Grant Will Fund Study and Preservation of Important Indigenous Archives in Michoacán
Matthew Butler, an associate professor in the Department of History and LLILAS affiliated faculty, has received an Endangered Archives Programme grant of $66,000 to support a project titled “Conserving Indigenous Memories of Land Privatisation in Mexico: Michoacán’s Libros de Hijuelas, 1719–1929.” The grant is funded by Arcadia and administered by the British Library; it will be managed by LLILAS Benson in collaboration with a Mexican partner institution, CIESAS–Mexico City.
Along with the project’s archival partner, the Archivo General e Histórico del Poder Ejecutivo de Michoacán (AGHPEM, Michoacán’s state archive), Butler will oversee the digitization of 192 “deed books,” or libros de hijuelas, that record the state-wide privatization of indigenous lands in nineteenth-century Michoacán, Mexico. Fellow historians Antonio Escobar Ohmstede (CIESAS), Cecilia Bautista García (Universidad Michaocana de San Nicolás Hidalgo, UMSNH), and Brian Stauffer (UT Austin, Texas General Land Office), will collaborate with Butler on the project.
The significance of this project is twofold. First and foremost, the libros de hijuelas are an endangered archive. The collection consists of 192 leather-bound books, which contain documents dating back to 1719. These have been stored in an under-resourced state facility, where they are exposed to insect and rodent infestation, sunlight, dampness, and possible theft. Second, this collection is of immense importance to historians, indigenous communities, and others, because it provides a trove of materials that, if better studied, could shed light on the poorly understood privatization of indigenous lands in Mexico, which has deep implications for indigenous identity and rights.
According to Butler, it is still not really known how indigenous people experienced the reparto, or “redistribution,” of their lands by the newly formed Mexican Republic “Was it ethnocide, or ethnogenesis? The hijuelas promise historians valuable insights into a major agrarian/economic transformation and a deeper understanding of changes in indigenous notions of property, agricultural practice, ethnic rule, and identity. Additionally, the hijuelas are important for comparative scholarship and for indigenous scholarship and activism today.”
Another unique aspect of this collection is that Michoacán was one of the few Mexican states in which the complete set of documents having to do with the reparto were gathered and preserved. The documents, the majority of them hand-written, include legal acts, cadastral surveys, village censuses, hand‐tinted maps, and letters, many of the latter written by indigenous michoacanos. As Butler points out, Michoacán was the seat of the indigenous Purépecha empire, as well as an imperial borderland for other indigenous groups such as the Otomí, Mazahua, Matzatlinca, and Nahua. Thus, the documents serve as a record of multiple “indigenous negotiation strategies with the mestizo state.” “In brief,” says Butler, they are “an essential source for writing the history of indigenous Mexico.”
Collaboration and the Post-Custodial Archive Model
This project involves collaboration among several institutions: AGHPEM, the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo (UMSNH), LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, CIESAS–Mexico City, and the British Library. As Butler explains, four young historians in Morelia, Michoacán, will be trained in digitization techniques by LLILAS Benson staff, and over the course of two years, “create a scholarly, pedagogic, and patrimonial digital resource for researchers, students, and Michoacán’s five indigenous groups.”
The project complements existing LLILAS Benson initiatives in the area of post-custodial archives, a model in which vulnerable archives are kept in their place of origin, and their custodians are given the tools and training to digitize and describe them, in order to make the archives available to scholars worldwide. LLILAS Benson has been a pioneer in implementing post-custodial archives methodologies with partners in Latin America.
History professor Virginia Garrard-Burnett, who has just begun her term as director of LLILAS Benson, heralds the project as being among the first of several new initiatives funded by major grants that highlight digital humanities and collaborative research between The University of Texas and leading Mexican academic institutions. “The preservation of endangered and fragile archives is a key priority of LLILAS Benson post-custodial initiatives, and this project offers an excellent example of why this sort of preservation is so important,” said Garrard-Burnett.
In the photograph (L–R): Lic. Víctor Manuel Pérez, AGHPEM Director; Matthew Butler, UT Austin; Lic. Ulisés Romero Hernández, Director of Archives, Michoacán State Government; Cecilia Bautista García, UMSNH