Art historian Dr. Virginia E. Miller, a UT Austin alumna, has generously included support for LLILAS Benson in her estate. The bequest designates the creation of two program endowments: Virginia E. Miller Endowed Excellence Fund in Latin American Art Studies, to support the study of Latin American Art via LLILAS, and Virginia E. Miller Endowed Excellence Fund for the Benson Library, to support any function of the Benson Latin American Collection.
Dr. Miller completed her master’s in Latin American Studies from LLILAS (at the time, ILAS) in 1973, and earned her doctorate in Art History, also from UT, in 1981. An art historian who specializes in ancient Maya art, she is Associate Professor Emerita of Pre-Columbian and Native American Art in the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Recently, Dr. Miller spoke to LLILAS Benson Communications Coordinator Susanna Sharpe, explaining how a young woman born in London, Ontario, Canada, made her way to Austin, Texas, to study Latin America.
“I was a French major [in college], but nobody was offering me a glamorous job in Paris when I graduated. But I got a chance to work for the YWCA in Mexico City, so I took it,” recalled Miller. “I had already spent a summer in South America by then.”
Driven by her interest in learning more about Latin America, her fluency in Spanish, and her desire to study and live someplace warm, Miller applied to a handful of master’s programs in the U.S. She knew very little about the programs she applied to. “Remember, this is before the internet.” A Latin American history professor she knew told her to choose UT Austin if she got in, so she did, although she admits the decision was rather random. “I hadn’t looked at a map,” Miller laughed, “I didn’t know where Austin was; I just knew it was in Texas. I couldn’t understand anybody at all for the first few days!”
It was during an art history seminar during her first semester that Miller began to develop an interest in the field that would become the focus of her career. Once she began the PhD program in art history, things gradually began to fall into place and her focus zeroed in on pre-Columbian and then specifically ancient Maya art.
Miller remarked on witnessing her own students’ reactions to this material. “A lot of my students were just astonished to learn about [pre-Columbian art]. Even the art history majors. I got a lot of converts from modern and Renaissance art, especially at the master’s level. The best part of teaching was the students’ discovery of these cultures.”
Although she spent most of her career teaching at UIC, Miller also taught at Oberlin College and Northwestern University. As a Fulbright scholar, she taught in both Guatemala and Mexico. She also took a brief break from teaching to join the Foreign Service, working in the consular office of the American embassy in Madrid.
Miller’s memories of UT and of Austin are joyful and positive, and it is clear that the Institute of Latin American Studies and the Benson Collection were a hub for much of her engagement here.
“UT was really foundational to me—to my professional career, but also to me personally. I really enjoyed my time in Austin. It was wonderful having that fantastic library. There were so many events that had a Latin American focus. There were so many faculty, even in areas I didn’t do, like geography and history, that you had this wonderful climate.”
Recalling the Benson, she said, “I loved the library. It had every publication. It was amazing. I mean, I would be researching pre-Columbian art in say, Bolivia, and I would find a journal that had two issues published in La Paz in the twenties [laughs] and it would be in the library! I was completely spoiled. Even Dumbarton Oaks in Washington does not match it. I was in the library a lot. Partly to work, partly to hang out with my friends, and partly because back then you browsed the stacks a lot. . . . I would browse the stacks endlessly to find interesting material on a wide range of subjects. It was the amplitude of the library and the accessibility of the material . . . it was just a very good atmosphere there.”
The inevitable question arose: Did she cross paths with the revered (and sometimes feared) head librarian Nettie Lee Benson? “Oh yeah. She terrified me! [laughs] She was in charge! I also knew Laura Gutiérrez-Witt, and David Block was a close friend of mine in graduate school.” (The beloved Gutiérrez-Witt and the late Block are former head librarians at the Benson.)
The Latin American Studies master’s degree offered Miller the freedom she needed to explore a wide and diverse field. “I was fascinated that when I arrived, I went to see my adviser because I didn’t know what to take, and he told me I could take anything,” she said.
It is clear that Dr. Miller’s gift is her way of giving back to a place that helped shape her and enriched her life.
“I had a lot of fun there. I know that’s not academic, but I really enjoyed my time. Austin is a wonderful memory to me.”
Two members of the LLILAS Benson Digital Initiatives team recently visited Buenaventura, Colombia, to work with archivists and community leaders at Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), a grassroots collective of organizations founded in 1993 that is working to transform the political, social, economic, and territorial reality of Colombia’s Black, Afro-descendant, Raizal, and Palenquera communities through the defense and revindication of their individual, collective, and ancestral rights.
PCN participates as one of several sister archives with which LLILAS Benson has developed a partnership to support the digitization and description of archival materials. Funded by a succession of grants from the Mellon Foundation, this project emphasizes the post-custodial archiving model.* Digitized materials from PCN’s Colección Dinámicas Organizativas del Pueblo Negro en Colombia archive.
Alex Suarez, Digital Projects Archivist, and Karla Roig, former Post-Custodial and Digital Initiatives Graduate Research Assistant, spent a week in Buenaventura to assist PCN with organizing and processing their physical collection. By processing the physical collection, PCN will be able to digitize and create metadata more efficiently. Below, Suarez (AS) and Roig (KR) answer questions about this meaningful visit.
Please describe what you did while visiting Colombia.
AR: We conducted a series of trainings on archival processing, metadata creation, and digitization. We also had the opportunity to learn about the region as well as the city of Buenaventura. The first few days were spent getting to know the collection and to also understand how PCN works as an organization.
Together with PCN, we brainstormed how to arrange the archive in a way that reflects how PCN operates and how they envisioned using the archive in the future. We also reviewed digitization and metadata best practices so that PCN materials can be accessible worldwide and researchers can learn about the organization and Buenaventura.
We were also invited to attend throughout the week three talks titled “Diálogos ribereños,” organized by PCN and the Banco de la República, in which community leaders engaged in conversation with the community around topics of burial rites, economic practices and the environment, and the settlement of their rivers.
Please share some of the highlights of the trip: the setting, activities, and accomplishments.
AR: I was blown away by the closeness of the community and the work they have accomplished over the last 30 years. Everybody knows each other and have been working toward the same goals. It was so interesting to see the community at work.
One of the biggest accomplishments was PCN creating their archival processing plan and defining their arrangement plan. Some of my favorite moments were spent drinking freshly brewed coffee around [PCN leader] Marta’s dining room table talking about how to arrange the archive and how they envisioned future researchers using the archive.
Another favorite moment was attending an interactive exhibit titled Río la Verdad, by Bogotá-based artist Leonel Vásquez, who installed a swimming pool where guests could submerge themselves and hear the sound of the rivers and people singing songs about their history. It was a deeply powerful experience and one that I will never forget.
KR: About the setting: On Sunday morning, we met with Marta and she showed us around Buenaventura for the first time. Our hotel was in front of the Malecón, their only public park, where people gather early in the morning to wait for the small boats that will connect them to other parts of the Colombian Pacific coast. Walking around the small coastal city, there were many local stores and street vendors displaying their goods—from fruits and vegetables, clothes and shoes, to home essentials. Right away we could sense the tight-knit community bonds. Everyone we passed greeted us with a “Buenos días” and Marta was often stopped by people she knew to have a small conversation.
