Category Archives: Archives

The John S. and Drucie R. Chase Building Archive

BY JEREMY THOMPSON

The Black Diaspora Archive (BDA) at The University of Texas at Austin documents the Black experience in the Americas and the Caribbean through the voices and stories of those who have championed the Black spaces that we use and benefit from today. Diaspora is defined as the “dispersion of any people from their original homeland,” and often when evoked with the Black experience in America, means the historical movement and displacement of Africans from their native homeland.

For the Black community in Austin, diaspora is a much more recent and closer-to-home event as its established Black communities are under threat of disappearing. Through the use of oral histories, the John S. and Drucie R. Chase Building Archive tells the story of the herding of the Black community into East Austin, the Black establishments and schools that grew during this time, and the subsequent displacement that has occurred in recent times. While much has changed for the Black community in East Austin, one building has stood in service of its community while enduring its own share of transformation. 

Line drawing of a one-story building facade in white on a solid orange background; white lettering says The John S. and Drucie R. Chase Building.
Image used to herald the opening of the newly renovated Chase Building

The building at 1191 Navasota Street in East Austin was built in 1952 to house what was then the Colored Teachers State Association of Texas (CTSAT). The CTSAT commissioned the building to serve as its headquarters and tapped John Saunders Chase as the architect to design the building. Chase was the first African American to graduate from the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture and first to become a licensed architect in the state of Texas. The building that Chase designed would serve the CTSAT for 14 years before the association voluntarily dissolved in 1966 to merge with the Texas State Teachers Association. In 1968, the building was purchased by Dr. Ella Mae Pease and would become the House of Elegance. Now a beauty salon, the building served as a social hub for Black community in East Austin and a focal point for social events that Pease would facilitate. During its time as the House of Elegance, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Photograph of a one-story building with some brick on the facade. A small sign on the building reads House of Elegance in cursive writing.
The House of Elegance pictured at the end of its reign

After decades of service, the building was purchased in 2018 by the University of Texas at Austin and christened the John S. and Drucie R. Chase Building. Dr. Suchitra Gururaj, Assistant Vice President for Community and Economic Engagement, explains the decision to purchase the building:

“The idea for renovating the building came about in 2017, when House of Elegance owner, Pearl Cox, decided to sell the property. Former UT President Greg Fenves saw an opportunity to bring prominence to the university with the purchase of the first property designed by John S. Chase, the first Black/African American graduate of UT’s School of Architecture. When the purchase was made, we proposed that the space be repurposed as our next Center for Community Engagement (CCE) of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE). We consider the CCE to be the ‘front porch’ of our university, inviting community members and residents to connect with a large, decentralized, and often intimidating university that has not always welcomed people from diverse communities. In re-creating the Chase Building, we were not only able to celebrate Mr. and Mrs. Chase’s legacy but also to create a new life for the building that represented the intersection of diversity and community engagement. Like successful community engagement practice, our process of renovation was also collaborative, drawing on the mentorship of Donna Carter and relying on the expertise of Dorothy Fojtik and Nathan Goodman at UT Project Management and Construction Services. Over the period of the renovation, the project transformed from a simple university construction project into a true labor of love.”

Donna Carter, the first African American woman to become a licensed architect in Austin, led the effort to renovate the Chase Building. In 2022, the Chase Building reopened as the base for the Center of Community Engagement (CCE). This department within UT’s Division of Diversity for Community Engagement works to deploy university resources to foster connections with the community and meet community needs. In an effort to document the change that the Chase Building and East Austin have undergone over the years, the CCE began to conduct interviews with community members in 2019 and 2020 centering around the Robertson Hill neighborhood, the area that was home to the building. This project was advocated for by the Robertson Hill Neighborhood Association, which also suggested community members to interview for this project. The product of these interviews is the collection of oral histories and photographs that make up the John S. and Drucie R. Chase Building Archive. Housed in the BDA’s archival collection, these oral histories cover a range of topics including education, churches, and race and the City of Austin.

