Nettie Lee Benson was born in Arcadia, Texas, January 15, 1905. She received a B.A. and an M.A. in History and the Ph.D. in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. After teaching in a bilingual institute in Monterrey, Mexico, and in public schools in Sinton, Hartley, and Ingleside, Texas, she became director of the Latin American Collection of the University of Texas, Austin. She served for thirty-three years as the director of the Latin American Collection that today bears her name. She also held professorships in History and Library Science.
Her many honors include the Premio de América (Casa de Cultura Americana, Acapulco, 1972), Presidency of the IVth Congress of Mexican and United States Historians (1972), Presidency of Seminars on the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials (1973), designation as Distinguished Alumna by the University of Texas at Austin in the fall of 1981, and receipt of both the Distinguished Service Award of the Conference on Latin American History (1976) and the Aguila Azteca, presented by President José López Portillo (July 1979). One of the original founders of SALALM, Dr. Benson has served on the editorial board of the Hispanic American Historical Review (1972-79) and as a member of the LASA Committee on Scholarly Resources (1965-date), the Committee for the Guide to Archival Resources in the United States (1958-date), and the Organizing Committee for the Vth Congress of Mexican and United States Historians.
stanley r. ross:Nettie Lee, let’s start with family background and its influence on your career.
nettie lee benson: My mother was educated at Buffalo Gap College out in West Texas and she taught school in a number of places in West Texas. After her mother and father moved to Galveston, she taught in that area. My father was educated in Virginia and originally was preparing to be a dentist. He went through Pantops Academy and then Hampden-Sydney College, where he studied Latin and Greek. He and my mother met near Galveston. I was their fourth child. I had seven brothers and two sisters. The Galveston area, as you know, is very humid. My father did not like it, and my mother even less. So they decided to move. My father first bought property in what is now Hollywood, California. That was back near the turn of the century. He decided that was not a place to raise a family, so he bought land near Corpus Christi, Texas, at Sinton, and went into the shipping business. He also raised citrus fruit and garden produce, but he was principally a wholesale dealer and shipper. As a part-time nurseryman, he was interested in the grafting of fruit trees.
SRR: Were you interested in your father’s scientific experiments?
NLB: Indeed I was. I loved grafting trees; it was fascinating and gave me an opportunity to be outside. Growing up with seven brothers, I was considered a terrible tomboy. I loved sports and was always encouraged by my father. My father taught us all basketball, tennis, baseball, and swimming; practically everything that you can name we played and had the equipment to play. I became sufficiently proficient in tennis to enter a state meet.
SRR: Nettie, what about your sisters?
NLB: Only one lived to adulthood. She studied music and earned a bachelor’s degree in that and a master’s in social sciences. After she had married and had a family, she came to Austin and worked for the Physics Department at the university for fifteen or twenty years.
SRR: And your brothers—what careers did they follow?
NLB: Well, some of my brothers, after attending various branches of the University of Texas, ended up in the shipping business in South Texas.
SRR: Nettie, you really have had two careers, one as a distinguished historian and the other as a distinguished librarian. How did you get into these two careers?
NLB: To tell the truth, I fell into both of them. I have always enjoyed history. One of my earliest historical remembrances was doing a paper on the Philippine Islands in modern times. I did not know that the Philippine Islands had been under the Spanish government in the early colonial period. Local libraries had little material, so I wrote off to the extension bureau in Austin and it supplied me with a great deal of data. Partly, I suppose, because I enjoyed reading I took every course in Latin American, medieval, and British history. I am sure that I ultimately took every history course offered at the University of Texas.
I earned an M.A. degree in 1935, writing my thesis on Venustiano Carranza. In 1941 I returned to the university, where in a dilettantish way I simply took courses that interested me.
Dr. Charles Hackett repeatedly asked me why I didn’t work toward a Ph.D. I recall his saying: “You have really completed everything that is required for a Ph.D. in history. So why don’t you take the exams and write a dissertation?” I told him that I was not particularly interested in earning a Ph.D., but when I told my mother and sister-in-law what Dr. Hackett had said, they insisted that I follow his advice. They thought it would be wonderful to have somebody with a Ph.D. in the family. So, that is how I became a Ph.D. candidate. By that time I was working full-time at the library as head of the Latin American Collection. It took me a few years to write a dissertation, but I enjoyed every minute of it.
