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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 Pecado, Petra’s Cuento, and Petra’s Sueño;Crossing the Río, Cuento Navideño, Cenicienta, 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.
Voluminous lists of banned or redacted books, laced with sanctimonious commentary—or, early modern Spanish “cancel culture.” The illustrated family tree of a womanizing, bald curate named Miguel Hidalgo. Op-eds fawning over every viperous protagonist of the Revolution.
Researchers will find these items and more in the Genaro García Collection. A Zacatecan politico-cum-historian, and eventual director of Mexico’s Museo Nacional de Historia, Arqueología y Etnología, García began amassing books and other items documenting the history, culture, and politics of his country at a young age—a habit he, thankfully, never broke. In 1921, a year after his death, García’s family sold his vast treasure trove of Mexicana to the University of Texas after the Mexican government had reportedly demonstrated little interest. Seven tons of manuscripts, books, periodicals, photographs, and other printed materials made their way to Austin, becoming the seeds of what would flourish into the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection. It is one of the world’s premier archives for the Mexicophile.
Unlike many aspiring young historians, I was never a devotee of archives. I never revered the yellowed, brittle sheets of paper and the “stories” they harbored. Nothing was less appealing to me than spending the better part of a workday in some record office, wearily attempting to distill something relevant from a sea of irrelevancies, surrounded by researchers whose social ineptitude rivaled my own. I had ventured into multiple repositories and each time failed to become a convert. Perhaps this is why I gravitated toward intellectual history when it came time to find my niche. I am a believer in the book and the essay—heresy to the ears of some in the historical profession.
Then I began my position as the Castañeda Graduate Research Assistant at the Benson Latin American Collection. The job entailed creating metadata for digitized selections from the García Collection. I considered it a simple way to add some much-needed lines to my curriculum vitae, not to mention supplement my miserly graduate student salary. Yet it ended up washing away much of the aversion I felt toward archives, and introduced me to another career possibility.
After the initial new-job jitters, there was something serenely satisfying about delving into this collection. I was not a visiting researcher working against the clock to find useful bits of evidence for my own studies. I was there to calmly soak it all in, and then produce data, without any personal motive. Moreover, examining these raw materials of Mexican history proved to be a first-rate course in the subject—far more enlightening than any three-month-long seminar could ever be.
Writing metadata is, essentially, an element of the historian’s craft. One has to sit with and scrutinize an item in order to correctly interpret it. Often, this requires a healthy dose of research. Because I was not trained as a historian of colonial Latin America, documents created before the 19th century required additional research to properly contextualize them, as well as a resolute eye to decipher early-modern script. Then there is the authorial question, which occasionally demands another mini investigative journey. The end products are detailed, bilingual descriptions, and other data that, ideally, facilitate the researcher’s job.
I began working mostly with documents dating from about 1810 to 1920. The Imprints and Images section of the García archive consists of graphic materials, such as maps, lithographs, and posters. The Broadsides and Circulars portion, on the other hand, is more textual and consists of widely distributed papers relating to Mexico’s War of Independence (1810–1821) and the Revolution (1910–1920), but is no less captivating. These approximately 1,200 items are now viewable on the collections portal, and materials from the photographs, archives and manuscripts, and rare books parts of the collection are continually being uploaded.
Currently on my docket are digitized selections from Archives and Manuscripts. This section contains individual historical manuscripts from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Those from the 1500s have proven to be the most challenging, not only due to my lack of paleography skills but also my unfamiliarity with early-modern Spanish grammar. But a fair share of focus and tenacity goes a long way. The “Archives” portion holds the papers of several prominent 19th-century characters, such as Lucas Alamán, the conservative statesman and intellectual, and Antonio López de Santa Anna, the peg-legged vendor of national territory. It will be a welcome break from my travails through the colonial era.
I am glad to play a pivotal role in the Benson’s initiatives to develop its digital collections. Digitization, after all, serves to democratize research and pedagogy by making rare and remote materials easily accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Now, scholars unable to jet off to Austin from, say, Genaro García’s home country of Mexico, can consult his collection from their laptops. Digital content also allows for innovative exhibition practices, like online showcases with interactive features. And perhaps most importantly, digitization safeguards our cultural heritage by producing a virtual “backup.”
