All posts by Susanna Sharpe

Journey into the Archive: The McFarland Cuban Plantation Records

BY KATIE COLDIRON

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.

Postcard from Holguín, where J.F. McFarland noted details from his trip to Cuba.

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.

Letter from J.R. McFarland to Dr. Pedro Ferrer y Coba, employee of the Cuban Plantation Company who was given power of attorney on the company’s behalf. The letter notes that the company considered the Cuban revolutionary project to be temporary.

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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

Copy of letter sent to J.R. McFarland, then-secretary/treasurer of the Cuban Plantation Company, by Cuban company lawyer Dr. Pedro Ferrer y Coba. In the second-to-last paragraph on this page, Ferrer y Coba acknowledges the popularity of the then-provisional government.

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.”[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

Postcard depicting a home characteristic of the Cuban countryside. On his family trip to Cuba, J.R. McFarland thought that the image closely resembled that of a home on his company’s farm.

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.[11] 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.

Notes

[1] Mariel Iglesias Utset, A Cultural History of Cuba During the U.S. Occupation, 1898–1902 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

[2] Louis M. Pérez, On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture (Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lillian Guerra, Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959–1971 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Devyn Spence Benson, Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

[8] Guerra, 2012.

[9] Pérez, 2019.

[10] Hannah Garth, Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020).

[11] Noelle M. Stout, After Love: Queer Intimacy and Erotic Economies in Post-Soviet Cuba (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

Curating an Oral History of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority at The University of Texas at Austin

BY BRIANA MARIE DAVIS, CLASS OF 2021

Delta Xi of Spring 1966: Camilla Jackson, Beverly Robinson, Karen Williams, Pamiel Johnson-Gaskin, Carolyn Cole, Ruth Franklin, Mary Gordon, Linda Lewis, Mary Poston, Shirley Tennyson, Barbara Ward, Debbera Williams. Photo courtesy of Pamiel Johnson-Gaskin.

The honorable Delta Xi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. was the first Black Greek-letter organization to be established at The University of Texas at Austin. Sworn in on May 16, 1959, at high noon in the Queen Anne Room, this particular group of women is dripping in legacy, poignant programs, community service, and rich history. As an archivist-in-training, with the unique opportunity to not only archive an oral history but curate it from scratch, I see it as my duty to extract the essence and diversity of these highly valuable experiences among the Delta Xi women. This is a preview of a three-part blog series, accompanied by a digital archive that has been published and gathered throughout the summer of 2021.

What Is Oral History? The Beginning Processes of Oral History Curation

Oral history-making is a method of conducting historical research to preserve the experiences, significant historical events, and stories of narrators, recorded by a well-informed interviewer, with the purpose of making them accessible to future generations. Oral history not only helps us understand singular events in the past, but gives us a snapshot of any and all historical forces at play during a moment in time.

As an archivist-in-training and now an oral historian, I have been involved in the process of creating a blueprint for an oral recording documenting the first UT Black Greek organization from scratch. I hope that this specific process of interviewing can be applied to future endeavors to preserve the Delta Xi history and possibly the oral histories of other Greek-letter organizations at The University of Texas at Austin.

A Brief History of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.

Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated was founded by Ethel Hedgeman Lyle of St. Louis, Missouri, at Howard University on January 15, 1908. Over time, the organization expanded to many higher-learning institutions across the globe, growing to over 1,018 undergraduate and graduate chapters with the purpose of enriching the lives of Black women through service, networking, and social experiences. The sorority promotes unity, friendship, and academic achievement among its members; it seeks to continue and provide opportunities for higher education through scholarship and donation. As the first Black Greek-letter organization to be established at the University of Texas, the brand-new members of the Delta Xi Chapter were serenaded by the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity at their swearing-in.

AKA Christmas Party, 1966, photo courtesy of Pamiel Gaskin.

AKA Impact on Campus and Beyond

The impact of the signature projects created and facilitated by the Delta Xi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. reaches beyond the Forty Acres and into the lives of Austin mothers and their children. Working in East Austin, where, historically, the majority of African American Austinites have resided, since 1959 Delta Xi has held events to aid battered women, and to provide holiday parties, daycare, resources, encouragement, and toys for impoverished families.

Honorable Mentions, Members, and Findings

Lareatha H. Clay: Shankleville Community Oral History Collection

Lareatha H. Clay is a prominent oral historian and Delta Xi member (among other accolades). She has created the Shankleville Community Oral History Collection, an archival collection focused on preserving the spoken histories of Shankleville, a historic freedom colony in Newton County, located in East Texas. Clay is currently working to organize the Aya Symposium, an annual multidisciplinary event that explores the history of Texas freedom colonies.