As for the library field, I fell into that also. I had returned to Austin in 1941 to take a break after teaching for eleven years in a high school at Ingleside, Texas. I wanted a vacation and I had promised a young nephew of mine that when he was old enough to come to the university, I would see that he got a good start. So I brought him to Austin and stayed with him for the first year. In the meantime, Dr. Charles Hackett and Dr. Carlos Castañeda, who was head of the Latin American Collection, talked to me about an opening in the Latin American Collection. They thought I was ideally fitted for the position. I told Dr. Castañeda that I knew absolutely nothing about library science and that I had had no experience in working in a library. They kept after me and I finally decided to accept the position with the understanding that I would try it for the remainder of the year. I started working in the library in March 1941, and I’ve been there ever since.
SRR: What were some of the personal academic and research experiences that you feel influenced your graduate studies and subsequent career?
NLB: One of the experiences I had, of course, was taking seminars with Dr. Hackett. One thing that I believe about graduate work is that individuals should decide what their interests are and proceed along those lines. I mentioned that I wrote an M.A. thesis on Venustiano Carranza, but that period of Mexican history never interested me very much. My real interest lay with the early independence and early national eras. But each time I broached that subject, I was told that it had been fully done. I was not convinced. I took a seminar with Dr. Hackett and told him that I wanted to work on Miguel Ramos Arizpe, the recognized author of the Mexican Constitution of 1824. When I started working on him, I began to find materials that kept referring to the provincial deputation. As I worked along, I found nothing on the provincial deputation in any of the secondary sources or in any of the early sources of Mexican history available in Austin. It seemed significant to me and Dr. Hackett encouraged me to pursue it as a Ph.D. dissertation topic.
In the process, I started to work on the Plan of Casa Mata because Ramos Arizpe was supposed to have been associated with it. Finally, I ended up writing on the Plan of Casa Mata for that particular seminar. When I presented the final report, Dr. Hackett suggested that I send it to the Hispanic American Historical Review. Much to my surprise, the editors accepted it for publication. Other interesting experiences were connected with the research on the provincial deputation. The topic just kept growing and expanding until it grew into a dissertation, just as Dr. Hackett had suggested it would. I went to Mexico to do research in many of the state archives and met many interesting people (including Mariano Azuela, the novelist, and various historians). That valuable and exciting experience encouraged me to keep on working. Later I met don Daniel Cosío Villegas, who came to the university here and spent over a year. We had great times with him and his wife, Emma. He encouraged me to submit my manuscript for publication in Mexico. Don Daniel always gave me much support. Another person whom I came to know very, very well during those years was the distinguished historian Edmundo O’Gorman, whom I met when he came to the university to lecture and offer courses.
There were other historians who had important influences on me and my work. One was Walter Prescott Webb. I did not study under Dr. Webb, though he was teaching here when I was attending the university. I knew him quite well, however, often exchanged ideas with him, and received a great deal of help and encouragement from him. J. Frank Dobie’s works always fascinated me, also. I never studied under him either, but I knew him well. I still feel that Herbert I. Priestley’s work is better than most of what is used today, although it could stand improvements and additions. To his credit, he relied more heavily on contemporary documents than do many present-day scholars. I am sure that there were many other individuals who helped to shape my career, but I cannot recall them on the spur of the moment.
SRR: Nettie Lee, what do you consider to have been your major influence on your students, both undergraduate and graduate?
NLB: I have taught very little at the undergraduate level. I did teach an undergraduate course at the university once only to fill in after Dr. Castañeda’s death. A number of those undergraduate students I taught at the time went on to get Ph.D.s and some of them later told me that I had influenced them. But I don’t think that I’m the one to say what my influence has been on my students. I do have ideas about how to work with students. I believe in trying to throw out ideas that need development and then allowing the students to work on topics of personal interest to them. One of my former students will get his Ph.D. in art history this year. He was interested in art, so I suggested that he study the history of graphic arts in Mexico. I remind you, I just suggested: I did not order. I have had other students who have gone into the history of literature. I know that some professors try to direct students into certain topics, but I do not approve of that approach. Still, I don’t think that I could say what my influence has been on history. I can only tell you how I think the teaching of history should be approached.
