A few months ago, I visited Dr. Melissa Guy, the Benson Librarian. I wanted to chat with her about my vision of the Benson’s Centennial (see my letter published in NEP). After listening to me, Dr. Guy recommended I read A Library for the Americas: The Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection (University of Texas Press, 2018). There were a few things I might learn from reading the book, she said. Soon after our meeting ended, I bought the book.
I read carefully every essay: The personal recollections of Mauricio Tenorio (on every shelf within the Benson) and Barbara Mundy (on her encounter with the indigenous maps of the Relaciones Geográficas of the late sixteenth century).
I enjoyed immensely Richard Graham’s memories of how using the “Saint Jon del Rey Mining Company” collection allowed him to trace the story of Joaquim Nabuco’s abolitionism in late 19th-century Brazil as a nationalist movement. Abolitionists were seen as pro-British, supporting the naval blockades to suspend the African trade. Nabuco, however, used the British mining company of el Real to document their extensive reliance on African slaves. It showed the hypocrisy of British policy.
I also enjoyed the equally brilliant essay by Eric Van Young on how his book the Other Rebellion was partially based on Hernandez Davalos’s collection of 17 volumes of papers on the wars of independence. Van Young also reflects on the uniqueness of the Benson’s papers of Lucas Alamán. They are exceptional, not so much in their numbers (not many), but in that they show “personal” sides of Alamán young life: a compendium of train itineraries while he spent nearly eight years touring Europe.
México a través de los siglos, by Vicente Riva Palacio; Espasa y Compañía, Barcelona, 1888.
The essay by Arturo Taracena Arriola is moving because he was the grandson of Arturo Taracena Flores. Taracena Arriola was a revolutionary. His grandfather was a Catholic reactionary, yet a great collector. Taracena Arriola offers a detailed catalog of his grandfather's collection. The Benson holds a fraction of it, particularly pamphlets and papers on cold war anti-communism during Jacobo Árbenz and Carlos Castillo Armas’s regimes.
Finally, I went over the moving essays by Tatiana Reinoza on the Ricardo and Harriet Romo’s Latinx print collection and by Norma Cantu’s on the Gloria Anzaldúa’s archive (of Chicana queer theory fame). Both Anzaldua’s and the Romo’s collection are windows into the history of Tejanos and Latinos and Hispanics in this land of ours.
The hardcover itself is simply breathtaking and beautiful. It contains dozens of images from the archive and the library. In short, this is a book meant to evoke intense emotional and aesthetic reactions. More important, it is a book to evoke curiosity.
Yet, this is not the book I had in mind when I visited Dr. Guy. My proposal is different: I understand the origins of the Benson as an anticolonial archive put together by Latinx underfunded employees, itself a reflection of race and racism on campus.
There is one essay, however, in A Library of the Americas that delivers such vision: “The Benson Latin American Collection as an oppositional Borderland Archive” by David Montejano’s. His is truly a history of race and racism on campus. I was surprised by the overlap of his vision and mine. I got there independently. But Montejano’s is far more powerful than mine.
His is the history of two archives, the Eugene C. Barker Library (aka Briscoe Center) and the Benson. It is remarkable because it shows the parallel construction of two archives and libraries. The Barker’s: White, Anglo American to the core. The Benson: borderlander, representing the Valley, from Carlos Castañeda’s Brownsville youth to Natti Lee Benson’s early experiences as an English teacher in Monterrey.
Nettie Lee Benson. Image courtesy of Humanities Texas.
What is troubling about Montejano’s story is that it shows how the boundaries separating these two collections seemingly began to go away in the 1970s, with the building of the LBJ Library and the mobilization for Civil Rights on campus. Barker became the Briscoe and it began to collect Latinx things. The Benson doubled down in its commitment to fulfilling the Latinx vision of its founders: Latin America as an extension of being Chicana. Yet Montejano warns us not to be deceived by superficial perception.
Montejano shows that for all the approximations, for all the student and faculty mobilization since the 1970s, both libraries remained distinct. Montejano shows what Latinx papers the Briscoe collected: the papers of Congressman Henrique González.
Henrique B. Gonzalez; Wikipedia. Public Domain.
González was a leading Hispanic politician given to echoing the views of Anglos white supremacists on Chicanos. For many Anglo Texans the “Raza Unida” were “Castroists” and Zavala County was “Little Cuba.” González kept all the counterintelligence of Chicanos, Montejano’s own friends.
The moral of the story is clear: the Benson and the Briscoe continue to represent very different visions of the nation to this day because the archives were built by very different communities with vastly different resources. This holds true for the past and for today. And that is what needs to change.
Previously published on Medium.