DeMetris Sampson: Innervisions of Blackness

The Delta Xi Chapter has also had its influence in fine arts on campus. DeMetris Sampson, founder of the choral group Innervisions of Blackness and its first president, created the organization with the purpose of “educating, representing and exemplifying the soul of Black students through the scope of music.” Sampson was advised by Almetris Duren, a highly influential historical figure at UT Austin, to make the group official in 1974. Contrary to the rumor that Duren founded the group, Sampson (first president), Rene Hight (Delta Xi member, vice president, and pianist), Vanessa Ferguson (vice president), and Butler School of Music doctoral student Irlene Swain (director) were the first to spearhead the organization. Be sure to check out DeMetris Sampson’s inspiring interview as soon as the Delta Xi Oral History Collection is live to find out more about Innervisions of Blackness.

Barbara Dugas-Patterson: Cotton Bowl Queen

Photo courtesy of Barbara Dugas-Patterson, 1982.

Barbara Dugas-Patterson was crowned as Cotton Bowl Queen by popularity vote and support from Delta Xi members, thus participating in the Cotton Bowl Classic. The University of Texas was ranked #1 in the Southwest Conference at the time and competed against the University of Alabama.

Time and Oral History Making

Time consciousness, memory, subjectivity, explanation, and interpretation are some of the challenges that prevent oral history curation from achieving a concrete and complete picture of the past. To minimize confusion and add structure to the Delta Xi interviews, we devised a template with specific, open-ended questions. The questions revolved around experiences with social life on campus, community service, personal motivations to join the organization, and the legacy of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. The scope of the questions was limited to high school, senior year, college, and occasionally beyond. The flexible nature of the interview questions allowed for a diverse set of narratives to surface.

Despite the challenges of extracting histories dating back at least forty years and that are continuing to unfold, I’ve been able to make comparisons depending on the decade each participant pledged and their overall perceptions of racial inclusion at the University of Texas. Participants who pledged the Delta Xi Chapter in the 1960s viewed joining a Black sorority as a means of survival in a challenging sociopolitical atmosphere, freshly recovering from outdated ideas regarding Black women in higher education. Conversely, members who joined in the 1970s and 1980s saw joining a Black sorority as an elective, yet all participants have found that they joined Alpha Kappa Alpha to find women just like themselves in a university whose Black student population is still only 4 percent. To stay up to date with the Delta Xi Chapter, I encourage you to check out their social media: @Texas_AKAs.

Alpha Kappa Alpha Probate Show, circa 1984. Photo courtesy of Barbara Dugas-Patterson.

Final Thoughts

Recording the oral histories of African American women has been one of the most rewarding opportunities of my life. The quote “If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will,” by Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair, has reverberated throughout my psyche while curating this collection. Indeed, this has been the first oral history project for and by Black women at the University of Texas, but I encourage all Black people to take a front seat in the preservation of their personal histories. One of the most impacting sentiments expressed at the Aya Symposium this past summer is the need to preserve family documents, photographs, and memorabilia. Participation in repositories and history-making through the lens of African Americans is crucial to the historical narrative of the Black community as a whole. Please check out our digital archive when it is completed in the months to come. Thank you to the University of Texas, Texas Libraries, the Black Diaspora Archive, and the Delta Xi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. for allowing this project to blossom and continue.

View Parts I, II, and III of this blog series


Briana Marie Davis is a recent graduate of The University of Texas at Austin with a BA in Anthropology and African American Studies. She carried out this oral history project during an internship at the Black Diaspora Archive. Davis is a problem-solving, creative, convivial individual who enjoys singing and playing piano in venues around Austin, Texas, in her free time. She hopes to be of service to her community by uplifting groups that are marginalized through her research and artistic expression.

“Knowledge”: Online Exhibit Celebrates Benson Centennial and Diversity of Thought in the Americas

In Nuestra América (1891), Cuban poet and philosopher José Martí calls for a pan–Latin American identity that grounds itself in the need to value autochthonous knowledge: “Knowing is what counts. To know one’s country and govern it with that knowledge is the only way to free it from tyranny. The European university must bow to the American university. The history of America, from the Incas to the present, must be taught in clear detail and to the letter, even if the archons of Greece are overlooked. Our Greece must take priority over the Greece which is not ours. We need it more.”

A new online exhibition, A Hemisphere of Knowledge: A Benson Centennial Exhibit, accessible in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, explores the implications of Martí’s words across time and cultures, using a wealth of resources available at the Benson Latin American Collection.

