Spanish poet Antonio Machado Ruiz captures an essential aspect of the modern human condition with his words from 1912: “Caminante, no hay camino; se hace el camino al andar / Wanderer, there is no path to follow; the path can only be made by walking.” In many ways, this exhibit evokes the difficult, unprecedented paths humans forged when faced with the unpredictable changes of modern life. However, it does so by focusing on people who made their lives in a geographic region usually considered anything but modern: Latin America.
The exhibit begins with the dissolution of Spain’s Atlantic Monarchy in 1808 and continues into the early 20th century, tracing out how revolutions in technology, medicine, and political systems transformed lives, communities, and places. This somewhat eclectic collection reflects the research interests of undergraduate students at the University of Texas at Austin who, in the fall of 2017, worked closely with Professor Lina del Castillo and the resourceful staff at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection to create this exhibit. Their selections range from high-level political documents to novels, personal photo collections, and more. Taken as a whole, the exhibit is also an exercise in the preservation of documents. Their transformation into digital form will allow researchers from all over the world access to primary sources held at the Benson.
Many of the documents included in this exhibit reveal how people dealt with uncertainty when, in the wake of Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808, monarchical sovereignty was called into question. Independence and republicanism offered possible yet problematic alternatives. Would indigenous and enslaved people be included in these new republics, and if so, how?
Other documents convey the daily lives of people who traveled, loved, worked, got sick, fought, and died. Some of the people highlighted in these documents include buyers and sellers of properties, photographer-engineers, government officials, and those who suffered a violent backlash for professing their beliefs. Throughout it all, the people in the region we call Latin America lived in a time of increasing global interconnectedness. The path towards modernity was by no means single or clear-cut; these sources suggest how historical actors made their way through unpredictable global and local changes to forge paths of their own making. Over the course of the nineteenth-century and into the twentieth, many of the historical actors considered here saw themselves as working to bring progress to themselves, their families, their countries, and the region itself