How the University of Houston is working to recover, preserve, and archive U.S. Latinx literature
AL DÍA spoke with Houston University’s Dr. Lorena Gauthereau about “Recovery,” and her effort to find more Latinx stories from U.S. history.
There is a rich collection of Latinx literature that has been written throughout U.S. history.
Sometimes these texts are bestsellers, but they are often hidden, and nowhere near a bookstore.
When searching out this literature, a hurdle presents itself, as much is unpreserved or unheard of. It falls on human eyes and hands to locate and preserve these texts.
Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, also known simply as “Recovery,” is an international program set on locating, preserving, and disseminating Hispanic culture of the United States.
Based in Houston, Texas, the project has succeeded in compiling a comprehensive bibliography of books, manuscripts, book pamphlets, and ephemera produced by Latino/as. The project has located and recovered thousands of archival items.
It also houses a microfilm collection of approximately 1,400 historical newspapers, hundreds of thousands of microfilmed and digitized items, a collection of photographs, a hefty authority list, and personal papers.
“Recovery” has published or reprinted over 40 historical books, two anthologies, and nine volumes of research articles. The project also takes part in organizing a biennial international conference.
Transcriptions happen with the intention to remain as true to the original documents as possible. This includes spelling variations. Samples of the project’s digital collections can be found here.
Many dedicated people work on the “Recovery” project, including Dr. Lorena Gauthereau.
She is the Digital Programs Manager for the U.S. Latino Digital Humanities (USLDH) program at the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage (“Recovery”) program, which is housed at Arte Público Press at the University of Houston.
Other personnel include Brown Foundation Director of Research for “Recovery” Carolina Villarroel, Founder of Arte Público Press Nicolás Kanellos, PhD, and Gabriela Baeza Ventura, who acts as Executive Editor of Arte Público Press.
Arte Público Press launched the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Program in 1992.
The program is the first nationally coordinated attempt to recover, index and publish lost Latinx writings that date from the American colonial period through the 1980s.
Gauthereau’s job is to research archival materials, such as books, newspapers, microfilm, and photographs that pertain to U.S. Latinx culture and heritage. She then works with the "Recovery" team of researchers and students to preserve the materials and create digital projects with them.
Beyond her work with “Recovery,” Gauthereau is also a lecturer at the University of Houston, and does work for the Center for Mexican American Studies at the university.
She grew up in the small city of Eagle Pass, Texas. Even though it borders the Mexican city of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, the setting limited Gauthereau’s exposure to Latinx history.
No bookstore was even established in Eagle Pass until Gauthereau was a teenager.
In an interview with AL DÍA, Gauthereau shared some thoughts on the lack of Latinx history and literature shared with her as a child.
“I wish I had been exposed to more Latino literature growing up,” she said. “I can imagine how amazing it would have been to see myself reflected, even in children’s literature, growing up.”
Instead, she settled for novel series like The Baby-Sitter’s Club.
“But none of the girls were Latina. I can just imagine how excited I would’ve been if I could’ve seen myself represented in that way,” said Gauthereau.
When she finished her undergraduate studies at Rice University, she was unsure what move to make next. The young graduate considered an array of possibilities from law school to graduate school studying English literature, comparative literature, Latin American and U.S. literature.
Her thought process shifted when she found Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza, a book by Gloria E. Anzaldúa, at a local bookstore.
The book unlocked a passion for Latinx history and border stories within the young Gauthereau.
“I’m originally from the border,” said Dr. Gauthereau. “I hadn’t really read anything about the border… life on the border. So, to me, it was just really surprising that someone had actually written about and published that experience.”
It also captured her own experience between two worlds, culturally and linguistically.
“The experience of speaking Spanglish all the time, having this culture that is very bicultural and binational, that doesn't really translate to anywhere else. It’s a unique experience to grow up on the border,” said Gauthereau.
Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera influenced her to pursue a Ph.D. in Mexican American Literature. The text also helped Gauthereau realize a world of written, recorded Latinx history to be recovered.
“I finally felt represented in literature,” she said. “That really kinda solidified for me that I wanted to go back to school… focus on chicano studies and do more with border literature — in order to really learn about it, but also to teach other people about it.”
In realizing her own story in one she read, she could now do the same for her own students and others that have felt left out of the story.
“Many of these students haven’t really seen themselves represented. I’ll still talk to a few of my friends from high school. We’ve had conversations; [wondered] what kind of participation we would’ve had if we actually felt ourselves represented,” said Gauthereau.
Offering diverse representation in literature — especially children’s literature — may enhance a young person’s interaction with reading. Portrayals of Latinx people and other marginalized groups in literature give perspective and voice, in addition to representation, to younger readers.
“I can just imagine if we had an entire curriculum that incorporated literature that actually represented us. We would’ve engaged with the literature a lot more, and seen ourselves as part of the United States cultural narrative,” she said.
After graduating, Gauthereau would spend eight years at Rice University before going to the University of Houston in 2017. She became the digital programs manager for “Recovery” in August 2019.
The biggest issue — when it comes to this specific Latinx history — is that much of it is unpreserved or repressed.
It’s not until community members bring them to the attention of the "Recovery" team, led by Carolina Villarroel, that they ever see the light of day.
“Talking to the people that own the collections is really important because they can give context,” said Gauthereau. “If it’s something belonging to their parents or grandparents, they can tell you a little bit more about the context of the item.”
For her work, Dr. Gauthereau has become one of only 15 fellows from across the country to be awarded the Rare Book School Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship for Diversity, Inclusion & Cultural Heritage. It’s what brought her to Houston in 2017.
“It’s really exciting to find these things, to look through them, and to make them more available because they’re not part of the U.S. historical record,” said Gauthereau. “They’re histories that have been locked out.”
There is a thin barrier between the histories contained in these recovered materials and the possibility of those materials never being reaching the public. Without the work that USLDH does, such a barrier may never be broken, forcing these histories to stay lost.
“[When] recovering these stories, recognizing that there’s this incredible survival… you also recognize how important the Latino community has been to the development of history in the United States,” she said.
While Gauthereau’s work is a vital component of the USLDH’s beating heart, she is not alone in the process.
The program has approximately five thousand affiliated scholars, librarians and archivists. A full list of the faculty, staff, research assistants, grantees, interns and volunteers who have worked on the project’s digital collections can be found here.
“It gives you a different window into what the bigger picture is… It’s about educating our children, educating our community, in ways culturally reflecting the lived realities of the community,” said Gauthereau.
The recovering and preservation of Latinx literature and histories empowers communities by bringing invaluable attention to lives once lived, but not publicly recorded. The ability to be heard and preserved grants a sense of identity.
“I’ve combined all these interests in a way that is authentic to who I am,” said Gauthereau. “I can be unapologetically chicano, from the border, and share that with people.”