Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage: The Preservation of the Latina/o Legacy / Carolina Villarroel and Gabriela Baeza Ventura

This case study gives a brief overview of a long-standing archival and research project in Latina/o history, Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, which was established in 1990 by a group of scholars, librarians, and archivists. It outlines the scope, effort, and community-building that it takes to create a long-running and successful project, and can be used to focus on the care that it takes to steward such large-scale recovery projects forward. It also shows the clear and concrete way that this archive formed the locus of a research community and prompted new types of scholarship.

Carolina Villarroel, Director of Research at Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, University of Houston

Gabriela Baeza Ventura, Associate Professor of Spanish and Executive Editor at Arte Público Press, University of Houston

During nearly two centuries of anti-Latino propaganda and the creation of stereotypes and negative images in popular culture, it is no wonder that so much has been lost of the cultural history of Latinas/os in the United States. The official institutions of the country often did not collect and preserve the Hispanic community’s intellectual and cultural documents, from hundreds of newspapers and thousands of books published as well as unpublished manuscripts, memoirs, letters, photographs and other that could have become part of the nation’s official cultural heritage, popular culture and potentially integrated into the curriculum. Because of this most Americans are unaware of the incredible contributions to American literature and history that Latinas/os have produced over the decades, especially in the Spanish language, prior to World War II and increasingly in English afterward. In addition to U.S. expansion into and incorporation of previous Hispanic lands, since the early nineteenth century the United States has been the primary destination for political exiles and immigrants from Spain and Spanish America. All of them have contributed to American culture, although quite a bit of the documentary legacy that could sustain this statement has been lost or is subject to recovery.

The United States Census Bureau estimates that by 2050, Hispanics will make up 25% of the nation’s population. The need for relevant humanistic research in Latina/o culture and history is critical, as is the need for texts, methodologies and theoretical approaches for the teaching of U.S. Latina/o history, literature, language and culture. Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage (Recovery) at the University of Houston was created specifically with the mission to research, preserve and make accessible the written culture produced by Latinas and Latinos in the United States, from the sixteenth-century explorations and settlements to the 1960s civil rights movements. Since its founding, Recovery has become a sub-discipline for faculty, researchers and graduate students in Spanish, English, History, American and Ethnic Studies departments and programs throughout the United States. The program has become the focal point for scholars around the country and abroad interested in reconstituting the cultural and documentary history of Latinas and Latinos, and for librarians and archivists eager to expand their collections to include their written legacy.

With early backing from the Rockefeller Foundation, the project was funded to bring scholars, librarians and archivists from around the nation to discuss the possibility of recovering this legacy and feasibility of launching a project. The list of professionals recruited included scholars and librarian/archivists who at that point were leaders in finding, preserving and writing about previously lost or unknown texts and historical events. The meeting took place at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park on November 17 and 18, 1990. The specific goal of this first conference was to engage in discussions that not only would identify the U.S. Hispanic documentary legacy that could be recovered, but also to design approaches and methods for locating, making accessible and studying the works.

This initial assemblage of scholars became the first board of what would be titled Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, despite the project’s ambition of recovering all written culture, not just the literary. It was decided at the conference that the center to carry out the work of researching, recovering, preserving, making accessible and integrating into the curriculum at all levels this written legacy would be located at the University of Houston, under the direction of Professor Nicolás Kanellos, who was also the director of Arte Público Press, the nation’s largest press for Latinas/os, which could make many of the documents and books available to academia as well as the general public.

Since then, the program has:

  • funded 182 scholars to conduct research through grants in aid
  • created a comprehensive project database of some 500,000 documents (from one-page broadsides to entire books)
  • microfilmed for preservation and digitized for online distribution some 2,000 books
  • compiled and published the first comprehensive bibliography of Latino periodicals (Hispanic Periodicals in the United States: A Brief History and Comprehensive Bibliography by Nicolás Kanellos with Helvetia Martell)
  • indexed and digitally scanned some 350,000 literary and historical articles from hundreds of newspapers for production of the electronic edition of periodical materials
  • held eleven biennial national conferences as of 2018
  • published in print some forty recovered volumes, plus nine volumes of the selected conference papers, peer-reviewed scholarly publications
  • published two comprehensive anthologies (one with Oxford University Press and the other with Arte Público Press), a Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Linguistic Heritage: Sociohistorical Approaches to Spanish in the United States edited by Glenn Martínez, Alejandra Balestra and María Irene Moyna, as well as various other documents and books
  • and underwrote the microfilming of various Hispanic collections from New York to Los Angeles.

And since its founding, more than fifty university press books have been published using Recovery materials or based on Recovery resources and/or research funding.

From the texts digitized and made accessible through the program, students, scholars, textbook editors and curriculum writers are able to incorporate the artistic, philosophical, spiritual and political perspectives of the significant national minority that participated in public discussion at every period of the development of the American Republic and helped to assimilate and disseminate the ideas of freedom and democracy. Additionally, from other recovered texts Recovery has been able to document the religious history of Latinos, for example by microfilming and digitizing the complete collection of the Casa Bautista de Publicaciones, various series of sermons, Sephardic periodicals published in Ladino, documents related to the Cristero War, and the archives of Catholic bishops in U.S. exile. Recovery has also accessioned and digitized a series of more than 100 anarchist periodicals published in the United States from the late nineteenth century up to World War II. Most of the anarchist periodicals have never before been studied by scholars and were not previously available in the United States. They run the gamut from those published by anarcho-syndicalist organizations to periodicals by working-class intellectuals in exile from Spain and Latin America who contributed to the improvement of working conditions in the United States. The periodicals span the continent from New York, the most frequent place of publication, to California, Florida, Illinois and Texas. They were published by and for mine workers in Arizona, agricultural workers in California, tobacco workers in Florida, steel workers in Chicago and Lorain, Ohio, and factory and maritime workers in New York and New Jersey. Furthermore, the Hispanic anarchists maintained ties with the leaders of labor and anarchist movements across the board in the United States, joined in their rallies, invited their leaders to their own Hispanic functions, translated and published their speeches and essays in their Spanish-language periodicals.

Latina women’s writings are of particular interest for Recovery since their contributions have mostly been obliterated from the written culture of the United States, because as women of color they lacked status and access. Through the work of Recovery and its associates, the program has been able to recover many of their writings in the form of newspapers, manuscripts and books that speak of the active participation of Latinas in all aspects of life in the United States.

Recovery was also able to accession, organize, microfilm and digitize the papers of Alonso S. Perales, a civil rights attorney and founder of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), among other organizations. The Perales collection changes the way the civil rights era has been perceived and studied. Perales’ papers highlight the social and political status of Latinos from the 1920s to 1960s and document his diplomatic work as part of the United States delegation that negotiated treaties in South and Central America.

As of today Recovery is looking into a new goal, creating the first Digital Humanities Center for Latina/o Studies in the U.S. to further dissemination of recovered materials and to create alliances that would solidify Latinas/os’ legacy in the United States. The mission of this new endeavor is to serve as a venue with a postcolonial emphasis that will allow projects on the Latina/o written legacy that has been lost, absent, repressed or underrepresented in colonial structures of power, as has been the case with much of the material digitized by Recovery. It will be a place where scholars and students from throughout the United States (and eventually Latin America) can receive support and training to access and participate in digital humanities in Latina/o Studies. The center will create opportunities and facilities for digital publication of Latina/o-based projects and scholarship, including data curation, visualization, spatial analysis, metadata creation, digitization, workshops and classes in order to further opportunities for digital scholarship and publication in the humanities in general.

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