Travel | 27 April 2023

Travel Series: Kirsten Silva Gruesz


Kirsten Silva Gruesz is Professor of Literature at UC Santa Cruz. Her research and teaching reflect hemispheric and multilingual approaches to the Americas, covering all periods of Chicanx/Latinx literary history as well as colonial through 19th-century US literature in general. She is especially interested in the material history of the book and print culture; bilingualism; and translation studies. Dr. Gruesz was a first-generation college student, born in California to a Mexican and German-American family. She is the author of many essays and two books: 2002’s Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing (Princeton University Press) and 2022’s Cotton Mather’s Spanish Lessons: A Story of Language, Race, and Belonging in the Early Americas (Harvard University Press).

Traveling Books, Migrating Bodies

How far would you travel to make a book? How far to get your hands on one?

Around 1612 in what is today northern Florida, a Catholic priest and his Indigenous collaborators bundled together the hundreds of manuscript pages they had written about, and in, the language spoken widely throughout the Timucua chiefdoms. From St. Augustine, they sailed five hundred miles to Havana, then another thousand miles to Veracruz, where they began a monthlong journey over the mountains to Mexico City. In the capital, printers had already created dozens of bilingual grammar and vocabulary books, catechisms, and confessionals in indigenous tongues like Nahuatl, Purépecha, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Mayan: languages you can still hear today not only in Mexico, but here in California. The team made that arduous round-trip journey at least twice over the next decade, bringing copies of their new Timucua-Spanish books back to Florida. All this traveling in order to bring Timucua—dubbed by the priest, Francisco de Pareja, la lengua floridiana—the recognition and permanence that print could offer.

Amidst the horrors of pillage, disease, and unfreedom that accompanied colonialism, writing could also offer a lifeline.

Why were these bilingual texts so important to make in quantity? Franciscan missionaries recruited to Florida were expected to humbly learn the local language, following a pattern set elsewhere in this freshly colonized (but not conquered) region called New Spain. To a perhaps surprising extent, the accommodation went in both directions. Many Timucua chose not to live in the mission towns, but some found the alphabetic technology that recorded their tongue in Latin letters to be useful. Amidst the horrors of pillage, disease, and unfreedom that accompanied colonialism, writing could also offer a lifeline: a surviving letter in Timucua documents that tribal leaders used this tool to strategize together during a rebellion against Spanish military command.

The budding print culture in indigenous languages didn’t last long. Today, those books documenting la lengua floridiana (and with it, a remarkable array of descriptions of cultural practices) don’t abide with the descendants of the Timucua. For in the late seventeenth century, the people were hunted down by slave raiders and scattered in all directions, some fleeing as refugees to Cuba and others hiding in swamplands, where they comingled with other non-Europeans and disappeared as a distinct people. The Timucua books, likewise, are dispersed from the place where they were meant to be used: preserved not so much in Mexico (since Florida was carved off of New Spain before it became that nation), but in rare-books libraries in the Northeast founded by the wealthy US collectors of the Gilded Age.

I’m struck by the way texts in minoritized languages often end up in places very distant from where they were made or where they would have found readers.

In studying the history of Spanish-language writing and printing in what is now the United States, I’m struck by the way texts in minoritized languages often end up in places very distant from where they were made or where they would have found readers. Whichever group wins the contest over land gets to keep its records closest. For example: the first little book printed in Spanish in what is now the US was authored, weirdly enough, by the Puritan writer and preacher Cotton Mather. It was much less substantial than the masterfully crafted Timucua books, but it survived because Mather’s own tribe—the settler tribe—did, remaining triumphantly where they had settled. A passionate book collector, Mather left his library and papers to his heirs, who stayed in Boston for a sufficient number of generations to endow those papers with broader historical value: their family’s records become a nation’s cultural patrimony as part of the American Antiquarian Society collections. Mather is connected both to the collapse of the Timucua world and to the growth of the eighteenth-century Caribbean slave economy in ways that I explore in my recent book, Cotton Mather’s Spanish Lessons.

