical attention it so richly deserved. Carlos Monsiváis' volume A ustedes les consta: Antología de la crónica en México, originally published in 1980, brought together a selection of chronicles written in Mexico between 1843 and 1979 and provided a crucial first step in establishing the aesthetic continuity of a genre that until then had remained mostly invisible to literary history. Monsiváis' anthology astutely situates the chronicle as a genre that appeals to, and is shaped by, heterogeneous reading publics. The title of the anthology A ustedes les consta, loosely translated to "As you can attest," is briefly explained in the blurb at the back of the book: "As you can attest. You, readers of this literary and journalistic genre, the chronicle, are and have been witnesses—and in a very particular way—actors of an admirable creative and informative operation in Mexican culture." From its conception, Monsiváis' groundbreaking anthology establishes the chronicle as a flexible genre that is defined by the collaboration of its public and that has consistently intertwined historical events, minor happenings, and aesthetic traditions to offer readers a unique immersion into their present contexts.


In the years that followed the appearance of Monsiváis' anthology, important scholarly books that focused on the chronicles written by Spanish American modernistas were published. The works of Aníbal González (1983), Julio Ramos (1989), and Susana Rotker (1992) contributed to establishing the literary importance of the chronicle and to situating it as a genre that emerged alongside the consolidation of the newspaper industry in the nineteenth century. Like González, Ramos, and Rotker, I do not trace the origins of the chronicle back to colonial times—as did Monsiváis, in his double function as critic and chronicler, for his introduction to A ustedes les consta. There is certainly continuity in the implications of the genre since the colony, especially when considering its status as a nonfictional, chronological rendition of events. However, I consider that glossing over the significant differences between a colonial text, usually addressed to a single person of authority, and a journalistic one, which responds to the interests of a broad public and to the requests of an editor, has often reflected a strategic choice to link the genre to a foundational historical moment. In this case, establishing a colonial genealogy for the chronicle enables Monsiváis to address both a public's everyday concerns and broader questions of a national imaginary.


The past decade has seen a growing interest in the Latin American chronicle among U.S.-based academics. Recent books have focused specifically on the genre's critical dimension in Mexico from the late 1960s onward; I can cite as examples the works of Linda Egan (2001) and Anadeli Bencomo (2002), as well as Ignacio Corona and Beth Jörgensen's edition of essays on the contemporary Mexican chronicle (2002). At the same time, various scholars throughout Latin America have revalued the legacies of diverse chroniclers, publishing anthologies and biographies of figures such as Machado de Assis and Clarice Lispector (Brazil), Roberto Arlt and Enrique González Tuñón (Argentina), to mention just a few. Presses, large and small, have also responded to this increased interest by issuing anthologies featuring the works of various chroniclers, selected according to a surprising variety of criteria. As a result, chronicles are easier to find today than ever before, and they will hopefully form a part of many literary conversations, academic or not, for years to come.


The present book strives to contribute to these ongoing discussions on the urban chronicle by focusing on the 1920s and early 1930s, a period that has yet to be established as a formative moment in the evolution of the genre. I propose that these crucial decades, when modernizing media and avant-garde movements dramatically changed how writers and consumers thought about literature, can help us understand how the chronicle has come to play such an important role in contemporary Latin America. Because the chronicle responds both to aesthetic influences and to concrete events, it was particularly subject to the changes that affected the lives and tastes of city dwellers in the 1920s. It also absorbed and reflected some of the most urgent issues put forth by the avant-gardes of the period—namely, a questioning of cultural hierarchies, a political engagement, a will to provoke a complacent public, and at the same time, a belief in the role of art and literature in the construction of a modern identity. The chroniclers of the 1920s and 1930s were active participants in the cities they described, and their articles combined erudite knowledge, literary style, and media savvy with street credibility. By embracing a plurality of registers, they transformed the heterogeneity of the chronicle into a unique means of intervening in both literature and society. The discursive fluidity of the genre, especially as written in the 1920s, thus paved the way for the self-fashioning of the contemporary chronicler as a mobile subject whose public status results from an agile balancing act between high culture and the urban popular. The growing relevance of the chronicle during this early period would also foreshadow the urban turn taken by cultural conversations in Latin America since the latter half of the twentieth century.