A black-and-white photo of Black boys and girls of various ages, as well as a male and female adult, who are posed for a school photo.
Archival photograph depicting a class from Blackshear Elementary

The Chase Building Archive consists of nine interviews with members of the East Austin community who have witnessed the change in the area. In her oral history, Mrs. Patricia Calhoun reminisces about growing up in the Robertson Hill neighborhood. She speaks about the streets that she grew up on that still remain today and the establishments in the community that do not. When talking about the importance of Black stories, Calhoun states, “Our stories are important to us because we’ve been here for generations, and yet the community is changing so rapidly that we could be erased without a thought.” This sentiment about the transformation of East Austin and the diminishing presence of its original community is observed throughout the collection. Mr. Clifton Vandyke Sr. jokingly remarks during his interview that “if we aren’t careful, this will be just like visiting a museum where people will come and say this is where African Americans used to live.” These quotes can be found on one of the four curated vignettes, “Storytelling and History,”  that weave together common themes found throughout the assorted oral histories.

An older Black gentleman in a blue short-sleeved shirt, is seated on a comfortable living room chair. The photo is taken through the lens of a video camera, and the viewer of the camera is also visible.
Mr. Clifton Vandyke Sr. seen through the camera lens during his oral history interview

Another vignette that can be found in the collection revolves around education and its importance with the community. Memories of attending schools like Blackshear Elementary School, Kealing Middle School, and Huston-Tillotson University testify to the many outlets available for education and the community’s pursuit of it. Ms. Lydia Moore spoke about the opportunity to choose which school she could attend after desegregation: “We had been told we would be the first group to have that opportunity to go anywhere we wanted to, but that we’d be ready. We need not be afraid. We need not feel inferior. But we would be ready.” 

The thirst for education within the community sprouted from wanting not only to survive, but thrive in the world. The sentiment of wanting to thrive in East Austin is shared throughout the collection and can also be found in CCE’s efforts to collaborate with the community from the Chase Building. Stephanie Lang, Director for community-facing programs at CCE, expresses the aim of this collection: “As historic East Austin continues to change rapidly, the amazing legacy of these communities are at risk of erasure. This archive is but one of the many efforts being done to preserve these stories and provide a way for many generations to access, reflect on, and honor this important history.” 

Two women pose together in a home, with a kitchen in the background. On the left is a younger Black woman with long dreads, glasses, and red lipstick who is wearing a red-white-and-black scarf; on the right an older Black woman in a bright blue top and dark blue blazer. Both are smiling.
Mrs. Vonnye Rice Gardner (right) poses with Stephanie Lang, who worked as the interviewer for the project

Rachel Winston, Black Diaspora Archivist and steward of the BDA, states, “As we celebrate the legacies of John and Drucie Chase, the work of CCE, and the history of the Chase building, it is necessary to also recognize the local community that has made all of this possible. The interviews in this collection offer an incredible glimpse into the lives and experiences of Austinites from historic, Black East Austin.” 

The John S. and Drucie R. Chase Building Archive is stewarded by the Black Diaspora Archive and can be accessed through a variety of avenues. The oral histories and photographs can be accessed online via the University of Texas Libraries Collections portal, here. The analog artifacts of the collection have been described in the collection’s TARO finding aid and can be requested in the Benson Latin American Collection’s rare books and manuscripts reading room. For more in-depth history about the Chase Building, visit CCE’s showcase on it and their series of videos centered around the building and its surrounding communities. Collections like the Chase Building Archive provide us the opportunity to learn how Black communities and spaces come about, and warn us about the diaspora that looms with their absence. 


Jeremy Thompson is a Diversity Resident Librarian at the University of Texas Libraries.

