A review of the Archivo General del Estado de Veracruz (Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico).
I spent a considerable amount of time doing research in the Archivo General del Estado de Veracruz (AGEV) during 2010 and 2011. I mostly worked with Local Agrarian Commission documents, but have also done some research in the archive section of governor Adalberto Tejeda and of the Veracruzan Ministry of Public Works. The AGEV can be incredibly rewarding, but also utterly frustrating. This, however, can probably be said about any repository in the world.
I narrate here a typical day in the AGEV:
• I get up in my cute little hotel in downtown Xalapa, where I eat their free breakfast and enjoy their wireless Internet. Accommodations in Xalapa range from 10 to 50 USD. Most hotels are small and are located in the downtown area. There are also apartments for rent by day, week, or month, but they are not easy to find. If you are going to do research in Veracruz, it is best to announce your need for lodging through networks such as H-Net or H-LatAm. Knowledgeable colleagues will be able to direct you. You can get to Xalapa on small planes from Mexico City and the Port of Veracruz. There is also a huge network of buses that will get you pretty much anywhere in Mexico for a modest price.
• I walk for 20-30 minutes to the AGEV, which is located in the outer part of downtown, next to the Monte de Piedad. The walk is nice, but smoke from the cars that clutter the small winding streets gives me a headache. I could take a bus to the archive, but they are not particularly pleasant to ride in and I have no idea where they are actually going. Everything in Xalapa, except perhaps the Universidad Veracruzana and some outer neighborhoods, is within walking distance. If you visit the city between the months of May and September, chances are you are going to experience some serious heat in the Archive, since the roof is made of corrugated metal. You will, however, get rain most afternoons. If, however, you visit between October and April, the weather will be much nicer inside the AGEV, but you may be inside a cloud throughout your stay, since the city is pretty high up and winters are humid.
• In the entrance of the building, a very nice and good-humored security guard asks me to write down my name, time of arrival, institution, and the purpose of my visit in the Visitors’ Book. He then tells me to talk directly with the archivist in charge in order to obtain the necessary permission to consult the documents. I have with me a presentation letter, which is required; my digital camera, which I have no problem taking into the building; and paper and pencil.
• The AGEV is really just one big warehouse with some available tables and chairs for researchers in the center, and other desks occupied by the Archive personnel. The documents are held inside another section from which archivists walk in and out.
• Once I find the archivist in charge—apparently the role switches every day—and state the purpose of my visit, I realize very soon that the staff at the AGEV is incredibly nice. They are all super helpful and approachable. They know what is there, what is missing, and what is in another warehouse that is holding millions of documents since the time of the AGEV’s restoration. And this will turn into a big source of frustration during the time I spend in Xalapa. The Archive was remodeled about three or four years ago, but millions of documents are still in warehouses in need of classification. There is really not a set timeline for when those documents are going to be returned to the downtown location, but I am invited to talk to the AGEV’s Director and ask all the necessary questions.
• It becomes immediately clear to me, however, that this is less an invitation and more of a requirement. In the presentation letter I brought from Columbia University, I state the title of my dissertation and the repositories that I intend to consult while in Xalapa. The Director reads it and asks me a series of questions about my project for which there seem to be right and wrong answers. I am as honest and forthcoming as my own self-doubt will allow, and the Director seems satisfied. She instructs the staff that they are to help me with anything I need and that I am allowed to use my digital camera. When you visit, just make sure you have a clear sense of what your project is about and what you are looking for, in case you need to explain it in an impromptu visit to the Director’s office.
• I spend the day taking photos of the documents, chatting with the archivists, eating snacks with the security guard up front, and making notes of what I am finding. Once I am done, tired and hungry, I walk back to my hotel.
• In the evening I write in my dissertation diary and have dinner on my own or with friends in one of the excellent and inexpensive restaurants in downtown Xalapa. You can get a very good meal for less than 10 USD, but the city quiets down fairly early during the week. During the weekends there are numerous artistic and cultural events. I also visit the surrounding areas, where the excellent coffee of the region is produced and where I get to see, first hand, some of the problems that I am studying in the AGEV in their present form. I recommend visiting Coatepec, Xico, Naolinco, and Rancho Nuevo.