The digitization and metadata creation for the Images and Imprints and Broadsides and Circulars materials were generously funded by the Latin Americanist Research Resources Project (LARRP), Center for Research Libraries, with additional funds provided in honor of Consuelo Castañeda Artaza and her sons. Of course, none of this could have been accomplished without the dedication of several Benson employees. David Bliss, Itza Carbajal, Robert Esparza, Mirko Hanke, Dylan Joy, Ryan Lynch, Madeleine Olson, and Theresa Polk all made indispensable contributions to the digitization and publication of these items.
It has been over two years since I began this position. I am still a devout fan of books and other easily available, published sources. But I am no longer agnostic about the pleasures of archives, at least not the one described here.
Diego A. Godoy is a PhD candidate in Latin American history at The University of Texas at Austin and Castañeda Graduate Research Assistant at the Benson Latin American Collection. Before coming to Texas, he earned an MA in history from Claremont Graduate University. He is broadly interested in the intellectual and cultural history of the region. His particular focus is on the history of criminology, detection, and crime writing. He is author, most recently, of the article “Inside the Agrasánchez Collection of Mexican Cinema,” which appeared in the fall 2020 issue of Portal magazine.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love — In this new series, librarians from UTL’s 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.
A twenty-two-year program that began during World War II and is still relevant nearly sixty years after its conclusion in 1964, the Bracero Program was an agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments to permit short-term Mexican laborers to work in the United States.
In an effort to stem labor shortages during and after the war years, an estimated 4.6 million workers came to the USA with the promise of thirty cents per hour and “humane treatment.” Of course, we know that loosely defined terms like “humane treatment” present a slippery slope that can erase and omit stories. Fortunately, through the collaborative efforts of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Brown University, and the University of Texas at El Paso’s Institute of Oral History, many of those once-hidden stories have been preserved and made accessible through the Bracero History Archive (BHA).
The BHA offers a variety of materials, most notably over 700 oral histories recorded in English and Spanish. While the metadata fields for each oral history could be more robust, the ability to hear first-hand accounts and inter-generational stories is a dream come true for primary source-seekers. All audio is available to download in mp3 format for future use.
Apart from oral histories, other resources are also available. Images, such as photographs and postcards, provide visuals of the varied environments that hosted the Braceros as well as portraits of the Braceros themselves.
Again, further detail on these resources would benefit the archive. For example, the photograph above, titled “Two Men,” demonstrates a lack of context needed for a more profound understanding while also acknowledging the potentially constant transient nature of Bracero work. In fact, the very word bracero, derived from the Spanish word for “arm,” is indicative of the commodification and dehumanization of the human body for labor. Workers lived in subpar work camps, received threats of deportation, and lacked proper nourishment, especially given the arduous work conditions.
Additional BHA resources include a “documents” section in which offspring share anecdotes about the Bracero Program and track down information about loved ones. Finally, the site offers resources for middle school and high school teachers to use in their curriculum. Here again is an opportunity to further build out the site for university-level instruction.
The digital objects in the BHA are worthwhile for those looking to recover an often-overlooked subject in American history that still resonates with themes relating to immigration today. Indeed, farmworkers continue to be exploited and underappreciated despite their contributions to society. This has led to a number of movements, marches, and boycotts in efforts to improve living conditions and wages.
LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections is pleased to announce the publication of Portal magazine’s Benson Centennial edition, available online at llilasbensonmagazine.org.
In anticipation of the centennial of the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection in 2021, this issue features articles by faculty, students, scholars, and staff that highlight a wide array of collections in areas as diverse as art history, feminist theory, Black diaspora, Indigenous studies, Mexican film, and more. A special selection of Staff Picks surveys items in the collection chosen and written about by staff in short feature pieces. Truly, this issue has something for everyone, including information on how to support the Benson Centennial Endowment.