SRR: You are edging into the next subject to which I would like to turn, and that is your philosophy for training and placing graduate students.
NLB: As I have already suggested, I think that you should give students a broad background. Lead them into areas that they find interesting. I think that a frequent mistake is trying to hold young minds to certain basic, old-time theories. I think history, based on original research and original sources, has to be rewritten by every generation. I think beginning scholars should be informed as to how and why former historians presented their findings the way they did. They should compare histories to see how the discipline has evolved. Such knowledge is essential for purposes of historical comparison. I fear that too much history—I think of Mexico in particular—has been based on two or three or four books, notably those of Lucas Alamán, José María Luis Mora, Vicente Riva Palacio. Each of these men had important things to say and should be consulted as the case requires, but each is fallible.
One fault that I have found in the works of early historians, both foreign and national, is that they frequently have been too greatly influenced by the historians of the country, who generally and naturally write accounts that exhibit anti-Spanish prejudices for the independence period. They might be compared to adolescents who criticize parental control once they have been released from direct supervision. Adolescents usually do not appreciate all the thought that goes into parental decisions. Contemporary historians of a period did not see the complex of problems the mother country, Spain or Portugal, faced at the time of independence, and, therefore, they did not have an adequate comprehension of what and why all the actions they objected to were actually undertaken.
For this reason, I feel that it is very important for every student who intends to work in Latin American history to have a good and thorough knowledge of the history of Spain or Portugal. So informed, they will better understand the total picture and be more capable of writing objectively than they would otherwise be. Therefore, I encourage all of my students to get a solid grounding in Spanish history either through courses or through a broad and wide reading, or preferably both.
Another fault that I have noticed in writing can be attributed to the fact that historians sometimes do not know the Spanish language. That was especially true in the early days, and therefore they had to rely on translators. Translators often did not know the essence of what they were translating. They thus misinterpreted much of what they translated and passed the misinformation on to the person who employed them. I have seen this occur frequently in historical writings. This was the case, for example, of Eugene C. Barker, one of the finest professors with whom I have ever worked. He was a very objective scholar and in class he tried to be detailed and careful about all the materials he used. He did not read Spanish, however, and, regrettably, some of his work shows that lack, largely because the individual he hired to do his translations did not know Spanish history. The combination proved disastrous, because, as a consequence, it resulted in some very serious errors in Dr. Barker’s publications. But I do not want to suggest that Dr. Barker’s works were to be distrusted; on the contrary, they were important and I learned a great deal from them.
SRR: You have a reputation on campus for training students well in research methods and the use of library resources. Is this part of your basic philosophy?
NLB: Sure it is. I teach them to go to original sources and to question everything they read. I have my students write three essays every semester, and I insist that they criticize and compare each of the sources they read to see how they conflict with or support each other. Quite often they make some very interesting discoveries, just as I did early in my career.
SRR: Would you care to single out two or three of your contemporaries who have made particularly important contributions to the field?
NLB: I am not sure who might be considered my contemporaries because I entered the field at an older age than most individuals going into academia. There are so many scholars who have made great contributions to the field that it is hard for me to single out just one or two. I think that Dr. Lewis Hanke has made a real contribution. His work on Las Casas, of course, is without question outstanding. Equally important in that field and on that particular topic and in the colonial area would be Edmundo O’Gorman. I consider him a great scholar. His La idea del descubrimiento de América was an excellent book. He won his name on that particular book, but he was also very much in the Las Casas debate.
SRR: Are there any other colonialists you might wish to mention at this point?
NLB: Obviously I would want to include Charles Gibson and Woodrow Borah. I know Gibson very well and he is indeed a distinguished historian. I might point out that Gibson came to Austin as a student. When he was working on his master’s thesis, he literally lived in the Latin American Collection from early morning until midnight. In fact, he even brought his lunch. He was one of the hardest working scholars I had ever seen. He has returned to the university many times, and we often have had long and interesting discussions. I think Borah’s work is highly important. I don’t know him very well. Of course, there are other historians, but when you say my contemporaries, that puts me in a spot. Many of them are younger than I, considerably younger.
