A review of the Historical Archive at the Center for Meso-American Research (Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica, Antigua, Guatemala)
Archivists rarely get the credit they are due. They are the workers who make the stuff of history, and like the miners, lumberjacks, farmhands, and pipe-fitters who produce the resources we all depend on, the fruits of their labor are mostly claimed by others. We have all seen the obligatory and brief acknowledgments that decorate the introductory pages of academic books, occasionally growing to claim the space of a full sentence. The countless hours spent by these dedicated professionals too easily fades behind the myth of the lone historian striking gold in the stacks of dusty boxes. Within this vital, yet underappreciated discipline, there is a name that regularly and deservedly receives full-throated praise: Thelma Porres, director of the historical archive at the Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica (CIRMA). Porres’ work has transcended her duties as archival director, helping to recover traces of victims of genocide, pursuing legal cases against the perpetrators of those crimes, educating students from across the country and region, protecting the national patrimony from those who would claim it for themselves or see it destroyed, and knitting together an international intellectual community dedicated to the achievement of social justice in Guatemala. Porres and her staff at CIRMA are, in short, the professionals we should all be so lucky to work with.
I recently spent academic year 2014-15 in Guatemala, and worked in the historical archive at CIRMA for eight months. My dissertation examines the coevolution of forestry and counterinsurgency in the Petén during the Cold War, the northernmost department of the country known for its ancient Maya ruins and mostly unknown to historians. CIRMA was not just the best, but the only institutional base from which my research could have been pursued. Besides extensive holdings of local and national news dailies (as well as some international prints)—with more than one million articles catalogued individually by subject—CIRMA boasts an impressive collection of private papers from some of the country’s most influential people and institutions, including politicians, intellectuals, guerrilla commanders, student and union organizers, peasant organizations, and military officers, among many others. The library and photograph archive are managed separately from the historical archive, but are housed in the same building. Both are impressive in their own right and worth a visit. CIRMA is also home to many thousands of Guatemalan government records that are not available anywhere else, whether by accident or design. Anyone who has attempted archival research in Guatemala will know that the national archives (Archivo General de Centro América) and its smaller official counterparts suffer from chronic underfunding and a general lack of support, despite their generally dedicated staff and the well-respected leadership of Anna Carla Ericastilla. When it comes to subjects related to the civil war, the Cold War, or anything at all during the 1980s, the official attitude of neglect toward public records can slip into outright hostility. Although I did make what use I could of the official archives in Guatemala City and the Petén, government holdings and my access to them were severely limited. Many researchers interested in topics spanning the latter half of the twentieth century may find themselves in a similar position. Without CIRMA, such research would not be viable in Guatemala.
CIRMA is open to the public (including foreign researchers), but potential visitors will need to do some legwork before showing up at the front door. An appointment is required, and walk-ins are not accepted. The first thing to do is to browse the indices on the website. Not everything available in the archive in on the website, but it provides a good overview. Once you are familiar with the collections, write to Porres (firstname.lastname@example.org), introducing yourself and your interests, and say when you are available (not unlike a formal letter of introduction). Porres will respond and may ask some clarifying questions. This typically results in her sending you a personalized index for further review. The more specific you are in your correspondence, the more help Porres and her team can be. They know their archive records intimately, and can help you prioritize your search while suggesting items that may not have looked immediately relevant. With enough advance notice, you will find several boxes of documents waiting for you in the reading room upon your arrival. It is a good idea to bring a formal letter of introduction on official letterhead when you arrive, even if electronic correspondence with Porres does not make this strictly necessary. Of course, a few months of lead time is advised for all of this, so don’t buy your plane ticket until you’ve reserved your spot. For general info and up-to-date news, see the website and Facebook page.
Once you have an appointment and have arrived in Antigua, getting to CIRMA is easy and working there is a pleasure. It is located in a restored colonial mansion just over one block east of the Central Plaza on Fifth Street, between Second and Third Avenue. CIRMA stands out as a large red building on the corner, with a bronze plaque emblazoned with its logo and big, double wood doors. Knock or ring and a security guard will answer and check your appointment before letting you in. Make sure to bring your passport on your first visit. Hours of operation are nine to five on weekdays, with a lunch break from one to two, and they are precisely observed. You will have to pack up and leave for lunch, but you can store your stuff in the lockers and eating out in Antigua is one of the highlights of any stay in Guatemala. Holidays are taken very seriously in Guatemala and come with some frequency, so it’s best to double-check if any land during your stay as the archives will likely be closed. Major holidays like Christmas and Semana Santa shut down the offices for one to several weeks.
The working atmosphere at CIRMA, while professional, is also relaxed and personal. Everyone understands that traveling internationally limits researchers’ range of attire, but the self-aware will notice that the staff and most visitors never show up in anything less than business casual. When you do meet Porres and her staff, you will be given a tour of the facilities and be introduced to whoever happens to be around at the time, including other researchers. Chatting with the staff and fellow visitors is not just a nice way to socialize, it can also be helpful in developing new lines of inquiry. Personal computers and pads for taking notes are allowed, but all bags and food (including drinks) must be checked in a locker by the entrance. Internet addicts should be aware that public wifi is not available. If you need a break, the courtyard and its resident mallards offer a tranquil respite from your work, or the Central Plaza and its cafés are a two-minute walk away.
Requests for documents are submitted in person, using some simple forms staff will explain during the introductory tour. (They will also patiently explain this all over again to researchers like myself who need periodic reminding). Only a few boxes can fit on the reading desk at a time, meaning you can expect to work through your requested documents in groups. When you are finished with one set and need another, just ask—the archivists will bring them right out for you. Researchers generally look up materials through the published and personalized indexes provided by Porres, but conversation can be an effective means of finding new material that is not easily found in the catalogues. The documents themselves are stored in climate-controlled stacks separate from the reading room. The entire archive—some 5.5 million documents—is being digitized piecemeal with the help of professional volunteers and institutional donors. Do not expect, however, to find a digital archive waiting for you. This is still a hardcopy kind of place. An item you request may be unavailable because it has been pulled for scanning, but it is unlikely given the low volume at any one time. There are two options for reproducing documents: either photocopies done by staff or taking photos yourself. Photocopies are cheap, one quetzal per page. Depending on how many copies you request, you can expect them in a few minutes to a couple of days. All photocopies come with a watermark of the CIRMA logo, but keeping track of catalogue information and the provenance of documents is up to you. Taking your own pictures costs considerably more, ten quetzals per page. Anyone wanting photocopies or pictures must sign a standard user agreement.
You are not going to find an archive in Central America (or much of Latin America, for that matter) that is easier to navigate, nor as richly endowed as CIRMA. If you are lucky enough to work there, make sure to heartily thank the staff that make it so.
Dept. of History
New York University
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Image: Photo by Rachel Nolan