WHIT’S PICKS: Vol. 11 – GEMS FROM THE HMRC

Resident poet and rock and roll star Harold Whit Williams is in the midst of a project to catalog the KUT Collection, obtained a few years ago and inhabiting a sizable portion of the Historical Music Recordings Collection (HMRC).

Whit’s immersion in local music history and performance qualifies him as an authority as he explores and discovers some of the overlooked gems in this massive trove, and so in this occasional series, he’ll be presenting some of his noteworthy finds.

Earlier installments: Take 1Take 2Take 3Take 4Take 5Take 6Take 7Take 8Take 9, Take 10


Tyler Ramsey / The Valley Wind

Available at Fine Arts Library Onsite Storage

Onetime Band of Horses’ guitarist Tyler Ramsey takes a solo walkabout into deeply-wooded indie folk on The Valley Wind. From the Windham Hill-esque instrumental opener “Raven Shadow” through brooding ballad “1000 Blackbirds,” then on to the Laurel Canyon roots jangle of “Stay Gone” and the post-rock epic closer “All Night,” this collection draws you in to its warm campfire glow and unfolds its sad stories slowly. Ramsey’s reverb-drenched guitars and paper-thin tenor hearken Harvest-era Neil Young, but the songwriting is uniquely his introspective own. If tearjerker “Angel Band” doesn’t put a lump in your throat, check for a pulse.

The Men from O.R.G.A.N.

Available at Fine Arts Library Onsite Storage

This groovy compilation from under-the-radar hipster Italian label S.H.A.D.O. Records pays loving tribute to those bubbly analog organ sounds of the Hammond, Farfisa, etcetera, variety. Standout Euro and Euro-inspired tracks from Remington Super 60, Experimental Pop Band, Tony Goddess (Papas Fritas), and L’augmentation get the festive chamber pop party going, while Louise Philippe’s cover of Lennon/McCartney’s “I’m Only Sleeping” is simply divine. Don your finest threads, grab some wayfarers and a pack of Gauloises, and head towards that sunny Mediterranean beach in your mind.

Unheard (Rarities, 1991-2009) by Louis Philippe

Little Barrie /EP

Available at Fine Arts Library Onsite Storage

Before all the buzz from their Better Call Saul theme song, U.K.’s garage/soul/rock trio Little Barrie thrilled club crowds and vinyl aficionados alike with their fuzzed-out retro tracks. The vibe is vintage – style and audio-wise – and this four song EP lays out a sampler platter of smoky bluesy treats. The slow and sly backstage funk of “Burned Out” has all the swagger needed for a proper British single, while “Mudsticks” comes across like Link Wray on a Death Valley peyote trip. And so as they say across the pond, “Bob’s your uncle.” What a fine introduction to their debut album We Are Little Barrie this is.

Burned Out by Little Barrie

Eden Brent /Ain’t Got No Troubles

Available at Fine Arts Library Onsite Storage

Greenville, Mississippi’s Eden Brent proudly carries forth the banner of boogie-woogie piano blues, all the while mixing in elements of jazz and classic pop. Schooled at the University of North Texas (and even more so on the road with legendary Abie “Boogaloo” Ames), Brent cooks down the musical ingredients of New Orleans, Memphis, and even a pinch of the great American songbook into her own greasy gumbo of groove. Recorded in the Crescent City (with ex-Meter George Porter on bass), the vibe leans more Mardi Gras than Beale Street, but it’s Brent’s Bessie Smith late-night lowdown voice that keeps it all rooted in an earthy Delta mood.

Ain’t Got No Troubles by Eden Brent

Harlem Quartet / Take the A Train

Available at Fine Arts Library Onsite Storage

This critically-acclaimed string quartet put the art music world on notice with their debut album, Take the A Train. That Billy Strayhorn classic certainly shines as a title track, and even adds some needed levity to what is a fairly heavy collection. The bulk of the album is fleshed out by Wynton Marsalis’ brilliant avant-garde Creole-themed work “At the Octoroon Balls,” a modern American chamber music ode to Carnival culture. Other pieces foray into world music, further stretching the boundaries of fixed classical genres. On top of all this high level musicianship (and of even more importance), Harlem Quartet was founded by the Sphinx Foundation, a nonprofit promoting music education while working to build diversity in the field of classical music through outreach to underserved communities.