We stopped at a small coffee shop with the view of the Pacific Ocean to have a refreshing drink, where we talked about geography, how Colombia is divided into different departments, and how Buenaventura is the biggest municipality in the Valle del Cauca department. We were staying in the urban center of the municipality, which is where one of the major ports in the country that brings in a large percentage of imported goods is located. Seeing the large yellow container cranes was impressive, they spotted the skyline from our hotel view to the right, and to the left, on a clear day, we could see the mountains at a distance.
One of my favorite memories from our visit was the cultural exchange that happened between us and the PCN team. They taught us about their colloquialisms and their native fruits such as maracuyá and borojó (we tried them too!) and we shared our own vernacular from Puerto Rican and Cuban Spanish. It was exciting to find the similarities between our cultures as well as learning about the uniqueness of their own: how their communities are based around their rivers and also how the marimba is one of their traditional music instruments. Definitely the highlight of the entire visit for me was how welcoming and friendly the PCN team was, and how excited they were to engage with us at a professional and personal level. Toward the end of the week, we had a team dinner to celebrate what we had accomplished and to thank them for hosting us. That night we talked at length about the week, and we all shared what we had learned and were grateful for. It was a beautiful moment interspersed with conversation centered on the archive, but also with laughter and familiarity.
Any ongoing goals?
The main ongoing goal for LLILAS Benson’s Mellon-funded collaboration with PCN is to continue working on the physical archive and to arrange the materials in a way that reflects the organization.
Note: Post-custodial archiving is a process whereby sometimes vulnerable archives are preserved digitally and the digital versions made accessible worldwide, thus increasing access to the materials while ensuring they remain in the custody and care of their community of origin.
Dos miembros del equipo de Iniciativas Digitales de LLILAS Benson viajaron recientemente a Buenaventura, Colombia, para trabajar con archivistas y líderes comunitarios de Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), una colectiva de organizaciones fundada en 1993 que trabaja para transformar la realidad política, social, económica y territorial de las comunidades negras, afro-descendientes, raizal y palenqueras colombianas a través de la defensa y reivindicación de sus derechos individuales, colectivas y ancestrales.
Alex Suarez, Archivista para Proyectos Digitales, y Karla Roig, Asistente Posgrado de Investigaciones para Iniciativas Digitales, pasaron una semana en Buenaventura para ayudar a PCN a organizar y procesar su colección física. Al procesar la colección física, podrían digitalizar y crear metadatos de una manera más eficiente. Abajo, Suarez (AS) y Roig (KR) contestan algunas preguntas sobre la visita.
Expliquen, por favor, las actividades que realizaron durante su visita.
AS: Llevamos a cabo una serie de capacitaciones sobre el procesamiento de archivos, la creación de metadatos y la digitalización. También tuvimos la oportunidad de conocer sobre la región, así como la ciudad de Buenaventura. Los primeros días fueron dedicados a conocer la colección y también a comprender cómo funciona PCN como organización.
Junto con PCN, aportamos ideas sobre cómo organizar el archivo de una manera que reflejara cómo opera PCN y cómo imaginaban usar el archivo en el futuro. También revisamos las mejores prácticas de digitalización y metadatos para que los materiales de PCN puedan ser accesibles en todo el mundo y los investigadores puedan aprender sobre la organización y sobre Buenaventura.
También fuimos invitadas a asistir a lo largo de la semana a tres charlas tituladas “Diálogos ribereños”, organizadas por PCN y el Banco de la República, en las que líderes comunitarios conversaron con la comunidad en torno a temas de ritos fúnebres, prácticas económicas y medio ambiente, y del poblamiento de sus ríos.
¿Cuáles fueron los eventos más destacados del viaje en términos del lugar, las actividades, los logros?
AS: Quedé asombrada por la cercanía de la comunidad y el trabajo que han realizado durante los últimos 30 años. Todos se conocen unos a otros y han estado trabajando hacia unas metas en común y fue muy interesante ver a la comunidad haciendo ese trabajo.
Uno de los mayores logros fue PCN creando su plan de procesamiento de archivos y definiendo su plan de organización. Algunos de mis momentos favoritos fueron bebiendo café recién colado alrededor de la mesa del comedor de Marta hablando sobre cómo organizar el archivo y cómo imaginaban que los futuros investigadores usarían el archivo.
Otro de mis momentos favoritos fue asistir a una exhibición interactiva que fue instalada en el parque principal durante nuestra estadía. La exposición se tituló Río la Verdad del artista bogotano Leonel Vásquez, quien instaló una piscina donde los invitados podían sumergirse y escuchar el sonido de los ríos y la gente cantando canciones sobre su historia. Fue una experiencia profundamente poderosa y una que nunca olvidaré.
KR: Sobre el lugar: El domingo por la mañana nos reunimos con Marta [una líder de PCN] y ella nos caminó por Buenaventura por primera vez. Nuestro hotel estaba frente al Malecón, el único parque público de la ciudad, donde la gente se reúne temprano en la mañana para esperar las pequeñas embarcaciones que los conectarán con otras partes de la costa pacífica colombiana. Caminando por la pequeña ciudad costera, había muchas tiendas locales y vendedores en la calle que mostraban sus productos, desde frutas y verduras, ropa y zapatos, hasta artículos para el hogar. Inmediatamente pudimos ver la cercanía de la comunidad, a todo el que pasábamos nos saludaba con un “Buenos días”, y Marta a menudo paraba a hablar con algún conocido u otro para tener una pequeña conversación.
Nos detuvimos en una pequeña cafetería con vistas al Océano Pacífico para tomar una bebida refrescante en donde conversamos sobre la geografía, cómo Colombia está dividido en diferentes departamentos, y cómo Buenaventura es el municipio más grande del departamento del Valle del Cauca. Nos estábamos quedando en el centro urbano del municipio, que es dónde se encuentra uno de los puertos más importantes del país que trae un gran porcentaje de mercancías importadas. Ver las grandes grúas amarillas de contenedores fue impresionante, se percibían hacia la derecha del horizonte desde la vista de nuestro hotel, y a la izquierda, en un día claro, podíamos ver las montañas a lo lejos.
Uno de mis mejores recuerdos de nuestra visita fue el intercambio cultural que ocurrió entre nosotros y el equipo de PCN. Ellos nos enseñaron sobre sus coloquialismos y sus frutas nativas como el maracuyá y el borojó (¡también los probamos!) y compartimos nuestro vernáculo del español puertorriqueño y cubano. Fue emocionante encontrar las similitudes entre nuestras culturas, así como aprender sobre la singularidad de la de ellos: cómo sus comunidades se basan en sus ríos y también cómo la marimba es uno de sus instrumentos musicales tradicionales.
Definitivamente, lo que más se destacó de toda la visita para mí fue lo acogedor y amable que fue el equipo de PCN, y lo emocionados que estaban de interactuar con nosotros a nivel profesional y personal. Hacia el final de la semana, tuvimos una cena de equipo para celebrar lo que habíamos logrado y agradecerles por recibirnos. Esa noche hablamos sobre la semana y todos compartimos lo que habíamos aprendido y por lo que estábamos agradecidos. Fue un hermoso momento intercalado con conversación enfocada en el archivo, pero también con risas y familiaridad.
