Students of Cuba flock to UM’s Cuban Heritage Collection

Scholars of Cuba are finding a treasure trove at the University of Miami library, Tania Valdemoro Longest reports for the Miami Herald.

Rachel Hynson is in a race against time. A doctoral student from the University of North Carolina, she has just three months to comb through a mountain of books, newspapers and magazines published in Cuba between the 1960s and 1970s.

She is in the beginning phases of research for her dissertation on 20th century Cuban history. And the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection is a mandatory stop in her quest.

“I have to cast a really wide net to find patterns,” said Hynson, 28, who is writing about how Cuban men and women changed over those two decades. “After this, I’ll go to Havana and spend time at the National Library and the National Archives.”

Hynson is one of 10 graduate fellows doing research at the University of Miami’s Otto G. Richter Library this year. Thanks to a new fellowship program, she can spend most of her days poring though the Cuban Heritage Collection — a repository of books, papers, periodicals, plays, manuscripts, photos, maps, video and other materials about Cuba from the 1520s to the present — on someone else’s dime.

The collection is the largest trove of historical and cultural materials outside Cuba. It also is a repository of materials documenting the Cuban exile and Cuban-American experience, with 15,000 exile periodicals, for example.

Established in 2010, The Cuban Heritage Collection Graduate Fellowships provide grants for graduate students who are working on their dissertations. Seven fellows whose prospectuses have been approved at their home universities receive up to $3,000 a month for three months. Three other fellows, who are still developing their dissertation topics, receive $1,500 for a one-month stay.

In 2009, the Roberto C. Goizueta Foundation gave a $2.4-million grant to UM to expand the reach of the Cuban Heritage Collection. The fellowship program receives a fraction of the grant — $225,000 over five years. The Cuban-born Goizueta was chairman and chief executive officer of the Coca-Cola Co. from 1981 until his death in 1997.

“We are building collections that have an impact in the larger academic community,” said Maria Estorino, deputy chair of the collection. “These are the future scholars for Cuban studies, hemispheric studies and international studies. We want them to come back and share their knowledge with others.”

Batista’s papers

The collection began in 1926 and grew because scholars from the University of Miami and the University of Havana were visiting each other, said Esperanza Bravo de Varona, head of the Cuban Heritage Collection.

The goal was two-fold. “To bring Latin American culture to North America and to bring North American culture to Latin America,” de Varona said. “Cuba was the key.”

The library’s first 300 books came from the University of Havana. Over the decades, the collection has grown because of donations — from the personal papers of former President Fulgencio Batista to the postcards, album covers, newspaper clippings, and the flag that was draped over the coffin of singer Celia Cruz. UM has also acquired periodicals from third-party vendors and subscribes to publications such as the state-run newspaper, Granma.

The collection is open to the public. Library officials recommend making a reservation before dropping by. According to de Varona, third-generation Cuban-Americans are frequent visitors to the collection’s section of genealogical books.

“They want to find out where they are from,” she explained.

José Martí

But for scholars, the Cuban Heritage Collection often serves as a one-stop shop for information, with comprehensive collections of periodicals and hard-to-find books.

Hynson is reading weekly magazines such as Bohemia and monthlies such as Mujeres. During a recent visit, she was skimming La Maldición: Una Historia del Placer Como Conquista by Victor Fowler.

At another corner of the library, fellow Joao Felipe Gonçalves is taking photos of Granma and Juventud Rebelde, two daily state-run Cuban newspapers. He’s also combing “los periodiquitos de exilio” or “little newspapers” published by the Cuban exile community in Miami.

And then he’s checking out the posters from local cafeterias and restaurants in Miami and Revolutionary Day posters from Cuba.

His goal: to understand how Cubans here and in Cuba commemorate José Martí, known as the founding father of Cuba.

“I was interested in nationalism,” said Gonçalves, 37, a Brazilian who is working on his doctorate in anthropology at the University of Chicago. “What led me to the Cuban case is there is a strong political divide between the people on the island and the people outside it,” he said.

“Why do I think he [Martí] is shared by all?” he asked. “I can’t say I have an answer right now. He’s an important figure in Latin American intellectual history that has inspired all kinds of political movements in Cuba and the Cuban exile community.”

But his dissertation, which he aims to complete by next summer, should have some theories.

“The research conditions here are better than in Cuba,” he said. “It’s hard to find certain papers there due to funding issues. And there are fewer people using the collections. The staff here can develop a personal relationship with you.”

That level of personal attention was a plus for Sitela Alvarez, a research fellow from Tulane University. She recently finished a one-month stint at the Cuban Heritage Collection.

Alvarez is refining her dissertation topic: the religious transformation of Cuba from 1790 to 1860, when the island experienced a large sugar boom and a mass influx of Spaniards and slaves from the New World.

“Cuba went from being just Cuba to Spain’s pearl of the Antilles,” she said.

Alvarez, 26, is Cuban-American and grew up in Miami. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history at Florida International University.

While at UM last month, Alvarez read the official correspondence between Cuban clergy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“I needed letters to see what priests were saying amongst themselves and what the Catholic Church was saying to the Cuban government,” she said. “I got jittery when I started. Those letters were in perfect condition.”

Even if the scholars’ research topics are too specialized for a general audience to appreciate, Alvarez said the Cuban Heritage Collection serves a vital purpose for anyone interested in Cuba.

“The worst thing that can happen is that Cuban history will be lost,” she said. “It’s important to keep those records alive for future generations.”

If you go:

The Otto G. Richter Library’s Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami

UM’s Otto G. Richter Library is at 1300 Memorial Dr., Coral Gables.

The Cuban Heritage Collection is on the second floor of the library. It is open to the public on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Please make an appointment before visiting. Call 305-284-4900.

Visit the CHC web site at

For more information about the CHC Graduate Fellowships, visit

For the original report go to

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