K-12 Teaching Resources

Cities and Urbanization in Latin America

Update No. 78, by Nan Volinsky, Outreach Coordinator
December 1998
For Grades 5 - 12 and college educators: Teaching About...


There were traditions of urbanism in Latin America during the pre-Columbian era, such as were developed in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (Mexico) and in the Inca capital of Cuzco (Peru). Tenochtitlán was the largest pre-Columbian city. With 100,000 people around A.D. 500, it grew to 300,000 at the time it was destroyed by Cortés in 1521. And Maya sites such as Tikal, with 55,000 people at its height from A.D. 600-830, were densely populated administrative urban centers.

With Spanish conquest and colonization came a new tradition in urbanism, “as towns became the instrument and vehicle for the shipment of agricultural and mineral wealth to Europe. By 1580, Spaniards had established 225 populated cities....Nearly every major urban center of Latin America had been founded by 1600; by 1620 Mexico City boasted 100,000; Salvador da Bahia in Brazil, 21,000; Lima, 9,500; 8,000 in Recife” (Ward 1996:165). And the mining center of Potosí in Bolivia grew to 160,000 people by 1650, making it the largest city in South America (Ward 1996:165).

Urbanization during the post-Independence era, from the 1820s onward, was shaped by export economies. “Mineral-based economies, together with tropical agricultural systems built around plantations like coffee in Brazil and sugar, tended to create urban enclaves rather than a broader system of urban centers” (Ward 1996:166). The size of the population that engaged in the principal economic sector also shaped patterns of urbanism. “Where this population was relatively small and narrow (as in the case of Bolivian tin), then urbanization was stunted; where the population was large and more broadly based (e.g., coffee in Brazil, or the sequence of agricultural products in Argentina), then urbanization moved ahead rapidly, and towns were more dispersed” (Ward 1996:166-7).

The Latin American economic base shifted from agriculture to industry and services from 1900 to 1940, and its population shifted from rural areas to urban centers. (Ward (1996:168) defines an urban center as one with more than 10,000 inhabitants.) This trend continued from 1950 to 1980 while the vast majority of countries showed significant rates of growth due to heavy European immigration (especially to Brazil, Argentina, and Chile) and sustained reduction in mortality rates. Industrialization and urbanization were coalescing trends as these growing countries “sought to develop the import-substituting industrialization strategy that underpinned the economic “miracle” experienced in countries like Brazil and Mexico” (Ward 1996:168). “Occupations in agriculture, for example, represented over 55% of total employment in 1950 and only 33% in 1980, with a corresponding increase in manufacturing and services-related occupations” (Guimarães 1997:189). “Urban migration was a direct outcome of the new demand for (cheap) labor as countries industrialized from the 1950s onward. Almost half of the urban population growth at the beginning of the 1950s in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela can be accounted for by rural migration” (Guimarães 1997:190).

“Whereas the total population doubled between 1950 and 1980, the urban population quadrupled (Guimarães 1997:189). Urban growth had accelerated from increasing rural-urban migration, many of whom were in their early child-bearing years and could enjoy better health services and consequently declining mortality rates.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) is an excellent web source for recent Latin American population statistics. For a table of total population statistics for Latin American countries, point your browser to http://www.iadb.org/int/sta/english/ipaxnet/ab/a1.htm. For a table of urban and rural population statistics, point to http://www.iadb.org/int/sta/english/ipaxnet/ab/a2.htm. From these two tables, you can note three trends for Latin America as a whole: (1) a declining annual growth rate of total population in Latin America, down from 2.5% between 1970 and 1980, to 1.7% between 1990 and 1997, (2) a -0.8% decline in the rural growth rate, and (3) an increase in the share of population in urban centers, from 64% urban population in 1980, to 71.9% in 1990, and to 77.7% in 1997. Overall, demography in Latin America has become polarized between a dwindling rural population and increasingly populated urban centers, where resources, government, and product investment are concentrated.

All countries in South America have populations that are more than 50% urban. The countries with at least 70% urban population are Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Venezuela is the most urban of Latin American countries, with 94.8% of the national population living in cities in 1997. Haiti is the least urban Latin American country, with only 32.4% of the national population now living in cities.

“In 1992 four of the world's thirteen “megacities” (cities with over 10 million people) were in Latin America: São Paulo, Greater Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City” (Ward 1996:168).

“Ten of the thirteen most populated cities in the world in the year 2000, with over 13 million inhabitants, will be located in the developing world; half of these will be in Latin America, with Mexico City and São Paulo at the top of the list” (Guimarães 1996:190).

