Dulcinea in the Factory: Myths, Morals, Men, and Women in Colombia’s Industrial Experiment, 1905–1960 (Comparative and International Working-Class History)

Dulcinea in the Factory: Myths, Morals, Men, and Women in Colombia’s Industrial Experiment, 1905–1960 (Comparative and International Working-Class History)

by Ann Farnsworth-Alvear

ISBN: 9780822324973

Publisher Duke University Press Books

Published in Business & Money/Human Resources, Nonfiction/Women's Studies, History/Historical Study, Nonfiction/Social Sciences

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Medellin, 1900-1960

In 1947, Life magazine proclaimed Medellin a "capitalist paradise." Stunning photographs by correspondent Dimitri Kessel presented a Medellin that seemed to cross the dream of Yankee-style entrepreneurship with an updated version of the El Dorado myth. This "South American showplace" was a city where "nearly everyone makes good money and lives well" and where, "unlike many parts of the civilized world, it is still possible to run a small stake into a fortune." In a departure from most English-language reporting about Latin America, the heroes of this story were the Medellinenses themselves. Life pointed to "their hard work, love of money, dazzling business talents, and universal prosperity," and the magazine concurred with a local belief that "if there is ever a 'second conquest of South America' it will come from Medellin."

The correspondent had clearly been shown around by the city's industrialists and their wives, and his visual essay, with its accompanying text, provides a glimpse of how the Medellinense elite presented themselves and their city to the outside world. Kessel's photographs emphasized the contrast between Medellin's "brisk modernity" and its "ancient piety." The gleaming new multistory buildings near the Parque de Berrio were juxtaposed with scenes that North Americans would find quaint: Catholic schoolboys dressed in the robes and round hats of seminarians, a hillside cross, a pretty girl receiving a suitor from her balcony. Life's editors presented this as a wholesome contrast; Antioquia's prosperous capital combined the best of old and new. Catholic traditionalism protected family life from the incursions of modernity, as upper-class ladies were "great stay-at-homes" and young people's courting practices were closely chaperoned at all levels of society. Nevertheless, the visiting correspondent found the upper class a sophisticated lot, and he took pictures of businessmen meeting for drinks and of ladies joining one another to play cards at the country club. Other photographs celebrated the city's forward-looking industrialists, especially the Echavarrias-whose gracious homes in the "El Poblado" sector prompted a comparison to "Philadelphia's Main Line." The "spic-and-span buildings" of the cotton mills appeared too, with the aside that Medellin's factory workers were "docile, well-trained and well cared for," with unions under the tutelage of the local church hierarchy. Throughout, the article conformed closely to what the city's moneyed families believed about themselves and the city they took pride in. They had succeeded in transforming a remote Andean town into a modern city, and they had done so without social dislocation or class war.

Life offered a simple explanation of this new prosperity: after being landlocked for centuries, Medellin was now "opened to the world by air transport." Low freight rates meant that raw cotton could be flown in from the coast and finished goods flown out. Here, however, Kessel and the writers he worked with confused symptom with cause. Both Medellin's rush to assume a modern face and its thriving industry had begun in the days of mule-packs and railroads. In 1905, the region's first mechanized looms, and the Pelton waterwheel that was to power them, had been packed in over the same mountain trails that generations of traders had used to carry out gold and to bring in imported goods for sale to Antioquia's miners and farmers. The machines arrived "in pieces," and each piece, including the waterwheel and the complicated gears and belts designed to distribute power to the looms, had to be laboriously cleaned, fixed, and put back together. Despite the limits of geography, forty years before Life noted that "its 'discoverers' hail it as a capitalist paradise," Medellinenses were importing, building, and planning in ways that demonstrate that they thought of their town as an incipient modern center rather than as a backwater. Turn-of-the-century Medellin boasted a university (founded in 1871), an electrical plant (1897), streetlights (1898), and a regulated slaughterhouse (built between 1891 and 1911). Within a few more years, the city had the beginnings of a city-wide sewer system (1913) and a growing network of electric trolley cars (1919). The purpose of this chapter is to place Antioquia's industrial boom in this urban context. Why did a generation of entrepreneurs begin importing machinery to this particular Colombian city? What was their relationship to city space? How did workers, most of whom arrived in Medellin from nearby rural hamlets, think about the urban world they shared with this entrepreneurial elite?