Harold Whit Williams is a Content Management Specialist in Music & Multimedia Resources. A celebrated poet, he is the longtime guitarist for the indie rock band Cotton Mather, and his solo projects include the lo-fi bedroom pop Daily Worker, as well as the retro funk GERVIN.

Read, Hot & Digitized: Art and Revolution

Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love — In this new 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.

Working at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection since I began a career in librarianship, I have been fortunate to witness and sometimes participate in various facets of what goes into making the Benson the premiere Latin American collection in the world. The collection has many incomparable features, and depending on a researcher’s interest, they will know the Benson in unique ways from others. For instance, there are those that know the Benson because we hold the papers of Gloria Anzaldúa and Alicia Gaspar de Alba, two groundbreaking Chicana writers. Others will know it because of the Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA), the digital archive that is a gateway to linguistic preservation and revitalization. Others will know it still because of our wonderful circulating collection, which includes journals, new publications, canonical works, children’s literature, etc. At the Benson we always say that if it exists and is tied to Latin American or US Latinx subject matter, we try to collect it.

One unsurprising aspect of the Benson is our dedication to documenting human rights initiatives. This happens across all of the ways that we do collecting, but I’m thinking specifically about the work that my colleague Theresa Polk and the Latin American Digital Initiatives team do on a daily basis, particularly working with post-custodial partners throughout Latin America to document local, often grassroots struggles.

I couldn’t help but think of her work when I saw a noteworthy digital collection from the University of New Mexico’s esteemed Center for Southwest Research. The collection, “Asamblea de Artistas Revolucionarios de Oaxaca Pictorial Collection,” is described as a “collection of prints, posters, and mural stencils…created by a collective of young Mexican artists that formed during the state of Oaxaca’s 2006 teachers strike.” The strike lasted seven months and turned violent after police opened fire on non-violent protestors representing the teachers’ union. Eventually, various groups forced the police out of the city and set up an anarchist community for several months while unsuccessfully calling for the resignation of then-Oaxacan governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. The 127 artworks in this collection reflect this period through themes that include “land rights, political prisoners, government corruption, political violence, police brutality, violence against women, art exhibitions and the nationalization of agriculture and oil.”

The artwork has been digitized and made available on the site using high-resolution scans. One of the strengths of the collection is that users can see a thumbnail and a brief, but useful description of the document, as shown below.

Then, users can click on each individual item for a larger image with richer metadata. Indeed, another strength of the collection is its metadata. While only in English, it contextualizes the image for a deeper understanding.

Another feature of the digital collection is that UNM’s Center for Southwest Research has worked with the Asamblea de Artistas Revolucionas de Oaxaca (ASARO) to archive their blogs and other digital-born materials using Archive-It. Having access to these blogs in a shared digitize space enhances the collection because it preserves ASARO’s voices on the struggle, using their words and their language. Like the metadata, this creates fuller meaning for researchers while fostering a relationship between ASARO and UNM.   

This collection is useful to researchers and classes who are interested in understanding politics and local movements in twenty-first century Mexico. Like the Benson’s Latin American Digital Initiatives, the themes are so varied, making it a useful tool for classes doing interdisciplinary work, and particularly for scholars who are more visually-inclined. In any case, it is a welcome contribution to the study of human rights in Latin America, and a wonderful reminder of the work that libraries do in documenting and preserving historical moments.

Would you like to know more about the teachers’ strike? Check out the following resources we hold at UT Libraries.