¿Objetivos para el futuro?
El principal objetivo de la subvención Mellon es continuar trabajando en el acervo físico y organizar los materiales de una manera que refleje la organización.
Nota: La práctica de archivos pos-custodiales tiene que ver con la preservación de archivos vulnerables en su lugar de origen, mientras se crea una versión digital del material para hacerlo disponible a nivel global.
It is no secret that the Benson Latin American Collection preserves one of the most important Spanish colonial archives in the United States. Within the pages of hundreds of volumes and archival boxes in its stacks are countless historical gems documenting the lived experience of colonized people, colonizers, and everyone in between. However, these perspectives are largely inaccessible: archaic penmanship and obscure writing conventions encode these histories on brittle paper.
For years, the LLILAS Benson Digital Scholarship Office has been experimenting with digital technologies to transform this “unreadable” Spanish colonial archive into accessible humanities data for scholars. However, we tried something new this past year and reversed the equation: We convened colonial Latin Americanists online to transform handwritten words on pages into digital text that they could then use to make the digital humanities (DH) more accessible. This resulted in the “Spanish Paleography and Digital Humanities Institute,” a free online program that provided scholars with practical training in the reading and visualization of 16th- to 18th-century manuscripts in Spanish. The program’s syllabus and logistics were designed by Abisai Pérez Zamarripa, LLILAS Benson Digital Scholarship graduate research assistant and doctoral candidate in history, and myself. Anyone with advanced Spanish-reading proficiency was invited to apply.
“I found this institute thoughtful, generative, and inspiring. The coordinators made every effort to show the participants relevant tools and encourage our progress. It was uniquely helpful to identify DH methods and tools that would make sense in an early modern context and to discuss questions that relate to our field.” — Fall 2021 participant
Colonial Latin Americanists from all over the world applied. While we were only planning to lead one institute, the overwhelming response to our call for applications prompted us to offer two, one in the fall (November–December 2021) and another in the spring (January–March 2022). In all, we accepted 60 participants, including 35 graduate students, eight junior faculty, eight tenured professors, five archive and library professionals, and four independent researchers. By the end of the academic year, we had trained scholars in 11 countries and 18 U.S. states who had varying experience in Spanish paleography and the digital humanities.
“The facilitators were very supportive, and the workshop itself was an invaluable opportunity to meet scholars from across the U.S. and Latin America despite not being able to travel, and to experience a variety of digital humanities tools relevant to our work.” — Dr. Mallory E. Matsumoto, Assistant Professor, Department of Religious Studies, The University of Texas at Austin
One of our main objectives was to help participants obtain and hone Spanish paleography skills. We invited experts from Germany, Portugal, France, and Mexico to provide introductions on specific colonial institutions and their records to expose students to specialized writing conventions and abbreviations. Each Friday, we would break the cohort into groups so that they could collaboratively read and transcribe the week’s case study in a shared Google Doc, which enabled us to give them live feedback and corrections on their transcriptions.
“The group transcription sessions every Friday were invaluable as they allowed us to decipher and discuss doubts with colleagues throughout the [transcription] process, while learning from those with greater knowledge.” — Spring 2022 participant
The spirit of collegiality during these sessions was truly inspiring. We witnessed how scholars, especially those with advanced Spanish paleography skills, actively supported each other in deciphering the texts. After the institute ended, some commented that they considered this group work as “one of the most enriching experiences from the institute.”
After the collaborative transcription sessions, participants continued to hone their paleography skills through assigned weekly homework. Each scholar transcribed two to four pages in various handwriting styles using the University of Texas Libraries’ instance of FromThePage, a platform that enables collaborative transcription work and version tracking. Once they were done with a page, Abisai and I reviewed and corrected the transcriptions, which FromThePage documented and showed, as seen above, to further the students’ understanding of the scripts and abbreviations.
Besides learning how to read the archaic penmanship, scholars were simultaneously helping us enhance the accessibility of the Spanish colonial collection. One the one hand, the cohorts transcribed, and consequently made intellectually accessible, over 90 documents (1,000+ pages) preserved in the Benson Latin American Collection. We are currently publishing them in the Texas Data Repository and will soon ingest them in the University of Texas Libraries’ Collections portal with the images of the original materials to broaden access.
On the other hand, participants also helped us leverage machine-learning technologies to automate this work in the future. As part of the “Unlocking the Colonial Archive” NEH-AHRC grant project, we are reusing these transcriptions to train handwritten text recognition (HTR) models for each of the handwriting styles we commonly find in Spanish colonial documentation. We are then running these models on untranscribed materials at the Benson and in other digital archives to obtain usable automatic transcriptions. To see a list of participants who made a significant contribution to this effort, visit the project website.
With transcriptions in hand, students then used them to learn several free and open-source digital humanities tools. Each Monday, we demonstrated how to extract, visualize, and analyze data from these transcribed texts in different platforms, including Recogito, Voyant-Tools, ArcGIS, and Onodo. As a capstone experience, we asked participants to develop and present a pilot digital humanities project using these tools and texts relevant to their research.
“I honestly did not know what to expect going into this institute. My focus was to improve my paleography skills with the digital programs as a benefit. Now, not only am I more confident in my paleography skills, but I have a plethora of digital tools to use for my projects.” — Spring 2022 participant
Given the positive reception and subsequent demand for such training, we will be leading another round of institutes this fall, August 15–September 30, 2022, and next spring, January 23–March 10, 2023. So if you are interested, check out the call for applications and join the collaborative “unlocking” of the Spanish colonial archive!
“I think it is a very complete and ambitious program. You taught me many tools that changed my way of doing history, of thinking about the social sciences and the humanities. I am very grateful to you. I hope you continue to be very successful and that this project continues to grow.” — Fall 2021 participant
These institutes would not have been possible without the support of these individuals:
Dr. Manuel Bastias Saavedra, Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory and Adjunct Professor at the Institute of Latin American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin (Germany)
Dr. Berenise Bravo Rubio, Researcher-Professor at the National School of Anthropology and History (Mexico)
Brittany Centeno, Preservation Librarian, UT Libraries
Dr. Guillaume Gaudin, Researcher-Professor at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès (France)
Dr. Lidia Gómez García, Researcher-Professor at the Meritorious Autonomous University of Puebla (Mexico)
Ryan Lynch, Head of Special Collections, LLILAS Benson (United States of America)
Dr. Kelly McDonough, Associate Professor at the Spanish and Portuguese Department, The University of Texas at Austin (United States of America)
Dr. Patricia Murrieta-Flores, Professor in Digital Humanities and Co-Director of the Digital Humanities Centre at Lancaster University (United Kingdom)
Dr. Javier Pereda, Senior Researcher at the Arts & Humanities Research Council and Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design and Illustration at Liverpool John Moores University (United Kingdom)
Theresa Polk, Head of Digital Initiatives, LLILAS Benson (United States of America)
Dr. Miguel Rodrigues Lourenço, Researcher at the Center of the Humanities, Universidade Nova de Lisboa (Portugal)
Susanna Sharpe, Communications Coordinator, LLILAS Benson (United States of America)
Katherine Thornton, Digital Asset Delivery Coordinator, UT Libraries (United States of America)
Krissi Trumeter, Financial Analyst, LLILAS Benson (United States of America)
This initiative was generously sponsored by:
National Endowment for the Humanities (United States of America)
Arts and Humanities Research Council (United Kingdom)
LLILAS Excellence Fund for Technology and Development in Latin America
Albert A. Palacios, PhD, is the Digital Scholarship Coordinator at LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, The University of Texas at Austin.
