American Universities develop project to support the rescue of Cuban patrimony

Posted: 01-Sep-16 13:15

Now that diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba have been re-established and more autonomy is given to the Catholic Church, several American universities are collaborating to rescue some of the island’s historical records. Cuban and foreign intellectuals alike are working together in order to preserve patrimony in the face of change.

American Universities develop project to support the rescue of Cuban patrimony

History is a vital part of any country’s essence. For this reason, preserving cultural and historic heritage is of pivotal importance. As change comes to Cub after US and Cuban governments work towards normalization, many are preoccupied of how this can affect some of the island's patrimony. In order to rescue important records that tell a great deal about the island’s history and culture, American and British universities are cooperating with Cuban intellectuals and the nation’s Catholic Church.

In small cities, the cultural heritage of millions of Cubans people in the form of daily life records from the 16th century to the present, is slowly disintegrating. Hospital records, baptismal certifications, burial records, petitions for interracial marriages, letters, and other documentary proof of life are contained in Catholic Church archives in nearly every city and town on the island. Humidity, material scarcity, and very little technology (including expensive and slow internet access) compound the threat posed by insects.

In the face of such threat an international team of historians, led by Jane Landers of Vanderbilt University, and now extended in a new project by David LaFevor of the University of Texas at Arlington, has been racing to save these irreplaceable documents since 2005. The Catholic Church was the creator and is now the custodian of these records. Each papal visit ushers in increasing autonomy, from the re-legalization of Christmas in the late 1990s to revoking the ban on religious ceremonies and processions outside of church walls following the visit of Pope Francis.

The UK has also gotten involved in this significant project. The British Library Endangered Archives Programme has awarded a two-year grant to fund the project “Siete Villas de Cuba” in the seven oldest cities on the island: Baracoa, Bayamo, Santiago, Trinidad, Havana, Camagüey, and Sancti Spiritus, all founded in the early 1500s. These cities contain a wealth of endangered information, most of which has never been accessed by Cuban or foreign historians.

These records also offer unmatched insight into the cruel history of slavery in the island. Unlike slavery in the United States, the Catholic Church in Latin America mandated baptism and encouraged marriage and other sacraments among all sectors of society. All of these acts generated a paper trail that contains important information on African ethnicity and social relations, the fates of indigenous Cubans, and others who underwent the dramatic effects of enslavement, colonization, and forced labour.

A team of U.S. scholars and graduate students over the next two years will locate, digitize, preserve and publish these decaying records. In May of 2016, Harvard’s Hutchins Centre for African and African American Research co-sponsored, along with several Cuban academic centres, a conference in Havana that brought together Cuban and American scholars of slavery and the slave trade.

These mutually beneficial projects show much promise for the future. When and if the US embargo ends, programmes such as these could multiply. The fate of the hopeful changes represented by these meetings and projects in now in the hands of the U.S. Congress; Barack Obama has reached the limit of presidential authority on the Cuba question.


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