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"Navigating the archives like an academic--when you're really in it for the gossip!".

Blasphemy! Adultery! Envy! Political conspiracies! Personal grudges! Class prejudice! These are a few of the situations I have discovered in documents in archives in Mexico City, Puebla, Mexico, Madrid and Cuenca, Spain, provoking one friend to tell me, "Frieda--seriously--you're ONLY into research for the GOSSIP!" And yes, in part that is correct. Often the interesting human stories are what keep me going, trying to find the connections and motives behind social contexts. These archival journeys have led me down unexpected paths that may--or may not--lead me to a legitimate academic production.

Musing on this topic reminded me of how I became interested in getting into the archives. I think I had been at a conference, and I heard another paper deconstructing one of Sor Juana's sonnets, resulting in serious doubts about my career choice. Soon after that, I gave a little paper on a comedia de santo at a conference on Mexican theater hosted at a university in Mexico where I was teaching. It was a large conference, and I was blown away with the work of the other presenters because many were based on primary documents from the Archivo General de la Nacion in Mexico City. I kept a handout about some Edicts of the Mexican Inquisition, with the intention of consulting the Archivo some day.

I had no idea how to approach this archive and I made a crazy mistake, which I will tell about, in hopes that someone will sympathize with me, and perhaps someone can benefit from what I learned. I found the address, and went up to the entrance of the Archivo and told them that I wanted to consult the files of the Santo Oficio, thinking maybe that term would sound less harsh to their ears than Inquisicion. The person told me "There are no archives here from any holy office!" I turned around and walked away.

I was eventually able to enter the Archivo and see those edicts and many other interesting documents. But this was because a friend of mine put me in touch with a friend of hers, a scholar who had directed and just published a catalogue of 18th and 19th century texts from that Inquisitional archive. She drove me to the Archivo and led me by the hand to get me started, put me down as her collaborator. Thus, I was able to see those edicts of the Inquisition prohibiting certain plays, which I was curious about, as well as many long cases against individuals. The files of the Inquisition in Mexico City are very extensive, unlike those in Spain, where they were ransacked twice, first during the French invasion and then during the Spanish Civil War. Also one of the interesting aspects of the Mexican Inquisition is that people were asked about their racial or ethnic heritage, unlike in Spain, where they were asked to show that they had no Jewish ancestors.

Much of what I read had to do with a supposed conspiracy of French sympathizers who were rounded up in Mexico City. I became fascinated with the social fabric of Mexico City that these cases revealed: a Frenchman who had been in love with several Mexican women, who rejected him; once imprisoned, he had a hard time adapting to the prison grub, especially the spicy hot chocolate; a Franciscan friar, too politically liberal to fit in his monastery; a businessman who read French literature and anticlerical books in Spanish, and had a painting of a half-dressed woman in his bedroom; they and others imprisoned where united by their political ideas and--I found--by their disdain for the queen of Spain, Maria Luisa de Parma. I made a database of witnesses in all those cases and found that many of the testimonies were due to personal grudges or envy. Also, often witnesses came from less educated classes and those of color. The Inquisitors showed disdain for those classes, at the same time that they used their accusations against more educated and wealthy people.

I also found a censoring of a book of Alexander Pope's letters in the Mexican archives. I journeyed to England to the Bodleian Library to look for that book. By then, I knew that I couldn't just walk up to the front door! I took a copy of my passport, my passport, a letter of introduction from my chair verifying my research topic, and my cotton gloves. I now know that, although not all archives require that you use gloves, they are very appreciative when you do pull out your gloves. At the Bodleian, I was able to find the specific edition that the Mexican priest had used to censor Pope's book.

I went to Madrid, to the Historical Archive, and to the town of Cuenca, to an Inquisitional Archive, because I was trying to track down a specific Franciscan friar who had worked in Mexico and Spain--the one who was found to be a French sympathizer and imprisoned in Mexico City. I could find no trace of him in Spain, but I found some interesting cases in Cuenca. The ones that caught my attention were on blasphemy, and I thought they were so curious because all the curses that were documented there in the 18 th century are still being used by Spaniards today. Obviously, the threat of the punishment of the Inquisition did nothing to intimidate Spaniards over several centuries. I think it would be great to compare those blasphemy cases with some in Mexico, but I haven't found any in the Mexican archives.

Back in the Mexican Archivo, I read through a number of editions of a couple of journals published in the late 18th and early 19th century. I was looking for anything published about slavery. While I was reading I began to notice that frequently there were announcements about events, obviously offered by some charlatan, maybe a magic glass box, for example, that promised to be quite worth the entrance fee to see this spectacle. One that I remember well was about the presentation of the "erudite pig of London" ("el cerdo erudito de Londres"). Why it had to be from London--not Madrid, Paris, Rome, New York or Austin--I don't know. But it caught my attention. The pig was capable of choosing letters or numbers to write out the answers to questions. I didn't keep the information about this extraordinary pig in my data base, but often I would think about it and wish I had a copy of the drawing depicting it in the journal. In preparation for this little talk, I decided to Google "cerdo erudito de Londres" and BINGO! it came up with several references, and the picture as well!

The moral of my tale is this: ask for help and give help; always carry your gloves; keep your mind open for the unexpected; make a data base (a series of spreadsheets) to keep track of documents, because you can never tell how you might use something some day; but first, check what is on line, because so many archives now have digitized documents including even my erudite friend from London!


Sam Houston State University
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Author:Koeninger, Frieda
Publication:Dieciocho: Hispanic Enlightenment
Date:Sep 22, 2016
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