eighty square blocks of data

I had walked the streets of Quito’s Centro many times before I encountered it’s old parishes in the manuscripts of the Archivo Nacional del Ecuador (ANE). Yet, in reading, and writing, of events from the city’s criminal archives in the late 18th century, I constantly have to remind myself of the sense of scale. As the years of passed, I’ve found Quito constantly shrinking in my mind’s eye. It’s ironic because, without question, the city has exploded both north and south since I first visited it in June of 1993. The first time I went to the Biblioteca Aureliano Espinosa Pólit in Cotocollao, it felt like forever. Now, especially with the metrobus and trolebus systems, going to see a Liga game further a bit north of Cotocollao seems like nothing. Of course, now the northern terminal terrestre is in Carcelen, and even places as far north as Pomasqui, Carapungo, and Calderon have been subsumed into the the metropolis. In 2002 and 2003, when I was researching my dissertation, I took a bike and rode every week to places like Nono, Calacali, Guayllabamba, El Quinche, Yaruquí, Puembo, Guangopolo, Alangasi, Sangolqui, Conocoto, and other little places in the Valle de Chillos.

It was important to me at the time to see the limits of the Five Leagues of Quito, as all those pueblos were a part of the city’s jurisdiction. Doing it by bicycle changed the texture of the land and by extension the texture of my manuscripts. (By the way, I would suggest to anyone that taking a bicycle along to the places you’re researching is a fabulous way to know the topography and relative distances of your region. Though the bicycle is a product of modern production, its capacity for transit bridges the foot/horse/buggy era and that of the automobile. And, it’s visceral.)

During the summer of 2003, the ANE moved from the Casa de la Cultura, across from the Parque El Ejido, to it’s current location right next to the Parque Alameda. This change itself has pushed along my spatial reorientation. The Parque Alameda sits at the northern end of old Quito, in what was once the parish of Santa Prisca, and in fact the old parish church is just across the street from its north end. The ANE closes at lunch time, and I found myself in recent trips walking a circuit of the old parish churches, from Santa Prisca to San Blas to Santa Barbara to the Sagrario. At the most, it’s about 15 blocks. And, though I’d always “known” it, those 15 blocks include some quite seriously steep terrain. There are still parts of Quito’s centro where streets terminate in staircases. Nonetheless, in thinking back to the crisis of the Rebellion of the Barrios (1765), which I wrote about in The Limits of Gender Domination, the magnitude of the events always carried with them a spatial magnitude for me that simply never was. It took re-walking those streets to remember it.

As I work through manuscripts for my current project, I’m realizing that what I’m really interested in is the convergence of people in a very small part of Quito, or at least of what became the modern Quito that spans the intermontane valley. Even as I’ve turned increasingly to tolls of text analysis designed for “big data” and the cavalcade of text I’ve collected with my digital camera, I realize that I’m just fascinated with diachronic trends in a really specific place.

Geographic contiguity is an overrated notion in the Andes. If we were to map jurisdiction, or family, or economic activity onto colonial-period geography, we’d see that their expressions were rarely about contiguity. And that includes Spanish notions of jurisdiction. If anything, as with the King’s presence or Jesus’s blood and body, jurisdiction, family, economic activity, ethnicity, etc. were about manifest simultaneity. When I look at the map below, I don’t see some eighty contiguous city blocks, but a number of important and intersecting manifest simultaneities.

Click on the map to get a better look. In fact, it’s not even eighty blocks. The parcels in the upper right corner aren’t fully developed, but are a transition zone to the city’s rural districts. But, what are represented are the parishes of El Sagrario and Santa Barbara. Originally, Quito was divided into two districts, San Roque to the north and San Sebastian to the south. The divide, with an east-west axis, recreated the traditional Andean split into upper/lower (hanan/hurin) moeities. San Roque, in the north, was first centered on the area around the Casa Benalcázar. And San Sebastian, the more indigenous parish, backed up to the Panecillo. By the 18th century, the city was divided into quite a few more parishes. In addition to El Sagrario, there were Santa Prisca, San Blas, Santa Barbara, San Roque, San Marcos, and San Sebastian. Most indigenous polities were identified with areas outside of the city proper (including, notably, Cotocollao to the north).