Annotated contents of Portal‘s Benson Centennial issue follow below.
Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Decolonial Feminists Unite! Dorothy Schons and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz—Award-winning Chicana feminist author Alicia Gaspar de Alba explores the fascinating yet tragic story of UT scholar Dorothy Schons (1890–1961), whose groundbreaking research on the Mexican poet, intellectual, and nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648–1695) was dismissed by her colleagues at the time.
Voices of Black Brazilian Feminism: Conversations with Rosana Paulino and Sueli Carneiro—Rosana Paulino is a visual artist and Black Brazilian feminist; Sueli Carneiro is an author and one of the foremost feminist intellectuals in Brazil. Both were keynote speakers at the February 2020 Lozano Long Conference on Black women’s intellectual contributions to the Americas. Interviewed here by UT faculty members Christen A. Smith (Anthropology, AADS, LLILAS, dir. of Center for Women’s and Gender Studies) and Lorraine Leu (LLILAS / Spanish & Portuguese).
Daniel Arbino, (Self)Love in the Time of COVID—Reflections from Benson head of special collections on themes of self-care and solitude in the Benson’s Latino zine collection.
David A. Bliss, Selections from the LADI Repository—Bliss, digital processing archivist at the Benson, highlights collections in the Latin American Digital Initiatives repository. These are vulnerable archival collections that are now available online due to Mellon grant–funded collaborations between LLILAS Benson and Latin American archival partners.
Albert A. Palacios, Student Activism in the Archives, 1969, 1970. Items from Texas and Uruguay are but two of the many examples of student activism in the Benson’s archives.
Dylan Joy, Ernesto Cardenal in Solentiname, 1970s, explores the spiritual artists’ community of Solentiname founded by the lateNicaraguan poet, priest, and politician Ernesto Cardenal (1925–2020), whose archive is at the Benson.
Zaria El-Fil, Black Freedom Struggle and the University, 1977, focused on the John L. Warfield Papers and written by fourth-year student Zaria El-Fil, the 2019–20 AKA Scholars Black Diaspora Archive intern.
Ryan Lynch, Manifesto ao povo nordestino, 1982, discusses a Brazilian political archive and showcases how political themes are discussed in cordel literature, cheap chapbooks popular in Brazil.
Susanna Sharpe, Camas para Sueños by Carmen Lomas Garza, 1985. The Benson is the repository for the archive of artist Carmen Lomas Garza, a native of Kingsville, Texas, whose highly popular and well-known artworks evoke many aspects of Chicano life and culture in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere.
The Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection is thrilled to announce the acquisition of the Miguel Ángel Asturias Papers. Asturias, the 1967 Nobel Laureate in Literature from Guatemala, was a precursor to the Latin American Boom. A prolific writer of poetry, short stories, children’s literature, plays, and essays, he is perhaps best known as a novelist, with El Señor Presidente (1946) and Hombres de maíz (1949) garnering the most acclaim. Asturias’s portrayal of Guatemala and the different peoples that live there—their beliefs, their interactions, their frustrations, and their hopes—mark the profundity of his texts.
The Benson is the third repository to house materials pertaining to Asturias’s life work, the other two being the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris and El Archivo General de Centroamérica in Guatemala City. What differentiates this particular collection is the role that Asturias’s son, Miguel Ángel Asturias Amado, played in compiling it over the course of fifty years. Indeed, in many ways the collection is just as much the son’s as it is the father’s. It features years of correspondence between the two, who were separated after the elder was forced to leave Argentina in 1962. This was not the writer’s first time in exile: his stay in Argentina was due to the Guatemalan government, led by Carlos Castillo Armas, stripping his citizenship in 1954. The letters provide insight into Asturias as a father, writer, and eventual diplomat when democratically elected Guatemalan President Julio César Méndez Montenegro restored his citizenship and made him Ambassador to France in 1966. Moreover, scholars will find within these letters a number of short stories for children that would eventually be collected in the book El alhajadito (1962).
