Santa Cruz de la Sierra was founded in 1561 by Ñuflo de Chávez, a Spaniard who hailed from present-day Paraguay. The town originated 220km east of its current location (near San José de Chiquitos), but in 1621, by order of the King of Spain, it moved to its present position, 50km east of the Cordillera Oriental foothills. The original location had proved too vulnerable to attack from local tribes. Ñuflo himself was killed in 1568 at the hands of the mestizo Itatine tribe made up of indigenous and Spanish settlers.
The city’s main purpose was to supply the rest of the colony with products such as rice, cotton, sugar and fruit and its prosperity lasted until the late 1800s, when transportation routes opened up between La Paz and the Peruvian coast. This made imported goods cheaper than those hauled from Santa Cruz on mule trails. During the period leading up to Bolivia’s independence in 1825, the eastern regions of the Spanish colonies were largely ignored by the crown. Although agriculture was thriving around Santa Cruz, the Spanish remained intent upon extracting every scrap of mineral wealth that could be squeezed from the rich and more hospitable highlands.
In 1954 a highway linking Santa Cruz with other major centers was completed and the city sprang back from its 100-year economic lull. The completion of the railway line to Brazil in the mid-1950s opened trade routes to the east, after which time tropical agriculture boomed and the city grew as prosperously as crops such as oranges, sugar cane, bananas and coffee. That growth continues to the present day.
The cruceños are an independent lot who feel little affinity for their government in La Paz and are well aware of their city's stock value as the country’s trade and transport center. Support for President Morales is thin on the ground here and cruceños voiced their overwhelming desire for the region’s autonomy in 2006.
Calls for independence continue to be the main source of inspiration for the city’s graffiti artists, but the popularity of the independence movement has declined as Bolivia’s economy continues to go from strength to strength.