As did Life's editors, I use Medellin as a shorthand term for the whole of the Aburra Valley, including Bello, Envigado, and Itagui, as well as the contiguous urban districts of America, Belen, Robledo, and El Poblado. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these communities have maintained a separate identity from Medellin itself, one rooted in their plazas and original churches. Nevertheless, the region's industrial development has worked to link the outlying towns tightly with downtown Medellin and to make them subordinate to the expanding city. Emilio Restrepo, for example, chose Bello as the site for his cotton mill, the first in the region, not because of any familial link to its inhabitants but because it offered easy access to Medellin and had a swift creek (for the waterwheel). Although local people of all classes called his company Tejidos de Bello, he and his partners insisted on its legal name, Tejidos de Medellin. Don Emilio commuted daily to Bello in a light, two-horse carriage, and he installed a telephone line that allowed him to confer quickly with overseers on days that business or leisure kept him in Medellin. Similarly, the investors who imported looms and spinning machines for Tejidos Rosellon, built in 1912 in Envigado, at the other end of the valley, thought of themselves as Medellinenses. Their decision to invest in Envigado was a purely economic calculation, aided by the local municipal council's willingness to exempt them from local taxes.

By framing industrialization in terms of the urban history of the Aburra Valley, rather than emphasizing the social mores of the Antioqueno region more generally, my approach departs somewhat from the existing historical literature. Colombianists have tended to debate Medellin's industrial development by agreeing or disagreeing about what made Antioquenos different from people from other parts of the country. Far less work has been done on the process by which Medellin's increasingly wealthy business elite began to set themselves and their city apart from small-town Antioquia itself. Because that process is so visible in the clannish world of the city's early manufacturing sector, I have moved away from the debates about Antioquenidad that have characterized the literature in English and toward the urban history being done by Fernando Botero Herrera and other historians currently based in Medellin.


Medellin emerged as the economic center of the gold-mining province of Antioquia only slowly. Not until the early nineteenth century did it definitively supersede either Santa Fe de Antioquia, capital of the province throughout the colonial period and the city that exploited the gold of the rich lode-mine of Buritica, or Rionegro, a merchant's town that held a strategic position along the trade routes linked to the Magdalena River. Founded in 1675, later than many comparable cities of Spanish America, Medellin developed as a food producer and commercial supplier for the spreading mining camps of the region, as gold prospectors followed the rivers and creeks in search of rich placers. Rather than depending on any single mining zone, Medellin was poised to profit from a regional market in foodstuffs and merchandise, which allowed it a gradual and sustained economic growth. Visa-vis other nearby trading towns, including Santa Rosa and Marinilla as well as Rionegro, Medellin's advantage was its fertile valley land. At fifteen hundred meters above sea level, the locality has a temperate climate, rich soils, and an abundant water supply that allow two harvests yearly of corn and beans, as well as a wider variety of secondary crops than either higher or lower altitudes.

Relatively few researchers have explored the relationship between the Aburra Valley and other Antioqueno subregions-either before or after Medellin was declared the provincial capital in 1826. Rather, historians and social scientists have tended to identify Antioquenos, in general, with cultural traits that are in themselves taken to explain Medellin's extraordinary economic development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Theories linking Medellin's prosperity to the existence of a specifically Antioqueno personality did not, of course, originate with academic work, but rather with the long-lived stereotypes of Colombian regionalism. In my experience, Bogotanos are still likely to characterize paisas, or Antioquenos, by reference to their alleged facility in business, their strict Catholicism, and their enormous, tightly knit families. In the Pacific Coast departamento (department) of the Choco, long economically subordinated to Antioquia, Antioquenidad has a negative meaning, with Chocoanos pointing more to the apparent greediness of their paisa neighbors than to their religiosity or love of family. In Antioquia itself, the stereotype has a distinctly positive intonation, even when economic ability is emphasized over the more noble aspects of the Antioqueno myth. I remember, for example, an uncle of mine warning a fruitseller not to think she could cheat him, reminding her that "we are both paisas."

Life presented the myth of Antioquenidad in one of its more enduring guises, as a counterpart to the North American notions of Yankee frugality and ingenuity:

Colombians in general amuse themselves with jests about Medellin's feverish commerciality and thriftiness, but the Medellinenses just keep right on going to bed early and working hard. They like to make money ... nowhere in South America is so little time wasted on a business deal. This sometimes results in jokes at Medellin's expense. There's the story, for instance, about a Medellin matron who got on a train with her maid and trousered son. When asked to pay full fare for the boy because he was wearing long pants, she argued that if the fare were based on the matter of pants she should ride for half price and her maid should ride for free. Far from being annoyed with this, the Medellinenses characteristically regard it as good publicity, like the old jokes in the U.S. about Ford cars.