The Benson Latin American Collection recently inaugurated Martín Fierro: From Marginal Outlaw to National Symbol in the Rare Books Reading Room. Co-curated by Graduate Research Assistants Melissa Aslo de la Torre and Janette Núñez, this exhibition examines the Argentine epic poem El gaucho Martín Fierro and its legacy on the 150th anniversary of the poem’s publication. Ryan Lynch sat down with Aslo de la Torre (MA) and Núñez (JN) to talk about their process.
You write that the Benson has over 380 copies of El gaucho Martín Fierro and La vuelta de Martín Fierro. How did these books come to the Benson?
JN: A big part of this collection came from two collections that the Benson purchased. One would be the Martínez Reales Gaucho library, purchased in 1961. That contained about 1500 books, pamphlets, and articles and literature of the Argentine cowboy, and more than 300 editions. The other one was the Simon Lucuix library, purchased in 1963. The collector had over 21,000 volumes on Uruguay and the Rio de la Plata area.
Why do you think Martín Fierro has remained so popular?
JN: The book was published nineteen years after the Argentine constitution of 1853. In that constitution, there was a government policy that encouraged European immigration as an effort to “clean ” races and also populate Argentina. The gaucho became a representation of this struggle of people who were feeling threatened and feeling the consequences of European immigration.
MA: [Martín Fierro] was not the only poem that was written in the voice of a gaucho, but one of the differences is that this one really makes the gaucho the hero in a sort of tragic tale. It was therefore taken up by different groups of people as a symbol of someone who stands for freedom, someone who was oppressed by the government, sort of a hero of the people.
It transitioned from mass popularity to being used by the literary elite to create a political national identity. And in that way, it got really inscribed into popular culture. There are images of a popular tango musician [Carlos Gardel] dressed as a gaucho. These two cultural products [tango and gauchos] are very, very different, but we can see as the gauchos diminished in number, they were used as a symbol of Argentine identity.
The exhibit focuses largely on the work’s legacy in Argentina. Can you talk about its influence outside of Argentina, such as in Brazil and Uruguay?
MA: Gauchos existed in the Rio de la Plata area, it wasn’t just these artificial borders—it spanned the entire region. A gaucho in Argentina was very similar to a gaucho in Uruguay.
One thing that I thought was interesting was that during the period when José Hernández was alive, there was a lot of political turmoil and he was exiled in Uruguay and Brazil; he started writing the poem in Brazil. There was this movement across these borders.
Who should visit this exhibition?
What was the most interesting thing you learned in the course of doing this project?
JN: For me, it was how heavily the government was involved in spreading the poem. When I found out that we had this poem was translated into over 70 languages, I had an idea that it was really popular internationally, but they were all published in Argentina. Something we’ve mentioned before is how it became so popular. I think it was really a true combination of both the mass public and the government. If either one wasn’t on board with this particular poem, I am not sure it would have been as popular as it was.
What is your favorite item in the exhibition?
MA: One of my favorite items is a version that was written for a juvenile audience that is annotated. I appreciated the annotations because there’s so much gaucho language in the poem that was part of what made it successful, but part of what makes it difficult to understand even if you’re a Spanish speaker. It is interesting, one, because you can see how the poem is taught to young Argentines, and two, it makes it understandable for us as readers.
We’ve talked a lot about how we chose to frame this and what we chose to focus on. All of it was driven by the holdings, but there are gaps. This is a very masculine, ideal image of this national identity. I would have loved to have more about who were the female subjects in the poem, how they were treated.
Do you think this experience will inform your careers in archives and libraries in any way? If so, how?
MA: For me, I think it definitely will. This was my first time creating an exhibition and I really had to think about how there are so many access points to materials in archives and rare books.
Previously, my work has been in providing reference, so I had to think about instruction in rare books and archives. How do I teach someone about these materials? How do I help tell a story? What kind of framing am I providing to this knowledge? That’s really one of the reasons that I chose this program and that I am interested in for my career—how is cultural knowledge framed by archives and museums, and what is it communicating to audiences?
JN: I agree. Creating an exhibit is so different from providing reference. It’s putting it out there and then hoping it conveys the messages that we want it to convey.
Also, it was my first [time] to put my experience of working in libraries and archives and my Latin American academic experience together. I do that when I do reference or processing, but putting an exhibition together is really thinking, what is my previous knowledge of Argentine history and politics? And what are my gaps, and how do I use my background to build on that?
Another point is working collaboratively. We were able to bring both of our different experiences to put this one project together. Librarianship is very collaborative work—that is what they teach us at the iSchool. Being able to put that on something that wasn’t just a class project was a great experience as well.
Ryan Lynch is Head of Special Collections and Senior Archivist at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection.
Melissa Aslode la Torre is a master’s student at the School of Information at UT Austin (iSchool).
Janette Núñez is a dual-degree master’s student at LLILAS and the iSchool.
On the night of March 24, 2022, the UT Tower will be lit in honor of the centennial of a crown jewel of our campus—the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection. Established as the Latin American library on campus in 1921, the collection is beloved by students and faculty, and visited by scholars from all over the world.
The collection was named in 1975 upon the retirement of revered head librarian and historian Dr. Nettie Lee Benson, who served as its director for thirty-three years, retiring in 1975. The stewardship of Mexico-born historian, archivist and educator Dr. Carlos E. Castañeda from 1927 to 1943 was similarly indispensable in the library’s earlier years. In 2011, the Benson joined forces with the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS) in a partnership known as LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections. This partnership has allowed for an expansion of the Benson in the areas of digital scholarship, post-custodial archiving and archiving of Indigenous languages of Latin America.
To honor the Benson Centennial, The University of Texas at Austin has invested in an interior redesign of the Benson’s main reading room—the first since its construction in 1971. The newly refurbished 6,734-square-foot room is the main entrance to the library and the heart of a place frequented by thousands of visitors each year.
The Tower lighting on March 24 coincides with the grand opening of this beloved space, renamed the Ann Hartness Reading Room, in honor of former head librarian Ann Hartness, whose thirty-eight-year tenure at the Benson enriched Brazilian studies and collections at the university. Its naming was made possible by a gift from Hartness’s son and daughter-in-law, who have also established the Jonathan Graham and Elizabeth Ulmer Fund for Library Materials on Brazil, an endowment to enhance the collection in the field of Brazilian studies. Graham and Ulmer have dedicated the remaining portion of their gift to create the Ann Hartness Benson Collection Matching Fund.