The writers analyzed in the following chapters—Roberto Arlt, Mário de Andrade, Salvador Novo, Alfonsina Storni, and Cube Bonifant—all interacted with the avant-gardes of their respective cities while earning a living by writing regular columns for the popular, or middlebrow, press. They wrote from three cities with an innovative art scene and a strong press industry: Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and Mexico City. These cities grew immensely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, each in its own particular way. Buenos Aires and Mexico City were cosmopolitan centers with a tradition in journalism and a press industry that was expanding to meet the demands of a growing educated middle class. Mexico City was still reeling from the 1910 revolution; its print culture was on the rise, but most readers still came from higher social tiers. In Buenos Aires, a healthy economy and strong European immigration ensured readers from a broad social spectrum. In the 1920s, São Paulo, having recently grown into an important commercial center through the boom of the coffee industry in the early twentieth century, was new to the cosmopolitan air that had accompanied the journalistic and publishing industry of Buenos Aires and Mexico City for a few years already. It did not have Rio de Janeiro's long tradition of journalism and letters, yet its commercial effervescence quickly transformed it into a symbol of the nation's aspirations for progress and modernity.


Although the chroniclers examined in this study differ in many aspects, all identified with urban modernity, seemed relatively at ease with new media, and found creative ways to negotiate their participation in an increasingly commodified culture. Roberto Arlt once compared his role as a writer to that of a builder, emphasizing his condition as a salaried worker paid to construct texts (RA II, 201). This analogy was apt, for in the 1920s and 1930s Buenos Aires expanded and new neighborhoods were sprouting up on its outskirts. In this manner, Arlt proposed himself as an agent of the change that was transforming his city. He didn't simply adapt to urban novelty; he set down the foundations for his city's future. In São Paulo, Mário de Andrade chose to title one of his most interesting columns Táxi, thus associating his writing to movement, commerce, and communication. His links to urban modernity were clear: his column doubled as public transportation, offering new ways of crossing the city and instigating a modern way of seeing, mediated by the speed of a motorized vehicle. A series of six articles called Rádio (1931), like an article titled "Zeppelin" (1930), also confirmed his awareness of the parallel between communications, technology, and his role as a chronicler. Salvador Novo, like Mário de Andrade, was a great admirer of the radio (VE I, 39). What attracted Novo to the radio was not simply the immediacy of its reception, but that it could link him intimately, even sensually, to his audience: anyone wearing slippers or pajamas could listen to him speak while resting comfortably in the privacy of the home. For the women chroniclers studied in this book, Alfonsina Storni and Cube Bonifant, the modern experience through which they negotiated their public writing personas was undoubtedly the cinema. Films provided models for the risky cosmopolitan femininity of the New Woman and, at the same time, created fodder for debates in which stereotypes of modern female sexuality could be confirmed or refuted. In the particular case of Bonifant, the cinema provided a second wind to her journalistic career, and she became one of the most important Mexican film critics of the 1930s and 1940s.


For all of its unsettling aspects, urban change was, for the chroniclers studied in this book, an opportunity to ensure that their columns became necessary reading. They wrote for and about their city, describing a modernity that had already arrived, even if it was uneven, out of place, incomplete. Only a few years before, Spanish American modernistas had both desired and felt threatened by a modernity that they imagined elsewhere: Gutiérrez Nájera had dwelled on the isolated Parisian frivolity of Mexico City; the exiled Martí had described a monstrous New York for a distant Latin American audience. The chroniclers of the 1920s instead used their columns as a means to link themselves with the changes that were affecting, publicly and privately, every city dweller's life. They were not lone mediators between a distant modernity and a local reading public; rather, they seldom traveled and instead strove to give meaning to local urban life. They were the personal interlocutors who walked with their readers through busy streets, accompanied them to cinemas and cafés, shared streetcar rides, read the same newspapers, and heard the same radio programs. Sometimes they even intruded into family gatherings or eavesdropped on conversations, participating in the shared voyeurism and forced intimacy of urban life at close quarters.


As both members and spokespeople of modernizing communities, the chroniclers of the 1920s guided their publics through a constantly changing cityscape and advised on matters of cultural taste, playing an instrumental role in shaping the identity and collective memory of their cities. They took advantage of the chronicle's ambivalent location between literature and journalism, combining accessibility (a versatile public persona that appeals to a broad audience) with intellect (literary and artistic knowledge). The concept of an accessible intellectual, which guides my analysis throughout this book, thus points to how these modern men and women used the supposed "weakness" of short-lived journalism as an asset. They showcased their urban engagement through the daily practice of the chronicle, highlighting similarities with their readers by participating in the shared routine of everyday life. At the same time, their articles fomented a permeable idea of literature in which aesthetic ambition and a growing media industry could collaborate.


In the 1920s and 1930s, chronicles were short articles that commented on various aspects of city life in a light and anecdotal tone. They were written with a self-conscious literary style, often in the first person, and were framed by a signature, if not also a caricature or photograph of the chronicler who penned it. At the time, these articles were intended only for publication in the daily press, and consequently the works of many chroniclers who were widely read in their day remain forgotten in yellowing newspaper archives. Relatively few articles from this early period have been collected and reissued in book form, and most of the editions that circulate today reflect the canonization of their authors through accomplishments in other, more "literary" genres, such as the novel.


