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Finding Community and the Importance of Representation: Junior Fellows 2020 and the PALABRA Archive

(The following are guest posts by Hispanic Division Junior Fellows Herman Luis Chavez and Allison Booher.)

Bolivia. Central Intelligence Agency, 2006. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

As a first generation American from Bolivia, my experience in the U.S. has been defined by a lack of familiarity: little representation, few established communities, and a yearning to keep cultural memories alive. My feelings of displacement from Bolivia have been accentuated by my experiences in academia and research institutions in the U.S., where I’ve often struggled to find recognition of Bolivian culture and creativity.

Listening to Bolivian poet and novelist Fernando Ortiz Sanz for the first time was almost a religious experience for me.

As a Junior Fellow with the Library of Congress, I immediately began to familiarize myself with the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape —soon to be renamed the PALABRA Archive—as this repository was to be the center of my project for the Hispanic Division. I was pleasantly surprised to find recordings of Bolivian authors online; I had almost expected the country to be overlooked, given my previous academic experiences in music and literature. As I listened to the recordings, this line from Sanz’ “Meditación del mediodía: El destino del escritor” struck me:

“Tu estabas lejos. En mundos desconocidos, en mi alma desconocida, en mi desconicodo dolor. Ahora, mi corazon sombrío como la muerte, ha renacido en ti.”

[You were far. In unfamiliar worlds, in my unfamiliar soul, in my unfamiliar pain. Now, my heart, somber like death, has been reborn in you.]

As I sat in my office chair, Sanz’ deep and rhythmic voice was a resounding memory of the lull of church ceremonies in my youth, sitting next to my grandmother in stone pews in the middle of the humid summers. Yet, his words also spoke to my experience in the United States. I felt that Bolivia and I had become unfamiliar to one another, but, while acknowledging this apparent loss, I looked forward to being– in a sense –reborn through the relationship I could establish with Bolivian creativity.

To me, this is the power of the PALABRA Archive. The preservation of Sanz’ work in his own voice allowed me to have an important moment of self-reflection, to form a deeply personal relationship to a piece of literature from my family’s country that I could only encounter in this specific archive. While PALABRA features many recordings by Nobel Laureates and other famous authors, it also provides access to recordings from lesser-known Luso-Hispanic authors, not only in Spanish, Portuguese, and English, but in many other languages as well. By continuing to add recordings from all over the Luso-Hispanic world, we can help ensure that the Library’s PALABRA Archive contains a diverse array of voices for posterity.

My Junior Fellows’ project culminated in an informational how-to guide that I designed and wrote in English and Spanish providing directions for making recordings for the archive. The guide will be made available so that writers can record remotely and then send their recordings to the Hispanic Division to include in the PALABRA Archive. By detailing all of the necessary steps and materials for this process, the archive will become increasingly diverse, because writers will not be required to travel to Washington, D.C. or meet with Hispanic Division curators to contribute to the growing repository of recordings.

“Tu voz me llamaba desde la profundidad de mi sangre, desde la sabiduria de mis antepasados que conicieron a la vida y el dolor, y ahora duermen en paz.”

[Your voice called for me from the depth of my blood, from the wisdom of my ancestors who understood life and pain, and now sleep in peace.]

Sanz’ words remind me of the importance of representation and of making off-site recordings accessible: the recorded voices may help those of us who feel apart from our countries forge a closer relationship with our heritage. [Herman Luis Chavez]

Watch a webcast of Herman talking about his Junior Fellows’ project.


WHEN I imagined the commute to my internship as a Junior Fellow at the Library of Congress, I saw myself taking the Metro to the Jefferson Building and greeting my coworkers as I arrived at the office. Instead, I head down the stairs to my dining room table, where my dad and I work and attend our respective meetings throughout the day. Instead of taking lunch on the National Mall, I sit on my front porch, or maybe go for a walk down the road to admire the Ohio corn fields.

Booher’s illustration depicts several of the major modern Indigenous language families throughout the region (represented by gold circles). These families have a rich diversity of distinct languages, such as Mayan, which boasts over 6 million current speakers and approximately 30 individually recognized languages (depicted by blue arrows).

Despite the unexpected pivot in the Junior Fellows program, my summer with the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress has been a wonderful time of professional enrichment and growth. Working with the PALABRA Archive on an initiative to feature the rich multitude of Indigenous voices reading from their works, I processed and catalogued recordings of 12 Maya writers from the state of Chiapas, Mexico. While creating a transcription packet for each recording, I heard the writers describe the intimate relationship with their culture that they cultivated through writing in their Indigenous languages.

Each writer overcame steep barriers to their literary success, defying the limitations of assimilation, colonization, and racism towards Indigenous peoples. Tseltal poet Adriana del Carmen López Sántiz grew up speaking her language, but she only learned to write Tseltal as an adult in order to publish her poetry. Tsotsil poet Andres López Diaz invokes the resilience of the polytheistic Maya religion throughout his work. Tsotsil writer Cristina Pérez Martinez muses over themes of femininity, gender, and sexuality in Maya communities. Today, the Maya literary community in Chiapas flourishes as a result of their art and activism.

Chiapas. Atlas Mexicano. México, Debray Suc’s, c1884-86. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C. 20540

The project allowed me to dive deeper into my own passion for Indigenous languages, which began with my personal and academic involvement in Central America. As a Latin American Studies major at Vanderbilt University, I had the opportunity to spend two years learning K’iche’ Mayan, an indigenous language spoken in the highlands of Guatemala. Through my study of Maya history and interaction with K’iche’ peers and tutors in this course, I developed a heart for Indigenous rights and cultural preservation. Spending this summer learning from the experiences of the Maya writers in Chiapas and broadening my understanding of different Indigenous perspectives throughout the region has been incredibly rewarding.

There is a common misconception, a byproduct of colonial practice, that the different linguistic groups within the Maya family are dialects, rather than distinct languages. Although I was able to recognize Maya morphology within individual written words, my knowledge of K’iche’ was not enough to understand spoken or written Tsotsil, Tseltal, or Tojolab’al—the languages of PALABRA’s featured writers. Currently, there are more than thirty spoken Mayan languages and six million speakers throughout Mesoamerica, and Mexico recognizes eight within their territory.

Path through field in Ohio. LC-DIG-highsm-41729. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540.

Several Mexican organizations and institutions have formed over the past several decades to foster a more inclusive society for Maya peoples, including the Centro Estatal de de Lenguas Arte y Literatura Indigenas (State Center for Indigenous Languages, Art, and Literature) (CELALI) and the Universidad Intercultural de Chiapas (Intercultural University of Chiapas) (UNICH). Over the course of its history, CELALI has published 150 titles, books and anthologies of the works of Maya poets and writers, including those featured through my project. Through consistent efforts to revitalize native language and culture, there is hope and momentum for a new generation of Indigenous distinction. I am thankful to have been able to work—albeit virtually—with the PALABRA Archive and my mentors and colleagues in the Hispanic Division to bolster this force for Indigenous writers throughout Latin America. [Allison Booher]

Watch a webcast of Allison talking about her Junior Fellows’ project:

Read here about the Library’s Junior Fellows Program.

Meet all the 2020 LC Junior Fellows and read about their wide-ranging virtual explorations of the LOC collections:

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