The Benson Centennial Tower lighting is a moment for hope—that this jewel of the University of Texas Libraries may continue to open its doors to the university community and beyond for many years to come, that we may continue to pursue digital projects that make our collections available worldwide through open access, and that support for the richness of this collection will be a means to continue its growth, its inclusiveness and its accessibility to an ever-expanding audience.
THE BENSON LATIN AMERICAN COLLECTION is home to the archive of Mexican politician, writer, and philosopher José Vasconcelos (1881–1959). In this short essay, Diego Godoy describes a man of contradictions, “the personification of both the brightness and darkness” of post-revolutionary Mexico.
One has to admire José Vasconcelos: the young law student who became a leading ateneísta —a member of the intellectual cohort that undid positivism’s decades-long stranglehold on Mexican political, social, and cultural life; the lawyer who was appointed rector of UNAM while still in his thirties; Mexico’s first Secretary of Public Education, who deployed teachers and mobile libraries to poor, rural schools and published affordable editions of literary classics; the mastermind behind Mexican muralism—picture him sitting with José Clemente Orozco, splitting a bottle of tempranillo (Vasconcelos hated distilled spirits), explaining how Orozco and other artists will bring history to the hoi polloi by frescoing colonial edifices; the Culture Czar of the Mexican Revolution.
But one can also loathe him. As the leading theoretician of official mestizophilia, he exalted the Iberian half of the mestizo equation above the Indigenous; if this is not wholly clear in the first part of La raza cósmica, read the accompanying travelogue of South America. Perhaps more egregious was his flirtation with fascism, which reached its highest (or lowest) point when he took the reins of a Third Reich–funded cultural magazine. His love life was similarly troubling: his refusal to fully commit to his mistress, the writer Antonieta Rivas Mercado, inspired her to put a bullet through her heart inside Notre-Dame—with Vasconcelos’s own pistol, no less. And then there was this slight, published in ElUniversal: “Barbarism commences where the consumption of guisos [stews] gives way to that of carne asada [grilled beef];” a jab, presumably, at the stereotypical brusqueness of my own father’s people—northern Mexicans.
Consider Vasconcelos the personification of both the brightness and darkness of the revolutionary project. In this sense, he was not much different from the other protagonists of the first half of Mexico’s twentieth century. Yet his intellectual and cultural impact dwarfed and far outlived that of his contemporaries.
Naturally, there is a good deal published about this maestro de la juventud de América, with the most comprehensive treatments having appeared pre–Moon Landing. More books, chapters, and essays have cropped up since then, many of which grapple with the themes of his work in oblique ways. A new English-language book (it is a largely hispanophone field), perhaps one offering unique focal points and fresh interpretations, would certainly be welcome. And while traditional cradle-to-grave biographies have become academically passé, what is often cold-shouldered by academia tends to be a reliable barometer of mass appeal. Should a researcher engage in such a project, he or she will be glad to know that the José Vasconcelos Papers at the Benson Latin American Collection contain correspondence (and divorce records) between Vasconcelos and his second wife, the pianist Esperanza Cruz. I suspect that many working historians might be dismissive of the man’s personal life. This would be unwise, because clever dashes of detail and anecdote can furnish scholarly writing and lectures with some badly needed flair. Either way, for the Vasconcelos-curious, this collection is the repository of choice.
The Vasconcelos Papers: A Closer Look
The José Vasconcelos Papers are divided into five sections. Correspondence contains the aforementioned letters to and from Esperanza Cruz, other relatives, and an array of writers. Among the latter group is Rodolfo Usigli, one of Mexico’s (and, indeed, Latin America’s) foremost dramatists, and Carlos Denegri, the legendarily unscrupulous, hard-drinking, sexist, insert-whatever-“ist”-you-want newsman—a veritable institution at Excélsior for some three decades. Biographical Materials holds photographs, artistic renderings of Vasconcelos, ephemera—conference programs, event invitations, coverage of his death—and a handful of personal items. Writings contains manuscripts and articles on a variety of subjects by Vasconcelos, as well as works by others reflecting on his cultural footprint. Of note is his four-part autobiography and another original, philosophical tract, La estética. Printed Materials includes journal, magazine, and newspaper articles by and about Vasconcelos, as well as books authored by him and those collected by or gifted to him. Lastly, there are two boxes of Oversized Materials: certificates, diplomas, event posters, newspaper clippings, and so forth.
For those who remain uninterested in contributing more pages to the micro library of Vasconcelos Studies, or expelling more breath on the “Great Men” of history, the collection is replete with gems nonetheless. Let’s say that you are interested in the history of education in Mexico, or, perhaps more specifically, the post-revolutionary state’s efforts to cultivate the minds of its citizenry. In that case, digging through issues of the short-lived El Maestro: Revista de cultura nacional will be worth your time. Founded by Vasconcelos as a sort of general culture primer, the magazine aimed to diffuse literary, historical, philosophical, and pedagogical content to educators, children, and lifelong learners. In its pages, Ramón López Velarde garnered his reputation as Mexico’s national poet before his untimely death at 33, and educators found Spanish-language versions of Tolstoy and lessons detailing the “Practical Applications of Geometry.”
A particularly rich vein of material exists for those concerned with “bibliotechology” (as I suspect many reading this are). Vasconcelos’s conviction that “only books will lift this country out of barbarism” spurred the momentous creation of libraries—and the training of competent professionals to steward them—during his tenure as Secretary of Public Education. Under the auspices of his newly formed Department of Libraries and Archives, a young poblana named María Teresa Chávez Campomanes arrived stateside for graduate studies in library science at Pratt and Columbia. Following stints at the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress, she returned to Mexico. Her sterling intellect (and no doubt her connections) pried open the doors to coveted positions, including the directorships of the Biblioteca Benjamín Franklin and the Biblioteca de México. Yet her greatest legacy rests on having mentored a generation of librarians. As a professor at the Escuela Nacional de Bibliotecarios y Archiveros, a founder of UNAM’s Colegio de Bibliotecología, and the author of definitive guides to cataloguing and classification, she was instrumental in the professionalization of Mexican librarianship. Anyone investigating the history of libraries and cultural heritage institutions, higher education, or the Mexican state’s cultural apparatus will find the six years’ worth of correspondence between Vasconcelos and Chávez Campomanes indispensable.
If you are like me, it is another woman’s name in Vasconcelos’s mailbag that will jump out at you: Pilar Primo de Rivera—the head of the Spanish Falange’s Sección Femenina,an organization whose raison d’être was to reinforce the belief that Spanish women should be seen (preferably in their husbands’ kitchens and bedrooms) and not heard. She was also, very briefly, the would-be Mrs. Adolf Hitler, but the Spaniards’ harebrained scheme to forge a Hispano-Teutonic dynasty was scrapped upon discovery of the Führer’s unitesticularity. Some might consider her a surprising correspondent for a man as erudite and seemingly enlightened as Vasconcelos. But the problem with the erudite and seemingly enlightened is that they, too, can be seduced by truly awful ideas. Indeed, the intelligentsia may be even more susceptible because they can readily perform the mental gymnastics necessary to rationalize intellectually or morally bankrupt positions—look no further than the Twittersphere to see otherwise brilliant people with Ivy League credentials hurl critical thinking out the window.