SRR: Do you have some choices for the national period?
NLB: Well, of course. I do not consider Hugh Hamill a contemporary of mine, but I do admire his work. I think that Michael Meyer has done good work in his area. Of course, you have done good work in your field, as did Charles Cumberland. Karl Schmitt’s work, though he is in political science, is as much history as political science and he has contributed well in his field. Of course, I grew up—you might say I was initiated into the field by Herbert I. Priestley and Hubert Howe Bancroft. They were not my contemporaries, but they are important figures in the field. So were Herbert Eugene Bolton and George Hammond. Hammond did a great deal. He worked basically in biography and documentary studies. One could go on down the list for some time. Arthur P. Whitaker did quite a lot in his area. Among the Latin American scholars, I give high marks to Daniel Cosío Villegas, Ricardo Levene in Argentina, and I have forgotten the name of the important historian of Peru. I knew him very well.
SRR: Basadre. Jorge Basadre.
NLB: Jorge Basadre, yes.
SRR: Do you have any feelings about the direction Latin American history is moving or any suggestions of how you would prefer to see it develop?
NLB: Well, it depends on what you mean by that. If you are talking about new methodology, I am very much interested and have been all along in the use of the statistical approach, but I think it must be incorporated into and integrated into the traditional writing of history. I think that it can be so overdone that it does not appeal to people who are not well prepared in that area. I think we have to appeal to all kinds of people. Many would prefer to read something that is made interesting to them rather than something abstract. I think history can be made so abstract that it loses much of its appeal. I think history always should be kept in the area of humanities rather than in the social sciences.
SRR: What about economic history?
NLB: Economic history is as important as any other area. Literary history, economic history, social history, cultural history, religious history all have their place and they must be integrated into the overall picture if we are going to have a reasonably full understanding of the past. You cannot understand the past without relating it to all spheres of life. And life is broad. It is not just wars, for example, as many early historians would seem to imply. Wars are one of the issues of history that I pretty much avoid, but I appreciate that wars are part of life and, as such, an aspect of history. Because societies have to live and produce economically, economic history is very much a part of our discipline.
SRR: It is relatively uncommon for foreign scholars to produce significant work on the history of the United States. Has the position of being a foreigner working on Latin American history ever bothered you?
NLB: I don’t think that I am working on a foreign topic when I work on Mexico. I was born and reared in Texas and I am just as much a part of the history of Mexico as many other people. So, it has never bothered me one way or the other. You cannot know the history of the United States or many of its regions, in my opinion, without knowing the history of this region in which we are living. That’s one of the things that attracted me as much as anything else to Mexican history. I was brought up on the teaching of Mexican history in high school and I always rebelled somewhat at the way it was presented with everything “good” on one side and everything “bad” on the other. That is probably one of the things that spurred me on in studying history. I am afraid that I cannot speak to the question you raise because my background is different in a number of ways from that of someone not born and reared in Texas. I not only was born in Texas, but all of my education was in Texas. I don’t consider that I am a foreigner.
SRR: Let’s talk about allegations that United States scholars engage in what might be called cultural imperialism.
NLB: I don’t think that I am being imperialistic in any way whatever when I study and write on the culture of Mexico. In fact, all the Mexicans I have known really seem to appreciate and value what I do. I have never encountered anyone in Mexico who has ever alluded to any objection to what foreign scholars have written as long as it is presented in a complete and objective manner.
SRR: What kind of counsel would you give to young scholars working in Latin American history? What responsibilities—beyond being fair and objective—do they have and particularly in regard to native historians?
NLB: Because of my position I have had the opportunity to work with many historians not only from Mexico but from many other countries. Many of them have written me to ask for help, and I have always been happy to cooperate. I feel that I have learned more from helping them than they have benefited from my assistance.
