Mexican Scholars Lament the Loss of Writers’ Archives to U.S.


Guillermo Sheridan had a bitter smile as he scrolled down the list of acquisitions by Princeton University: The papers of Carlos Fuentes, Miguel Angel Asturias, Julio Cortazar, Elena Garro--even a lesser known Mexican poet named Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano.

“We Mexicans always sell our raw materials,” he remarked acidly, stopping at Ortiz’s name on his computer screen. “Coffee, copper--and this.”

Sheridan is among a number of Latin American intellectuals pained by what they see is the wholesale appropriation of their literary patrimony by U.S. libraries and universities. Many, if not most, of the manuscripts, letters and archives of contemporary Latin American writers have come to be housed in the United States, where even critics of the trend acknowledge that better conditions exist to preserve the works.


Princeton University’s premier collection also includes papers from such South American and Caribbean writers as Reinaldo Arenas, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda. The University of Texas at Austin owns an important archive of Argentine writer Jose Luis Borges, as well as materials from Isabel Allende of Chile and from Fuentes. And a number of other U.S. universities have important collections. (Fuentes’ agent declined a request for an interview with the author.)

By contrast, despite a rich literary tradition, Mexico must be content with only a handful of major archives. Its holdings of primary sources related to 20th century literature are especially small.

The situation is due partly to a shortfall of funding for libraries in Latin America. And in the U.S., expensive climate control and fire suppression systems and stable oversight help ensure that documents will be protected.

“People have become indignant that things seem to always end up in the U.S.,” said Anthony Stanton, a native of England and a Mexican citizen who is a professor at Colegio de Mexico here. “But we should ask ourselves why conditions don’t exist in Mexico to keep them.”

Peter Johnson, bibliographer for Spain and Portugal at Princeton University, put it more bluntly: “You can’t have troops coming in and burning half your archive, or insects crunching through the paper.”

Unlike famous works of art or archeological relics, which have broad appeal, literary manuscripts, letters and papers are treasured mainly by a small number of scholars. But they also represent the artifacts of one of the most important artistic contributions Latin America has made--its literary canon.


Dispute Involves Papers of Octavio Paz

The issue surged to prominence last month after the Mexican newspaper Reforma broke news of a dispute over the papers of the late Octavio Paz, the nation’s revered poet and social critic. The controversy involved disagreement over who should possess his large archive--his widow or the foundation created in his name.

Such disputes are not unusual. But in this case, it was exacerbated by the worry among some scholars that Paz’s papers will be purchased by a wealthy U.S. library. The attempted sale of a Paz manuscript at auction for $35,000 underscored the fears.

Media reports bemoaned the inability of Mexican libraries to compete. The transfer of other literary works was scrutinized anew. For example, the daughter of Paz and Garro, his first wife, used the occasion to bring up the issue of her mother’s papers. In an interview in Reforma that epitomized the more extreme views here surrounding literary works, she labeled the dealers who purchased Garro’s papers “bandits” and called on Mexican President Vicente Fox to demand their return.

Paz’s second wife, Marie Jose Paz, did not return phone calls. But she has been quoted in newspapers as saying she hasn’t decided what to do with her husband’s archive.

Sheridan, meanwhile, presides over a dark, crumbling mansion that was supposed to be both the Paz Foundation library and a new center for Latin American manuscripts. As of now, it has not a single book or paper. Feral cats stalk through the gardens. A security guard sleeps in a foyer.

Chain-smoking in his small office, Sheridan declined to talk in detail about the Paz dispute. But he was withering on the subject of Latin American papers in U.S. libraries, where scholars enjoy marvelous service in air-conditioned comfort and “give themselves the option once in a while to read Latin American literature.”


“Borges used to say the Koran is so Islamic, there are no candles in it,” Sheridan said. “Mexican literature is like that. It is not like Mexican art. It does not say, ‘Look how Mexicans are here! Here are banditos, tortillas!’ It is free from foreign expectations and scales of value. . . . The great deposit of true experience Mexico has of its own soul lies in its poetry.”

All the more unfair, he added bitterly, that “in this new world, it is subject to globalization.”

Such objections are familiar to some American bibliographers and dealers.

“I run into it when I deal with Russians and Latin Americans,” said John Wronoski, a prominent dealer in Latin American works and owner of Lame Duck Books in Boston. “Depressed economic conditions put these countries at a disadvantage. They resent the gringos coming in and raping the land.”

Librarians and dealers in the U.S. say most collections date back years, and they deny rumors circulating in Mexico of fierce competition to buy writers’ complete archives. Prices are also lower than often supposed, they say. Wronoski said archives of known writers generally sell for between $100,000 to $1 million.

However, odd pieces of correspondence and manuscripts are a different matter. “There is an ever-growing interest” among private collectors, Wronoski said. As an example, he cited half a dozen pages of Garcia Marquez typescript that he bought about eight years ago for $10,000. He sold them recently for more than $20,000.

Despite deep national pride and a dynamic literary culture, Latin American nations have a number of intellectuals who, if not exactly pleased, are resigned to losing archives to the north.


Oscar Arriola Navarrete, coordinator of the library at Colegio de Mexico, said concerns over the issue hark back to another time, before the Internet rendered the physical location of documents irrelevant. Nowadays, he said. “it’s all about free transmission of information.”

There are also those who dismiss the patrimony argument altogether.

“The writers are not national treasures, much less the papers,” said Julio Ortega, a Peruvian professor of Latin American literature at Brown University. “They were usually outcasts, or on the margins, or politically condemned. . . . To say they are national treasures is to consecrate them as totemic figures of the state.”

But to literary figures such as Sheridan, the current state of affairs is humiliating: “Can you imagine if [U.S. poet] Wallace Stevens’ papers were in a Mexican university?”

The differing views reflect larger trends as Mexico seeks a new relationship with the world, said Tom Morin, director of Latin American Studies at the University of Rhode Island. “The struggle to open up to the world and maintain a sense of national dignity and pride is creating an ambivalent situation for many people,” he said.

To Princeton’s Johnson, preservation is an imperative that eclipses other concerns. “How do we ensure creativity and genius will influence future generations?” he asked. “Someone’s got to shell out the money.”

But he and other American archivists sympathize with cultural patrimony questions.

“Ideally it would be great if these great writers and their materials are kept in their countries,” said Scott Van Jacob, Latin American studies librarian at Notre Dame.


Paz Foundation’s Fate Is Unresolved

For now, the fate of the Paz foundation is unresolved, and efforts to buy back collections lost to the U.S., as some Mexican intellectuals advocate, seem unlikely to materialize soon.

Moreover, many of the same conditions that in the past made it difficult to establish manuscript collections in Latin America still exist. The National Autonomous University of Mexico, for example, an important repository of primary historical material, was shut down by a nearly 10-month strike.

In fact, the very political, social and economic instability that has worked against the preservation of documents has helped make Latin American literature “unquestionably the most interesting literature in the world” in the last half-century, said Wronoski, the dealer.

Latin American writers, he said, “draw on creative sources that have dried up in the rest of the world.”