In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Urban History

  • Introduction
  • General Works and Bibliographical Essays
  • Interdisciplinary Urban Studies
  • Biographies of Cities
  • Urban Cultural History
  • Histories of Urban Planning, Geography, and Architecture
  • Latin American Cities and the Atlantic World
  • Urban Economic Life
  • Urban Public Health
  • Urban Slavery and Urban Freedom
  • Race and the City
  • International Migration
  • Internal Migration and Urbanization
  • Gender and the City
  • Urban Poverty
  • Urban Politics
  • Riots, Protests, and Urban Social Movements
  • Work, Workers, and the City
  • Citizenship, Law, and the Informal City
  • Crime, Policing, and Urban Violence
  • Urban Disasters
  • Consumption and the Urban Middle Classes

Latin American Studies Urban History
Brodwyn Fischer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0114


Latin American urban history is a capacious field. “Urban history” can refer both to the history of cities and to history that unfolds within cities, encompassing a broad spectrum of methodological and thematic concerns. Latin America is a diverse region, and nearly every Latin American country has its own rich urban historiography. And historians have been analyzing cities for a very long time, often in intense dialogue with social science and cultural studies, leaving in their wake multiple strata of research and insight. Given this richness and diversity, any single bibliography necessarily excludes much. This article aims to introduce an international readership to the categories, methodologies, and themes that have shaped the evolution of Latin American urban history. This bibliography defines urban history broadly, but generally it includes only works in which the city itself assumes a central role. It favors more recent studies, but it includes multiple generations of works in subfields where important perspectives have fallen by the wayside. Most of the books listed are available in English, and accessible even to readers who lack extensive grounding in national historiographies. But the article also includes outstanding works in Spanish, Portuguese, and French, and the English-language works discuss national historiographies at length. The list tends to emphasize those countries where urban historiographies are densest—especially Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina—but it also integrates studies from across the region. Historians wrote most of these works, but social scientists and cultural scholars also appear, especially when the historiography has yet to tackle crucial questions and recent developments. The thematic subcategories include both well-developed and emerging historiographies. The list begins with general works, bibliographical essays, interdisciplinary collections, and “biographies” of particular cities. It continues with a long series of thematic subfields that have shaped the field over time: cultural and intellectual history, planning and spatial geography, Atlantic world connections, economic life, public health, slavery and freedom, race, migration, gender, poverty, politics, social movements, labor, citizenship and informality, crime and violence, consumption and the middle classes, and urban disasters. The books assembled here do not constitute the last word on Latin American urban history. Given the sheer variety of perspectives and methodologies encompassed by the field, this would be impossible. But this list does aim to serve as a first word, a preliminary representative guide to a dense, complex, sophisticated field that has long been central to Latin American historiography.

General Works and Bibliographical Essays

Recent synthetic works on Latin America’s urban history are relatively few, a fact that perhaps reflects the field’s sprawling and fragmented evolution. For the colonial period, Morse 1984 creatively synthesizes the then-extant historiography. Hoberman and Socolow 1986 contains an array of strong social history essays. Gilbert 1994 provides a good undergraduate-level introduction to demographic, spatial, and political history from the mid-20th century to 1990s. Modernists may garner the most from successive generations of historiographical essays: Scobie 1986, a contribution on demographic and social history; de Oliveira and Roberts 1994, an essay on the impact of mass urbanization and industrialization on urban social structures; Armus and Lear 1998, a brief but sweeping piece on Latin America’s urban historiography; and Rosenthal 2000, an intelligent reflection on public space in Latin American urban historiography. Almandoz Marte 2008 returns to the tradition of Richard Morse, providing a sweeping overview of Latin American intellectual production with its own historiographical compass.

  • Almandoz Marte, Arturo. Entre libros de historia urbana: Para una historiografia de la ciudad y del urbanismo en América Latina. Caracas, Venezuela: Equinoccio-Universidad Simón Bolívar, 2008.

    A welcome recent reflection on Latin America’s urban historiography. Almandoz focuses mainly on Spanish America (with some attention to Brazil) and highlights the historiography’s embeddedness in international intellectual currents. A strong introduction to classic works by scholars such as Jorge Hardoy, Richard Morse, José Luis Romero, and Roberto Segre, as well as an insightful critical analysis of more recent scholarship.

  • Armus, Diego, and John Lear. “The Trajectory of Latin American Urban History.” Journal of Urban History 24.3 (1998): 291–301.

    DOI: 10.1177/009614429802400301

    Brief but comprehensive, this article traces the trajectory of Latin American urban history, in the process interrogating its coherence as a field of study. Armus and Lear’s incorporation of the early phases of the recent boom in urban cultural history is especially useful, as is their periodization of the field.

  • de Oliveira, Orlandina, and Bryan Roberts. “Urban Growth and Urban Social Structure in Latin America, 1930–1990.” In The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 6, Latin America since 1930: Economy, Society and Politics. Part 1: Economy and Society. Edited by Leslie Bethell, 253–324. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    Considers the sociological impact of urbanization between 1930 and 1990, and especially the ways in which Latin America’s distinct patterns of economic development shaped the form and impact of mass urbanization. Oliveira and Roberts give particular attention to questions of class structure and inequality.

  • Gilbert, Alan. The Latin American City. London: Latin American Bureau, 1994.

    Well suited for undergraduates, this remains a strong socioeconomic, political, and geographical overview of Latin American urban development in the second half of the 20th century. Based mostly on English- and some Spanish-language publications, with relatively thin coverage of Brazil. The demographic tables are especially useful.

  • Hoberman, Louisa, and Susan Socolow. Cities and Society in Colonial Latin America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.

    Focused mainly on social groups and power structures, this collection’s chapters range across the social spectrum, investigating everything from the basis of urban economic, political, and military power to the roles of urban clergy to the structures of artisan guilds and the history of the urban poor.

  • Morse, Richard. “The Urban Development of Colonial Spanish America.” In The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 2, Colonial Latin America. Edited by Leslie Bethell, 67–104. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    This essay displays the creative erudition of a remarkable and eclectic urban historian, even as it introduces readers to the most significant works of colonial urban history. Those seeking an overview of an important period in intellectual history will also appreciate Morse’s “Los intelectuales latinoamericanos y la ciudad, 1870–1940.”

  • Rosenthal, Anton. “Spectacle, Fear, and Protest: A Guide to the History of Urban Public Space in Latin America.” Social Science History 24.1 (Spring 2000): 33–73.

    DOI: 10.1215/01455532-24-1-33

    This is a thoughtful overview with special emphasis on the question of urban public space. Specific sections focus on the history of urban social protest, writings on the social spaces of streets and plazas, and accounts of urban spectacle.

  • Scobie, James. “The Growth of Latin American Cities, 1870–1930.” In The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 4, c. 1870 to 1930. Edited by Leslie Bethel, 233–266. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    Scobie’s article provides a clear synthesis of Latin American urban history as it was practiced in the mid-1980s. Scobie emphasizes demographic change, economic function, and the impact of both on urban space, society, and politics.

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