A right-wing analogue can be found in 1930s Latin America, when many of the region’s prominent literati, not the least of whom was don José, were among the torchbearers of an emergent “clerical and hispanophile right-wing nationalism,” as Pablo Yankelevich put it. But exactly how does one go from cultural revolutionary to reactionary? What explains a broadly liberal humanist’s descent into a regressive Catholic conservatism? And not your grandfather’s variety of conservatism either, unless he happens to be a porteño with a curiously German accent. Perhaps Vasconcelos’s faith in democratic principles dissipated after the events of 1929, when his presidential hopes were dashed. Coupled with a battered ego and festering resentment, this is a compelling explanation. So is the company he kept during his post-election exile, notably Leopoldo Lugones, the Argentine poet and accomplice in José Félix Uriburu’s corporatist military regime. No doubt Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles’s ferocious anticlericalism, and comparable atrocities perpetrated by Spanish anarchists and communists, also accelerated Vasconcelos’s rightward shift.
Some of the flesh for these bones may be found in Vasconcelos’s correspondence with the Spanish writer José Manuel Castañón. Hailing from Asturias, Castañón ran away from home at 16, but not for the usual reasons that teenagers flee. He aspired to join the ranks of Franco’s soldiers, and did just that in 1936. Five years later, he volunteered for the so-called Blue Division in order to fight alongside the Wehrmachton the Eastern Front. Castañón would eventually grow disillusioned with Francoism and publish accounts of his political 180 from his exile in Caracas.
Vasconcelos’s communication with compatriota Manuel Gómez Morín, however, might just yield more grist. An admirer of Miguel Primo de Rivera and the French protofascist thinker Charles Maurras, Gómez Morín wore many hats: law professor; university rector; banking czar; corporate lawyer; and most importantly, opposition party founder. His disenchantment with the post-revolutionary state began in the 1920s with President Álvaro Obregón handpicking Plutarco Elías Calles as his successor, Calles’s subsequent anti-Catholicism, followed by Vasconcelos’s failed presidential campaign, for which he served as unofficial treasurer. The 1930s proved no better for him and the politically like-minded, as President Lázaro Cárdenas’s progressive reforms clashed with major national and transnational companies, some of which counted on Gómez Morín for legal counsel. Fed up with the state of affairs, Gómez Morín founded the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, PAN) in 1939. Many of its earliest followers and official candidates ran the gamut of right-leaning ideology, from Jesuit activists to sinarquistas, members of a Guanajuato-based, Nazi-founded political organization whose rallying cry was “Faith, Blood, Victory.” These days, the PAN is more synonymous with drug-warrior presidents, conservative middle-class voters (the party’s lifeblood), and fake-news-peddling, rosary-clutching middle-aged women. But its early quasi-fascist ties cannot be forgotten.
Spending a few minutes eyeing the finding aid—and Googling unfamiliar names, texts, and organizations—will reveal the remarkable research and teaching potential of this collection. Whether one is concerned with some understudied facet of Vasconcelos’s life or career, or seeks to investigate such disparate topics as Mexican librarianship or transatlantic fascism, the José Vasconcelos Papers will provide unique and unmatched sources.
The Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection is pleased to announce Héctor Rodríguez III’s donation of materials pertaining to his comic series, El Peso Hero.
The series was launched in 2011, when Rodríguez saw the need for more Latino representation in graphic novels. The titular superhero, whose name is Ignacio Rivera, fights to uphold justice and morality in the border region. In some issues, Rivera can be seen helping migrants safely across the border. In others, he fights corruption and drug traffickers. Now celebrating a decade of issues, El Peso Hero will debut on the silver screen in the near future. While Rivera is the protagonist of the series, perhaps it’s his creator who is the real hero.
Héctor Rodríguez is a bilingual north Texas elementary school teacher by day and a comic book creator by night. His commitment to the genre goes beyond his own production: he’s also the creator of Texas Latino Comic Con. The mission of his independently owned Rio Bravo Comics is to give the people a “humble hero,” someone who is relatable to the audience, some of whom are his students. His inspiration comes from his family as well as his life as a Chicano in Texas. Rodríguez, who was born in Eagle Pass and grew up in College Station, uses El Peso Hero as a means to tell stories about the borderlands, from its hardships to its beauty.
For the author, that beauty is found in the multiculturalism that flourishes in the region, where El Santo comics are read while watching lucha libre, and English and Spanish are often spoken in the same sentence. It is for this reason that Rodríguez intentionally has El Peso Hero only speak in Spanish, while the series itself is bilingual. For Rodríguez, it is important that El Peso Hero transcends the U.S.–Mexico border linguistically and culturally to solidify his representation of transnational communities.
The donation features single issues, posters, stickers, storyboards, and a coloring book. One of the many highlights is a rare, signed first issue of the series.
Daniel Arbino is Head of Collection Development at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection.
Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love — In this series, librarians from the UT Libraries Arts, Humanities and Global Studies Engagement Team briefly present, explore and critique existing examples of digital scholarship. Our hope is that these monthly reviews will inspire critical reflection of, and future creative contributions to, the growing fields of digital scholarship.
At a recent talk I gave, an audience member asked me, “What are the strengths of the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection?”
It’s a question I receive often, though I don’t know if I’ve ever given a satisfactory answer. I often point to our historical Mexican archival collections, our collections of women writers and artists, and our US Latinx collections pertaining to civil rights. The truth is that I think the Benson does everything well. We have outstanding Brazilian collections, unique and important Caribbean materials, and strong representation in the Southern Cone. We know we can’t collect everything, but we sure try to anyway.
Some of our most recognizable materials are the Relaciones Geográficas, late-sixteenth-century surveys with maps that came with the Joaquin Garcia Icazbalceta purchase in 1937. The aim was for the Spanish crown to have a deeper understanding of the provinces surrounding what is today Mexico City. Were there waterways to transport goods? Mines to excavate precious gold and silver? The Relaciones have been the subject of books and digital projects, confirming their relevance for posterity.
I mention the RGs, as we affectionately call them, because they came to mind when I recently viewed a 1614 painting of a Bogotá savanna in Colombia titled La Pintura de las tierras pantanos y anegadizos del pueblo de Bogotá. Like the Relaciones Geográficas, art and cartography combine in this stunning piece, which was used as evidence in a trial to determine if landowner Francisco Maldonado y Mendoza had defrauded the Spanish crown on his way to accruing vast tracts of land at cheap prices.
This map became the focus of a digital project called Colonial Landscapes: Redrawing Andean Territories in the Seventeenth Century, in which Dr. Santiago Muñoz Arbelaez led a team from across the Americas, including the University of Connecticut, la Universidad de los Andes, Neogranadina, and la Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia, to explore the social and political environment of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Colombia while considering land rights and Indigeneity. The project, which is available in Spanish and English, goes well beyond the digitization of one piece. In the “tour” section of the site, context is provided with the use of stunning rare materials. A portrait of Maldonado y Mendoza allows us to visualize the land baron. Other primary sources, both 2D and 3D, such as early textual and cartographic descriptions of cities and towns provided by Colombia’s national archive, are utilized to delve deeper. In the “Explore” section of the site, users can engage with different aspects of the main map in question.