La batalla por Oaxaca (2007)

“Women in the Oaxaca Teachers’ Strike and Citizens’ Uprising (2007)

“‘Our Culture’s Not for Sale!’: Music and the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca in Mexico” (2021)

The Benson’s Summer Texas Roadtrip

BY ALBERT A. PALACIOS, PhD

It was a doozy of a summer for the LLILAS Benson Digital Scholarship Office. Thanks to a Department of Education National Resource Center grant, we had the distinct opportunity to share some of the Benson Latin American Collection’s Spanish colonial treasures with a few communities outside of UT Austin. In a traveling exhibit titled A New Spain, 1521–1821, the reproduced materials demonstrated the cultural, social, and political evolution of colonial Mexico.

A New Spain exhibit at the University of Texas at El Paso Library, El Paso, Texas. The C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department also showcased their Spanish colonial holdings in the exhibit.

We were fortunate to continue our longstanding partnership with the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). In collaboration with Claudia Rivers and Abbie Weiser at the C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department, we put together an exhibit that highlighted Spanish colonial holdings from both libraries, providing both a hemispheric and local perspective. To broaden the impact of the collaborative effort, we also organized an accompanying series of workshops based on the materials for social studies teachers, colonialists, and archival professionals in the El Paso–Las Cruces (NM) region. 

Clockwise from left: 1. Social studies teachers play a loteria game, or Mexican bingo, based on the exhibit’s items; 2. curator’s tour of A New Spain, 1521–1821 (photor: Aide Cardoza); 3. screenshot of online teacher workshop (photo: Tiffany Guridy); 4. Mapping Mexican History exhibit at Horizon High School, Horizon City, Texas (photo: Erika Ruelas).

We kicked off the programming with a two-day intensive training for teachers from El Paso and Clint independent school districts. The workshops started onsite at UTEP’s library with a curator’s tour, a lunchtime loteria game based on the exhibit, and an in-depth look at Indigenous and Spanish maps from a previous traveling exhibition, Mapping Mexican History. By the end of the day, teachers were able to take home the facsimile Mapping items, some of which are on display this fall at Horizon High School.

The second day of workshops went fully online. One of our 2022 Digital Scholarship Fellows, Dr. Diego Luis, shared an interactive simulation he designed based on an inquisitorial case archived at the Benson to teach about Afro-descendant colonial experiences. We then showcased lesson plans we developed with UT Austin’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction on the navigation of gender roles in New Spain. To wrap things up, we provided the teachers with a survey of digital resources at UT Austin and digital humanities tools they can use to teach about colonial Mexico in their class.

Clockwise from left: 1. Payroll of soldiers, 1575, Genaro García Manuscript Collection; 2. depiction of Tlaxcalteca ruler, Xicoténcatl, meeting with Hernan Cortés and Malintzin, circa 1530–1540, Ex-Stendahl Collection; 3. Inquisition case against Ana de Herrera for witchcraft, 1584, Genaro García Manuscript Collection; 4. “Tracing Witchcraft Networks in Veracruz” workshop (photo: Abbie Weiser).

On the final day, we shifted gears and led a series of digital scholarship workshops for local scholars. Students, faculty, and cultural heritage staff from the University of Texas at El Paso and New Mexico State University Library powered through three sessions that provided them with practical training in the visualization and analysis of Spanish colonial materials using various digital tools. Attendees learned to annotate various colonial texts and images, map the origins of New Spain’s soldiers, and visualize the networks of Afro-descendant hechiceras, or women casting incantations, in Veracruz.

A New Spain exhibit at the Downs-Jones Library, Huston-Tillotson University, Austin, Texas (photo: Katie Ashton).

Upon our return to Austin, another one of our partners, Huston-Tillotson University, graciously agreed to host the traveling exhibit. Thanks to Technical Services & Systems Librarian Katie Ashton, the history of colonial Mexico we put together went up on the walls of the Downs-Jones Library, and will remain there throughout the fall. For those who are not able to visit either installation, you can explore the digital version through our UT Libraries Exhibits platform.