“This exhibit, divided into six sub-themes, seeks to present different types of knowledge production from the Americas while recognizing that our universality comes from relations based upon diversity, and that these relations, like cultures themselves, are constantly changing,” said Daniel Arbino, head of collection development at the library and curator of the exhibit. In conceiving the exhibit, Arbino sought to examine “the diverse production of knowledge from the many cultures that make up what we now call the Americas.” He adds that “the exhibition considers this knowledge against the backdrop and legacies of hegemony, thereby situating it within the power dynamics of colonialism, imperialism, and neoliberalism. A Hemisphere of Knowledge is intentionally political because it values cultural beliefs that have been dismissed due to legacies of power.”

Learn more about the Benson Centennial at benson100.org.


Above: Knowledge, by Terry Boddie

“The Benson at 100”: Podcast Celebrates Library’s Centennial

In honor of the centennial of the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, the library’s head of collection development, Daniel Arbino, has teamed up with Pilar Zazueta, historian and senior lecturer at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS), to create a bilingual podcast.

The Benson at 100 is an audio series designed for listeners interested in Latin American history and culture. Episodes will be released monthly, and explore the region through the Benson archives and books.

Learn more and listen to episodes at The Benson at 100. Visit the Spanish-language homepage: La Biblioteca Benson: Los primeros 100 años.

In Memoriam: David Block

David Block, photo by Robert Esparza

LLILAS Benson mourns the passing of friend, scholar, and former colleague David Block III, on June 15, 2021. Block was head of the Benson Latin American Collection from 2009 until his retirement in 2014.

Born in San Diego, California, in 1945, Block grew up in Arkansas, where he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arkansas. He served for three years in the Peace Corps in Bolivia, igniting his lifelong interest in Latin America. He earned his PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied with historian Nettie Lee Benson. During his thirty-year career as a Latin American librarian, Block worked at Cornell University and at UT’s Benson Collection. He also served as president of the Seminar on the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials (SALALM). Read Block’s obituary.

David Block, undated. Courtesy of Peggy Robinson.

Block was a sought-after expert on the Andean region and the author of the book Mission Culture on the Upper Amazon (1994), which won the Conference of Latin American History’s Howard Cline Memorial Prize and was included in Obras de la biblioteca del bicentenario de Bolivia. He also penned the introduction to A Library for the Americas (2018), a contributed volume that showcases the Benson’s history with essays and rich illustrations.

On Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru. Undated. Photo courtesy of Peggy Robinson.

Upon his retirement from the Benson in 2014, Block spoke about his time at the Benson as “the high point of my 35-year career.” One of the most significant events during his tenure was the establishment of the LLILAS Benson partnership in 2011, in which Block played a key collaborative role. “David’s accomplishments during his relatively short time at the Benson are too many to list,” says Benson director Melissa Guy. “He was a master bibliographer and scholar, and traveled throughout Latin America to secure materials for the collection. Most significantly, he was instrumental in launching and nurturing the LLILAS Benson partnership, now in its tenth year, working alongside LLILAS Benson director Charlie Hale to find new ways to link the world-class collections of the Benson to the top-tier scholarship and teaching of the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies. That, in and of itself, is quite a legacy.”

Prior to his colleague’s retirement, Hale reflected on Block’s personal qualities: “David cares deeply about others: he is gentle, compassionate, and kind, whether with a co-worker of many years or a stranger who happens into the Benson; he is scrupulously conscientious: holding himself to bedrock ethics and values, with no sense that this gives license to judge others; and his manner exudes an egalitarian ethos, always willing to step up to assure that collective goals are met, inspiring others by his example, and by the sheer pleasure of working at his side.”

David and wife Peggy, undated. Courtesy of Peggy Robinson.

The LLILAS Benson family extends our deepest condolences to David’s family. He left an indelible mark on many of us as both a scholar-librarian and a human being, and we are so grateful.


Honoring David Block

It is David’s family’s request that those wishing to honor him consider a donation to the Nettie Lee Benson Collection, Benson Centennial Endowment: bit.ly/Benson100. Check donations may be sent to TEXAS Development, PO Box 7458, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78713. Please make check payable to: The University of Texas at Austin and specify in memo: UT Libraries – Benson Centennial Endowment.

Scene Onscreen: ¡A Viva Voz! Celebration Will Bring Levity at the Right Moment

LLILAS Benson is thrilled to announce the return of the ¡A Viva Voz! Celebration of Latina/o Arts and Culture. The annual event, usually one of the highlights of the spring semester, was canceled in 2020 due to the recent campus closure for Covid-19.

Now that we’ve got an advanced degree in Zoom, we are pleased to announce Scene Onscreen: An Evening with JoAnn and Rupert Reyes, Founders of Teatro Vivo. This virtual event will be held on Thursday, April 1, 2021, at 7pm CDT. To register for the event and receive a link, visit Attend.com/AVV2021.

