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Intern Cecilia Contreras Discusses Her Work with Law Library Special Collections

The following is a guest post by Cecilia Contreras, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress.

Request letter addressed to several school directors in Chihuahua in 1853. Photo by Geraldine Dávila González.

As an intern with the Digital Resources Division through the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities National Internship Program (HNIP), I was given the opportunity to work with a collection of miscellaneous legal documents from 15th-19th century Spain and Latin America. The collection, which consists of 5,300+ documents, is comprised of an assortment of items, including testimonies, marriage license requests, baptism records, wills and testaments, cases, and even letters concerning debt payment. A number of these documents are written in Cortesana, a handwriting style used in 16th and 17th century Spain, and make for some exceptionally beautiful pieces. In all, the collection holds a plethora of information just waiting to be explored, and, as luck would have it, I have had the chance to delve into the collection by providing metadata and preparing said documents for conservation. It has been, without a doubt, a wonderful experience.

During my time perusing through the collection, I have come across a few interesting treasures that make for quite a read. One of the items I stumbled upon provides a detailed testimony concerning the scandalous affair of an unwed couple in Michoacán during the year 1835. Another told of a priest under investigation by the archbishop of his diocese for the possession of “anti-Catholic” literature in mid-19th century Mexico. Clearly, these fascinating stories are worthy of closer examination.

While the set of documents I explore in this post do not necessarily rise to the level of scandal, what lies within them gives insight into a period far from our own. They tell of the established government of early 1850s Chihuahua and of the inner workings of Mexican society at the time. One document within the set is a letter [see image above] addressed to a few of the school directors throughout Chihuahua requesting that they submit a comprehensive summary of their institutions’ “educational establishments” to the síndico, or local government official. It could be surmised that the letter was an attempt by the government to standardize education throughout Chihuahua. Below is an edited transcription of the letter:

El Síndico del Ecsmo. [Excelentísimo] Ayuntamiento de este lugar que subscribe la presente ha recibido orden de S.E. [Su Excelencia] para vertirle informe sobre los establecimientos de educación primaria que constan, de ambos lados, sin fondos, personas que las Sirven, dotaciones que disfrutan, y ramos de enseñanza de dichos establecimientos.

Para cumplir debidamente esta dispocicion [disposición] acatando la Suprema Circular del 11 de Mayo, he se merecer a VV.eds [Vuestras Mercedes] como se las suplico, se sirvan remitirme el día de mañana una noticia que comprenda todos los punto relativos, bajo el concepto que inscribiendo sus nombres en esta ecsitativa [excitativa] quedarán enteradas de su contenido.

Tengo la honra de presentarles las cordiales protesta se mi aprecio y consideración.

Dios y L. [Libertad] Cha [Chihuahua] Julio 10 de 1853

Miguel de Villalva

[Transcription of document done in collaboration with Francisco Macías and Rubén Ruiz Cortés of the Iberia/Rio Office of the African, Latin American & Western European Division and Gustavo Guerra of the Law Library].

Pamphlet describing school curriculum in 1851 Chihuahua. Photo by Geraldine Dávila González

In response to the letter, one of the addressees, Felipe López López, submitted a pamphlet of his school’s primary and secondary education curriculum. The document delineates the courses provided in each educational program by gender. For the most part, the courses for both boys and girls were quite similar. All students in primary school were to take elementary arithmetic, spelling, writing, and a course in Christian doctrine. Once the children moved onto secondary school, they took courses in grammar, French, geography, drawing, and commercial arithmetic. One of the main differences in curriculum was that while girls were taking a course in needle working, the boys were taking a different class each day of the week in natural history, local and general history, literature, mythology, and moral and urban stories. Moreover, as secondary school students, the boys were also taught bookkeeping. The differences did not end there. For the girls, their time in school came to an end after their secondary courses were complete. The boys, on the other hand, took up courses in English, arithmetic reasoning, geometry, algebra, geodesy, linear drawing, painting, and logic.

Another noteworthy detail provided by the pamphlet is that such an education came at a cost. In order for parents to send their children to school, they paid a fee of six pesos for primary school, eight pesos for secondary school, and twelve pesos for the tercera clase for the boys. Furthermore, all children who were to attend classes at this institution were required to wear clean clothes. Essentially, what can be made of the information this small pamphlet provides is that Chihuahuan educational institutions at the time were not places of equal opportunity. It is with these details that we as readers can understand that families of low socioeconomic status would not have had the means to pay for their children’s schooling nor have the ability to purchase something as simple as soap while also paying for education. Also, one can deduce that the restrictions on a young girl’s education was a result of the social conventions of the time.

As my experience with this unique collection has taught me, documents such as these provide us with a means to interpret the events of the past and acquaint ourselves with the lives of others. It is for this reason that I have found working with these pieces to be so personally fulfilling. The very idea that my contributions will one day bring these documents to others is a gift unlike anything I have known thus far in my early career. This collection is a treasure trove of stories waiting to be discovered and my hope is that future readers will someday know of the joy I experienced studying these little wonders.

12 Comments

  1. Patricia Malin
    December 17, 2019 at 5:22 am

    It is a sheer joy to read these segments produced by the Library of Congress.
    The writer of this segment has a passion for what she does and allows the reader to appreciate our past. Thank you.

  2. JESSICA RODRIGUEZ
    December 17, 2019 at 10:42 am

    The Library of Congress has given us a small glimpse of what our history was like at that time, but it also has sparked a curiosity for more information. The writer Cecilia Contreras put a personal connection in this work which makes it a labor of love and in result brings the reader closer to the literature.

  3. Vanessa Alvarado
    December 17, 2019 at 1:17 pm

    Wonderful work! So proud of you and how hard you are working!

  4. JESSICA RODRIGUEZ
    December 17, 2019 at 1:33 pm

    I am so proud to be called your mother but I know it’s all your sacrifice and hard work that has got you where you are at now. I am blessed and honored to have you as my daughter. I love you so much and I miss you so much. Si se puede y sigue le duro.

  5. Ethan
    December 17, 2019 at 1:41 pm

    What an amazing project by a promising young scholar!

  6. Yolanda Flores
    December 17, 2019 at 3:47 pm

    Exceptional work!! So proud of you. Congratulations!!!!
    Love Yolie

  7. Michele Canela
    December 17, 2019 at 4:22 pm

    CONGRATULATIONS Cecilia!!!!
    I know you are making your mother proud and as a Latina woman, I am excited to see what your future holds. ¡¡¡Échale Ganas!!!

  8. Jenn
    December 17, 2019 at 4:40 pm

    Such an interesting project! So proud of you! Keep up the good work!

  9. Veronica
    December 18, 2019 at 1:35 pm

    What a heartfelt written article.The author poignantly underscores triggers the intersection of history and Latin American culture in an approachable manner …thought provoking read!

  10. Tia
    December 18, 2019 at 7:54 pm

    So proud of you Ceci! What an awesome opportunity to explore and express yourself. Keep doing great things!

  11. Cassandra Contreras
    December 18, 2019 at 10:31 pm

    I think it is so important that you have devoted your time to best accurately interpret and share Spanish and Latin American history. Thank you for your contribution to not only the Library of Congress but to future education and resources.

  12. Sonia
    December 18, 2019 at 10:39 pm

    We are so proud of you. Your efforts are being paid forward and all of your time will lead to further success. I wish you the best for your future. With so much love, Nana and Tata.

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