Personal Archives and History

This week, the University of Houston Libraries hosted the 2018 Personal Digital Archiving Conference (April 23-25). You can check out the Twitter conversations by searching for the #PDA18 hashtag or view the conference website (and presentation abstracts) here:

Hosted by the University of Houston Libraries. #PDA18 PDA is the only conference focused on the personal digital archive, including projects and presentations from both individuals and organizations. Houston, TX - April 23-25, 2018. Personal Digital Archiving Conference

April 23-25, 2017

On Monday, I presented on Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage with my colleagues, Dr. Gabriela Baeza Ventura and Dr. Carolina Villarroel. We talked about Recovery’s mission, our collections, and our developing US Latinx Digital Humanities programming. We thought this conference provided us with a great opportunity to talk about how important personal archives are for US Latinx history. (You can watch the video on our Facebook page here.)

It goes without saying that minority stories have often fallen by the wayside when writing mainstream history. There are significant gaps in our historical record and this is where personal archives come into play. Many of Recovery’s own collections have changed the way we view American history and have elaborated on the role Latinxs have played in American society and culture. For decades, scholars tried to justify the absence of Latinx authors in the US canon by claiming Latinxs did not produce literature. Yet, Recovery’s preservation efforts challenged that assumption by recovering manuscripts and Spanish-language newspapers dating back to the colonial period.  Among these texts is María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s collection, which includes two novels: Who Would Have Thought it? (1872) and The Squatter and the Don (1885). Ruiz de Burton is considered the first Mexican American woman to have published in the United States in English.


From left to right: Dr. Carolina Villarroel, Dr. Gabriela Baeza Ventura, and Dr. Lorena Gauthereau presenting at the University of Houston Libraries Personal Digital Archiving Conference on April 23, 2018.

During the presentation, I gave three examples of personal archives that we have in our collections: Leonor Villegas de Magnón, Emilio Sarabia, and Alonso S. Perales (You may remember reading about Villegas de Magnón and Perales in previous blog entries.) These collections help to deepen our understanding of the Mexican Revolution, the Houston Latinx community, and Mexican American civil rights, respectively.

Leonor Villegas de Magnón

Leonora Villegas de Magnón was a teacher, journalist, and political activist who lived on the US-Mexico border at the turn of the century. In 1910, at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, she and her family immigrated from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico to Laredo, Texas to escape the fighting. Yet, she didn’t stay away from the Revolution. Instead, she, along with Elena Arizmendi Mejia, founded La Cruz Blanca, or the Neutral White Cross, a neutral volunteer nursing corps. La Cruz Blanca provided medical attention for wounded revolutionaries, regardless of their allegiance. Villegas de Magnón turned her home into a makeshift hospital to tend to the wounded.

Leonor Villegas de Magnón on left, wearing long dark dress, crossed bullet belts, and hat, holding a rifle. Right-side of photo: Aracelito García in dark long sleeves coat and long dark skirt, facing Leonor. Between them, on horseback, holding a rifle, sits Guillermo Martinez Celis.

Leonor Villegas de Magnón, Aracelito García, and Guillermo Martínez Celis. From Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage’s Leonor Villegas de Magnón Collection

Aware of the historical significance of the women’s involvement in the Mexican Revolution,Villegas de Magnón hired a photographer to document as much as possible. After the Revolution, she wrote her memoirs in Spanish, which she titled La Rebelde. When Mexican publishers refused to publish a woman’s writing on the Revolution, she re-wrote it in English (The Rebel). Once again, her manuscript was rejected. Decades later, through the recovery efforts of our board member, Dr. Clara Lomas, we were able to locate the collection and fulfill Villegas de Magnón’s wish to publish her manuscripts with Arte Público Press both in English and in Spanish (see Archival Research: Recovering Oppressed Voices for a brief outline of the provenance of this collection.)

Emilio Sarabia

Emilio Sarabia is a Houston dentist and local historian. His collection documents the culture and impact of the Houston Mexican immigrant community.

Top: Group photo, people standing on the patio of a house in 1899. Bottom: same house in 1999. Caption at the bottm: 1520 Center Street-1999. Righthand side of image: facsimile of a letter (illegible).

From Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage’s Sarabia Collection

His family established the Azteca Theatre, the first movie theater in Houston for Spanish-language films. Sarabia’s collection documents the development of the Hispanic community in Houston and contains photographs of buildings that were significant to the community, many of which still stand today. These photographs, therefore, help to provide a cultural map of Houston.