JoAnn and Rupert Reyes. Design by Jennifer Mailloux; original artwork by Monica Rodriguez

During the evening, hosted by Roxanne Schroeder-Arce of the Department of Theatre and Dance, the audience will be treated to recorded scenes from some of Rupert Reyes’s iconic achievements as a playwright, interspersed with conversation about the history of Teatro Vivo, the bilingual theater company that Rupert and JoAnn founded in 2000 and led for many years.

Scenes from Petra’s PecadoPetra’s Cuento, and Petra’s Sueño; Crossing the RíoCuento NavideñoCenicienta, and the forthcoming film Vecinos will bring some levity to everyone’s evening, and it is our hope that the shared experience of laughter while enjoying these scenes will make the virtual a little more personal.

The JoAnn and Rupert Reyes Collection

The Benson Latin American Collection is the repository of the papers of JoAnn and Rupert Reyes, which contains a rich assortment of materials from their decades working with Teatro Vivo and other theater companies. According to the archival notes, “Teatro Vivo has garnered numerous nominations for acting, writing, and design from local theater award councils, including the B. Iden Payne Awards and the Austin Critics Table Awards, and the company continues to serve as an active contributor to the arts community in Austin. JoAnn and Rupert led the company as the executive director and artistic director, respectively, until they stepped down in 2016.” Both of the Reyes have received accolades for their work, including the Community Leadership Award from the University of Texas at Austin (their alma mater) in 2008 and the Partners in the Arts and Humanities award by the Austin City Council in 2011. They continue to serve as advisors to Teatro Vivo and remain significant cultural ambassadors for Latino theater in the United States.


For more information, please contact Susanna Sharpe.

New Biography Sheds Light on the Work and Internal Life of María Luisa Puga

“How does one become a writer, and how does she go about building a body of creative work?”* These are questions that author Irma López seeks to answer in her latest publication, a biography of the late Mexican writer María Luisa Puga (1944–2004) titled Extraño no-amor el tuyo: María Luisa Puga, historia de una pasión.   

Author Irma López with her new biography of Puga

This is the second book on Puga by López, a professor of Spanish and interim dean at Western Michigan University. For this volume, López relied heavily on a collection of 327 diaries kept by the award-winning writer between 1972 and 2004. The diaries make up the bulk of the María Luisa Puga Papers at the Benson Latin American Collection. They are “an existential logbook of body and identity” writes former Benson librarian José Montelongo in a Spanish-language essay about Puga’s diaries. It was López who originally brought the collection of diaries to the attention of the Benson; the writer’s sister, Patricia Puga, donated them to the collection in 2017.

Biography of María Luisa Puga, by Irma López

In Extraño no-amor, López builds on her previous work on Puga and, with the aid of the diaries, probes deeply into the writer’s life in order to better understand her work. The resulting biography is a portrait of Puga that lays bare her strengths and weaknesses, her artistic and existential struggles, similar to the way in which Puga relentlessly examined herself on the pages of her diary.


Read “María Luisa Puga: A Life in Diaries” by José Montelongo

Read “Una vida en 327 cuadernos: El archivo literario de María Luisa Puga” by José Montelongo

The Royal Inspection through a Digital Lens: Interactive Exhibit Examines Spanish Colonial Bureaucracy

By BRITTANY ERWIN

For almost three hundred years, the Spanish monarchs ruled over an expansive empire stretching from the Caribbean to the southernmost tip of South America. World history narratives situate Spain within a centuries-long clash between major powers over territory, resources, and authority in the Americas that ended with the wars of independence. However, these histories tend to devote less attention to the day-to-day processes that sustained imperial rule. My dissertation explores this question through an analysis of the underlying mechanisms that bound the people to their faraway king. A LLILAS Benson Digital Humanities Summer Fellowship helped me to create an online exhibition that demonstrates what the bureaucracy of empire looked like on the ground. (Visit the Spanish version of the exhibition.)

This interactive website serves as an interface with a section of the vast holdings of the Benson Latin American Collection: the Genaro García Collection. Through the exhibition, teachers, students, and community members can explore the events that unfolded when the king ordered a visita—or royal inspection—for New Spain (roughly, modern Mexico) in 1765. The inspection allowed the monarch to keep up to date on local happenings while also identifying areas that could be reorganized. This visita involved approximately seven years of examinations and reforms carried out through a cooperation between the monarch’s appointed visitador—or inspector—and local government workers.

Cover page for this collection of visita documents. G206-01.