My advice to students is that they learn as much as they can about the people; and accept them for what they are. When students go to a country to study or do research, they should not pose as individuals who know more than their hosts. They should talk and exchange ideas with students and scholars of the country. I suppose I did that as a matter of course. I know that I was entertained by Emilio O. Rebasa, foreign minister under President Echeverría, and he told me that I wrote his doctoral dissertation. I recalled that he came to the University of Texas and gathered much of his material here. I suppose that I helped him in much the way that I have helped hundreds of other young people who have come here to use our collections. Learning is largely a matter of scholars helping one another. That is why I don’t understand when I hear talk of cultural imperialism.
SRR: This leads us to a parallel question in your other field of competence—the library area. I have in mind the question of acquiring national patrimony materials. How do you feel about such acquisitions and what would be a reasonable policy for United States depositories with regard to the acquisition of Latin American materials?
NLB: Of course there are laws designed to control the transfer of rare materials. For example, I know that the United States and Mexico have an agreement about national patrimony. Unfortunately, many people do not understand what is meant by national patrimony. As long as the government has not declared an item national patrimony, and it belongs to a private individual, it may be sold out of the country. Just a week or two ago I received a telephone call from Mexico from an individual with certain items for sale. I told him that I thought he should first clear with the government of Mexico whether what he was proposing to sell would be considered the property of the Mexican government. If it turned out that the Mexican government was not interested in the material, then we might be. That has been my policy throughout the time I have been in charge of the Latin American Collection. And I apply it not only to Mexico but to all the nations of Latin America.
There is another problem when talking about national patrimony. We will not buy something if we know that it came out of a public archive, I mean an archive belonging to the nation, a state, or a municipality. Of course, the Latin American Collection does have material that would today be considered national patrimony, but that kind of material was purchased back in the 1920s. At the time the Mexican government knew that it was being marketed and did not object to its being purchased abroad. Take, for example, the García Icazbalceta Collection. That collection had been in the United States for some twenty years before the University of Texas bought it. The university did not buy all of the collection, only a portion of it. As a matter of practice, I prefer to buy microfilm of archival materials rather than the originals.
Materials from foreign countries offered for sale by dealers pose another problem. I discussed this issue with don Daniel Cosío Villegas a number of times. I told him of some cases when we were offered materials that we refused to buy. His response was that if we had bought it, it would be available now. Since we did not buy it, it disappeared. Of course, I told him that we still couldn’t afford to buy materials that I knew were taken out of a public archive. If we started doing that, there would be somebody camping on our doorstep every day trying to sell us stolen materials. But in the case of material that we know has been for many years in other areas—in Spain, for example—and we are unable to trace its travels, we may buy it, give it proper care, and make it available. By so doing, we are performing a service in that we are preserving material that might otherwise be lost. But we will not knowingly buy stolen material.
SRR: Nettie, I recall one instance where you personally saved some material—the Villa account books—for posterity.
NLB: Sometimes we hear that material is being burned. And we have saved a couple of things from that fate. In one case, a woman phoned me and told me that she had gone over to a friend’s house and the friend was burning everything she had because she had to vacate her house. This friend who called said that among other things there were letters of Pancho Villa. I went to the house and looked over the materials, and we bought it. Unfortunately, the woman apparently had already burned a lot of other material that we would have liked to have had. I recall a similar incident that occurred in San Antonio, but that did not have such a fortunate ending. In that case, before we could act, a woman burned a large number of newspapers that would have been of extremely great value. In another case, we bought a collection from a young university student in El Paso. During the summer he had helped clean up an old building that was going to be torn down. He came across a safe that contained a large collection of papers, including correspondence, bills of lading, etc., of the Canadian Railroad Company, which had a line going into northern Mexico during the Revolution. The young man did not know what to do with the material, but he knew that we had a major collection on Mexico so he brought his find to us and asked if we might be interested. I told him that I was not only interested, but would pay him for it. There have been half a dozen or more people who have used that material and have found it a gold mine of information. Just the other day, there was a young woman working on the Chinese in Northern Mexico and she found an important body of material relative to her subject.
SRR: Do you have suggestions as to how we in the United States might go about improving our relations with Latin American historians, if in fact you feel that there is need for improvement?
NLB: Well, I don’t know. I never have run into problems with Latin American historians so I hardly know how to respond to that. I have sometimes heard people in Latin America complain about certain historians and the way they proceed. I think that is a personal problem. And I cannot tell you how to resolve it, because individuals have problems with other individuals. It is not a matter of Latin America or the United States or anything else; it is the persons involved.