Acknowledgements

This initiative would not have been possible without the support of the following individuals and sponsorships:

C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department, The University of Texas at El Paso

  • Claudia Rivers, Head
  • Abbie Weiser, Assistant Head

Huston-Tillotson University

  • Katie Ashton, Technical Services & Systems Librarian, Downs-Jones Library
  • Alaine Hutson, Associate Professor of History

Tufts University

  • Diego Javier Luis, Assistant Professor of History

Department of Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education, UT Austin

  • Michael Joseph, Doctoral student
  • Katie Pekarske, Master’s student
  • Cinthia Salinas, Department Chair & Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusive Excellence

UT Libraries

  • Brittany Centeno, Preservation Librarian
  • Katherine Thornton, Digital Asset Delivery Coordinator

LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections

  • Jac Erengil, Administrative Manager
  • Tiffany Guridy, previous Public Engagement Coordinator (special thanks)
  • Melissa Guy, Director, Benson Latin American Collection
  • Ryan Lynch, Head of Special Collections
  • Jennifer Mailloux, Graphic Designer (special thanks)
  • Adela Pineda Franco, LLILAS Director & Lozano Long Endowed Professor
  • Theresa Polk, Head of Digital Initiatives
  • Megan Scarborough, previous Grants Manager
  • Susanna Sharpe, Communications Coordinator (special thanks)
  • Krissi Trumeter, previous Financial Analyst

Sponsors

  • U.S. Department of Education National Resource Center Title VI Grant
  • LLILAS Benson Collaborative Funds

Alumna Virginia Miller: Fond Memories of UT Austin Prompt a Generous Bequest

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. 

Photo courtesy Virginia Miller

“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.  

She is the author of The Frieze of the Palace of the Stuccoes, Acanceh, Yucatan, Mexico, and an edited volume titled The Role of Gender in Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture, as well as numerous book chapters and journal articles. A forthcoming article, “Heads, Skulls, and Sacred Scaffolds: New Studies on Ritual Body Processing and Display in Chichen Itza and Beyond” (Ancient Mesoamerica), is the product of a collaboration with physical anthropologist Vera Tiesler.  

Fond Memories of UT Austin 

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.” 

Latin American Digital Initiatives TEAM Visits Partners in Buenaventura, Colombia

[Español abajo]

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.

View of Bahía de Buenaventura from hotel balcony in Buenaventura, Colombia. Photo: Karla Roig.

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. 

Digital Projects Archivist Alex Suarez works with team members at PCN in Buenaventura, Colombia. Photo: Karla Roig.

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.

Diálogos ribereños meeting, Buenaventura, Colombia. Photo: Karla Roig.

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. 

PCN leader Marta Inés Cuervo (l) examines archival material with Alex Suarez. Photo: Karla Roig.


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. 

Río la Verdad exhibit by Leonel Vásquez. Photo: Karla Roig.

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.

View from the Faro – Mirador Turístico (lighthouse) at the malecón (pier) in Buenaventura. Photo: Karla Roig.

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. 

Farewell dinner with members of PCN. Photo: Karla Roig.

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.


Lea este artículo en español:

Equipo de Iniciativas Digitales visita socios en Buenaventura, Colombia

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.

Como archivo, PCN participa en una colaboración con LLILAS Benson para apoyar la digitalización y descripción de la Colección Dinámicas Organizativas del Pueblo Negro en Colombia. El proyecto, se está realizando a través del modelo de archivos pos-custodiales* y es apoyado por la Fundación Mellon.

Vista de la Bahía de Buenaventura desde el balcón del hotel enn Buenaventura, Colombia. Foto: Karla Roig.

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.

Archivista para Proyectos Digitales Alex Suarez trabaja con miembros del equipo de PCN en Buenaventura, Colombia. Foto: Karla Roig.

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.

Reunión “Diálogos ribereños” . Foto: Karla Roig.