So, why am I interested in these 80 blocks?

Here’s a key to some of those numbers:
2. El Sagrario (the church, and the parish)
3. Santa Barbara (the church, and the parish)
9. Palacio de la Real Audiencia
10. Cabildo
11. Palacio Episcopal
13. Carcel del Corte
14. Carcel Pública
15. Santa Marta (Carcel de la Mujer)
19. San Francisco
20. San Agustin
33. Hospital
45. Various fountains
47. Carnecería

The parish church of Santa Barbara was almost burned down in 1765 at the start of the Rebellion of the Barrios. A new customs house had been installed next door, and just down the street from there was the attempted distillery for the new Royal Monopoly on Aguardiente. In fact, the quebrado that ran beneath Santa Barbara (exiting at the bottom of the photo) fed the fountains and was to be the source for the royal monopoly.

This particular map is from 1786 and was a result of data collected by Jorge Juan and Antonio Ulloa during their participation with the Condamine expedition. And, as Ernie Capello has written, maps from the 18th century tend to present the city orthogonally, with Pichincha as the topmost border. They also flatten the hills out of the city itself.

It’s tempting to look at the list and suspect that I’m only interested in power. But, it’s not that simple. Santa Barbara is a fascinating parish because it was home to both royal officials, and indigenous barbers. It formed a true transition zone between the rurality of Santa Prisca, and the power of the center. And, its homes were filled with europeo, criollo, mestizo, indio, y mulato households headed by both men and women. Moreover, with the slaughterhouse, it was a destination for livestock from both the northern and southern commons lands, animals who were transited through the city on the way to their death. The three jails in the Sagrario, the Carcel del Corte of the Audiencia, the Carcel Pública of the Cabildo, and the women’s jail at Santa Marta are key locations for my research. It is in those jails that tributaries, moral criminals, debtors and the like languished awaiting verdict. They also, together with the institutions that managed them, manifest the simultaneity of jurisdiction in the city. The Hospital (now the very excellent Museo de la Ciudad), just down the block from El Arco, plays a significant role in late 18th-century reforms of sanitation, and understandings of the body. The plaza in front of San Francisco was a major market place, and the porticos along both its base and the buildings on the central plaza, were the commercial centers of quiteño long-distance and local trade. These streets were where indigenous gateras plied their goods.

Suffice to say, the 80 blocks of Quito’s center above all manifest the Atlantic political economy of Enlightenment reform. So, while my spatial orientation has on the one hand been narrowed from five leagues to eighty blocks, when I look at that map I see lateral shoots of the eighteenth-century rhizome, each pushing through in the ethnographically rich and textually mineable manuscripts of the criminal archive.


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

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Posted in Latin American History
2 comments on “eighty square blocks of data
  1. Alex Galarza says:

    I added this post to my comps subheading on colonial cities, fascinating stuff. Having skimmed a few titles already, I am constantly taken aback by the patterns of criminality, market spaces, and urban aesthetics that informed/reflected power structures that I read about in colonial cities. On one hand there’s the ‘nothing new under the sun’ gut feeling, but I think the more intriguing notion is how a long trajectory of urbanization in Latin America continues to deconstruct notions of modernity and the city. I look forward to chatting more about your project – and hopefully coinciding in Quito, ojalá

    P.S. will try and take your bike advice in Buenos Aires, though I shudder at navigating the centro where some of my Archives are.

  2. […] a ‘high academic’ or to a ‘mass culture’ audience.” I like best Chad Black’s post, “Eighty Square Blocks of Data”. I think this example blends scholarly musings and presentation of material in a way that could […]

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Chad Black

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