With the exception of Cube Bonifant, the chroniclers grouped here were successful in their ventures as novelists, playwrights, or poets. Most of the articles I analyze have therefore been reedited and published in volumes that tend to highlight literary value by diminishing journalistic origins. This study aims to return the chronicle to the newspaper page and reflect on how the incipient industrial media of the early twentieth century shaped the public roles of chroniclers and the modern urban imaginaries they proposed. Even if the chroniclers analyzed in this book were seldom, if ever, read outside their respective countries, their articles dialogued with each other in surprisingly intimate ways and hence deserve to be read comparatively, bringing together different locations, ideologies, and aesthetic orientations. The heterogeneous unity of Latin America, in the context of both urban development and literary tradition, will serve as a starting point in this study of the evolution of the urban chronicle in the early twentieth century.


I read the chronicle as a forum where long-lasting aesthetic influences and immediate occurrences intersect and interact. What at first glance appears to be a simple and "accessible" article that merely intends to entertain can also yield complex ideological and literary interpretations. Likewise, a politically charged article can appeal to a specific historical moment, yet shy from the lasting relevance of a more complex intervention. As a result, this book proposes a dual reading of the chronicle. While I approach the genre in a literary manner, tracing influences, common rhetorical turns, and stylistic engagements that encompass broad literary traditions (mostly Spanish American modernismo and the Argentine, Brazilian, and Mexican vanguards), I also consider the chronicle as a product that is shaped by its original context of production and reception. I am well aware that one could find an inherent tension in the objectives that guide this book. On one hand, I seek to reconstruct the literary genealogy of a dispersed and minor genre that focuses on capturing a fleeting, localized present. On the other hand, I wish to go beyond a literary reading of the chronicle, to explore the very concrete role played by the genre in the shaping of modern urban cultures during the tumultuous 1920s. Yet doing justice to the complexity of the chronicle demands a flexible approach that, like the genre itself, is open to heterogeneous influences and objectives.


In the following chapter, I present the chroniclers of the 1920s as accessible intellectuals whose relationship to media and literary culture marked a turning point in the status of the chronicle—and the public visibility of chroniclers—in Latin America. I begin with a glance back at the concerns of late nineteenth-century chroniclers, such as Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, who saw in the rise of the telegraph the exclusion of literary writing from the newspaper. I then show how new media did not necessarily imply a renunciation of literary aesthetics for the generation of chroniclers who wrote during the avant-garde period. Instead, negotiating with an industrial press and with modern communications led to a more flexible repositioning of the genre as part of a daily practice—both of reading and of writing—that shaped the chronicler's role as a cultural mediator who shared everyday city life with his or her readers.


Chapter 2 looks at Roberto Arlt's Aguafuertes porteñas, published in the daily El Mundo starting in 1928, to explore his relationship with the space of Buenos Aires and his self-fashioning as a spokesperson for and a member of his urban community. I trace the tensions that surface between the solitude of the writer and the public availability of the chronicler, between a conceptual approach to the city—privileged by the literary cartography of Buenos Aires that pitched Boedo and Florida, the city's two avant-garde circles, against each other—and a practical one, which Arlt found in Corrientes, a bustling street where a variety of cultural offerings mingled indiscriminately. Arlt's persona as an accessible intellectual hinges around his belonging to the lower-class and lower middle-class communities of Buenos Aires. Although he was not affiliated with class privilege, Arlt built his cultural capital through roundabout means. By defending the value of short-lived cultural products, such as the chronicle, Arlt paradoxically used their transient nature to forge an alternative route toward literary permanence.


Chapter 3 focuses on how Mário de Andrade established in his chronicles a relation between commercial texts, nation building, and the city of São Paulo. For Mário, the chronicle revealed a tension between movement and stability, written text and orality, city and nation. Most chroniclers that make up this study sidestepped nationalist preoccupations and privileged the construction of a sense of urban belonging, but Mário was profoundly invested in Brazilian identity. Although he considered the chronicle (or, more precisely, his aptly named column Táxi) a vehicle for cultural movement and change, the opportunities this medium provided were limited by the uneven modernization of a country with a large illiterate rural population. The chronicle could not yet permit him to address issues outside the limited readership of São Paulo, and as a result, this writer hesitated to take full advantage of his public accessibility as a chronicler in the way that Arlt was doing in Buenos Aires, a city with a growing population of literate immigrants and potential readers. Nonetheless, Mário's column Táxi would strive to rhetorically bridge the gap between the urban and the rural by bringing oral culture and folkloric traditions into the São Paulo cityscape, using them to imagine a dialogic relationship with his readers.