The website offers high-resolution images of the thirty documents from the Genaro García Collection that pertain to this procedure, in addition to brief content descriptions, full transcriptions, information on the individuals involved, and maps of prominent regions mentioned in the sources. All of this information appears in an interactive timeline so that users can experience the process of bureaucracy at work.

The TimelineJS chronology features high-resolution images of the documents included for each date.

This project benefited from the use of several digital humanities tools, including TimelineJS, FromthePage, and Transkribus. TimelineJS allowed for the creation of an interactive chronology containing the step-by-step process that the visitador followed as he inspected and reorganized the government of New Spain. For users looking to examine the documents beyond the site’s overviews, FromthePage and Transkribus generated full transcriptions of the sources.

This screen shot illustrates the transcription process in Transkribus.

These texts provide opportunities for further exploration, such as data analysis. For example, by feeding the transcriptions into the Voyant Tools website, I was able to generate a word cloud of the most commonly appearing words and phrases in the documents.

Voyant Tools allows for the creation of word clouds, like the one featured above.

The Benson Latin American Collection holds documents covering many regions of the Spanish world across the sixteenth through the twenty-first centuries. During this time, Spain’s hold over its American territories required the constant interaction between royal officials and local populations, and that crossover was often messy. The 1765 visita of New Spain sheds light on the complexities of this process. My hope is that this online exhibition will expand the ways in which people can interact with these sources without having to visit the University of Texas campus in person, and learn from them about the day-to-day experience of imperial management.


Brittany Erwin is a PhD candidate in history. She was a LLILAS Benson Digital Humanities Summer Fellow in 2020.

Unlocking the Colonial Archive: Grant Will Bring Access to a Trove of Documents

Game-changing innovations that use artificial intelligence (AI) tools will improve access to Indigenous and Spanish colonial archives. “Unlocking the Colonial Archive: Harnessing Artificial Intelligence for Indigenous and Spanish American Historical Collections” is a collaborative project led by LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at The University of Texas at Austin, the Digital Humanities Hub at Lancaster University, and Liverpool John Moores University. The project will transform “unreadable” digitized Indigenous and Spanish colonial archives into data that will be accessible to a broad spectrum of researchers and the public.

The project will be funded by a $150,000 collaborative grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) as well as €250,000 (approx. US$304,000) from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through the joint New Directions for Digital Scholarship in Cultural Institutions program. Kelly McDonough, associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and Albert A. Palacios, digital scholarship coordinator at LLILAS Benson, will manage the project at UT Austin.

The Benson Latin American Collection at The University of Texas at Austin possesses one of the world’s foremost collections of colonial documents in Spanish and Indigenous languages of Latin America. Yet even when digitized, such documents are often neither searchable nor readable because of calligraphy, orthography, and the written language of the document itself. In tackling this problem, the collaborators propose to employ and develop interdisciplinary data science methods with three goals in mind: to expedite the transcription of documents using cutting-edge Handwritten Text Recognition technology; to automate the identification and linking of information through standardized vocabulary ontologies using Linked Open Data and Natural Language Processing techniques; and to facilitate the automated search and analysis of pictorial elements through Image Processing approaches.

The research will be based on three digital collections under the aegis of LLILAS Benson and one from the National Archive of Mexico. The LLILAS Benson collections are digitized Benson Collection colonial holdings, including the Relaciones Geográficas, 16th-century painted written and pictorial documents describing the geography and peoples of New Spain; the Royal Archive of Cholula at the Archivo Judicial del Estado de Puebla (Mexico), which was digitized through a Mellon-funded post-custodial grant; and the Primeros Libros de las Américas, a digitized collection of books published in the Americas before 1601.

McDonough and Palacios say that the project will further colonial Latin American studies not only at UT, but beyond, significantly facilitating the discoverability and interpretation of these materials. “While the work will begin with collections at the Benson and its Latin American partners, the technology developed will be accessible to libraries and archives worldwide, who can use it to automatically transcribe their digitized manuscripts,” Palacios said. In addition, “through the public workshops that are part of this project, we will train humanists on new innovative approaches that leverage the potential of machine learning to facilitate research,” McDonough added.

The geographical diversity among the project’s leadership and collaborators reenforce its global reach. The PIs are McDonough and Palacios of UT Austin, Patricia Murrieta-Flores of Lancaster University (UK), and Javier Pereda Campillo of Liverpool John Moores University (UK). Other collaborators hail from Germany, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland. Among the numerous participants from Mexico is Lidia García Gómez, history professor at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, who was involved with the digitization of the Royal Archive of Cholula.


For more information: Susanna Sharpe, Communications Coordinator, LLILAS Benson, The University of Texas at Austin