From Chiapas to Chicago

Earlier this summer, 15 graduate students spent three weeks at the Newberry for intensive training in Spanish paleography (the study of old handwriting). One of the students was Fabiola Ramírez, a PhD student who has devoted herself to redressing historical narratives that marginalize Mexico's indigenous people. We spoke with Fabiola about her work and what she experienced during her three weeks at the Newberry.

What is your current academic status? What are you studying?

Currently, I am a PhD student in Latin American Studies at Tulane University. I am interested in the interdisciplinary study of race, racism, and resistance with a focus on the history, experiences, and perspectives of Mayan people in Chiapas (Mexico) and Guatemala.

What project(s) are you currently working on?

The Latin American Library at Tulane University holds one of the most important collections on my state, Chiapas. The collection contains nearly 500 documents, spanning the early eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century. As part of my studies, I pursued an archival research practicum under the guidance of Professor Felipe Cruz where I started the creation of a catalog and a database focusing on the history of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. The aim is to facilitate the interactive search per relevant categories throughout the collection and offer online visualization and transcription for crucial materials.

Another project I am working on is a part of my MA thesis, “Reconquering Spaces: History, Politics, and Identities on Diego de Mazariegos’ Monument in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, 1978-1992,” under the direction of Professor Yuri Herrera. Using a postcolonial approach, I analyze the struggle of indigenous groups to shape public spaces in order to express their aspirations and particular vision of history.

What inspired you to do what you're currently doing at Tulane University?

I was born and grew up in rural Chiapas in southern Mexico, a place rich in cultures and natural beauty but historically languished in poverty and discontent. Soon I realized that one of the most persistent problems in my region is the racism and discrimination faced by indigenous people. The virulence of this sentiment affects every area of life.

One side of the problem is related to the fact that the majority of the population ignores its own history; sometimes, we even come to depreciate our cultural heritage because of a lack of such knowledge. Official historiography has commonly placed indigenous people below the surface of Mexican history. They have been portrayed as a part of the natural history, occasionally surfacing in the context of rebellion—not as people with a voice, as actors in history.

For this reason, I intend to utilize my academic path to struggle against this socio-historical injustice. I find myself in a nearly unique position because my mentality has remained rooted in Chiapas while being enriched with a world-class education. Thus, I know Chiapas and have the critical lenses through which to analyze its complexity. This background has shaped my research interests and urged me to contribute back to my homeland. As described above, I do see great value in discovering and re-shaping the history of Chiapas. On par with that should be the popularization of such a new history among the wider public. Spreading this knowledge could be a first step towards combating racism and social injustice.

How does paleography relate to your project? Why did you want to come to the Newberry for paleography training?

At first, I felt discouraged to interact with primary sources from certain periods due to a lack of proper training. The skills that I acquired during the training will facilitate my work on the Chiapas collection at Tulane, which will bring me closer to my broader goal of documenting the history of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. Additionally, the course provided me with the invaluable opportunity to explore Newberry’s remarkable Mexican holdings.

What did you learn from your paleography training at the Newberry?

At first glance, early forms of Spanish handwriting from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries can be very intimidating. However, continuous practice and exposure to a varied set of documents throughout this course made me feel more confident in my abilities in dealing with them. We have learned effective approaches and a set of “tricks” for reading different kinds of letterforms and the norms for doing a proper transcription. We have become familiar with the most frequent abbreviations, special signs, standard phrases and formulas, as well as the context in which documents were written. The latter is especially helpful and was emphasized in every class: it is much easier to read if you get yourself into the universe of the document and have in mind the phrases which are likely to appear. We learned that the ability to read manuscripts is acquired only as a result of actual experience studying the documents and that we are able to decipher even the messiest scrawl with time, persistence and confidence. Finally, I must say that the combination of our expert and affable teacher, Carla Rahn Phillips, and my cohort who brought very different expertise and shared it generously, made the course a very rich learning experience.

What kinds of documents did you study while practicing your paleography skills? Are there particular documents that you’re especially interested in at the Newberry?

In the classroom, we practiced reading different types of handwriting originating from a wide range of documents such as legal papers, petitions, proclamations, wills, accounts, contracts, inventories, bills of sale, bills of lading, land claims, correspondence, and other similar items.

Personally, I found the time that we spent in the Newberry’s special collections reading room to be truly invaluable. During this time, we were able to personally handle manuscripts and books and apply our recently acquired skills to actual documents related to our research or to documents that we may encounter in our field. I was very touched by the opportunity to examine the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayan people. The one safeguarded in the Newberry is the earliest surviving copy.

Another impressive artifact was Cortés’s 1524 map of Tenochtitlan that was originally published with his letters to Emperor Charles V. This map was the first image of the Aztec capital to be seen in Europe. Also, I was particularly interested in looking at examples of early forms of pictographic and visual materials made by Mexican Indigenous people, such as the Codex Zempoala, one of the most beautiful and complex colonial Mexican codices. Compiled by the Nahuas during the first half of the eighteenth century, it describes their land claims and their rights of ownership before Spanish administrators.

Also, I was able to examine documents concerning concessions and privileges granted to the Tlaxcalan Indians by the Spanish monarchs and a map of lands in the Tultepec and Jaltocán regions adjacent to the Hacienda de Santa Inés, among others. On Chiapas, I found interesting drawings and maps, specifically related to the Palenque ruins and the Lacandon region.