In addition to correspondence with his son, Asturias maintained a longstanding relationship with his mother via letter during his first stay in Paris in the 1920s. Detailed within are the family’s economic hardships as a result of the country-wide crisis in Guatemala caused by the plummeting international coffee market, and information pertaining to the publication of his first collection of short stories, Leyendas de Guatemala (1930). Other communication from this era demonstrates the role that Asturias played in facilitating the publication of other Guatemalan authors and as a journalist for El imparcial.
Beyond letters, scholars will find a multifaceted collection. Manuscripts of poetic prose, such as “Tras un ideal” (1917), and an early theater piece titled “Madre” (1918) are included with loose-leaf fragments from El señor presidente. News clippings are also prominent. Those written by Asturias reflect his time at El imparcial while those written about him focus on his Nobel Prize. Perhaps an unexpected highlight is the audiovisual component of the collection. The author contributed an array of caricatures, doodles, and portraits, as well as a robust collection of photographs. Furthermore, there are several audio recordings of Asturias reading his work.
Finally, scholars will also be able to access studies dedicated to the work of Asturias and first, rare, and special editions of his books. These editions, meticulously collected and cared for by his son, reflect the author’s continued popularity.
La Colección Benson adquiere el archivo del Premio Nobel Miguel Ángel Asturias
Por DANIEL ARBINO
La Colección Latinoamericana Nettie Lee Benson se complace en anunciar la adquisición de los documentos de Miguel Ángel Asturias, Premio Nobel de 1967. El autor guatemalteco fue un precursor del boom latinoamericano. Escritor prolífico de poesía, cuentos, literatura infantil, obras de teatro y ensayos, es quizás mejor conocido como novelista, y El señor presidente (1946) y Hombres de maíz (1949) son las más aclamadas. La representación de Guatemala y sus variados pueblos, creencias, interacciones, frustraciones y esperanzas, marcan la profundidad de sus textos.
La Benson es el tercer archivo que reune materiales de la vida de Asturias, después de la Bibliothèque nationale en París y El Archivo General de Centroamérica en la ciudad de Guatemala. Lo que distingue a esta colección en particular es el papel que desempeñó el hijo de Asturias, Miguel Ángel Asturias Amado, en su recopilación a lo largo de cincuenta años. De hecho, la colección es, en muchos sentidos, tanto del hijo como del padre. Presenta años de correspondencia entre los dos, que se separaron después de que el padre tuvo que abandonar la Argentina en 1962. Ésta no fue la primera vez que el escritor se había tenido que ir al exilio: su estadía en la Argentina se debió a que el gobierno guatemalteco, liderado por Carlos Castillo Armas, le había despojado de su ciudadanía en 1954. Las cartas dan una idea de Asturias como padre, escritor y eventual diplomático, después de que Julio César Méndez Montenegro, el presidente de Guatemala democráticamente elegido, restauró su ciudadanía y lo nombró embajador en Francia en 1966. Además, los investigadores encontrarán dentro de estas cartas una serie de cuentos para niños que se recopilarían en el libro El alhajadito (1962).
Aparte de la correspondencia con su hijo, Asturias mantuvo una larga relación epistolar con su madre durante su primera estancia en París en la década de los 1920. Ahí se detallan las dificultades económicas de la familia como resultado de la crisis que atraviesa la sociedad guatemalteca, por la caída del precio del café a nivel internacional, e información relativa a la publicación de su primera colección de cuentos, Leyendas de Guatemala (1930). Otra comunicación de esta época demuestra el papel que desempeñó Asturias al facilitar la publicación de otros autores guatemaltecos y como periodista de El imparcial.
Asimismo, los investigadores verán una colección multifacética. Los manuscritos de prosa poética, como “Tras un ideal” (1917) y una obra de teatro titulada “Madre” (1918) se incluyen, tanto como fragmentos de hojas sueltas de El señor presidente. Los recortes de periódicos también son prominentes. Los escritos por Asturias reflejan su tiempo en El imparcial, mientras que los escritos sobre él se centran en su Premio Nobel. Quizás un punto destacado inesperado es el componente audiovisual de la colección. El autor contribuyó con una serie de caricaturas, garabatos y retratos, así como una colección robusta de fotografías. También, hay varias grabaciones de audio de Asturias en las cuales realiza lecturas de sus obras.
