Panel 7: Emerging Latin American Literary Treasures (2015)

Panelists: Hortensia Calvo, Tulane University
José Montelongo, University of Texas, Austin
M. Alejandra Plaza, Universidad Torcuato di Tella

Rapporteur: Brenda Salem, University of Pittsburgh

The panel, which had 21 attendees, dealt with the acquisition and/or discovery of literary collections at three different institutions that have proved to be highly valuable and even controversial. Each panelist discussed how their collection was acquired and why it is valuable to the study of Latin American literature.

The first presentation, titled, “Cartas de Lysi: Unpublished Letters from Sor Juana’s Mentor, María Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga” was given by Hortensia Calvo, the Executive Director of SALALM and the Doris Stone Librarian and Director of the Latin American Library at Tulane University.

The presentation dealt with the discovery of two previously unpublished handwritten letters by María Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga (1649-1729) in The Latin American Library’s manuscript collections.  A Virreine of Mexico and Grandee of Spain, María Luisa Manrique de Lara is best known in the literary world as the friend and mentor of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a towering figure in the Spanish language.  The letters, which deal with a wide variety of topics, shed light into the daily lives of women from an elite social class in early modern Spanish America.  They also give a somewhat clearer picture of the life of María Luisa Manrique de Lara herself, of which not much is known.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this finding is that one of the letters contains a personal account of Manrique de Lara’s friendship with Sor Juana.  Calvo and her co-author, Beatriz Colombi, a professor of literature at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, have co-authored a book about the letters titled Cartas de Lysi: la mecenas de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz en correspondencia inédita (Madrid: Iberoamericana-Vervuert; Mexico:  Bonilla Artigas Editores, 2015).

The letters were discovered in the Viceregal and Ecclesiastical Mexican Collection (VEMC), among the earliest manuscript collections acquired at Tulane’s Latin American Library.  The collection is made up of 3,000 folders with mostly dispatches from viceroys, the Real Audiencia, and ecclesiastical administrative centers.  It covers the years 1534-1919, with a majority of documents from the late colonial period. For more information, there is an extensive introduction by Michael Polushin on the Latin American Library’s website (  The collection was acquired by the Latin American Library in 1932. The bundle, or legajo in which the two letters by Maria Louisa were found contains 95 pieces of correspondence, mostly official reports written by Mexican Viceroys and other members of the Spanish nobility but a few are personal, covering the years 1589-1820.

Calvo talked about the reasons why these letters were not identified until now.  One of the reasons is that while the rest of the VEMC has been extensively cataloged and described, the legajo containing the letters bear only very basic descriptions.  Also, the handwriting is very difficult to read so it would have been difficult to immediately ascertain the contents of the letter.  Moreover, the subject of interest to literary historians, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who is referred to as “una monja jerónima," is not mentioned until page 12 of the longest letter.  Most of all, at the time the letters were acquired, women’s studies and the study of Baroque aesthetics were not a focus of interest.  Also, the name of María Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga was not very recognizable at the time.  Interest in the Baroque only came about with the Generation of ’27 in Spain.  Calvo feels that this case of two documents that were preserved but sat in an archive without being discovered for such a long time teaches us about the forces that shape archives and how archival organizations play a very important role in shaping the production of knowledge.

Calvo went on to give an overview of the content of the letters.  The two letters contain a total of 23 handwritten pages.  The earliest is dated December 30, 1682 and is addressed to María de Guadalupe de Lencastre, Duchess of Aveiro, a cousin of María Luisa residing in Spain, who was a formidable person in her own right.  Calvo gave a brief background on the Duchess of Aveiro and mentioned that the book contains a biography of her.  It is in this letter that María Luisa mentions Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  The second letter, dated July 29, 1685 is a shorter, more hastily-written letter addressed to Maria Luisa's father, Vespasiano Gonzaga, Duke of Guastalla, who lived in Madrid.  The letters are very personal in nature and give a glimpse into María Luisa’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions of the New World.  She also wrote details of domestic life in the palace.  Her views of Indian life are paternalistic in tone, but differ from those of many of her contemporaries in that they convey a positive view of natives.  Calvo read the passage in the letter in which María Luisa describes in wonder the circumstances and “supernatural” intelligence of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  María Luisa would often visit Sor Juana and Calvo posits that Sor Juana, who wrote in Nahuatl and was familiar with the local culture, could have served as a bridge for María Luisa to the local customs of the native population.  Another remarkable aspect of the letter is that the personal information María Luisa gives about the Mexican nun is quite similar to the biographical information written by the Jesuit Diego Calleja that appears in Fama y obras póstumas (first published in 1700) and to autobiographical information written by Sor Juana herself in “Respuesta a Sor Filotea.”  The passage in the Latin American Library’s letter establishes María Luisa, in her role as Sor Juana’s patron and promoter, as someone helping to bring about the narrative of her life as it has come to be known today and shows that even while Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was still alive, an early version of her public persona was already taking shape.

