Transnational Archival Research in the Americas, Part II, by David Carey Jr.

Gretchen Pierce's picture

I am pleased to continue David Carey Jr.’s two-part series on archival research in Guatemala, Peru, and the United States. If you missed part one, please click here. Carey Jr. is Doehler Chair in History at Loyola University. In addition to writing more than thirty peer-reviewed articles and essays, he is the author of I Ask for Justice: Maya Women, Dictators, and Crime in Guatemala, 1898-1944, which was the co-recipient of the 2015 Latin American Studies Association Bryce Wood Book Award. His most recent book is Oral History in Latin America: Unlocking the Spoken Archive. He has authored three other books and has edited or co-edited three volumes. Among other entities, the Fulbright, American Philosophical Association, and John Simon Guggenhiem Foundation have supported his research and scholarship. Entitled “Entangled Epidemics: Race, Politics, and Public Health in Guatemala and Ecuador, 1900-1950,” his current project is a transnational analysis of the relationship between public health campaigns and indígenas as well as the tensions between scientific medicine and well-established indigenous health practices.

Transnational Archival Research in the Americas, Part II

For Latin American historians interested in transnational research on medicine, philanthropy, agriculture, and a host of other topics, the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York, provides an excellent launching pad. Founded in 1913 with money from the Standard Oil Company, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) established relations throughout the Americas for much of the twentieth century by sending representatives to work in Latin America and the Caribbean and by sponsoring Latin American scientists and intellectuals to expand their expertise in the United States. For historians of medicine, the Museo de Medicina in Quito, Ecuador offers a plethora of sources (archival, material, and visual) for the twentieth century. Those interested in earlier centuries can consult the Archivo Nacional located across the park. For historians of Central America, the Archivo General de Centroamérica (AGCA) in Guatemala City has a catalogued collection of materials for the colonial period. Access to the national period continues to grow as archivists work with the materials to develop finding guides. Fortunately, much of the material related to Guatemala City’s hospitals and the nation’s public health is indexed digitally (though few of the documents have been). This post will provide a brief introduction to each of these repositories to suggest how their otherwise discrete relationships to each other sometimes intertwined in ways that provided a strong foundation for transnational analysis.

Having never visited let alone conducted research in Ecuador, I was delighted to learn of the Museo de Medicina. Dr. Rocio Bedón and Dr. Antonio Crespo, who both work at the archive, were particularly helpful in orienting my study. Dr. Crespo provided an excellent overview of the materials and how other scholars interested in medicine had used them. Dr. Bedón introduced me to the Sanidad collection of documents on my first visit and suggested I also peruse the Asistencia Pública documents on my second visit. The digitized index for both collections helped me to locate correspondence between public health officials, medical professionals, municipal authorities, and international experts and voyeurs. Although largely muted in the Sanidad collection, indígenas emerge with a strong voice in the Asistencia Pública collection particularly in correspondence between officials who oversaw the hacienda system fueled by huasipungeros or indigenous laborers and residents. With such a rich, accessible fount of archival material at the Museo de Medicina, I limited my research at the Archivo Nacional de Ecuador, though their documents dating to the colonial period described public health conditions, hospitals, and medicine.

Although Guatemala does not boast an archive dedicated to medicine, the AGCA offers a rich repository of material for the colonial and postcolonial periods. Twentieth-century correspondence between the Director of the General Hospital in Guatemala City, indigenous patients and family members, municipal mayors and doctors, dictators, police chiefs, military surgeons, and prison wardens all open a window to how access to health care denoted power relations and ethnic and class privileges. Since the legajos (bundles) are thick and seldom organized, the AGCA’s limit of ten requests per day rarely was constraining. While I was there in 2019, certain materials were restricted, namely legajos containing information about the United States Public Health Service syphilis experiments from 1946 to 1948. In separate rooms, the AGCA holds Annual Reports from the Government (Gobernación) that contained sections on public health and the Ministry of Health (after 1932). Boletines Sanitarios de Guatemala (running from 1927-1945) are available in a small room off the front entrance. Those sources provide insights into government-sanctioned public health campaigns. Sadly, the brilliant and talented historian and archivist Ana Carla Ericastilla who most recently served as the Director of the AGCA was dismissed for political reasons in 2019. 

A number of valuable archives are located on the back side of the AGCA building in the Biblioteca Nacional, which looks onto the parque central in the capital. La Hemeroteca Nacional de Guatemala holds newspapers ranging from the government’s voice Diario de Centroamérica to specialized periodicals like Revista de Cruz Roja and La Gaceta de Policia (which has a surprising number of articles about health care and the pursuit of unlicensed practitioners). The collection of libros antiguos in what is essentially the attic of this grand building has medical theses and pamphlets from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and photographs from the twentieth century.

A few blocks from the AGCA, the Archive and library of the Academia de Geografía e Historia de Guatemala (AGHG) also has some excellent sources for historians of medicine. Among the gems are the Boletín Sanitario de Guatemala, Revista Militar, Revista Agricola, and some of the Government and Public Health Memorias that are missing from the AGCA. With its wide desks and two archivists sharing the research room, the AGHG is a lovely place to work.

For historians of medicine, the Biblioteca of the Ministerio de Salud (some twelve blocks from the AGCA) has nearly a full run of Memorias de Sanidad as well as some other individual twentieth-century public health publications.

A sharp contrast from the urban archives in Quito and Guatemala City, the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC) sits on a sloping hillside in one of the Rockefeller family homes. Well organized and particularly well preserved, the documents reveal the story of RF in Latin America. For my purposes, I focused on public health projects in Guatemala and Ecuador during the first half of the twentieth century. In addition to correspondence about hookworm, malaria, and yellow fever eradication projects, the materials also include photographs. Well endowed, RAC is spacious, comfortable, offers a snack room, and hosts catered lunches on Tuesdays so researchers can share their projects and consult with archivists about them.

In many ways, RAC served as the hub for the transnational research since it contained archival material about both Guatemala and Ecuador. But it had little information about indígenas. Difficult as indigenous voices were to access in archives penned, organized, and maintained by Hispanics in part to capture the unitary power of modern medicine, conducting research in two countries with large indigenous populations meant their erasure from archives is not possible. Triangulating Guatemalan, Ecuadorian, and RF archives revealed far more about how officials sought to manage indígenas and public health than any individual archive could.

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