Cotton Mather’s Spanish Lessons, Harvard University Press (2022)

Spanish was the most powerful imperial language in the Americas for three centuries, yet within the territories that got folded into the United States, it swiftly dropped in status. Because it was spoken by many darker-skinned and itinerant people—largely the descendants of those Indigenous and African peoples driven from place to place during the early colonial period—Spanish was pushed out of relevance to the public sphere. Nonetheless, these communities established cultures of writing and publishing, with scores of newspapers, magazines, and books printed wherever there was a population cluster. State archives and museums usually didn’t consider these works significant enough to preserve, and many of them disappeared.

Take, as a counter-example to Mather and even to the Timucua books, the case of E.J. Gómez: an ambitious US-born Latino who started a Spanish-language printing business and newspaper in New Orleans during that city’s boom time in the middle of the nineteenth century. Bilingual and bicultural, Gómez got on the wrong side of a political debate, and in 1851 a wrathful mob descended on the print shop, wrecked the printing press, beat up Gómez and shot his co-editor, Victoriano Alemán. They both fled the city, refugees from racialized violence. Gómez had written a novel and published it serially in his paper before reprinting a version that was bound and sold in book format–but all the copies were lost to the blaze the mob had set to the building.

Describing how the early Black writer John Marrant lugged copies of his books across treacherous rivers and punishing overland journeys, losing many of them as he traveled in poverty, scholar Joanna Brooks concludes: “Books, like people, have life chances.” The life chances of a written record’s survival are dimmed whenever the group it belongs to is not able to stay, to settle, comfortably in the same place for long. Their writing ends up “stranded between places, between communities, or dynamic social contexts,” as Brooks puts it. Disempowered groups don’t always speak disempowered languages, but the two categories overlap significantly: the people who were later called Hispanic and Latino were once generally referred to as “Spanish speakers.” The archives of Latina/o/x lived experience, mostly in Spanish, are scattered everywhere.

Alemán had made some bound volumes containing every issue of the Spanish newspaper’s print run: one for each of the five years preceding the mob attack. Three volumes were left with someone he trusted in the city and, by a stroke of luck, were later acquired by the Historic New Orleans Collection. Even though two years are missing, that archive now has the most extensive holding anywhere, and I used it to reconstruct the chapters of Gómez’s novel. After writing about Gómez and Alemán some years ago, I got an email out of the blue from Argentina. It was from Alemán’s great-great-granddaughter, who reported that he had ended up there, and that one of the bound volumes of the newspaper—one of the years missing from the US archive—had been passed down through the family for over a hundred years. There is material about the Hispanophone community of New Orleans that doesn’t exist anywhere else but in that family’s cabinet. Someday I hope to travel there and read it.

Migrants must travel light, and the chances of survival for their things diminish in tandem with their own.

The history of global migration is full of stories like these: stories about books, artifacts, and records left behind and lost forever, or snapped up by a more fortunate collector and sundered geographically from their original communities. Migrants must travel light, and the chances of survival for their things diminish in tandem with their own. As long as we privilege people who don’t migrate, assuming that permanent settlement is the highest form of human “civilization” (a dubious association, as David Graeber and David Wengrow have recently pointed out), we will continue to miss out on everything else there is to remember.

Banner Image: A page from Confessionario En lengua Castellana y Timuquana Con algunos consejos para animar al penitente. This section of the book is entitled, Questions for Before Entering Confession. Collections of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

“Traveling Books, Migrating Bodies” is part of The Humanities Institute’s 2023 Travel Series. This series features contributions from a range of faculty and emeriti in the Humanities community at UC Santa Cruz – each of whom highlight connections between travel and their work or consider the role of travel in their fields. Throughout Spring quarter, be sure to look for these amazing essays in our weekly newsletter!