Calvo concluded by saying that the letters give a clearer picture of the figure of María Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga, and shed light on her much-speculated relationship with the famous writer Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  The letters show that Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga was literate, intellectually curious, and with a sense of humor.  It would not have been surprising to see that these characteristics would have been compatible with those of the highly intelligent and intellectual Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

The second presentation was titled, “The Controversy over the Gabriel García Márquez Archive” and was given by José Montelongo, the Mexican Materials Bibliographer at the University of Texas, Austin.  Montelongo opened the presentation by talking about the 2015 Feria Internacional del Libro de Bogotá, whose official featured country was the fictional town of Macondo from Gabriel García Marquez’s “100 Years of Solitude.”  He described the book fair’s wildly popular pavilion, which paid tribute to the late Colombian author.  He used this description to show just how admired and revered García Marquez is in his native Colombia and why there was such shock several months before in November 2014 when it was announced in the New York Times that his archive would be housed at the University of Texas, Austin, in the United States.  The shock was such that Consuelo Gaytan, the head of the National Library of Colombia was questioned on national television about why García Marquez’s collection was “lost” to the American university.  Having been caught unaware by the announcement, news outlets were trying desperately to find answers regarding the acquisition.  The purpose of Montelongo’s presentation, therefore, was to recount a talk he gave with UT professor Gabriela Polit as guest speakers at the 2015 Feria Internacional del Libro de Bogotá to which they had been invited to answer the question of why Garcia Marquez’s archive went to the University of Texas, Austin.

He began by explaining that UT Austin had been committed to Latin American studies well before there was a possibility of acquiring García Marquez’s archive.  The university has over 150 faculty members that engage with Latin American in their research, by traveling to Latin America, publishing along with their Latin American peers, and bringing some of their students to Latin America.  In fact, many students from all over the United States and the rest of the world choose to attend UT Austin precisely because of its strong focus on Latin American studies.  Moreover, the library has been acquiring Latin American materials for its Benson Latin American Collection for almost 100 years and the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (formerly the Institute of Latin American Studies) has been dedicated to the study of Latin America for almost 80 years.  The University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center, where the collection is now housed, has collections from authors whose works García Marquez counted among his influences, such as James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Virginia Wolfe.  Montelongo felt that García Marquez would have been honored to have his work housed alongside of the work of those authors he admired.  He would have liked to have started the talk by outlining the contents of the collection, which he had a chance to see, but the collection’s monetary value was addressed first.  As a public institution, the University of Texas was required by law to disclose the cost of the collection, but the head of the Harry Ransom Center petitioned the state attorney to be exempt from having to disclose the price because it was felt that disclosure would negatively affect UT in future negotiations in comparison to private institutions, which are not required to disclose the prices of their acquisitions.  However, the petition was denied and in February of 2015 the price of the collection was revealed to have been 2.2 million dollars.  While it is considered less expensive compared to the known prices of other famous collections, Montelongo emphasized that the price of a collection takes into consideration many factors such as the size and completeness of a collection as well as its importance to history.

