Alliances in the Archives
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Opportunities for academic exchange between U.S. and Cuban scholars and students are few these days. Due to the American policy of isolating Cuba economically and politically, many Cuban faculty members have been denied U. S. visas to attend conferences to which they were invited to present peer-reviewed research. For United States citizens, U.S. governmental restrictions make it a crime to spend any monies in Cuba without a license from the Treasury Department, and undergraduates cannot receive licenses for short-term study or research. Nor is the Cuban government eager to issue Cuban research visas to U.S. citizens. The general panorama is discouraging.
Academic scholarship, however, relies on international encounters, and several U-M faculty have been persistent in finding ways to keep dialogue with Cuba open. For historians in particular, access to archives and the collective discussion of documents are essential to their work. A recent collaboration involving historians from five countries embodied both of these goals. In February 2005, the research practicum titled "Getting the Documents to Speak" gathered students and faculty from Cuba and abroad to study the use of historical documents—including personal letters, labor contracts, court transcripts, and military records. Over the three weeks that the practicum's participants met at the Juan Marinello Research Institute in Havana; they also pursued their own primary research in the Cuban National Archive. The goal was not to read through the documents to reach the experience or reality that lay on the other side, but rather to focus on each document itself as a material object, the product of a specific act of writing. By asking about the conditions of its production, the social networks that brought it into being, and the individuals who transformed the spoken word into writing, it becomes possible to uncover more than just the information conveyed in the text. Many of the projects that resulted from the practicum used these methodologies to cast new light on questions of slavery, colonialism, and the character of public life.
The practicum included scholars and students from Cuba, the U.S., Brazil, France, and Germany. Just as importantly, it brought university students and professors together with non-traditional students who were largely self-taught and who had developed their interest in history individually. Because of the varied backgrounds of the practicum's students and faculty, questions of nationality, race, class, and politics were present both in the documents used and in the discussions that developed among participants.
The idea for the practicum took form in 2003 when U-M history and law professor Rebecca Scott was in Cuba on a research trip. Over coffee with a Cuban friend, a self-educated used-book seller who is deeply knowledgeable about Cuban history, Scott shared the syllabus of a U-M graduate seminar on using primary documents that she had co-taught with Prof. Jean Hébrard of the École des Hautes Études in Paris. It was a bittersweet moment. The bookseller commented that the course certainly looked very interesting, but he regretted that he would never be able to participate in such a seminar. Talking with Cuban, Brazilian, French, and German colleagues over the next months, Scott came up with the idea of bringing a variant of that same seminar to Havana, building it around the work of many faculty and organizing it in close conjunction with the Cuban National Archive and the lively Juan Marinello Research Institute.
A month before the practicum was to begin, it still had not received formal approval from Cuban authorities, and there was concern that it could be cancelled. But the proponents of the project, including the bold director of the Cuban center that would host it, prevailed. When the 32 participants finally sat down together on the first day of the session, the director welcomed them by saying that here they could speak "as if they were in their own homes." Everyone listened a little harder.
Packing the research room of the National Archive the next morning, students, some of whom had never before worked in an archive, dug into files, tried to make out nineteenth-century handwriting and unconventional spellings, and marveled at surprise discoveries. For the foreign students, working in the archives alongside Cuban students provided a rare chance to collaborate on research. It is one thing to dive into a foreign archive and hope to make sense of it on your own, but quite another to mention to a Cuban scholar the name of an individual whose letters you are reading, only to be told of that individual's infamous reputation. And it is exhilarating to present the results of your research and discover that half the people in the room are bursting with opinions about the historical figures in question.
Cuba is exciting, but it is not an easy place to be a researcher. Take Cubans out to lunch, and they'll lean in close to the restaurant table to tell you about a colleague who faced professional setbacks because she facilitated too much foreign interchange, or lament the difficulty of publishing historical work that conflicts strongly with national narratives. Moreover, serious scarcity weighs on daily life in Havana and even a student from the U.S. on a low budget is painfully conscious of how unequal access to resources affects her Cuban colleagues.
The difficulties, however, made the event seem all the more valuable. When queried after it was over, one Cuban undergraduate who joined the practicum as part of her work on her thesis appreciated the opportunity to hear such different views all in one room and to meet many of the scholars whose work she had read. Another student, the same bookseller who had been the impetus for creating the course, was surprised at how participatory the sessions were. He commented that at first he had planned just to sit in the back and observe, but that once he saw that it was possible to pose questions and offer alternative interpretations, he really got involved. A third student, who had worked for years as a librarian in Cuban archives, reported that the practicum gave her valuable training on new ways of using documents. A Cuban professor noted that it was engaging to see the mix of perspectives in the room—from micro-history, to French cultural history, to an approach grounded in Cuban nationalism and Marxist theory.
The practicum provided young Cuban scholars, many of whom face great challenges in realizing their professional aspirations, with the opportunity to participate in international academic dialogue. For the foreign students, it was a chance to do primary-source research among colleagues intensely interested in one's findings. Ultimately, the unique aspect of the conference was neither the cultural exchange nor the academic work, but the way that these two built on each other: people connected over their shared interest in the historical material, debated interpretations, and helped frame each others' questions. Scholars from different countries and divergent backgrounds came together to make sense of how people in the past dealt with questions of rights, nationalism, and freedom. In so doing, they also explored those same challenges in their personal and shared experiences.
Shira Levine was a participant in the practicum in Havana, which was supported by funds from the U-M Office of Vice-President for Research, the Rackham Graduate School, the Advanced Study Center of the International Institute, the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program, the Honors Program, the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, and the Department of History. In May 2005, Levine completed a B.A. in History and Latin American and Caribbean Studies. She is currently teaching bi-lingual elementary school in New York City.