Yesterday (February 7, 2018), Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage/Arte Público Press hosted University of Houston Professor Leandra Zarnow’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) class “Issues in Feminist Research.”
Dr. Villarroel speaks with Dr. Zarnow’s WGSS class about archival documents.
Professor Zarnow invited Recovery’s Director of Research, Dr. Carolina Villarroel, our Graduate Research Fellow and University of Houston Ph.D. candidate, Sylvia Fernández, and me to speak with the class about the importance of minority archives, intersectionality in our own research, archival research methodology, and the digital humanities.
It’s always a treat when I have the opportunity to nerd out about minority archives! Archival research is a bit of a treasure hunt—you can’t always go into it with the expectations of finding something very specific. More often than not, you need to go into in with an open mind and just let the archive lead the way.
The Archival Case of Leonor Villegas de Magnon
Leonor Villegas de Magnón and Aracelito Garcia with flag of La Cruz Blanca, 1914. From Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage’s Leonor Villegas de Magnón Collection
Sometimes, as Villarroel told the class, big projects can lead you across the world and back. Take the case of Leonor Villegas de Magnon’s manuscript, La Rebelde (The Rebel): Dr. Clara Lomas (Colorado College) was reading archival newspapers when she came across an excerpt of an unknown, unpublished memoir. In order to find out more about the author and the memoir, she had to locate the full newspaper. The newspaper wasn’t digitized, so Lomas had to travel to the archive that held the entire run of the newspaper—it was in the Netherlands! Her transatlantic trip yielded results, as she discovered the the name of the author: Leonor Villegas de Magnón. This led Lomas to Laredo, Texas. There, she learned that Villegas de Magnón’s family now lived in Houston, Texas. The manuscript and a large collection of photographs from the Mexican Revolution had been passed down three generations of Leonors. Publishers originally rejected the manuscript for the mere reason that the author was a woman (not to mention one writing about the Revolution). In 1994, Recovery/Arte Público Press made Villegas de Magnón’s dream of publishing her memoir a reality and published The Rebel (Villegas de Magnón’s own translation). A few years later, Recovery/Arte Público Press published the Spanish version, La Rebelde.
Of course, not all archival research will lead you across the globe, especially as more more archives are digitizing their collections. However, not all knowledge is considered “archivable” or important, so often minority collections are sitting in someone’s abuelita‘s attic. And sometimes minority collections that do make it to universities and cultural institutions, aren’t always indexed and women’s archives are sometimes “hidden” under their father’s or husband’s name.
Archival Research: Where to Start?
There are so many ways to start an archival project. One great way is to read historical newspapers and see what pops out at you. Try reading entire newspaper issues. Many times old newspapers published serialized novels in this way. You may have heard that Charles Dickens published his novels in this fashion, but did you know that the many Latina/o authors published their works in the Spanish-language press this way, too? For example, Daniel Venegas published Las aventuras de Don Chipote (The Adventures of Don Chipote). Every graduate student dreams of discovering some new, never-before-seen manuscript and producing groundbreaking work. Using minority archives is perfect way to do that! With such a vast collection of newspaper, manuscripts, letters, diaries, photographs and more, Recovery’s archives offer scholars the opportunity to write about something that no one else has ever written about or researched! Not to mention the fact that much of the history contained in the archive has been silenced and written out of mainstream history.
Recovered archival documents written by Latinas on display during WGSS Issues in Feminist Research class (Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage collections)
If you’re working with digitzed newspapers in a database with OCR capabilities (Optical Character Recognition), then you can create a list of keywords and search for them across various newspapers. Don’t forget to look at the advertisements! They can provide some insight into daily life. As someone who does literary research, I like to start with historical novels and use archival documents to enrich our understanding of a certain time period, movement, etc.
Manuscripts, diaries, and letters are another place to start your research. Don’t be put off by handwriting! It take a little while to get comfortable reading handwritten documents, but the more you do it, the easier it gets (especially if you’re working with the same author). With social media, you can always enlist the help of an online community in deciphering messy handwriting!
Archives and Digital Humanities
Digital tools offer new ways to approach your research findings. They can help you create visual representations of author networks (that you may have discovered reading correspondence), you can map the trajectory of characters in a novel or the movement of authors, you can find old and new photographs of places mentioned in a memoir, and more. Remember that digital projects don’t necessarily solve any problems, they allow you to represent parts of your research or act as research tools for other scholars. As an example of a digital project, Sylvia Fernández showed the class the project she developed with Maira E. Álvarez, Borderlands Archive Cartography (BAC). This project came out of their research interests in border studies, newspapers, and Hispanic literature. (You can read more about BAC in Fernández’s blog post, “Borderlands Archives Cartography: The First Digital U.S.-Mexico Borderlands Newspapers Archive“).
There are many user-friendly software platforms available for free that you can use to develop your own digital humanities projects (Visit our DH Resources page for a sample list). And no, you don’t need to know how to code! The best way to launch into a project is to just do it. Fiddle with the software and learn as you go. Dr. Jeremy Boggs (Head of Research and Development in the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia Library), who visited UH last month as part of our Digital Humanities & Social Justice speaker series, strongly encouraged people to just play around with the different digital tools available and develop rapid prototypes to see if you like the way your project is turning out. You can always switch to a different platform if you decide you don’t like it.
Digitization and digital tools are just another avenue for preserving historical documents and conducting (as well as displaying) research. The most important take away is that the more we research and produce scholarship (traditional or digital) on minority archives, the more we are able to give voice to silenced histories and enrich the understanding of our past and present.
Celebration with the General Múzquiz Chávez Band. Jul 17, 1914 (Leonor seated at left side of boxcar door). From Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage’s Leonor Villegas de Magnón Collection
Lazo, Rodrigo. “Migrant Archives.” States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies, edited by Russ Castronovo and Susan Kay Gillman, 2009, pp. 38–72.
Pérez, Emma. “Queering the Borderlands: The Challenges of Excavating the Invisible and Unheard.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 24, no. 2/3, 2003, pp. 122–31, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3347351.
Spiro, Lisa. “Getting Started in the Digital Humanities.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities
, 14 Oct. 2011, https://digitalscholarship.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/getting-started-in-the-digital-humanities/
Villegas de Magnón, Leonor. La Rebelde. ed. Clara Lomas. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 2004.
Villegas de Magnón, Leonor. 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 https://lorenagauthereau.wordpress.com.