¿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.

Marta Inés Cuervo (i) examina documentos con Alex Suarez. Foto: Karla Roig.

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.

Exhibición Río la Verdad por Leonel Vásquez. Foto: Karla Roig.

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.

Vista del Faro – Mirador Turístico en el Malecón. Buenaventura, Colombia. Foto: Karla Roig.

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.

Cena de despedida con miembros de PCN. Foto: Karla Roig.

¿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.

Latin Americanists Worldwide Unite to Decipher the Benson’s Spanish Colonial Archive

By Albert. A. Palacios, PhD

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.

Detail of a document listing the instances in which Mixquiahuala’s corregidor, the district’s royal administrator and judge, defrauded the Tepatepec Pueblo, circa 1570–1572, Genaro García Manuscript Collection.

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

Geographic distribution of 2021–2022 institute participants

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

Various Early Modern Spanish handwriting styles represented in the Benson Latin American Collection

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.”

A corrected document transcription in FromThePage

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. 

Published institute transcriptions in the Texas Data Repository

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.

Training of a handwritten text recognition model for a Spanish colonial handwriting style in Transkribus

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.

Annotation of the “Genealogy of the descendants of Nezahualcóyotl,” circa 1550–1580, Ex-Stendahl Collection, in Recogito (https://recogito.pelagios.org/document/yere0vydklv9s4/part/1/edit)

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

Network visualization developed by a spring cohort member, Francisco Javier Fernández Rivera, Universidad Iberomexicana de Hidalgo, who considered the DH workshops “a great opportunity to learn about our documentary past through technological advances.”

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.

Preserving Endangered Languages

“When you lose a language and a language goes extinct, it’s like dropping a bomb on the Louvre.” –Linguist Michael Krauss

Language is so central to humanity that it frequently takes on the involuntary characteristics of breathing or eating—words seemingly form in our minds and fall effortlessly from our mouths or onto a page in a way that can go without notice or concern. It’s only when we lose our ability to communicate that we realize how important a shared language is to our collective experience, and a better understanding of ourselves.

Such is the inspiration at the heart of the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA), a digital repository of multimedia resources in and about the indigenous languages of Latin America, founded in 2000 at The University of Texas at Austin and located today at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection.

The archive’s mission is the preservation of the wealth of recordings of natural discourse in the indigenous languages of Latin America made by native speakers of the languages, frequently in collaboration with linguists and anthropologists, during the past fifty to sixty years. Most of these languages are endangered, and all of them are at risk of being replaced by dominant languages. Some of them, in fact, like Tehuelche, a Chonan language of Patagonia, have lost all speakers since the recordings housed in the archive were made.

According to the World Bank, there are some 560 different languages spoken in Latin America, most of which are spoken by Indigenous Peoples. Some, like the Mayan languages K’iche’ (Guatemala) and Yucatec Maya (Mexico), have speakers numbering in the hundreds of thousands. But there are examples that more fully demonstrate a need for preservation, such as Guató (Brazil) and Kawésqar (Chile), each having fewer than 10 living speakers.

AILLA’s collections represent over 420 Indigenous languages, and include audio and video recordings, some with transcriptions and translations in Spanish, English, and to a lesser extent Portuguese, as well as photographs, maps, charts, and written works of all kinds. The recordings include narratives, songs, conversations, prayers, ceremonies, oral histories, interviews, and grammatical elicitation. Written materials include grammars, dictionaries, word lists, ethnographies, field notes, journals, correspondence, theses and dissertations, published and unpublished academic articles, essays, and manuscripts, as well as original literary works in indigenous languages, such as poetry, short stories, and novels.  There is ongoing work to incorporate textbooks and teaching materials for bilingual and ethno-education and for language reclamation programs into the archive,

“Every language is like a cosmos, containing vocabulary, stories, songs, spiritual beliefs, ceremonies, games, jokes, food ways, and patterns of thought which form a worldview that is unique in the history of humanity,” explains AILLA Manager Susan Kung.