I have never experienced that kind of personal problem. In fact, it has been very much the contrary. When traveling in Latin America, I have been overwhelmed by people’s kindness and acceptance. Perhaps they think that poor little woman needs protection. I don’t know. I’ll tell you just one experience I had, I was flying from Santiago, Chile, into La Paz, Bolivia, for the first time. I was much concerned because I had heard of several individuals who had to be kept under oxygen most of their stay there. I have been told most of my life that I have a bad heart. Although I have never believed it to be so, I was nonetheless concerned. After all, La Paz is 12,000 feet above sea level. I must have shown in some way my concern. Shortly before we landed, a young man sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Don’t worry. When we reach La Paz, just take it easy and don’t carry anything except your purse. I’ll help you through customs.” And he went with me through customs. He even got me a taxi and instructed the driver what to do. I had not seen that young man before and I have not seen him since. It is individuals like him that make me appreciate how wonderfully kind the people of Latin America are. I have never had a bad experience there.
SRR: Nettie Lee, you have received many honors during your career, including the distinguished service award from the Conference on Latin American History, the naming of the Latin American Collection for you by the University of Texas at Austin, and the conferring on you of the Aguila Azteca by the Mexican government. Do you want to talk about these and other satisfactions you have received from your professional career?
NLR: I don’t know why that [naming the Latin American Collection for her] ever happened. I did not feel and I still do not feel that the collection should be named for me. The good thing about it, as far as I am concerned, is that I was permitted to serve for a far longer period than anyone else and for that reason it appears sometimes that I did a great deal more than I did. Much of the collecting and much of the work was done between the 1920s and 1940s, before my taking over. One thing I did do was to find the ways and means to obtain the money needed to fill large gaps that existed in the collections. When you buy private collections, they often narrowly reflect the specific interests of the seller. Consequently, there are large gaps in such collections. By hook or by crook, and by appealing to all the different departments on campus, and also to the president of the university, I was able to get much more funding than my predecessor had.
The Latin American Collection never has had a big budget. It didn’t even have a budget when I first became associated with it. One simply had to beg to get a book purchased. At that time funds were distributed to the different departments on the campus, and I had to persuade them to approve purchases. That system was unsatisfactory and, after much insistence, I was finally given a budget of my own in 1942. That year I was budgeted $100.00. That does not sound like a great deal of money, but in those days it was a very useful little sum. At that time you could buy many books out of Latin America for 25 cents a copy. A dollar or two dollars were high prices to pay for books then. Then, too, whenever I found a large set that I felt was very important, I would go to two or three departments and ask each one to contribute a portion of the money to purchase it. I had to get all of those signatures and everything before I could send the purchase order through, but that way I was able to get funding.
By 1959 I had managed to get the Latin American budget for purchasing books up to $3,700. We had been trying in various national seminars on Latin American acquisitions to find ways to get better coverage of books out of Latin America. At the meeting in Washington, D.C., in 1959 we discussed that matter at length, but without finding an answer. The head of the acquisition department of the New York Public Library accepted a proposal that I had strongly promoted to turn to a commercial buyer in the United States who would be willing to try to make arrangements with book dealers in Latin America. There were some buyers who were purchasing a few books, but they were not purchasing in a systematic way. After some negotiation, Stechert Hafner and the New York Public made an agreement whereby Hafner would agree to buy as many copies of every book published in Latin America as various universities indicated they would be interested in later acquiring. When the arrangement was consummated, I learned, much to my surprise, that I was selected to go to Latin America to make all the initial arrangements.
At first, when I was asked to undertake the assignment, I declared that I could not leave my position at the University of Texas. But I talked it over with Mr. Moffet, the director of libraries. He said, “Well, it would be worth it to the university for you to do it because you could make purchases for the university.” He indicated that I could take the job if I were so inclined. Finally I decided to accept the position; for three years I was in Latin America. Mr. Moffet was not prepared to give me funds to make purchases for our library. Before I left, I went to President Harry Ransom. I told him that the New York Public was going to put in $25,000 a year just for acquisitions and I felt that if they had selected me to do that, then the University of Texas ought to trust me to spend $25,000 for it. He did not give me an immediate reply, but promised to think about it. I kept going back to him, and the day before I left, I received a little note, just a scribbled little note. It read: “Buy $25,000 worth of books. H. H. Ransom.”