Por último, los académicos también podrán acceder a los estudios dedicados al trabajo de Asturias y a las primeras, raras y especiales ediciones de su trabajo. Estas ediciones, meticulosamente recopiladas y cuidadas por su hijo, reflejan la continua popularidad del autor.
Students in Astrid Runggaldier’s Art and Archaeology of Ancient Peru class were tasked with an intriguing project this spring: take a collection of pre-colonial objects that is, for all intents and purposes, invisible, and make it visible using digital tools. Their efforts have come to fruition with a first-of-its-kind online exhibition titled Ancient Coastal Cultures of Peru: People and Animals at the Edge of the Pacific Ocean.
The objects in question are part of the Art and Art History Collection (AAHC) at The University of Texas at Austin, a collection associated with the Mesoamerica Center and the Department of Art and Art History. Consisting of ancient artifacts, ethnographic materials, and historical objects primarily from the Americas, the collection, curated by Runggaldier, spans approximately 5,000 invaluable objects for research and studious exploration. These rare pieces do not have their own dedicated exhibition space, although since 2017, select objects rotate through the Ancient Americas gallery at the Blanton Museum of Art (see “Mesoamerican Artifacts Highlight Makeover at UT’s Blanton”).
Long focused on the need for a virtual museum to showcase the AAHC collection, Runggaldier looked to the field of digital humanities to devise a project with a few objectives in mind. “Approaching this project from a digital humanities perspective could simultaneously serve in the stewardship of the collection, create an educational resource at UT and beyond, and provide an opportunity for students to become involved in learning goals and tools of digital scholarship, as well as museum studies approaches to collection management and curation,” she said.
Enter the LLILAS Benson Digital Humanities Curriculum Redesign Award. The award provides UT faculty and graduate student instructors with dedicated staff support by LLILAS Benson digital scholarship staff along with a grant of up to $250 to cover expenses incurred in the design or redesign of a course with Latin American, U.S. Latinx, and/or African Diaspora Studies content. Runggaldier applied and received the award, which she used to redesign the Ancient Peru class. For this endeavor, she has worked with Albert Palacios, LLILAS Benson digital scholarship coordinator.
Palacios explains that the goal of the LLILAS Benson Digital Scholarship Office is to “introduce digital humanities principles, methods, and special collections meaningfully and with a critical lens” in the redesign of undergraduate and graduate courses. “Through lectures, class activities, individual assignments and group projects, we aim to strike a balance in the knowledge we impart as co-instructors,” Palacios continues, “so that students leave the course with a well-rounded understanding of the subject matter and course content, as well as information literacy and research methods, basic and more advanced digital skills, and knowledge of ethical issues surrounding collection development and use.”
First-year student Miguel Belmonte, a neuroscience major, attests to the success of this aim: Before this course, “I had never used or even known about digital scholarship tools. It was a unique experience.”
Students were divided into teams of four for the final project. Each team had to research objects in the UT collection from two different pre-colonial Andean groups—the Chimu and the Nasca. They then had to compare the objects they chose to an object from another museum collection. To provide context for visualizing the environments of Peru, Runggaldier selected images from the Benson’s Hispanic Society of America Postcard Collection, which has been digitized, described, and mapped by School of Information graduate student Elizabeth Peattie, who is the LLILAS Benson Digital Scholarship and Special Collections intern. Three other indispensable contributors to the success of this project were Brianna Crockett, collections assistant and Art and Art History undergrad, who assisted in the compilation and description of digital assets; Katy Parker, Humanities Liaison Librarian for Fine Arts, who provided research support for students throughout the semester; and Nicole Payntar, doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology, who designed assignment grading criteria and rubrics for research and digital project components.
“I truly enjoy seeing the aha! moment in students’ eyes as they figure out how to use open-source digital tools to make their research more dynamic and interconnected,” says Palacios. “For many, the learning curve is steep, so the digital scholarship staff’s role is to help them overcome this. Luckily, we continue to hear that the in-depth and intense experience was worth the challenge!”
