a day in el centro de Quito

I started this post in July of last year and never finished it. Looking back on the piece I thought I might pick it back up, as it highlights the good/bad predicament that the web and forms of digital research present to the historian of places “over there”, namely the need to be in place, and not just collect digital ephemera. So- back to a day in Quito one year ago:


There are certain advantages to approaching the archive in the manner I did for my dissertation, and for my current work. If you’ve read any of my other posts on research, you’ve probably caught on that I love to take digital photos of documents– of whole documents. This is very easy to do at the Archivo Nacional del Ecuador, because the staff of the archive is very accommodating to researchers who want to use their stuff. They are looking for people, hoping for people to come use the collection, and if the best way to disseminate their information is by allowing digital cameras – then have at it

I tend to scrape manuscript pages like spiders scrape information on the web– by the thousands, with the hopes that in sifting through all that info I will be able to see patterns to knowledge production, cultural practices, etc., especially patterns that illuminate unspoken assumptions on gender, race, culture, class, etc. Its the form of history that I love, and it requires massive amounts of data. But, massive amounts of quantitative data. So, the digital camera is my friend. I have a whole little system developed by which I do this– and the result to date on this trip is that in the course of 8 days in the archive, I have accumulated some 13,000 images. (In the end, the total was over 19,000 in three weeks.) Most of those represent two manuscript pages each. That is an absolute shitload of handwritten testimony, procedure, complaint, memorial, etc. It is also a lot of time just plugging away at it- on average betwee 6-7 hours/day. I get excited just thinking about how many people, how many acts, how many moments that represents in the 30 years of the 18th century I’m after right now. In fact, I pity some of my peoples around here in Quito, because they have to hear how seriously excited I am to find weekly jail censuses from almost every one of the years I’m looking at. That stuff is golden, and I’m trying to explain it with ardent sentences like, “No, but you don’t understand, it has the name, offense, date, jail, and acting magistrate all right there for both the men’s and women’s jails. It’s beautiful, glorious, rapturous.”

Despite the glory and majesty of findings like that, there are also disadvantages to this approach. I spent about a year in Quito accumulating documents for my dissertation– which from this point forward I have to call my manuscript  book (and you can pre-order it here, some good things have transpired in a year). I’ve never counted, but I bet I took some 40-50,000 pictures for that book. I spent the last 5-6 years reading those documents, writing the stories in those documents, crunching the numbers in those documents, growing accustomed to the fading brown ink and off white paper of those documents. I also finished my PhD, grew our family by one cool kiddo, got the t-track job, worked on revisions, wrote some articles, etc. But I didn’t go back to Quito because, well, I didn’t exactly have to and life just seemed to be constantly intervening.

That’s the disadvantage– losing sight of the physical site. Well, on one Saturday I set off on a sunny morning to the centro in hopes of finding some indigenous dancing that I heard would be taking place in the plaza of the San Francisco convent/church. I never quite made it to the dancing because it had been so long since I’d been in the colonial section of Quito that I spend the whole day wandering from church to church and old barrio to old barrio, seeing the places where the many stories of my precious documents took place. Street corners I know from assault cases… Churches I know from political conspiracies and uprisings… Convents and monasteries that acted as places of refuge, as banks, as prisons… Places were open that have never been open during the 10 or so trips I’ve made to Quito- so I got lost in place.

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On the way to the centro from the Mariscal I rode my favorite form of Quito transportation- the Ecovia. And on the way in, I watched two little kids playing video games on a cell phone.  One of the changes I’ve noticed in Quito is that everyone has cell phones now, people of all social classes. The Ecovia is a double-length bus that stops at designated, raised platform paradas, and runs essentially the length of Avenida 6 de Diciembre, in the north half of Quito. The final stop is the central transport depot La Marin, a few short, uphill blocks east of the Plaza de Independencia.

Usually, I walk up the pedestrian street that leads directly to the plaza through a mass of street hawkers and the like, but on Saturday I stayed a block north. The fateful decision led a great day because I saw that the church at the Convento de San Agustín was open for mass. I had never been in, so I went in and sat at the back for while– a great church. That said, the homily was a little much to bear, so after a quiet 10-15 minutes in the back (and this surreptitious pic), I left and realized that the museum on the old monastery side was open. For a mere $1, you may walk around the very peaceful courtyard, see the Sala Capitular, as well as a small, but nice collection of mostly 18th c. religious art in a three-room museum. The first-floor portico is fantastic, though, because it houses a full series of giant paintings by the Quito School’s 17th century master, Miguel de Santiago. Santiago was commissioned by the Convento to paint the life of San Agustín, and the paintings (in various states of repair) are fantastic.

I also loved the Sala Capitular. This room, designed for the brothers to meet, was also used on various occasions for important political and community meetings. It was both one of the physically larger Salas in the city, and also had a double row of benches along the wall to seat more people. For this reason, the conspirators of 1809 performed their Acta de Instalación of their local autonomist ruling committee in the Sala. It holds a place dear to the hearts of Quiteño and Ecuatoriano patriots as a result.

And, as with many old churches in Quito and throughout Latin America and Europe, there is a mysterious grate on the floor that leads to deep darkness and cold air. I love this about old churches. There is always at least one place where crack in a floor or a wall opens to deep empty space, and tantalizing images of what it could or has occupied.