SRR: Is it not true that when Dr. Ransom was chancellor, you went to him on a number of occasions when special opportunities occurred?
NLB: Yes. The money [$25,000] was strictly for recent acquisitions, as recent as five years before the purchase. Of course, during my travel I was able to find a number of important collections that were very worthwhile to the university, and Dr. Ransom sometimes, but not always, came through with money for these purchases. This amounted to his putting up money over and above the initial $25,000. Interestingly enough, money creates money, I guess you would say, because though I never had been able to get money from the general libraries—just up to $3,700—after Dr. Ransom gave me $25,000 out of his budget, the next year the library decided to add $25,000 to it. I do not know whether Dr. Ransom had put some pressure on, or what, but he kept on giving me the $25,000 and the library’s doubling of that made it possible to buy more than current titles. When Dr. Ransom ceased to be president, the university budget for the Latin American Collection had risen to $100,000 per year. The library maintained that figure and still does.
I think that those monies from Dr. Ransom came from the gift funds that he acquired. I do know this: we were able to build a marvelous collection, if I do say so, with much less money than the Ransom Humanities Research Center. If we had had the sums of money the Center has had, it would be incredible the kind of collection we would have—no question about it.
SRR: You have received so many recognitions, I know it would be hard to single out one as being particularly important to you. I sense, however, that the Aguila Azteca, the highest award that can be given by the Mexican government to a foreign national, has special significance for you.
NLB: Well, of course, it was a great honor, as were all the others. I suspect that it came as a result of don Daniel Cosío Villegas, Edmundo O’Gorman, Antonio Martínez Báez, Víctor Urquidi, Josefina Vázquez, Ernesto de la Torre, and a lot of my other friends in Mexico proposing it. I don’t know why they singled me out for it. It was a great and unexpected honor. Only two or three other women have received that particular award. It’s not given very often. I do appreciate very, very much having received it from the Mexican government. I taught school in Mexico for three years before I graduated from the University of Texas and I have always had a very, very close feeling for Mexico and its people. I love them.
SRR: Speaking of satisfactions, Nettie, if you were to single out one of your books as your most important contribution as a historian, which would it be?
NLB: I have not written that many books, to tell you the honest-to-gospel truth. I am still working on the life of José Miguel Ramos Arizpe. I have enough material to write two or three books on him if I ever find the time.
If I were to single out one, though, it would be the one on the provincial deputation, of course. The provincial deputation laid the groundwork, as I pointed out in the book, for the adoption of the federal system in Mexico. Of course, a lot of people even to this day try to say that Mexico made a mistake in adopting the federal system. But it is my opinion that if it had not adopted it, it would not be Mexico today. It would be about ten other little countries as happened in Central America. Only by adopting that federal system, as was pointed out by Fray Servando Mier, could the country have been held together.
The most satisfaction and pleasure I received from a publication, however, occurred the first year I taught a seminar—a research seminar—at the University of Texas. There were ten members in the seminar. At the end of that semester’s work, eight of the papers produced by those students were considered so exceptional that it was proposed that I write an introduction to what we had worked on in class and that the papers be published as a book. It was published as Mexico and the Spanish Cortes, 1810-1822. I think that was one of the greatest gratifications I have had. Since then I have always had greater satisfaction out of the publication of my students’ work than I have ever had out of my own publications.
I would say that approximately 80 percent of the dissertations written under my direction have appeared in print. Furthermore, so have a number of masters’ theses. Each time an article or a dissertation written by one of my students appears in print, it gives me tremendous pleasure. I didn’t do the work; they did it. But I am always happy for them. Quite a number of my students’ contributions have been published in Spanish in Mexico. I honestly think that one of the greatest things you can do is to publish in the country about which you have written. I know that in the United States there is a great insistence that everybody should learn to write and speak in English and that a book is considered more important if it is published in English. I do not concur. I think that if a book is written about the history of a country, it should be made available to the people in that country as soon as possible. If it is done well, it will be accepted by the people of that particular country. When we talk about imperialism, I think that the very fact that these works are accepted and considered worthy of publication is proof that they are welcomed by that country.
