Blog Post

Can a Colonial Archive be an Anti-Colonial Archive? The Centennial of the Nettie Lee Benson Library at UT-Austin

Graphic by Michelle Jia; photo by Tobias Mayr.

The Nettie Lee Benson Collection is a library that originated as part of the larger collections of the University of Texas at Austin since the 1890s. The Library began initially as a typical colonial archive, namely, Anglo Hispanists interested in things Iberian in the colonial Southwest (USA). Anglophone lovers of things Iberian focused on the civilizing role of friars and soldiers. Anglo Hispanists like Herbert Bolton at UT, therefore, collected documentation on missions and mestizo settlers consolidating towns against Indian superstitions and raids.[2] Yet at some point in the history of the Benson Library, it became also an anticolonial archive. How can an archive be both colonial and anticolonial? 

Archives are collections that reflect the biases and interests of collectors. Rather than “objective,” trustworthy repositories of everyone’s records, archives assemble the voices of those privileged few who had most access to paperwork.[3] Most Anglo Hispanist colonial archives privilege the views of missionaries and silence the perspective of natives and slaves, for example. Yet the archives of the borderlands in the Southwest have a dialectic tension to them. They also give voice to anticolonial Hispanic struggles to end subordination and marginalization at the hands of Anglo-American settlers.[4]

The founders of the UT’s History Department, from George Garrison to Herbert Bolton, collected archival materials in Spain and Mexico in the 1890s and early 1900s as part of a larger Anglo interest in Spanish colonial history. After President Álvaro Obregón invited two UT regents and the historian Charles W. Hackett to his presidential inauguration in 1921, the University purchased directly in Mexico the extraordinary collection of Genaro García, including 18,000 printed volumes and 200,000 manuscript pages. [5]

This acquisition led the general library to hire a curator of “Latin American” materials. We know little about this first curator, Lota Spell, but we do know much more about the second one, Carlos Castañeda. As an alumnus of UT with a bachelor's degree in engineering and a MA in history, Castañeda arrived in Austin in 1927 to get a doctorate on “Texas” history. He earned his way in the program by working for the library on the so-called “Latin American” collection (Genaro García Library and the Icazbalceta collection too). It was only in 1934 that the “Latin American” collection was removed from the general library to become a separate entity.


Historian, archivist, and activist Carlos Castañeda. Source: Carlos E. Castañeda Papers, Benson Latin American Collection


As a librarian and historian, Castañeda and his Mexican American friends at UT transformed the meaning of “Latin America” to define those who otherwise were known as Mexicanos or Tejanos in the Southwest, namely, individuals born in the USA who by and large were treated as foreign nationals without citizenship rights.  From the 1920 to the 1950s, the term “Latin American” worked for folks like Castañeda as a moniker for collective Latinx political identity.  Castañeda’s Latino-Americanism is very informative because it sheds light on the less known history of the Benson as an anti-colonial archive.

Castañeda became a historian of the Catholic Church in Texas. His sources were mostly from church archives and his politics were Catholic at the time of the Cristero rebellion in Mexico. While pursuing what could be perceived a Hispanist, reactionary agenda that rendered native and African Americans invisible while glorifying friars and missions, Castañeda tied the history of the Church in Texas to the disenfranchisement of the Tejano population. Castañeda fought anti-discrimination campaigns in education and the oil fields of Houston.[6]

His identity politics was radical. He was one of the founders of LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, namely the Latinx organization that gave us SCOTUS Hernández v Texas (1954), the first time ever Mexicanos born in Texas were considered legally Mexican Americans. Until Hernández, no Tejano born in the USA had for more than a hundred years been able to participate as jury of his peers. Mexicanos became hyphenated citizens some 90 years after Reconstruction and the 14th amendment.