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Highlighting Kluge Scholars: An Interview With Armando Chávez-Rivera

This is another post in our series “Highlighting Kluge Scholars.”

Armando Chávez-Rivera is Associate Professor and Director of the Spanish Program at the University of Houston-Victoria, Texas, and a Scholar in Residence at the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. He earned a master’s degree in Hispanic Lexicography at the Royal Spanish Academy and University of León, Spain and a PhD in Hispanic literature from the University of Arizona. He is a corresponding member of the North American Academy of the Spanish Language.

First, can you summarize your project here for someone with no familiarity?

My research here is primarily on Cuban culture, its literature and lexicography, as well as the island’s relationship with the Caribbean, the United States, and Europe.

The Economic Society of Friends of the Country of Havana supported the project of the first inventory of Cuban voices prepared conjointly by prominent intellectuals in 1830. Credit: Armando Chávez-Rivera

My focus is on the 1790-1850 time period, when the native-born people on the island consolidated their sense of culture, identity, and the distinct links between the urban environment of Havana, the tropical landscapes, and the island’s agricultural prosperity. Some writers expressed their ideas eloquently through diverse literary genres and others through scientific works. It was the time of awakening consciousness of national identity and a search for greater visibility in the world in the middle of political and economic restrictions imposed by the colonial power centered in Spain.

Several works from that time were only partially studied, were never published, or were missing. Others were ignored due to difficulties in transcribing or translating them.

Others were disregarded because their authors were foreigners; or modest, but refined, functionaries; or just very well-informed people who wrote without seeking celebrity. My research in the manuscript collections attempts to discover these unheard voices to help understand what Cuba and the Caribbean were like during that time of scientific expeditions, ambitious commercial initiatives, and political conflicts. Many of these people were compelling cosmopolitan personalities in their own right.

I do not intend to locate those lost pages just for the pleasure of treasuring them or to keep score of the number of documents found. My investigation tries to understand the contemporaneity of that specific time period from those yellow, brittle, and almost illegible folios. It is the work of looking for answers to questions that are still valid, such as how the values and distinctive behaviors of a society were formed, what situations impacted national development, and what strategies were employed to promote public education and the foundation of public institutions. I try to comprehend the accurate and the fictitious images that Cuba used to create itself into a nation over two centuries ago.

What first attracted you to your field of study?

The work in the archives and its special collections of documents was, and is, very demanding, due to the long hours and the uncertainty of success. However, it provides a large volume of information and opens new domains of knowledge. There are works and authors who were ignored due to economic, political, and editorial impediments, or due to prejudices of social class, race, and gender. I aim to rescue these ignored voices so we have the most complete image of the times and so we expand the historical debate.

In particular, I am attracted by the neoclassical and romantic soul of several of the intellectuals from nineteenth century Cuba: their ambition for knowledge, their contributions in various fields, and their desire to provide information to a wide network of readers in other nations and languages. They led extremely stressful lives due to political circumstances, but maintained a creative drive. They worked with the conviction that their thoughts and accomplishments were the foundation of a nation.

Documents and manuscripts from private collections in Havana were used by foreign writers, historians, and scientists as reference for writing essays on the colonial Caribbean during the 19th century. Image of the glossary of “terms in common use in Cuba” published by Irish-born British diplomat Richard Robert Madden in London (1840). Credit: Armando Chávez-Rivera

In what ways have you found Library collections useful in your project?

The Library of Congress is a real paradise for a researcher. Here, I have read documents and books that I never encountered in other libraries in the United States or in Europe. There are publications that no longer exist in the countries where they were originally printed.

I have located documents at the Library that allow me to reconstruct the daily and intimate relations between writers, the circulation of unpublished works, the exchange of diverse political information, and the close links between authors, editors, and booksellers. This was a time when cultural and literary life depended on correspondence, the itineraries of intercontinental ships, the will of the patrons and private library owners, and was contingent on censorship, proscriptions, and conspiracies.

Can you tell me something you’ve found in your research that you found particularly interesting or surprising?

I am currently researching an intellectual community and its projects that were destroyed by censorship, exile, and dispersion. In short, it is the story of an exceptional library in Havana; how it was created and then broken apart, thus ceasing to be used for the enrichment of the young nation. Its books and treasures were scattered. It is a story of the nineteenth century and its lasting consequences. I located many documents that are necessary to the understanding of the flow of information from North America, Europe, and Spanish-America to Cuba at the beginning of the 19th century.

I discovered books and manuscripts that were passed from hand to hand, and were read and discussed by figures that are now legendary. Those documents and their authors had to leave the island when Spanish colonial repression increased.

In addition, during my time in the John W. Kluge Center, I completed a project on a manuscript that is valuable to the history of lexical inventories in Spanish America. It is the first written record of typical Spanish voices on the island of Cuba, as well as indigenous Caribbean words. This document has philological, cultural, and symbolic qualities. It is the first record of a Spanish language variant in the American hemisphere developed jointly by intellectuals in their community, Havana, in 1830.

Cuban intellectuals maintained close relationships with European and North American writers, philologists, and editors during the 1830s and 1840s. They acquired valuable books from well-known and influential booksellers and bibliophiles such as Vicente Salvá. Credit: Armando Chávez-Rivera

I appreciate the support and facilities provided by the Kluge Center that allow me access to these exceptional sources. The book was submitted to a publishing house and has been accepted for publication. This research will have a lasting contribution and the Kluge Center has had a decisive role in its culmination. My thanks to the John W. Kluge Center, its team, and the Library of Congress.

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