For the past two decades, Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, Brown Foundation professor of Hispanic Studies and Director of Arte Público Press at
the University of Houston (UH), has been working in collaboration with researchers around the world to collect and restore thousands of historic documents written by Latinos prior to 1960. Since its inception, the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage project has aimed to provide access to rare texts that enrich our national culture and expand our breadth of knowledge on the contributions of the Latino community. Recently, Kanellos and Dr. Carolina Villarroel, Director of Research for the project, sat down with us to discuss the project’s history and its continued success.
What was your goal in choosing this topic?
Nicolás Kanellos (NK): We always knew that there was Latino cultural heritage in the U.S. We knew there were people producing newspapers. We grew up reading newspapers in Spanish. There was intellectual activity in the communities, but when you went to a library, it was not there. In all of the courses we took, Latino cultural heritage was not present. In 1990, following the example of the recovery project for 19th century African-American novels and newspapers at Harvard University, we visited Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, in order to begin to develop a model for our recovery project.
Many things came together that made this possible. First, there was a core of tenured faculty at universities around the country who were interested in working on the project. Second, many foundations had discovered Latinos. We became an area of interest to which they would provide funding. Third, the technology was finally there to be able to digitize material, to organize everything and to be able to perform searches online. This is a large technological project. The emergence of digital technology allowed us to be able to preserve the texts that our researchers had found around the world and print books based on that information.
How many texts have you recovered?
NK: We have about 500,000 digitized texts.
Are all of the texts in Spanish?
NK: No. About 90 percent of the texts are in Spanish.
How are the documents found?
NK: The materials are not located in the U.S. exclusively. They migrate. We have found great stores of texts in Amsterdam, for instance. Newspapers are very important to us. We have the largest collection of Spanish language newspapers from the U.S. in the world. We have approximately 1,400 Spanish language newspapers published before 1960. One of them was found in a street vendor’s stall in Lima, Peru, but was bound as a copy of an 1850s newspaper-magazine published in New Orleans. The documents are found all over the place.
Does someone spot an item in a shop and then call your research center?
Carolina Villarroel (CV): That’s exactly what happens. Authors’ families have donated some materials as well. We found around 70 anarchist newspapers in the Netherlands. That’s a big discovery, and it’s part of series two of our catalogue on EBSCO, an online research database. The newspapers are a part of the culture and the literature that was not known or published. So, those 70 newspapers made a huge difference.
NK: We also visit libraries and archives all the time. We find things or have targets. Small historical societies are a great resource. In Brownsville, we located a bound newspaper, and all the copies included were published in the 1870s. No one knew about it because it was not in any index. When we retrieved it, we microfilmed it and digitized it. We returned the original to the historical society, and we gave the historical society a microfilm copy for local residents to use. That’s part of our ethos – to keep the treasures in that community and make it accessible to that community.
How many researchers have worked on this project thus far?
CV: We have about 5,000 associates all over the U.S., Latin America and Europe, and even as far away as New Zealand. However, there is a core of 150 to 200 active researchers working in the Houston area. For the most part, they are professors and graduate students. They are always looking for material, and they present it to us quite often. Based on the recovered materials, researchers have published well over 40 university press books. We have a conference every two years, and we publish the best papers re-worked as articles. We are in volume nine now.
What are your current activities?
CV: We have published two databases of thousands of texts with EBSCO. We are currently creating a database of only photographs. We have around 800 photographs, and they will be easier for people to access when doing research with our information. With the database that we have right now, you can see the record, and if you want to see the picture, you can click to view the picture. Our students are working on indexing and scanning the photographs for inclusion in that database.
Discuss some of the recovered materials that have been published.
CV: We published the first truly comprehensive anthology of Hispanic literature in the United States with our materials. It’s a collection of everything that’s an integral part of the Latino community: Religious thought, history, politics, short stories and novels.
We have texts from a feminist abolitionist, women’s writings from California and Puerto Rico, and intellectuals’ writings from New York. One of the two memoirs available from women writing during the Mexican Revolution actually came to us through one of our associates. She found a granddaughter in Houston who had the collection. It was full of photographs and important letters with the most important generals of the Revolution. The family donated it to us, and we published it. Leonor Villegas de Magnón wrote the memoirs after the Revolution when she realized that women were not to be found in the histories of the Revolution. That happens all the time. She wrote her memoirs in Spanish and in English, and no one wanted to publish it. We published the English version, and then with an institution in Mexico, we published a version in Spanish. The Villegas de Magnón archive is now housed at the UH library and available through EBSCO.
Are the materials used in any classes at UH?
NK: We use them heavily in the Spanish department. Approximately 25 percent of the Ph.D. dissertations in Spanish come from this research project.
Where are the original editions located on campus?
CV: Some of the physical collections are located in the archives at UH. Eventually, everything is going to go to M.D. Anderson Library in the Special Collections.
How have the materials been used at other universities?
CV: Some scholars have published textbooks. Most of our materials have been used in classrooms. Since this material has been made accessible through databases, scholars have the opportunity to write about it and integrate it into the curriculum at their universities. As a student or professor, you have access to the libraries and databases from anywhere. That’s really exciting.
What’s the significance of the Recovery project for you personally?
NK: It means the beginning of reforming the national culture to include Latinos and their history and literature in order to have it represented in schools and in popular culture. This will show the complete vision of the United States, not an imperfect and truncated one that has been formed by prejudice, discrimination and Manifest Destiny – all the kinds of things that have eliminated minorities from the national horizon.
CV: This is my dream job. I came here as a research assistant working on my degree at UH. I started working on the project, and that changed my career because there were thousands of things I’ve never heard about before. There are endless possibilities for research. I really love research and working with the scholars. Thanks to the work that I did here as a research assistant, I was able to apply for a position with the City of Houston as an archivist. I worked there for two years with the Mexican-American and African-American collections, and then I came back to UH as the Director of Research of the recovery project. This experience has shaped my career, and my dissertation came out of materials from the recovery project. To be able to help other scholars find materials or help students find things that are unique… it’s just amazing. I love my job.
This project has changed the careers of many students who have worked with us as well. They learn how to do research. Not many universities prepare their students to be researchers. Our students leave UH with strong research skills and they know how to work with a special vocabulary that is imperative for this kind of work. They also receive training on how to see Latinos in the text, because you have to learn how to reread the material to locate the things that are overlooked all the time – women, for example. In the old days, if you looked at the newspaper, you did not see women writing. We can see it, and we teach our students about reading with gender in mind to notice the women writing in the newspapers. This project has been important for our students because they learn the skills that are valuable for their careers.