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Intern Stephanie Crespo Méndez Discusses Her Work with Rare Hispanic Legal Documents

The following is a guest post by Stephanie Crespo Méndez, an Intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress.

During my time as a Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities National Internship Program (HACU HNIP) intern at the Law Library this fall, I was granted the opportunity to work with the Spanish Legal Documents collection and the Miscellaneous Hispanic Documents collection. The Spanish Legal Document collection, which I spent most of my internship working on, contains microfilmed, print, and manuscript documents from Spain. They originate from the 15th through the 19th centuries, and are in Spanish, Catalán, Galician, Latin, Italian and French. Royal decrees, papal bulls, legal opinions, judgments and royal orders are among the large variety of statutes contained in this collection.

My work on this collection began with the creation of PDF derivatives that represent the individual documents that will be made accessible to the public. Mostly I  reviewed and created metadata for the collection, which meant I identified specific information about the documents, like language, jurisdiction, and date, to assist cataloging. It was challenging, but my knowledge of Spanish and Latin enabled me to interpret the documents and advance the project. This project resulted in the creation of almost 2,500 unique documents and over 12,500 metadata elements.

After working with the Spanish Legal Documents collection, I worked on the Miscellaneous Hispanic Documents collection, which consists of mostly manuscripts from 15th – 19th centuries and from throughout Latin America.  In this project, I came across 66 documents that originated from Puerto Rico, from around 1812. Most of them had been signed by the governor of Puerto Rico at the time, Salvador Meléndez Bruna. The documents range from ordinances and other local statutes to orders directly from Spain. They all seemed to be copies sent to the municipality of Cabo Rojo, a city on the southwest corner of the island.

I was very excited when I made this discovery since the documents came from my homeland and were addressed to a municipality that is merely 30 minutes away from my home. Reading about the way the island was governed from a primary source, such as this, was a surreal experience most people do not get to have. Knowing I was working with papers that were in Governor Meléndez’s hands at some point in history was incredible.  It is an experience I will always cherish.

As I read through the documents, I found a lot of interesting things. I recall reading one of them that was based on awarding unoccupied lands to families for them to use for dwelling and crop cultivation. I also found one that referred to the collection of taxes, and it specifically mentioned the cities of Mayagüez (which is home to the University of Puerto Rico – Mayagüez, where I am currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree), Aguadilla, and Ponce. The collection also includes documents about education, and how land should be divided between agriculture and livestock.

The most interesting document I found was an eight-page booklet dating back to July 27, 1813.  It specified certain laws that had to be observed for the foundation of a city in Puerto Rico to take place.  At the time, Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony. Each law had a brief description as well as a more in-depth explanation. There were laws for everything, from choosing viable locations for the foundation of a city to dividing the land for families that planned on settling in them. According to some of the laws in the booklet, the city had to be near a river for easy access to water, near a main port, and there could not be any building closer than 300 steps from the walls that protected the city. Discoveries like these were some of the most exciting parts of my internship, and I can’t wait to see what other documents may surface later once the project is completed.

Pages from booklet that specifies certain laws that had to be complied with for the foundation of a city in Puerto Rico in July 27, 1813; Miscellaneous Hispanic Documents.

Pages from booklet that specifies certain laws that had to be complied with for the foundation of a city in Puerto Rico in July 27, 1813; Miscellaneous Hispanic Documents. Photo by Stephanie Crespo Méndez.

Royal Order authorizing the religious order of San Agustín not to lodge soldiers in its monasteries [Ca. 1703]; Spanish Legal Documents.

Royal Order authorizing the religious order of San Agustín not to lodge soldiers in its monasteries [Ca. 1703]; Spanish Legal Documents. Photo by Stephanie Crespo Méndez.

One Comment

  1. Juan Mendez
    January 24, 2019 at 4:55 pm

    Thank you Stephanie for sharing these documents and information about our island’s history. I completely agree with you that this is interesting and exciting information for us to look at, practically firsthand, concerning the history of Puerto Rico. Many people feel history can be boring but seeing it in front of our eyes the way you are presenting it, and imagining the time and the people living it, it is anything but. Thank you once again for the wonderful glimpse you’ve given us into our past. We truly appreciate it. Wish you the best in your endeavors.

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