Runggaldier and Palacios had originally planned an in-person opening event to celebrate the going live of the online exhibition. Given the current closure of campus due to the covid-19 pandemic, this was not to be. We encourage readers to visit the online exhibition and to share their opinions on social media by tagging @llilasbenson and @UT_AAH and using the hashtag #digitalhumanities.
Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraguan poet, priest, and revolutionary, died in Managua on Sunday, March 1. He was 95.
Admired and controversial, Cardenal was a towering figure in Central American culture and politics. As Nicaragua’s minister of culture under the Sandinista government, which took power in 1979, he oversaw a national program that taught poetry to Nicaraguans of all ages and all walks of life.
As a priest, ordained in 1965, Cardenal defied the Vatican of Pope John Paul II by embracing liberation theology and joining the Sandinista revolutionary armed conflict. His priestly authority was revoked by Nicaragua’s bishops in 1985. Pope Francis absolved Cardenal of “all canonical censorships” in February 2019.
Cardenal’s long and rich life can almost be said to be several lives rolled into one. His spiritual path would take him in the 1950s to Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery in Kentucky, where he met and befriended monk and writer Thomas Merton. In the 1960s, he founded an artistic and spiritual community in the Solentiname archipelago in Nicaragua, where he taught literature and painting. He fought in the Nicaraguan Revolution to depose dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, and serving in the Sandinista government, Cardenal left the Sandinista party in 1994 and became highly critical of President Daniel Ortega.
In 2016, the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at The University of Texas at Austin acquired the Ernesto Cardenal Papers, an extensive archive consisting of correspondence, writings by Cardenal, newspaper clippings and writings by others related to Cardenal, photographs, biographical materials, and audiovisual materials.
“We are honored that Ernesto Cardenal chose the Benson Collection as the permanent home for his personal archive. Already, students and scholars from around the globe have been able to consult the materials for their research. We know this accessibility was important to Father Cardenal, and we are committed to the preservation of his life’s work,” said Melissa Guy, director of the Benson Collection.
Virginia Garrard, director of LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, and professor of history and religious studies, knew Cardenal personally and has long been inspired by him. “Ernesto Cardenal was a fighter: for justice, against dictatorship, for equality, for his faith, and for the power of art and beauty to shine light in a dark world. He was tireless in this lifelong struggle, striving until his final days for a better Nicaragua and true justice for all people. LLILAS Benson is proud to help to carry on his legacy,” Garrard said. (LLILAS Benson is a partnership between the Benson and the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, or LLILAS, established in 2011.)
Cardenal visited the UT Austin campus in November 2016 to celebrate the opening of his archive with a poetry reading before a packed house. During his stay, he was also able to view some of the Benson’s archival treasures and visit with students in a more intimate setting. In honor of the Cardenal archive, and of LLILAS Benson’s emphasis on Central American scholarship and collections, Garrard established Cátedra Ernesto Cardenal, which sponsors a yearly symposium on a topic relating to Central America, and funds research visits to the collection.
Cardenal’s connection with the Benson opened the door to unprecedented access to the man himself, and he granted an interview to former Benson librarian José Montelongo in spring of 2016. Excerpts of the interview, in Spanish with English subtitles, can be viewed at Interview with Ernesto Cardenal.
In 2017, LLILAS Benson published Spanish and English versions of a poignant essay by Professor Luis Cárcamo-Huechante, who discusses the impact of Cardenal’s writings on him as a young man growing up during the Chilean dictatorship. (Read “Cardenal in Hard Times” / “Cardenal en tiempos difíciles.”)
“It is an extraordinary gift that Cardenal’s papers arrive at the Benson Latin American Collection, in Austin, Texas,” Cárcamo-Huechante wrote. “And it is likely that once again, Cardenal’s writings, and the ethical, political, spiritual, poetic, and human voice that resonates in them, will accompany us at these latitudes of the planet, in the hard times that seem to be upon us.”