Alonso S. Perales

Alonso S. Perales was the third Mexican American lawyer and co-founder of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). He was deeply committed to fighting for the civil rights of Mexican Americans. His collection is extensive, measuring 17 linear feet and includes photographs, correspondence, LULAC materials, books, essays, speeches, and more (see also “LULAC Council 60 Clubhouse: This Place Matters”).


Alonso S. Perales. From Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage’s Alonso S. Perales Collection

The Perales collection not only documents the creation and organization of LULAC, but also the rise of Mexican American civil rights activism in Texas during the 1930s and 1940s. Among his collection are scores of letters documenting discrimination against people of Mexican descent at restaurants, public parks, barber shops, hotels, and even schools. Recently, while I was digging through his papers at UH Special Collections, I found a heartbreaking letter addressed to Perales from James L. Collins, Commanding Major General of the US Army. In this letter, General Collins acknowledges having received Perales’ letter regarding American soldiers of Mexican descent being refused service while in uniform. Regrettably, Collins responds:

While Article 157 of the Texas Penal Code makes it an offense, punishable by a fine, for any person to discriminate against anyone because of his membership in the United States Army, or because of his wearing any Army uniform; unfortunately, in the instant case, the discrimination complained of was due to the nativity of the soldiers and not because of their being soldiers. (Feb. 8, 1941)

Perales’ collection, thus, chronicles his continuous efforts to combat discrimination in any way that was accessible to him and his community: writing letters to elected officials, publishing (and calling out) the people and establishments guilty of racial discrimination in newspapers, giving speeches on civil rights activism, and more. This personal archive fills in the gaps of US Latina/o civil rights history prior to the Chicana/o Movement in the 1960s.

Delis Negrón Poster Presentation

In addition to our panel, Recovery Graduate Research Assistant and UH Doctoral Candidate, Sylvia Fernández presented a poster on Delis Negrón, a Puerto Rican poet, journalist, and activist. Fernández presented a forthcoming digital project undertaken by the Recovery Graduate Assistants (Isis Campos, Victoria Moreno, and Annette Zapata): The Delis Negrón Digital Biography, which includes digitized photographs, postcards, correspondence, newspaper clippings, and more. This project will be hosted on Omeka and will include various interactive functions.

"Delis Negrón Digital Archive: From a Personal Archive to a Digital Project" poster, with images of letters, newspaper clippings, and photographs of Delis Negrón

Recovery RA and UH PhD Candidate, Sylvia Fernández, presented her poster, “Delis Negrón Digital Archive: From a Personal Archive to a Digital Project” at the 2018 Personal Digital Archiving Conference

 Digitizing Personal Archives

Digitizing these archives is a way to preserve the history that has been left out of history books. With growing access to open-source archiving platforms, we hope that more minority stories will begin to make their way into the public eye. We are currently working to create digital projects focused on the following individuals’ personal archives: Delis Negrón, Alonso S. Perales, and Emilio Sarabia. Keep checking our blog for updates on these digital humanities projects!

Works cited

Baeza Ventura, G., Gauthereau, L., and Villarroel, C. “Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage.” Personal Digital Archiving Conference, University of Houston Libraries, Houston, TX. Facebook. 23 April 2018.

“To Mr. Alonso S. Perales, Director General, League of Loyal Americans, From James L. Collins, Major General, U. S. Army, Headquarters Second Division, February 8, 1941.”, Alonso S. Perales Collection: The Committee of One Hundred Citizens & the League of Loyal Citizens, 1927-1954. April 2, 1934. N=76512618&site=ehost-live&ppid=divp80&lpid=divl68

Further reading:

Cutler, Leigh. Interview with Emilio Sarabia. November 3, 2004. Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. University of Houston Digital Library.

Olivas, Michael A. (ed.) In Defense of My People: Alonso S. Perales and the Development of Mexican-American Public Intellectuals. Arte Público Press, 2013.

Sarabia, Emilio A. Four Brothers. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 2015.

Villegas de Magnón, Leonor. La Rebelde. ed. Clara Lomas. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 2004.

_____. The Rebel. ed. Clara Lomas. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 1994.

Lorena Gauthereau is a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow at Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage at the University of Houston. Find her online at


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