Montelongo also revealed that there was no auction.  Instead, there was an exclusive negotiation between the University of Texas and García Marquez’s family.  The sale of the García Marquez archive by the late author’s family to UT Austin was not simply motivated by money.  It was also a matter of entrusting their family member’s legacy to an institution with the experience and the continuous financial support to take good care of it for many years to come.  Moreover, it was a matter of leaving the collection to an institution that is relatively shielded from political turmoil, unlike many institutions in Latin America.  Montelongo addressed the sentiment expressed by many, such as García Marquez biographer Gerald Martin, that the late author’s archives shouldn’t be housed in a country where he was banned from entering for many years.  Montelongo maintained that García Marquez’s relationship to the United States had changed over the years.  By the 1990s, he had been invited to meet with President Bill Clinton and dine with him at the White House.  In fact, he had personal ties to the United States.  In the early 2000’s, he went to Los Angeles for cancer treatment and it was there that he finished his memoir “Vivir Para Contarla.”  Currently, his son is living in California, where he produces movies and TV shows.

While there are many good reasons why the archive went to UT Austin, Montelongo acknowledges that there are many perspectives on the acquistion.  Things might look different to people like the head of the Colombian National Library, who has to answer questions about why García Marquez’s archive didn’t end up in his native country and to Colombian researchers who will have to take on the complications of leaving the country to study their own fellow countryman.  Things might also look different from the perspective of a Latin American librarian working in the United States with collections from his or her native country.  The reaction of the public can be seen on the Internet in comments to online news articles about the acquisition.  Many have said that the collection should have been put up for international auction and that García Marquez’s family had no right to sell the archive to UT Austin without giving Colombia a chance to make an offer.  Montelongo feels that indeed, the Colombian government might have been willing to offer more money than the amount that UT Austin paid, had they been given the chance, and that the collection would have been well taken care of in Colombia.

Montelongo related an article written in the El Universal newspaper by a literary critic who has done research in both Mexico and the United States.  In this article, both the Harry Ransom Center and Princeton’s own Firestone Library are mentioned as having excellent archival collections that are very valuable to literary critics.  This critic laments that while Mexico invests money in culture and celebrates its national literary figures, it does not have an institution with the funding to properly house and preserve its national literary heritage the way that Princeton and UT Austin do.

Montelongo then mentioned that at the end of October, UT Austin will be celebrating the acquisition of the García Marquez collection with a symposium co-sponsored by LLILAS-Benson and the Harry Ransom Center.  Among the speakers at the symposium will be Salman Rushdie, Elena Poniatowska, and also numerous Colombian writers, academics, and government officials. There are also plans to digitize part of the collection.

Montelongo concluded by saying that at UT Austin they understand how desirable it would be for Latin America to develop its own abilities and resources to house and preserve its literary heritage in the countries where they were created.

The third presentation, titled “La Colección ‘J.J. Hernández – J. Bianco’ en la Biblioteca de la Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, Argentina” was given in Spanish by M. Alejandra Plaza, the director of the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella Library.  It dealt with the J.J. Hernández – J. Bianco Collection at the Torcuato Di Tella University Library in Argentina.  She started by giving a brief description of the Torcuato Di Tella University, a private university of about 5,000 students that has been around for only 25 years. Its library, housed in a single building, focuses on social sciences, humanities, as well as on the other fields of study at the university.  It began as the library for the Institutio Torcuato Di Tella, which was founded in 1958, so the library, which has become valued within Argentina and Latin America, is older than the university it serves.

In 2008, the heirs of Argentinian author Juan José Hernández approached the university about donating his personal library to the Torcuato Di Tella library.  Being the personal library of a writer, its main focus was on literature and contained the complete run of the literary journal Sur, which was, as far as it was known the time, one of the most valuable parts of the collection.  At the time, there was no library director so the collection was appraised by two professors from their history department.  By the time Plaza stepped in as library director, the donation had been completed.  Plaza gave some background on Juan José Hernández, a poet, writer, and translator who was from the Tucumán province.  She also listed some of his more well-known works.