However, the highlight of this project is taking a map that discusses landownership between two European entities (Maldonado y Mendoza and the Spanish crown) and inserting Indigenous rights and notions of belonging into the matter. The Muisca are considered at length in this project as the rightful inheritors of the land. The Muisca Confederation was a group of loosely affiliated sovereign regions that made up nearly 10,000 square miles in Colombia when the Spaniards arrived.in 1499. They had the knowledge to cultivate crops in the savanna and to understand the region’s flora and fauna as well as extensive knowledge of metalworking and salt-mining. Images of Muisca ceramic figures demonstrate a rich culture whose trajectory was upended with the arrival of European colonizers. To that end, the exhibit also shows how Europeans created negative representations of the Muisca to justify the violent imposition of a new order. As land acknowledgements are negotiated and spoken in conversations emanating from sites of power, it is precisely this portion of the project that makes it so timely and necessary. Projects like Colonial Landscapes propose interesting pathways toward digital repatriation while contextualizing our understanding of the past and present.
Feature image: Relación de Atengo y Misquiahuala, 1579. Benson Latin American Collection.
Daniel Arbino is head of collection development at the Benson Latin American Collection, The University of Texas at Austin.
The Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI) is a collaborative archival project aimed at preserving and promoting the use of fragile human rights records from around the world, in order to support human rights advocates working for the defense of vulnerable communities and individuals. The HRDI was established at the University of Texas Libraries with a generous grant from the Bridgeway Foundation in 2008. Additionally, the Human Rights Documentation Initiative has partnered with the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice to identify key strategic issues for the initiative as well as provide relevant programming to the UT Austin community and beyond.
The HRDI preserves and provides access to paper-based collections, as well as digitized and born-digital audiovisual collections that are global in scope. Recognizing the importance of online human rights advocacy and the fragility of web content, the HRDI also maintains an archive of websites related to human rights issues, which is updated quarterly.
A number of the collections found on this site have been preserved and made available through post-custodial archival collaborations between the HRDI and partner organizations and repositories. Post-custodialism is a collaborative approach to providing access to archival collections that preserves physical archives within their original contexts of creation while also creating digital copies for wider access. Through these collaborations, the HRDI aims to support the development of partners’ archival capacity, particularly in the areas of digitization, preservation, arrangement, description, and access.
About the New Platform
The new version of the HRDI site integrates streaming, search, and browse functionality alongside information about each project partner and the HRDI web archive in a single mobile-friendly interface. To fully accommodate international audiences, several pages are available in both English and Spanish, including those describing Spanish-language collections. The previous HRDI website launched in 2008 and was retired in 2020, when Adobe Flash was discontinued. An archived copy of the previous site and the retired HRDI blog are each available via the Wayback Machine.
Radio Venceremos, the rebel radio station that broadcast from the mountains of Morazán, El Salvador, during the eleven-year Salvadoran Civil War (1981–1992), produced an important collection of recordings that contain valuable historic, anthropological, and ethnographic information, particularly in regards to human rights violations during an era of social transformation in Central America. This recording from December 31, 1981, contains an interview with Rufina Amaya about the massacre at El Mozote: Radio Venceremos Recording
Four-part account of Albert Chammah and Oran Young’s 1976 visit to Syria to investigate the political, social, and economic status of the Jewish community there. The account details the contemporary size of the Jewish communities in several Syrian cities, formal restrictions imposed by the Syrian government, and general social discrimination. Albert Chammah was a professor at UT Austin, while Oran Young was a graduate student at the time: Conversation between Albert Chammah and Oren Young
This account was transferred from two cassette tapes, donated to the HRDI by Albert Chammah’s son Maurice. Maurice Chammah is an Austin-based journalist and staff writer for The Marshall Project, focusing on capital punishment and the criminal justice system in the United States.
Texas After Violence Project (TAVP) is a human rights and restorative justice project that studies the effects of interpersonal and state violence on individuals, families, and communities. The collection includes hundreds of hours of personal testimony that serves as a resource for community dialogue and public policy to promote alternative, nonviolent ways to prevent and respond to violence. Watch: Interview with Donna Hogan
David A. Bliss is digital archivist at the University of Texas Libraries.
The Benson Latin American Collection is a beacon for Latin Americanist scholars the world over. It has drawn researchers to examine its archival gems, particularly its strength in holdings that shed light on Mexico and Central America. Over the past few years, the Benson has further diversified its collection to better represent other parts of Latin America and strengthen its holdings on materials from the Caribbean as well as Latinx and African diasporas in the United States. Its well-deserved status as the top Latin American and Caribbean-focused collection in the United States is what drew me to UT Austin in the first place.
Before I was an Information Studies student at UT, I was a first-time graduate student diving into academia at the University of Florida. Having found employment in UF’s Latin American and Caribbean Collection, I was soon inspired by the wide variety of unique Cuban holdings present, such as autographed first editions of works by Cuba’s national hero and author José Martí. The mentorship of scholars of Cuba like historian Lillian Guerra further drew me into Cuban Studies. Five years and many trips later, Cuba continues to capture my interests, particularly now that I live and work in Miami, where the highest number of Cuban Americans in the United States reside.
It should come as no surprise that the collection I am reviewing relates to Cuba. With the assistance of the Benson’s Caribbean Studies liaison librarian Adrian Johnson, I came across the McFarland Cuban Plantation Records. It is a bilingual collection of correspondence, company records, legal documents, news clippings, and personal photos relating to the Cuban Plantation Company of Nueces County, Texas. The company was originally organized and incorporated in New York State by twenty Pennsylvanians who came together to buy a 1000-acre plantation near Holguín, a city in eastern Cuba. The date of the incorporation, October 1, 1902, is important, as it came less than five months after the end of the four-year U.S. military occupation of Cuba following the conclusion of the Cuban War of Independence. During this turbulent period, Cubans negotiated with the legacies of Spanish colonialism as well as the neo-imperial presence of the United States at all levels of society. Following the formal end of the occupation, U.S. interests did not disappear, but rather intensified, with 13,000 North Americans having bought land in Cuba by 1905.
Of those twenty Pennsylvanians mentioned previously, nineteen eventually stopped paying the interest on their loans and thus ceased to be a part of the Cuban Plantation Company. The only original investor who remained was one J.F. McFarland. McFarland would eventually pass ownership of the company to his two sons, and in 1953, they officially changed the business’s name to the Cuban Plantation Company of Nueces County, Texas. During this period, their landholdings became entangled with a brewing revolutionary fervor against the brutal dictatorship of military strongman Fulgencio Batista, who was backed by multiple U.S. public and private interests. However, the story of the Cuban Revolution and the eventual agrarian reform that would affect U.S. interests like the those of the McFarlands is not a simple one.
