La Ciudad Blanca
I first came to Sucre in 1965, when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. The city had a population of some 40,000 and barely extended beyond its colonial core. The perspectives framed by one and two story colonial and republican buildings terminated with green hills planted with corn and other crops with blue mountains beyond. Today, the hills closest to Sucre are covered with red brick houses waiting to be stuccoed when more prosperous times arrive.
Five years ago, when I was teaching at the university, I lived near the architecture school, in the first ring of expansion. My private Quechua lessons were on the other side of the Mercado Campesino, part of the next ring of growth toward the north. Sucre expanded in all directions, accommodating both rural-urban migration and the shift in population since the closing of the tin mines, in the 1980s. Streets no longer follow the original grid of the colonial settlement. Houses no longer provide a continuous wall defining the public space of the street from the private domain yet the tendency to assert ownership and control is expressed by high gated walls.
Despite the expansion of urban terrain and population, Sucre remains tightly organized around the same plaza that was laid out during the ceremonial foundation of the city in 1538. Politicians and petitioners congregate in front of the Alcaldia (City Hall) and Prefectura (Departmental Government.) In the mornings, senior citizens - perhaps former government officials sit on sunny benches reading the daily papers. Meanwhile, small armies of school children in uniform troop across the square on their way to colegios. Most of the private and religious schools are scattered around the Plaza in buildings that were once monasteries and convents or large private homes. Their large central patios work well for their new activities.
After school, teenagers congregate on one side of the Plaza flirting just like they did when I was growing up in Forest Hills and the way suburban kids do in malls all across the States. I was talking to the parents of a friend of mine from Sucre, now living in California. In their day, they were only allowed to meet for an hour on Wednesday evenings and again on Sunday. When I visited Sucre in the mid-sixties, colonial courtship traditions were still operative. From the more liberal perspective of Cochabamba's youth, the Sucre's Sunday promenade (young women strolling around the Plaza in a clockwise direction - or was it counterclockwise - and young men in the opposite direction, gradually pairing up under protective and watchful parental gaze in the same kind of flirtatious behavior) seemed ridiculously out-moded.
During the noon-hour, the Plaza often provides the setting for blood drives and public heath exhibits, national unity pagents, and mobile phone promotions. It is the terminus of protest marches, accompained by firecrackers, with dramatic public oratory (further fireworks) directed from the bandstand. Religious processions like last week´s Entrada de la Virgen de Guadalupe also enter and circle the Plaza ending with prayer at the Cathedral's entrance. In the evening, clowns and magicians, along with salesmen of miracle cures, take over, using the monument to Mariscal Sucre as a backdrop. I haven´t been in the Plaza late in the evening but I am told that university students, as they did in Cochabamba so many years ago, pace back and forth under the lamp-posts studying for exams.
In addition to being the first day of spring, the 21st of September is also El Dia del Estudiante. Since Friday, there have been parties in the various Facultades of the University. On Friday, I spent some time in the Museo Colonial and the excited shouts of elementary school children from the adjoining escuela primaria and the decorated hats of schoolchildren crossing the Plaza at lunch were indications of the extent of these celebrations. Sucre is enlivened, as it has been since colonial times, by its role as an educational center. The University, the second oldest in South America, brought together students from beyond the Audiencia de Charcas (Sucre was the major political and religious center in the Southern Andes.) It is still a major center of higher education and students come from all over Bolivia to study at the Universidad Mayor y Pontificia de San Francisco Xavier de Chuquisaca and several private universities.
I am interested in the schematic nature of the colonial city, the way a conceptual framework gets populated by particular human beings and evolves through time. In Sucre, the urban plan called for by the Consejo de Indias, the branch of the Spanish Government that administered the colonies, was laid out on gently undulating topography suggesting, as you move away from the Plaza (which itself slopes), patterns of drainage and possible neighborhood divisions. Sucre, like Rome is surrounded by seven hills, several of these were associated with neighborhoods during the colonial period and may have accommodated different social groups, including artists and artisans. One of my research interests is the geographical distribution of classes and disciplines. My examination of the notarial archives has given me some very preliminary suggestions of this neighborhood structure.
Today, most of the buildings in the colonial core have been rebuilt or substantially renovated. Perhaps some of the original adobe walls are still present under subsequent decorative applications. The original settlers were given large lots, sometimes an entire block, and over many generations, large houses were divided among multiple heirs and had portions sold off during times of economic hardship. It is difficult to reconstruct these larger properties today. My friend Bill Loftstrom and a Bolivian architect are trying to locate and mentally reconstruct the Palacio de la Audiencia from the remaining fragments. At the fringes of the colonial core, a number of one and two story houses, built of adobe, with infrequent and unadorned openings and tiled roofs, strongly suggest the character of early colonial construction. These undecorated adobe bearing walls, wooden lintels and sloping tile roofs, are common throughout Bolivia and much of Latin America. These simple constructions were in their own way, just as abstract and schematic as the gridded colonial city. In Sucre´s colonial core, with very few exceptions, buildings are regularly whitewashed, enhancing this abstract, almost dream-like quality, especially when seen against an intensely blue cloudless sky.