The 3500 items in the collection consist mostly of books and periodical issues.  Even though the library was short-staffed and had no director, it accepted the donation anyway.  The two professors, Karina Galperín, who specializes in literature and Fernando Rocchi, who specializes in history, appraised the collection in its original location in Buenos Aires and found it to be valuable, but in retrospect, they didn’t realize just how valuable it was.  The collection arrived at the Torcuato Di Tella Library in boxes in 2008 but it wasn’t until 2010 that they were able to process it.  As the collection was being processed, some of the collection’s treasures began to emerge.  Not only did the collection contain the complete run of the literary journal Sur, the issues had hand-written marginalia and annotations by its editor José Bianco.  Among the treasures in the collection was a copy from a small 1968 print run of a French translation of “Historias de cronopios y de famas” by Julio Cortazar.  In it, there is an inscription dedicated to José Bianco written by the author.  Plaza and the staff who processed the collection came to realize that Jose Bianco also had a large part in the formation of the collection and that this personal library was in fact, a library that was built over time by both Hernández and Bianco.  José Bianco, was a writer, essayist, translator, and as previously mentioned, the editor of the literary journal Sur.  Plaza also listed some of his more well-known works.  The collection not only contains an excellent selection of literary works that reflect the two authors’ areas of interest, these works are fully annotated with their comments that Plaza likened to a dialog with the books. Moreover, 250-300 of the books have inscriptions written on them by various well-known contemporary authors such as Victoria Ocampo and Carlos Fuentes.  This shows that while Juan José Hernández and José Bianco may not have been the best known authors in Latin America or even within Argentina, they were respected and held in high regard by their more famous contemporaries.  Plaza went over the timeline of the processing of the collection, which was renamed the “Juan José Hernández-José Bianco” Collection in 2010.  In 2011, they received a grant from the Programa para Bibliotecas y Archivos Latinoamericanos (PLALA) to process the collection.  From 2011-2012, the inscriptions were digitized and in 2013, conservation work was done on the most deteriorated books.  From 2014-2015, the collection was cataloged and made available in their online catalog.  Plaza demonstrated slides of some of the digitized book inscriptions as well as examples of the annotations that are found in many of the books.  In light of the Brazilian theme of the conference, Plaza mentioned another valuable item in the collection, which is a copy of a memoir titled “Orgia” by Argentinian author Túlio Carella that was published in Brazil.  Previously, the printing of this book had been considered a myth because no copies had ever been found. Plaza briefly mentioned three researchers of note who have extensively used the collection for their research.  She also listed the names of the people who worked at different times on the various aspects of processing the collection.  Out of the seven people who worked on it, 3 were permanent library staff and the rest were hired specifically for the processing of the collection.  Part of the funding came from the PLALA grant and the rest came from the Torcuato Di Tella University.  Plaza concluded by thanking PLALA for their funding, Karina Galperín and Fernando Rocchi for assessing the collection, and Ernesto Montequin, a librarian at Villa Ocampo, for helping to identify inscriptions and annotations.

During the question and answer session, Diana Restrepo (Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango) expressed her concern regarding the acquisition of the García Marquez archive by UT Austin.  She felt that García Marquez’s family should have considered other Colombian institutions that could have housed the collection and have kept in mind the accessibility of the collection by the Colombian people.  She also took the time to highlight her institution’s important literary collections, particularly two recent acquisitions that came from outside the country.

Hortensia Calvo (Tulane University) turned to José Montelongo (University of Texas, Austin) and commented that in his presentation, he seemed to imply that García Marquez’s family didn’t want to offer the archive to Colombia.  Montelongo explained that the family approached the Harry Ransom Center while García Marquez’s was still alive.  While it did not seem that the writer was opposed to the idea of his archive being entrusted to UT Austin, ultimately it was the decision of his widow and children.  Montelongo reitirated that the collection would have been well taken care of and made accessible in a Colombian or Mexican institution.  He also seemed to think that his family would have gotten more money by selling his archive to a Colombian institution or even to another institution in the United States, which made him come to the conclusion that the decision was not solely based on money.  While money counts for a lot and motivates a lot of authors who made an intermittent living as freelancers, in the case of García Marquez’s family, there other reasons and motivations for trusting UT Austin over Latin American institutions.

Calvo expressed her appreciation for Montelongo’s presentation, considering how controversial a topic he was covering.  As a Colombian, she understands the conflict that comes with being from Latin America working with Latin American collections in the United States.  She also complimented him on the way he conveyed Colombia’s admiration for the late author by describing the scene at the Bogotá book fair.  Montelongo explained that this topic has been discussed informally among SALALM members and is a sort of “elephant in the room,” so he felt that it was something that needed to be discussed more formally and openly.  He wanted to emphasize that “trust” meant not just trusting the political stability of an institution’s country, but also trust that a collection will have reliable and continuous source of funding to preserve it for years to come.