Here is a short description of the repositories I had the opportunity to consult:
• The Agrarian Archive, as a number of prominent historians of Veracruz have experienced, is vast and fascinating. It is classified by ejido and its respective municipio, so a useful thing to do before you head to the archive is have a clear sense of the names and locations of the ejidos and the municipio in which they are located, keeping in mind that those names may have changed throughout the years. So, for example, if you don’t know that curmunicipiorent Coatzacoalcos used to be called Puerto México, you are in deep trouble when trying to find the relevant information. There is a printed guide that tells you which ejidos have been the subject of agrarian petitions and in what year, but not much more. So, if you know that you are interested in the history of land disputes in northern Veracruz, you better learn that the state is separated by geographic areas: Huasteca, Totonaca, Centro-Norte, Central, Grandes Montañas, Sotavento, y de Las Selvas. Once you know your area, you should get a sense of the ejidos that are there, because the guide is organized by alphabetical order, so an ejido in Sotavento can very well be next to one in the Totonaca region. Then you ask the archivist in charge to bring you the specific folder. Sometimes, the very nice lady in charge of the Agrarian Archive will come out and help you figure out the guide. Other times you just need to get your map out, ask for the files, and dig in the folders until you find what you need. Each folder contains one agrarian petition case, dating from the very first letter that the petitioners sent to the state governor or the Local Agrarian Commission, say in 1913, to the moment in which such petition was resolved, for example in 1975. You can find documents from the different courts that dealt with the case, the amparo documents, letters from petitioners and owners, and maps of the ejido that is under dispute. Each folder contains hundreds of sheets that will reveal invaluable information about the agrarian history of Veracruz and of Mexico.
• The section of the archive that holds the state governors’ documents is also very well classified and organized. For Adalberto Tejeda, the archivists bring you large bound volumes classified by year, and you can read all of the governor’s correspondence. If you need documents from specific institutions or ministries within the state, you have to consult those depositories. The Ministry of Works, for example, is divided by department so if you need anything about urban housing, you will go directly to that section. The same goes for oil extraction, water distribution, road maintenance, and building permits.
As I said before, there are many documents that are still in the old warehouse, so it is very likely that you will run into that problem sooner or later. Fortunately, staff members are well aware of which documents are available and which are not, so you hardly waste any time waiting to get files that are not there. It is obviously frustrating, however, to find something that looks very promising in the guides and realize that you cannot consult it and that there is no sense of when it will be available to researchers.
This being a general archive, it offers the researcher an opportunity to have constant contact with people who are not there to write doctoral dissertations, which is, in my view, a great thing. While you wait for your documents, you get a chance to talk to those who are trying to solve problems with their rural properties by consulting the agrarian archives. Sometimes they tell you their family history and how it is related to that piece of land, giving you a sense of the depth and complexity of the agrarian problem in Mexico. You also encounter children and teens doing research for their history school projects. They usually consult old newspapers and magazines, which are, by the way, readily available to the user. But then again, a lot of them are still in the warehouse.
In sum, for anyone who is looking into the history of rural Veracruz, the AGEV is a fantastic place to be. You will find all you need there and in the National Archive in Mexico City. Sadly, the repositories of smaller cities in Veracruz are virtually non-existent. There are a few very rich archives for specific organizations, like the one for Section 32 of the National Oil Workers’ Union in Poza Rica, but in general you are bound to the AGEV. The Veracruz Supreme Court Archive is also open to the public and in excellent condition, but the classification is complicated and you need to know your cases very well before you walk in. As in any other archive in any city of the world, be nice to the archivists, talk to people who are not doctoral candidates, and write down the box, file, and page numbers of everything you see. The last thing you need is to get back home and find yourself with 5,000 photographs of individual documents whose origin and location you have already forgotten.
Julia del Palacio Langer
Department of History
Image: Photo by Julia del Palacio Langer.
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