Progress of Montevideo

Date: 1906
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images



In 1906, two foreign owned companies launched electric streetcars in Montevideo, Uruguay. For urban elites and technocratic politicians, these electricos embodied modernity and progress and promised to reshape their city to better fit their vision. Indeed, the streetcars did reorder Montevideo's social space by bringing previously disparate neighborhoods, parks, beaches, and commercial areas "closer" to each other and, by sharpening the distinction between center and suburb, improving the potential for economic development downtown. The electricos seemed to be fulfilling the dream of unlimited urban growth and progress through technology.

Yet not everyone shared this elite view of the streetcars, nor was there agreement as to what exactly progress should entail. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Montevideo swelled with immigrants from southern Europe who, for the most part, took up jobs as industrial workers and brought anti-capitalistic ideologies with them, most prominent of which was anarchism. For this group, streetcars became a visible symbol of the misplaced priorities of the modern era: foreign dominance, the commoditization of the popular classes, and a heartless kind of technology-driven ethos that put money before people. They preferred a kind of progress that emphasized education, social equality, increased freedom, and a movement away from capitalism.

Perhaps ironically, it was the streetcar workers themselves who were the first to actively oppose the elite vision of progress. Streetcar drivers, mechanics, inspectors, etc. were subject to the full brunt of industrial discipline that accompanies mechanization, and the rigors of meeting the standards imposed by their foreign bosses (such as strict timetables) led them to question the value of technological progress. Anarchism provided an alternative. In May of 1907, streetcar personnel led Montevideo's first general strike and this popular protest severely damaged the image of streetcars as modern marvels. In the wake of the strike, Uruguayans continued to ride the cars in increasing numbers but they also began to view them with suspicion as pernicious and oppressive foreign technologies.

New technologies--of transportation, communication, architecture, water, sewer, electricity, etc.--can have a dramatic impact on the social, economic, and cultural life of a city. In fin-de-siecle Latin America, governments and elites usually equated technology with progress, but it is important to keep in mind that alternative visions of progress existed in which technology did more harm than good.

Reference: Rosenthal, Anton. "The Arrival of the Electric Streetcar and the Conflict over Progress in Early Twentieth-Century Montevideo." In Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 27, no. 2 (May, 1995), pp. 319-341.

CITATION: Uruguay--Montevideo-Plaza de Constitution. 1880-1900. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-115486.