Urban Shantytowns Since the 1950s, many elites and middle classes of Latin American cities moved to the suburbs, leaving the inner city for “mixed residential and commercial land uses, modern commerce and business, government offices, small businesses and workshops, and working-class rental housing” (Ward 1996:168). New urban citizens were an integral part of the urban economy, “but on terms that left them poorly paid and unable to qualify for housing credit or access to legal dwellings” (Ward 1996:167). After living with family or in rental tenements in the inner city, “city born and migrants alike searched for their own home in the suburbs, by occupying unused land through mass illegal “invasions.” As a result of metropolization, about “60% of the urban population lacks access to adequate sanitation services and clean water,...and between 25% to 65% of the urban population lives in precarious housing conditions” (Guimarães 1997:191). Such shantytowns are known, for example, as pueblos jóvenes (young towns) in Lima, tugurios in Colombia, favelas in Rio de Janeiro, poblaciones in Santiago, Chile, rancherías in Caracas, and trenchtowns in Kingston, Jamaica. Residents's grassroots efforts, combined with “increasing government intervention to provide basic services, often upgrade these neighborhoods into the working-class barrios that today dominate the urban fabric of most Latin American cities” (Ward 1996:169).

Literature References and Instructional Media

There is a number of instructional media designed to introduce Grades 5 - 12 and college to Latin American cities, urbanization, and youth life in shantytowns. I first present some literature references on Latin American urbanism for the teacher.

Literature References for Teachers

Altamirano, Teófilo, and Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, eds. Migrants, Regional Identities, and Latin American Cities. Society for Latin American Anthropology Publication Series, Volume 13. 1997.

Guimarães, Roberto P. "The Environment, Population, and Urbanization." In Understanding Contemporary Latin America. Richard S. Hillman, ed. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers. Pp. 177-207.

Hardoy, Jorge E. Pre-Columbian Cities. N.Y., Walker, 1973. 602 p., bibl., maps, plates. “Translation of earlier Spanish text with substantial revisions in some sections. Includes detailed review of ethnohistorical as well as archaeological evidence relating to urbanization in the New World.”

Ingram, Gregory K. and Alan Carroll. The Spatial Structure of Latin American Cities. (Journal of Urban Economics [Academic Press, New York] 9:2, March 1981, p. 257-273, appendix, bibl., tables). “Census data from 1950, 1960, and 1970 are used to compare various characteristics of Latin American and North American cities. While newer North American cities are more decentralized, Latin American cities have centralized population densities similar to those of older North American cities. Concentrations of high-status groups still occur in metropolitan areas of Latin American cities, but they are declining.”

Kubler, George. Cities of Latin America since Discovery. ( Settlements in the Americas: cross-cultural perspectives. Edited by Ralph Bennett. Newark, Del.: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1993, p. 17-27, bibl. ) “General overview surveys urban history of the colonial period.”

Lobo, Susan. A House of My Own: Social Organization in the Squatter Settlements of Lima, Peru. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1982. 190 p.: bibl., ill., index. “Shows that village peasants create an ordered and congenial society in urban shantytowns. Attributes this process to villager's ability to create a closely-knit social network based on adaptation of kinship ties.”

Lloyd, Peter Cutt. The "Young Towns" of Lima: Aspects of Urbanization in Peru. Cambridge, England: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980. 160 p.: bibl., index, maps. “General introduction to Lima shanty-towns, centered on a case study of Medalla Milagrosa, a relatively small, older (1961) barriada near Magdalena del Mar. Covers work, family life, community organization, relationship to larger metropolis, and meaning of marginality.”

Mangin, William. Latin American Squatter Settlements: a Problem and a Solution. (in Remmer, Karen L. and Gilbert W. Merkx eds. New Perspectives on Latin America. “Author argues that some standard myths exist concerning the nature of squatter settlements around Latin American cities and that many of these myths are distortions or false. He contends that the settlements represent a solution to a complex problem of rapid urbanization and migration, not the problem itself.”

Rowe, John H. Urban Settlements in Ancient Peru. (IAS/NP [Nawpa Pacha. Institute of Andean Studies. Berkeley, Calif.], 1, 1963, p. 1-28, illus.). “Compares some urban settlements of pre-Spanish Peru as being equal in size and importance to great cities of antiquity in Old World.”

Ward, Peter M. 1996 “Cities and Urbanization.” In Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture. Barbara A. Tenenbaum, ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Volume 2. Pp. 164-169.

Literature for Grades 5 - 7

Children of the World. By London and Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens Children's Books, 1990. For Grades 5-7. “Each hard cover contains 63 pages, including texts and photos. Texts trace the daily life of a child living in a particular Latin American country, both in urban and rural settings. Each text has a section providing vital statistics and data such as brief historical reviews, population and ethnic groups, land and climate as well as a glossary of useful Spanish terms. The Brazil edition contains a Portuguese glossary. Includes full color political and physical map of each country. Countries covered are: Bolivia - Porfirio, an Aymara Indian boy living on Little Suriqui Island in Lake Titicaca. Brazil - Camille and André, living in Rio de Janeiro. Costa Rica - Cristina, living in a farm in a rural village. Cuba - Alain, living in the capital city of Havana. El Salvador - Andrés, living in a poor section of the capital city of San Salvador. Guatemala - Maria, living in a Mayan Indian village in Santiago, Atitlán. Mexico - Maria Elena, living in the city if Guadalajara. Nicaragua - Michael, living in the city of León. Peru - Ana Patricia, living in Jesús Maria , a section of the capital city.”

