“The first time I walked into the fourth floor of the Nettie Lee Benson library, as a recently admitted PhD student, tears ran down my cheeks. I remember that moment, when I was there, alone, looking at that iconic corridor with hundreds of shelves and thousands of books. My tears were for excitement because I understood that that place was going to be a second home for me for many years to come.”
With these heartfelt words, spoken at a September 6 dinner announcing the centennial campaign for the Benson Latin American Collection, Adriana Pacheco Roldán exhorted assembled guests to join her in a project involving both the heart and the preservation of memory. Pacheco is chair of the International Board of Advisors established by University of Texas at Austin President Greg Fenves. She and her husband, Fernando Macías Garza, both hold doctorates from Texas. The couple has donated $50,000 to establish the Benson Centennial Endowment, which officially kicks off the countdown to the collection’s 2021 Centennial.
Pacheco was a keynote speaker at An Evening of Discovery, a gala dinner hosted by the University of Texas Libraries and the Provost’s Office to officially kick off the Benson Centennial campaign. As is fitting for a PhD in literature, she began her speech by evoking Aureliano Buendía, the patriarch of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, who “fought against the plague of memory loss suffered by all inhabitants of Macondo” by labeling every object he could. “For almost 100 years, the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection has been a place to keep our memories and our heritage,” said Pacheco.
Yet the recent tragic loss at Brazil’s National Museum of virtually all of its contents means that we must take responsibility for protecting the treasures of the Benson, Pacheco continued. Again invoking family and generational ties, she laid out a challenge to the assembled guests: “As we say in Spanish, you are the padrinos, the godfathers and godmothers, of the Benson Centennial Endowment launch, and I invite you to join our efforts: Give now, give today, give later, find somebody willing to give, promote, spread the word, come and visit, join the events, make the Benson Collection part of your lives.”
Four Centuries of Rare Documents Will Be Digitized
August 8, 2018, was an auspicious day for students of Mexican history. An agreement signed between LLILAS Benson and the Tribunal Superior de Justicia del Estado de Puebla marks the official start of a project to digitize a large collection of archival materials from the Fondo Real de Cholula. Funding for the project comes from a Mellon Foundation grant obtained by LLILAS Benson.
The archives in question, which originate in the Mexican town of Cholula, Puebla State, consist of approximately 200 boxes and span some four centuries, from the 1500s to the late nineteenth century. Once digitized, they will be made available to researchers on an open-access platform by the Benson Latin American Collection and the University of Texas Libraries. The materials document, among other things, how Indigenous residents of Cholula navigated colonial judicial structures unique to their special juridical status.
A Rich Trove of Information
The materials will provide a rich trove of information about the colonial period, referred to in Mexico as la época novohispana. Cholula was one of only nine locations to be designated a ciudad de indios (in contrast, there were 21 ciudades de españoles). Ciudades de indios had a different justice system than others. Indigenous people paid their tribute directly to the king instead of to a colonial intermediary; they enjoyed certain privileges, and they maintained a fully functioning Indigenous cabildo, or council, which ruled alongside the Spanish one. “This allowed for a degree of Indigenous autonomy and exercise of special privileges in the new colonial context,” explains Professor Kelly McDonough of the UT Austin Department of Spanish and Portuguese.
LLILAS Benson might never have known about the collection in question had it not been for McDonough, who identified the collection as a good candidate for digitization. She emphasizes that the digitization of ciudad de indios documents has immense historical significance: “It’s the first time we will be able to understand what Indigenous justice meant in place with a very specific juridical designation and relationship with the king of Spain. We believe that the other eight judicial archives from ciudades de indios burned in the Mexican Revolution.”
“The chronological range of the collection will allow scholars to study how Indigenous practices adapted to Spanish rule, how new practices developed over the course of the early-modern period, and how both Indigenous and Spanish practices further adapted to modern political and legal structures in the nineteenth century,” adds LLILAS Benson digital processing archivist David Bliss.
The Digitization Process
A team of three historians from Puebla and Cholula will work in Puebla to digitize the collection, creating two digital copies—one to remain in Puebla and the other to be sent to Austin for preservation and online publication. In addition, all of the digitized materials will be extensively described using a metadata template developed by LLILAS Benson and its Puebla partners. The historians involved in the project are experts in sixteenth-through-nineteenth-century Cholula.
Dra. Lidia Gómez García of Facultad de Filosofía y Letras at Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (BUAP) was instrumental in keeping interest in the project going amid inevitable delays. Together, she and McDonough helped choose the personnel to carry out the important work of digitization and creating of metadata for the collection. LLILAS Benson Director Virginia Garrard relates that the team working with the archives in Puebla feels a deep and personal connection with the material; the fact that they are rescuing their own patrimony from decay is immensely meaningful to them.
Last June 2018, Bliss and LLILAS Benson archivist Dylan Joy conducted a training workshop in Puebla for the digitization team. The team will carry out the project using a DSLR camera and two laptops, as well as the digital photography program Adobe Lightroom. The equipment, purchased by LLILAS Benson with Mellon grant funds, will be donated to the Puebla archive at the conclusion of the project, which is set for early May 2019. Bliss estimates that the project will digitize some 45,000 pages of documents.
The final, digitized documents will be ingested into the Latin American Digital Initiatives (LADI) platform, allowing researchers to form connections between the Fondo Real de Cholula documents and other collections on the platform.
A Groundbreaking Collaboration
Director Garrard, herself a historian, hails this project for bringing to light lesser-known historical actors. “This collaboration represents the lives and voices of groups traditionally omitted from the historical record,” she said. “The signing event highlighted the power of close and horizontal relationships between our two institutions, so clearly evident in the presentations of the young Mexican technical specialists and students who described for us their work with the documents, both as material artifacts and as historical sources.”
Quoted in Puebla’s El Popular, Héctor Sánchez Sánchez, presiding magistrate of the Tribunal Superior de Justicia, noted Puebla’s pride in the collaboration: the digitization of Fondo Real de Cholula is the first digitization project at an institution in the Mexican justice system. “Even more so for those of us who are part of this institution,” said Sánchez, “[the rescue of] this archive can achieve a change in the way we understand history.”
Included in the exhibit are examples of the exceptional Relaciones Geográficas, elaborate surveys from Latin America requisitioned by King Philip II of Spain in the 16th Century that provide detailed demographic, geographic and sociopolitical information on Spanish colonial life in regions and towns controlled by the crown, many featuring hand-drawn maps that range from simplistic to elaborate.
Mapping Mexican Historyis on view on the 2nd floor of the Faulk Central Library (800 Guadalupe) through October 15. Check the website for hours, or contact the Austin Public Library at 512-974-7400 for more information.