Today, The Junto concludes its series on “Archives around the Atlantic” with a guest post from Patrick Johnson about working in the General Archive of Mexico. Patrick Johnson is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at William and Mary, you can read about research and fieldwork from him and other anthropologists at their new blog.
Great posts at The Junto about archival work in Spain, France, England, Jamaica, and the United States got me thinking about my own archival work in 2010 in Mexico City. And, while the Archive of the Indies receives well-deserved attention from historians, Spanish archives in Mexico and collections in the US remain underutilized for understanding not only territories occupied by the Spanish but also colonialism in the present-day United States.
The General Archive of Mexico (Archivo General de la Nacion or AGN) is housed in the lovely Palacio de Lecumberri, which operated as a prison from the late nineteenth century to 1976. Since 1980, former jail cells have housed a wealth of records and reading rooms branch from central plazas in a way that accommodates several small gardens.
Public transportation saves you a great deal of money on taxies in the long run. The metro stop for the archive involves a bit more walking than the bus stop, and the metro during peak times is especially unpleasant anyway. If you don’t have routes memorized, or want to double-check, awkwardly asking “pase por el archivo?” will always yield an “of course” or “of course not” type response from a bus driver. Directly across the street from the AGN is a playground and convenient bus stop but buses also stop across the street from the archive’s small parking lot, where, at least in 2010, a small grocery store stood. That store is a friendlier option for archival gloves, without which you cannot handle most materials at least in the colonial reading room.
A wealth of books describe the way documents are sorted and offer mini-inventories, and thankfully much of these inventories and the card catalog have been incorporated into the General Guide. Wait to click “buscar” until after you’ve clicked the plus next to “Archivo General de la Nacion” then “Instituciones Coloniales” and from there select different sections as you wish. Type in a search word and “aggregar,” perhaps list a few alternate spellings and keep selecting “o” rather than “y” before selecting “aceptar.” Results will be listed on the left by expediente number, click to see summary and citation info on the right side along with an option for “ver imagenes” if you have the good fortune to have documents already scanned for you!
Try to become familiar with sections of the archive before your trip. Real Hacienda—Archivo Historico de Hacienda has a wealth of financial material, though the bulk of material I found useful for colonial Florida came from Gobierno Virreinal which has original correspondences not found in the Archive of the Indies. Volumes in “Diversas Autoridades” are often organized in a way that is at times frustratingly-far from being sorted by either date or author. Until I was asked “Which series?” when asking for “Correspondencia de Virreys” volumes I did not know there was a second series, though the card catalog covers more Viceregal correspondence than the online guide. As you investigate the guide, don’t ignore “Colleciones” which includes “Coleccion de Documentos y Titulos de Tierras” and “Mapas, Planos e Illustraciones” which, to state the obvious, reveal a wealth of material about land use and the “Historia” section which offers non-primary sources that quote liberally (or entirely) from those sources. Scout Worldcat for guides and inventories to as many sections as you may find useful as well as a paleography guide if you have more experience reading handwriting from one century than another.
The AGN offers wireless internet, allows free photography, and does not limit requests. Requests generally take only a few minutes so they do not require you to submit requests in advance. A few volumes are being conserved or in too terrible a condition for handling, so if you have only a few in mind consider contacting someone before your trip. No one seemed to speak English at the archives, aside from the rare researcher, but everything is very intuitive and everyone is very helpful with advice and suggestions. Your smart phone camera may work well enough, but if you use a camera that uses batteries, rechargeable ones will save you money. Also take duplicate photos in case of blurriness (consider checking photos before you return volumes) and make a cover sheet for each document or book—your request slip will work well! Copy, rather than cut, photos from your camera in case they get corrupted, and from that point you can delete, rename, and combine the files as needed.
I stayed with the family of a friend of a friend. Homestay options are incredibly cheap as well as potentially wonderful—that family is as sweet as the pastries they sell! There are also alternatives to Airbnb for cheap and reviewed accommodations.
If you do have time to spare during the week, consider a detour to the National Library, housed at the National University (UNAM). Even if you don’t have a second letter of introduction from your advisor (or whomever else) you can likely sweet talk your way into a day’s use of the material. UNAM is certainly worth a visit, and publications by their Estudios de Historia Novohispana are often very helpful but under-cited.
During other downtime, head to the center of Mexico City (or DF for Distrito Federal) for a wealth of lovely colonial-era tourist destinations that are well worth your time. Additionally, behind the Cathedral and Aztec Templo Mayor is the Calle Donceles, whose librerías de viejo house an enormous variety of used books. Nicer restaurants dot the area, but also keep an eye out for street food that’s popular and smells delightful. Grasshoppers taste more like popcorn than you’d think! Try out a pulqueria for modern flavorings of the Aztec drink—I soon found myself switching between Bloody Mary and Oreo flavors at Las Duelistas. Also try mezcal a try—La Botica Mezcaleria has a wide variety of both product and locations.
The Fondo Franciscano is an enormous collection of documents related to Franciscan activities around the world, and is held at the Historical Archive of the Library of the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. A four-volume inventory of the 193 manuscript volumes is widely available, but the collection contains 2,542 volume in total. Access will likely be easier now that the collection has recently gone through a thorough conservation process. Certainly spend a day in the National Museum in addition to any archival trip! Select documents relating to Florida missions from the Fondo Franciscano were uncovered by Charles Spellman and copied to the PK Yonge Library of Florida History at the University of Florida. Other material discovered by Wayne Childers is now located in the Archives of the Pace Library at the University of West Florida.
Finally, a few collections in the US of Spanish documents remain underutilized. Buckingham Smith’s collection offers a wealth of sixteenth to nineteenth century material, and nearly half the material is in the New York Historical Society rather than the microfilm collection possessed by most libraries. Similarly, only a fraction of William Coker’s microfilm collection at the Archives of the Pace Library of the University of West Florida is excerpted in the Panton Leslie Collection and the Stetson collection offers merely a tiny sample of Archive of the Indies bundles now available in full at the PK Yonge Library of the University of Florida. In addition to secondary sources and inventories, these and other under-accessed collections can offer great sources!