Agrarian reform was on everyone’s minds, both inside and outside of Cuba. In June 1959, then–Prime Minister of Cuba Fidel Castro told the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba Philip Bonsal that agrarian reform was “a matter of life and death.” U.S. landowners like the McFarlands and the United Fruit Company, which was the single-largest landowner in Cuba, found the prospect of agrarian reform worrisome. As the McFarland records show, they like many others assumed that Cuba’s revolutionary experiment would not last long. For example, in a 1959 letter from J.R. McFarland, the secretary-treasurer of the Cuban Plantation Company, to lawyer Dr. Pedro Ferrer y Coba, McFarland wrote, “We also feel that the dictatorship of Castro will sooner or later terminate because of lack of finances, because he has alienated the people or governments from which he might have obtained finances.” In the same letter, McFarland also notes that the company felt they would be paid “a price below the actual worth of the land” or “in bonds of uncertain value.” As the years passed and Cuba found economic stability through a relationship with the Soviet Union, these assumptions turned into legal efforts to secure some form of compensation for expropriated properties. In the McFarland records, one can see that their efforts to receive compensation for their land continued as late as 1971.
The culture of the U.S. plantation in Cuba was one in which North American custom reigned supreme, with many plantations having their own police forces subject only to the laws set by the landowner. This detested system, and the poverty it created in the Cuban countryside, were so unpopular that agrarian reform was overwhelmingly supported by Cuba’s middle classes. As Lillian Guerra shows in her pivotal work on the first decade following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the Cuban middle classes supported agrarian reform via monetary donations, donations of agricultural machinery, and some even opening their homes to visiting guajiros (Cubans from the countryside) in a government PR initiative to open the luxuries of the city previously unavailable to them.
While agrarian reform was wildly popular at its initiation, certain instances during this period foreshadow what would become an authoritarian regime. Fidel Castro directly controlled the agency tasked with instituting agrarian reform, the Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria, or INRA, along with a host of other government entities. As he expanded his personal popularity and power, he also put his allies in positions that they were not always qualified for. For example, the medical doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara was appointed as the head of the national bank. Urban underground activists, commonly known as “la clandestinidad,” who had fought on behalf of Castro’s 26th of July Movement, were displaced by those of the Partido Socialista Popular, a covertly Stalinist party and the not-too-distant allies of Fulgencio Batista during his first presidency and later dictatorship.
The McFarland records provide little insight into life on their farm, but the collection includes a brief memoir about a family/company trip to Cuba written by J.R. McFarland, son of J.F. The farm is romanticized as a quaint country estate, but the tenants, like other facets of Cuba in the eyes of the author, are portrayed as primitive. Furthermore, racist imagery is present throughout, with most Cubans encountered labeled as “negroes.” This label also does not take into consideration the diversity of racial identifications in Cuba, where like other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, a variety of racial identifications exist apart from the dichotomy of “black” and “white.” These instances provide important context for the plethora of social ills that arise when foreign entities control the land and people of an independent country. The agrarian reform in its infancy was a noble cause that enjoyed support from the Cuban masses and was a glimmer of hope for those seeking a more independent and egalitarian nation. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss what came after this period of hope.
The principal crop of the Cuban Plantation Company was sugar, a hugely important product in Cuban history. Early revolutionary ideals of crop diversification and self-sufficiency were displaced for more of the same. Instead of supplying the bulk of its sugar harvest to the United States, Cuba would instead provide its cash crop to the USSR. In the Soviet era, Cuba functioned as a quasi-colony of the USSR in the Western Hemisphere. Additionally, failed agricultural initiatives like the Ten Million Ton Harvest (Zafra de los Diez Millones), which emptied other professional sectors of personnel in the name of carrying out a hefty sugar harvest, created ration shortages and the corruption of the ration system itself. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Cuba faced a massive decrease in food supply, with a 50% decrease in overall food production within its own borders. This food insecurity has not been overcome to this day, with increasingly difficult U.S. economic sanctions, failed state agricultural policy, dependence on a limited supply of imports, and a stagnant economic structure where success is often determined by race, gender, lucrative familial connections abroad, and geographic location.
My time at UT Austin taught me much about amplifying voices that have been historically absent from the archive. At the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab of Florida International University, we are seeking to do just that, with strategic community partnerships around South Florida to document oral histories and create a more all-encompassing archive of the region and how different groups have experienced it. About archiving Cuban themes in South Florida, the tradition has been to almost exclusively preserve the stories of pre-1959 Cuba, prominent members of the exile community, and dissidents. While these stories are important, they should nonetheless be complemented by those of individuals who were brought up in Cold War–era and post–USSR collapse Cuba, as well as the more quotidian stories of Cuban exile life in South Florida from recent decades. As someone who has lived in and researched Cuba, I learned early on that the hyperpoliticization of the subject of Cuba leads to anyone willingly diving into post-1959, in-country themes being met with suspicion. However, for the sake of engaging research, preservation, and ultimately positive change in Cuba, these themes must not be pushed to the side.
While the situation I have described is unique, the Benson nonetheless offers a great example for these goals. The Benson’s historic holdings, like the Genaro García Collection and the Joaquín García Icazbalceta Manuscript Collection, are being complemented by newer, digitally based initiatives like the Voces Oral History Archive and post-custodial digitization in the region with partners like the Colombian Proceso de Comunidades Negras, or PCN. My hope is that one day, the archives in South Florida that more closely resemble the McFarland Collection can coexist with those of Cubans who lived through the turbulent decades of the Revolution, and those who came to Florida in later decades seeking libertad.
Throughout my professional and personal life in Florida and Cuba, I have seen both sides of the partisan battles surrounding Cuba and its contested future. On one side are those academics and activists who celebrate the successes of the Cuban Revolution without acknowledging the extent of its failures. On the other side, many in the Miami exile community, as well some U.S. politicians, are unable to see the dire human costs of the trade embargo and toughening U.S. sanctions. The lack of room for critique leads to Cubans being nothing more than symbols to justify one view or the other, while also leaving Cubans—to borrow the words of cultural anthropologist Noelle Stout—“to make the long, hot walk back to their normal lives” when they are no longer on the radar of foreigners or the exile community. In this moment, a climactic and potentially transformative one for the people of Cuba, they must be seen as more than props in a partisan battle, but agents in their own destiny.
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published September 16, 2021, in the series Journey into the Archive: History from the Benson Latin American Collection, a collaboration between the Benson and Not Even Past. View the original here.
About the Author
A native of Kentucky, Katie L. Coldiron moved to Florida in 2016 to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies, and she undertook her thesis research in Cuba under the advisement of Dr. Lillian Guerra. She was also introduced to library and archival work at UF, and parlayed different roles held during her time as a student into a position digitizing Cuban Judaica items and periodicals on the ground in Havana, all part of a post-custodial digitization project undertaken by the UF George A. Smathers Libraries. Following this experience, Katie enrolled in a library and information science master’s program at The University of Texas at Austin. During her time at UT Austin, Katie served as a graduate research assistant for digital projects at the UT Libraries, where she assisted area studies librarians on various facets of their digital projects. She also was a FLAS fellow at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies. Katie is currently working as the Digital Archivist and Project Manager for the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab at Florida International University. She can be found on Twitter: @katielcoldiron.
 Mariel Iglesias Utset, A Cultural History of Cuba During the U.S. Occupation, 1898–1902 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
 Louis M. Pérez, On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999).