Leaving San Agustin, I walked on to the Plaza de Independencia. Prior to the 1820s, this was the Plaza Grande in the Sagrario, the central barrio of old Quito, and was ringed by the edifices of Spanish colonial power– the Cathedral, the Palace of the Audiencia, the Bishopric of Quito, and the Cabildo or Municipal Council of the city. Many years ago I took a tour of the Presidential Palace, as the old Audiencia came to be known in Independent Ecuador. Actually, it is also known as the Palacio Carondelet after the Baron de Carondelet who was President of the Audiencia in the very late 1790s and early 1800s and who commissioned some renovations of the building. During the fateful years of 1809-1812, the plaza, the palace, and its portico were central spots in the geography of revolt.

Across the plaza from the Palacio is the Cathedral, which is also conjoined with the Chapel of the Sagrario.  You can see in the photo above the shop space below the portico of the Cathedral. These shop spaces were valuable commercial spaces, and their occupants on occasion petitioned the royal government as a corporate group– los mercados y comercios del portico de la plaza. I’ve been in the Sagrario Church many times since 1993, but never the Cathedral which seemed to be under perpetual renovation. But alas, this time the museum and the Cathedral were open for viewing. Entering the museum, you wind your way into the Cathedral via what was once the Bishop’s library, and through a room that seemed to be filled with the history of Bishop vestments.

The Cathedral itself is a strange space. Ecuador was an officially Catholic nation through the liberal revolution at the end of the 19th century. In fact, it’s most infamously Catholic President Garcia Moreno once officially dedicated the country to the sacred heart of Jesus. So, the Cathedral is officially a Roman Catholic space, but it is also highly nationalistic. It houses the remains of a number of national heros, including Garcia Moreno, and Juan Jose Flores, objects of martial devotion, and the rest of the typical retinue of nationalist symbology. Fans of Napoleon Dynamite might find this banner particularly compelling:

It’s strange to see the martial bits juxtaposed with Marian devotions, the bodies laying in state next to saint devotionals. Or, at least, it’s strange to me. The National Cathedral in Washington is startling in its nationalist secularity, and this was startling to me in its seamless blend of catholicity and nationalism. Startling, but not surprising if you know what I mean.

After visiting the Cathedral, I abandoned my plans to make it to the Plaza de San Francisco and instead set out to visit the Iglesia de la Compañia (which had also always been under renovation), the old barrios of San Marcos, San Blas, Santa Barbara, San Sebastian, San Roque, and any number of other buildings that frequented my documents, including the Monasterio of Carmen Bajo, home to nuns relocated from Riobamba after a natural disaster in the 17th century, and the Recogimiento of Santa Marta, which served as the women’s prison in the 17th to 19th centuries. I knew of the general location of Santa Marta, but was still surprised to see it marked by a plaque on a nondescript wall just off the plaza grande and adjoining the entrance to the old Cartel de la Audiencia, or barracks and jail of the Audiencia shown here:

In fact, it was in the barracks of the Audiencia that many of the protagonists of 1809 were murdered after a scuffle broke out between a few quiteño partisans and the Lima troops that were guarding the the detainees. The scuffle turned into a moment of panic, and then an excuse as the arrested individuals were brutally killed in their cells. The violence carried into the streets as well, resulting in some gruesome deaths and injuries, individuals who were taken to the various churches and hospitals around the city. It was an eventful day that ultimately led to the re-founding of a Junta in Quito under the leadership of Carlos Montúfar.


It was a spectacular day, as I wondered streets I’d never walked before, discovered small plaques calling out the names of notables from the revolutionary period, visited courtyards yet to me unknown, and remembered the viscerally for the first time in years the physical demands of Quito’s steep, cobbled streets. The arroyos of old are long gone, and the water running off of Pichincha which once fed the city’s aqueducts is no longer visible. As such, the barrios of the old part of the city seamlessly run into one another in a way they did not in the 18th and 19th century. But, many of the streets that were renamed by nationalist dictates still run their original paths. The whole day gave me a renewed appreciation of being in the place one is researching in a way that I fear the increased digitization of historical resources may well cut short.

In fact, I had a conversation with one of the archive employees about putting the pdf finding guides they were handing out in person up on the web. These finding guides are really fantastic for the archive series that have been annotated, and summarize every single folio in every single box with dates and a description of the case. Having the information online would be spectacular, and open the possibility of doing some text mining of the case descriptions to identify trends and individuals. But, the archivist responded that she had no intention of putting the guides online because if she did, people would just email her requesting copies of particular cases, and people wouldn’t come to the archive. This is a real risk to an institution like the Archivo Nacional del Ecuador, because its budget– and the lives of the career workers at the archive– depend on people coming in person. The imperative of one form of openness is subsidiary to another, because so much for so many depends on researchers being there.

Plus, who would want to miss the beauty, and presence of place?

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Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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One comment on “a day in el centro de Quito
  1. Patrick says:

    I have lived in Quito for over 16 years, I am happy to help with any questions you might have about the country. Patrick- bullock0005@yahoo.com

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Chad Black

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I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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