While chapters 2 and 3 focus on the relationship between the chronicle and the particularities of a specific cityscape, chapter 4 approaches Salvador Novo's chronicles of the early 1920s through the prism of the debates that took place in Mexico on the "feminization" of literature after the revolution. In these polemics, virility was equated to "serious" literature that focused on the revolutionary struggle; effeminacy was associated with literature that privileged aesthetic, frivolous, and cosmopolitan matters. These debates indirectly expressed a concern about the growing presence of a popular press that was often feminized in the discourse of the times, a factor that Novo consciously toyed with by fashioning the chronicle as a genre that performed both the "masculinity" of literature and the "femininity" of mass media. Doubling as a temptress or a prostitute, the chronicler chose to strip literature of its aura, making it desirable, accessible, and public. Novo thus designated his mostly upper middle-class readers as the sexual/textual accomplices that helped him open a space for a cosmopolitan literary style in the public sphere. As a flirtatious intellectual who nonetheless remained politically conservative, Novo used his transgressive sexuality as a means to intervene in the major cultural conversations of 1920s Mexico.


The last chapter expands my reflection on the relationship between gender, media, and the chronicle by focusing on two of the few women writers to develop a significant presence as journalists in the 1920s and early 1930s. I analyze articles by Alfonsina Storni (Buenos Aires) and Cube Bonifant (Mexico City), women writers whose chronicles have received little critical attention, even though they published regularly in the press of their day and developed their public personas as modern writing women through their journalism. I discuss the ways in which Storni and Bonifant undermined the supposedly straightforward accessibility of their articles for female readers, and show how they used the chronicle's rhetorical flexibility to critique and challenge the limitations imposed on them as women journalists. I then return to questions of urban space by reading their narrative "walks" through the diverse offerings of their cities as a means to undermine the restricted discursive space allotted to them on the newspaper page. While both Storni and Bonifant share many of the characteristics of the other chroniclers included in this book, their personas as accessible intellectuals with close ties to their readers had ambiguous implications, for addressing a heterogeneous public as women writers was considered both a transgression of journalistic hierarchies and a sign of a dubious morality.


This book does not intend to be exhaustive; instead, it aims to illustrate a distinctive moment in the trajectory of the urban chronicle through a few detailed examples of writers who engaged with the radical growth of Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and São Paulo during the 1920s and early 1930s. Many other chroniclers who began writing during the same decades could be read with similar questions in mind. Their works, however, fall outside the scope of this present project, mostly because I have chosen to limit my focus to writers who dialogued with avant-garde movements while writing for a broad newspaper audience with whom they shared local urban referents. Avant-garde writers such as César Vallejo (Peru) and Alejo Carpentier (Cuba) wrote chronicles regularly during the period studied here, but they wrote from Paris, describing this cosmopolitan city for the readers they left at home. Renato Leduc (Mexico) was a poet before he was a chronicler, and did not begin writing regularly for newspapers until his stay in Paris during the late 1930s. Rubem Braga (Brazil) wrote numerous chronicles on the gritty underbelly of glamorous Rio de Janeiro, yet he remained aloof from the vanguard happenings in neighboring São Paulo. Tarsila do Amaral and Patricia Galvão (Brazil) played starring roles in São Paulo's dynamic avant-garde, yet for various reasons, they did not write chronicles regularly until later in their lives, and hence their articles do not strongly reflect their contributions to the vanguardist conversations of the 1920s and early 1930s. Mexico's Catalina D'Erzell wrote copiously for the press of the 1920s and 1930s, but her chronicles were of a traditional bent and did not reflect on the complexity of urban modernity with the incisiveness of Bonifant's.


While it would be futile to embark on a comprehensive analysis of the evolution of such a dispersed and heterogeneous genre as the chronicle, it is my hope that the different examples explored in the following chapters can shed light on the crucial role that the chronicle played in the development of modern urban identities in Latin America. This book is therefore an invitation to find, in this analysis of the chronicles that circulated during the dynamic 1920s, clues that can guide us in understanding the multiple ways in which urban chroniclers continue to intervene in contemporary Latin American public life.



“Urban Chroniclers in Modern Latin America offers to its readers an insightful approach to the avant-garde period that sheds light on a genre intrinsically urban and dialogic. Furthermore, Mahieux presents her arguments in a clear and convincing way, and an informed reader will certainly appreciate this book. If you are interested in Latin American avant-garde culture, urban chronicles or journalistic writing, I invite you to consult this book that deals with an important period in the cultural history of this region.”
Revista de Estudios Hispanicos


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