However much they embraced this Yankee-like image, Antioquenos have had a more complex attitude toward another aspect of the regional stereotype-in which paisas are taken to be either Jewish or "like Jews." Street-level characterizations of the Antioqueno as a shrewd moneymaker often have an implicitly anti-Semitic dimension, deriving from the persistent myth that Conversos, forcibly converted Spanish Jews, settled Antioquia in the colonial period. As Ann Twinam has shown, the association between Antioquenidad and Jewishness developed and thrived between about 1850 and 1930, precisely in response to the region's economic expansion. There is considerable evidence that the myth is rooted in Colombian anti-Semitism but almost no evidence that it has any basis in fact.

Antioqueno intellectuals, often anti-Semitic themselves, have had an ambivalent relationship to the charge of Jewishness, some embracing the notion, some emphatically rejecting it. Lifelong researcher Gabriel Arango Mejia mined genealogical records to prove conclusively that Antioqueno families did not have Converso antecedents, while writers who sought to promote a positive counterimage created their own ethnic myth, that of la raza Antioquena, which finessed the question of Basque or Jewish presence in the past. This la raza Antioquena was described as one that had developed as a mestizaje among the diverse peoples brought to the region by the Spanish conquest, but whiteness was taken to predominate. The genetic and cultural contributions of Africans, in particular, were erased from most characterizations of Antioquenidad. Unsurprisingly, paisa intellectuals relied on explicitly gendered imagery to construct this whitened narrative of regional identity. They described the region's women as fecund race mothers and their mountain-born sons as passionate adventurers, virile and "strong of arm," as well as good businessmen. In the 1960s, these regional apologists provided a ready-made explanation for academics seeking to explain the region's unusual industrial development. Drawing on theories of economic change that split the world into "traditional" and "modernizing" societies, sociologists like Everett E. Hagen argued that inherited psychological traits predisposed Antioquenos to value hard work and entrepreneurship. Other scholars quickly set about debunking Hagen and his followers, insisting that the accumulation of money capital and entrepreneurial experience in the region owed more to local economic history than to inborn personality traits. Yet the notion that Antioquenos are somehow different, and that this difference shapes their economic behavior, has died hard. Verbally, if not often in print, locals and outsiders seeking to understand the violent chaos of Medellin in the 1980s and 1990s have sometimes turned to this discourse of exceptionalism, suggesting that drug traffic in the region owes something to the proverbial paisa aptitude for making money or that the consumerism and family loyalties of young gang-members mark them as essentially Antioqueno.

In sharp disagreement with such monocausal ethnic theories, economists and historians have pursued a different set of research questions, asking not what cultural propensities made Antioquenos different but rather what features of the regional economy allowed an industrial "takeoff" in the early 1900s. Here the debate has centered on mining and the trading systems associated with the expansion of small-scale gold extraction in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For some, the region's broad-based prospecting economy, in which small producers with access to cash bought long-distance trade goods from a range of importers, facilitated the growth of an unusually dynamic commercial elite. For others, the dramatic expansion of a smallholder coffee economy in the central cordillera, south of Antioquia proper but settled by Antioquenos, generated new markets for manufactured goods (first foreign, then domestic), as well as a mechanism for capital accumulation among processors and exporters and, at the national level, a definitive source of foreign currency. Although the most persuasive explanations continue to be those that allow for multiple causation, recent monographic work has played down the importance of coffee and lent support to the argument that it was the merchant fortunes of Antioqueno importers that became the basis for capital investment in industry.

By contrast, relatively little research has been done to extend or revise the work of the economic historian Luis Ospina Vasquez, whose 1955 study, Industria y proteccion en Colombia, examined Antioqueno industrialization within the context of a wider political debate about protectionism. For Ospina Vasquez, industrialization in Antioquia, as elsewhere in Colombia, owed principally to state intervention and the fixing of tariffs that helped ensure the profitability of national factory production. He explained the decision of rich Medellinenses to mount manufacturing enterprises more or less in passing: in the early 1900s, according to Ospina Vasquez, there was a great excitement for industrial ventures, and specific investors felt themselves likely to succeed. Rather than occupying himself with Antioquenidad, for which he had the greatest sympathy, Ospina Vasquez approached industrialization as a political problem. He traced not only changes in the national economy before and during the shift to industry but also the ideological shift that led Colombian elites to abandon free trade for protectionism. While those who promoted ethnic theories and those who objected fiercely to such theories tended, equally, to present Antioqueno industrialization as a good thing, Ospina Vasquez expressed a critical uncertainty: "By now, it would be enormously difficult to go backwards; but we cannot say ... why we have taken this road, where it leads, or whether it helps us or hurts us."


Excerpted from "Dulcinea in the Factory: Myths, Morals, Men, and Women in Colombia’s Industrial Experiment, 1905–1960 (Comparative and International Working-Class History)" by Ann Farnsworth-Alvear. Copyright © 0 by Ann Farnsworth-Alvear. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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