Instructional Media: Maps and Geography

Introduction to the Geography of Latin America and the Caribbean. By Jack Child, 1994. Computer disk for Grades 9-12. US$49.95. GESSLER Publishing CO., 10e Chuach St., Roanoke, Virginia 24011. 1-800 456-5825 or (703) 345-1429. Fax (703) 342-7172. “For use at all levels, this program has a Spanish and English mode and teaches geography by interweaving environmental issues and urbanization trends to create an integrated perception of geography's role in the history and development of Latin America. Students have access to six distinct perspectives: physical geography, climate and vegetation, etc. Each segment has a challenging series of comprehension questions, with error correction.”

Latin America Today: An Atlas of Reproducible Pages is an 8.5" x 11" loose leaf set of maps in binder format published by World Eagle: Wellesley, MA(1992). “The 151 pages cover 20 Latin American countries. Graphs and tables of vital statistics for teaching middle and high school students about the peoples, economies, and geographies of the countries. This publication is a great source for building student data bases and generating class discussions as well as exercises. Text is enriched by concise and highly useful sections providing backgrounds and overviews to the region.”

Map Outlines: Latin America. Social Studies School Service, distributors. 20 pp. plus 20 transparencies. “20 maps include the Western Hemisphere, a Latin America map puzzle, a comparison of landforms, climate, altitude, river systems, cities, population, Mexico, Central America, Panama Canal, capitals, temperatures, rainfall and vegetation, and South American countries. Grades 7-12.”

Mapping Latin America. (nd). For Grades 6-9. SPICE (Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education), (650) 723-1114. Stanford, CA: Stanford University. 59 pp. “Introduces important geographical concepts and terms while teaching about the basic physical and political geography of Latin America through seven self-contained interactive lessons.”

Instructional Media: City Lifeways in Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil

Continent on the Move: Migration and Urbanization. The Annenberg/CPB Collection, 1993. VHS video (60 min.) for Grades 9-12 and college. “Part three of the Americas series explores the causes and effects of one of the most important forces transforming the Americas: the migration of people within the region. Focuses on Mexico and rural-urban migration, particularly one family.”

Misa Colombiana: The City of Medellin, Colombia and it's Residents of "Turgurios." By Anne Fischel, Glenn McNatt. 1977. Video for Grades 9-12. US$30.00 rental; $145.00 purchase. Documentary Educational Resources, 101 Morse Street, Watertown, Massachusetts 02172. 1- 800-569-6621 or (617)926-0491, Fax (617)926-9519. Email: sscudder@delphi.com. “At the turn of the century, only four of the Latin American countries had ten percent of their population living in cities of more than 20,000 people. Fifty years later, one quarter of the total Latin American population lived in cities, and it is growing.”

Recuerdos de Mi Barrio: Spontaneous Settlements in Cali, Colombia. By Harry Van Oudenallen, 1993. Video for Grades 6-12. US$75.00 purchase, US$25.00 rental. Center for Latin America, University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, PO Box 413, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53201. (414) 229-5986, Fax (414) 229-2879. “Self-help housing and community development. A study of the district of Aguablanca, once an invasion settlement, which now houses approximately one-forth the population of Cali.”

Contrasting Urban Lifestyles in Brazil. By Leland Stanford Junior University, 1984. 34 pp. and 35 slides, curriculum suggestions for Grades 6-12. US$25.00 educational membership. World Affairs Council of Boston, 22 Batterymarch Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02109. (617) 482-1740. “The dynamic urban culture of Brazil is examined by focusing on Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Slides, maps, charts, and activities introduce universals of world cultures: environment, nutrition, shelter, education, transportation, family life, religion, and recreation.”

Favelas of Rio de Janeiro. By J. Guidry, New Orleans: Roger Thayer Stone Center for Latin American Studies, Tulane University, 1988. 9 pp. and 28 slides for Grades 7-12 and college. Order from University of Connecticut, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 843 Bolton Road U-161, Room 3, Storrs, Connecticut 06269-1161. (860) 486-4964, Fax (860) 486-2963, Email: lamsadm2@uconnvm.edu. “A squatter settlement or favela in one of Brazil's cities illustrates problems of rapid urbanization and poverty, as well as community organization. Contains a teacher's guide, suggested readings, and activities.”

From SPICE (http://www.stanford.edu/group/las/spicepb.html) we find Why do People Move? Migration from Latin AmWednesday, January 11, 2006 1:18ion through specific contemporary case studies from Latin America. Through interactive group activities, students will discover reasons people leave their communities. Poetry, music, drawing, and personal testimonies are used to transmit the flight of political refugees, the quest for economic opportunities, and the risks taken by some immigrants.Using their own families' migration histories as a starting point, students will come away with a better understanding of this significant human phenomenon. Includes audio tape. 95 pp. $44.95

References were drawn from:

  • Handbook of Latin American Studies. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/hlas/.
  • Latin America Data Base (LADB) web site for secondary educators, Resources for Teaching about the Americas (RETAnet). http://retanet.unm.edu/.
  • Outreach Resource Library Catalog, University of Florida, Center for Latin American Studies, Outreach and Special Projects. http://www.latam.ufl.edu/outreach/outreachlib.html.