AILLA collaborates directly and indirectly with Indigenous communities to archive their linguistic cultural heritage and coordinates the digitization of fragile analog materials in Indigenous languages so that they can be added to the archive. The archive accepts any material that was written or spoken in one of the indigenous languages of Latin America by native speakers of that language, on any topic, in any style. AILLA also collects materials of cultural and academic interest that are written about the indigenous languages of Latin America, and especially values items of interest to indigenous communities, like teaching materials and literary works.

An essential focus of the work at AILLA is to make these resources available to a global audience via unrestricted online access. Rapid technological development and an expanding internet has increased the reach of resources that were once kept in private offices and homes so that they can now be shared with speakers of the languages, scholars and interested audiences worldwide. By building out a broader global audience for these resources, the hope is that expanded access will extend and/or guarantee the life of at-risk languages.

“We want to support indigenous efforts to reclaim their languages and develop [their] literatures,” says Susan Kung. The archive makes it easy to publish indigenous works to a wide audience. It also serves as a medium of collaboration and communication, in addition to providing a repository for resources.

AILLA was founded in 2000 at The University of Texas at Austin by Dr. Joel Sherzer, Professor of Anthropology, and Dr. Anthony Woodbury, Professor of Linguistics, working in collaboration with a group of their graduate students, and with technical support from Mark McFarland, the former University of Texas Libraries Director of the Digital Library Services Division. AILLA’s pilot site was funded with seed money from the College of Liberal Arts, and the first online digital repository was built with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Today, AILLA’s primary support comes from the University of Texas Libraries and the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, and AILLA is at the heart of the LLILAS Benson collaboration and its Indigenous languages initiatives.

Over AILLA’s 20-year history, staff have worked to make academia and the general public aware of the importance of archiving priceless and irreplaceable linguistic cultural heritage and to develop and promote best practices in this field.  These endeavors, along with AILLA’s efforts to digitize and archive significant collections of indigenous language documentation materials, have been generously funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation.

To explore AILLA’s collections, visit ailla.utexas.org. The catalog information is open access, but you must register for a free account to stream, view or download media files.

If you are a speaker of an indigenous language and are interested in creating an archival collection for  your language, please write to us at ailla@ailla.utexas.org.

New Benson exhibition celebrates “El gaucho Martín Fierro”

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. 


Related: Listen to “An Argentine Gaucho in Texas” on the Benson at 100 podcast. Escuchar este episodio en español.


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.  

Portrait of author Jose Hernández from a 1937 Martín Fierro–themed calendar with illustrations by Mario Zavattaro, published by Argentine textile company Alpargatas.

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. 

A color lithograph by Carlos Alonso depicting the unnamed Black characters who later face violence at the hands of Martín Fierro, from a 1960 edition of El gaucho Martín Fierro y La vuelta de Martín Fierro.

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?  

MA: Everyone! 

Exhibition curators Melissa Aslo de la Torre (left) and Janette Núñez.

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. 

A comic strip adaptation based on a theatrical adaptation of Martín Fierro by José González Castillo from Intervalo, October 1960. Drawings by Miranda.

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 Aslo de 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.

Tower to Shine a Light on Benson Latin American Collection Centennial

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.

Benson Latin American Collection, with Olmec head replica

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.

Carlos E. Castañeda (right) examines a manuscript in the Latin American library, n.d.

This short video highlights the Benson

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.

Nettie Lee Benson, undated archival photo

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.

Ann Hartness in the Benson Reading room, 1971

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.

______________________________________________

Support the Benson’s next century with a donation to the Drs. Fernando Macías and Adriana Pacheco Benson Centennial Endowment. To explore giving opportunities for the Benson Latin American Collection, contact Hannah Roberts at h.roberts@austin.utexas.edu.