Of course, when you talk about gratifications associated with publications, one of the great satisfactions for me recently was the republication by the Chamber of Deputies of the Mexican National Congress of my work La diputación provincial y el federalismo mexicano, with an introduction by Luis González y González. The Chamber felt that it was worthy of being made the first book in a series that it contemplates publishing on the history of the Mexican National Congress.
SRR: In addition to working on the life of Ramos Arizpe, what other projects are you currently pursuing?
NLB: I’ve always been interested in the ABC Conference at Niagara Falls in 1914 that was held to try to resolve the differences that arose between Mexico and the United States during the presidency of Victoriano Huerta. I have enough material—much of it that has never been made available elsewhere—for a book on that, also. I am optimistic that I will complete that project. Currently I am working on a minor project that I have found absolutely fascinating. It is an article entitled “Kingdoms in Spanish America: Proposals to Maintain an Empire.” Of course, a whole book could be written on that subject. I have found a great deal of material that shows that there were dozens of proposals made in Spain, even one by Charles IV, for setting up monarchical systems in the colony. Each intended to save America for the Spanish empire. It was not a concept suddenly concocted by a French writer in 1826, as my friend the late Arthur P. Whitaker suggested.
SRR: Nettie, as long as we are discussing your current projects, would you like to comment on one of your hobbies—namely, your genealogical work?
NLB: I have always been interested in genealogy. When I started back in the mid-1940s working on and writing articles, I quite frequently went to Sinton to visit with my parents and on those occasions I took my typewriter and work with me. One Saturday morning I was in the dining room typing up an article and my mother said to me: “I wish you’d write on something that I’m interested in.” I looked at her somewhat surprised. My mother and I were always very, very close, and I asked: “What do you mean?” And she said that she would like to know something about the history of her family. It seems that when she was in college, one of her teachers had told her something about the history of her family, but just enough to whet her appetite, you might say. She thought that since I was interested in history, I ought to be interested in the family history.
During the summer, I was spending a Sunday afternoon with my grandmother, my mother’s mother, and I asked her to tell me about her people. I recorded all that she said. That was the smartest thing I had done in many months, because to this day, her remarks constitute the basic material from which I was able to proceed on the history of my mother’s people. My father’s mother and father both died when he was four years old and he was reared by his mother’s brother. Actually he was reared in boarding schools back in Virginia. He didn’t know a thing about his family. He thought that his father did not have any brothers or sisters, and I found out that he actually had ten.
I played with the genealogy in the summertime until I got so involved in the collection and teaching that I didn’t have any time for it. When I retired, I started playing with it again. I have decided that genealogy is very worthwhile for historians. Perhaps, if I had started earlier, I might have had a better perspective for history. I usually recommend it to my classes. In many cases the students that you have today live in such an entirely different world that they’re often totally unaware of the past. Look in the history books used in the schools. They talk about the major things that happened. They don’t tell you about life in general. I think history should teach you about life in general, through all periods of time and not just the present. You don’t criticize what happened in the past on the basis of what you know today. In my opinion, you have to put everything in the period of time in which it occurred.
I don’t agree with those who say that genealogy is just a pastime for old folks. I think it would be better if it were a pastime for young folks, too. They would have a much better awareness of how to approach history. Unfortunately, teachers do not ordinarily encourage students to develop interests like genealogy. I have found in my classes time after time that students make disparaging remarks about people we’re studying who didn’t know how to read or write. Each time that occurs, I ask them about their ancestors. Should reading and writing be the basis for criticizing earlier generations? Students should be made aware of such things from time to time. I feel confident in doing so because through genealogy I know something about the history of the life and times in which my ancestors lived. In my genealogical research, I do not limit my work to discovering the birth dates of my ancestors. I find out where they lived, what the roads looked like, who kept the roads, what crops they raised, what they ate, and everything they did at work and at play. When you get down to that level, you are getting somewhere. That is history.