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Central American Political and Social History

The Penn Libraries Latin American Collection includes a substantial collection of ephemera, books, and audiovisual materials from Central America, focusing on sources for political and social history.

Close up of two books sitting on a bench.

Collection Overview

Penn’s collections related to Central America have long included materials in the areas of ethnohistory, archaeology, and Indigenous languages. With new acquisitions concentrating on political and social history, Penn has enhanced the depth and breadth of its holdings thematically, geographically, and temporally. Sources for the people and histories of Central America are less widely held in North American academic libraries, making Penn’s holdings notable—and an important contribution to the Penn Libraries’ strategic investment in collections of Global Voices.

Long-time vendor of Central American books Vientos Tropicales sourced monographs from their own collection and partnered with Clásicos Roxsil, a family-run book business in El Salvador, to supply the Penn Libraries with this substantial acquisition. The new collection includes thousands of monographs published in Central America over the past few decades. While all countries of Central America are represented, books from Guatemala and El Salvador are most numerous. Topics within this collection include Indigenous issues, race and ethnicity, environmentalism, traditional medicine, student movements, internal armed conflicts, post-conflict democracy, and more. While the Penn Libraries’ holdings related to Central America were already robust, these additions make the Libraries unique in the depth and breadth of the collection.  

While most countries of Central America have shared historical commonalities (Spanish and/or British colonialization, movements of independence, Cold War-era U.S. military interventions, etc.), there are also significant differences between and within the countries and subregions of Central America. Obtaining materials that highlight the specificities of places and peoples within Central America is essential for supporting in-depth scholarly research and for allowing students of the Central American diaspora to see themselves represented in library collections. While many books in our new collection focus on particular countries, others zoom in on the histories, peoples, and stories of particular regions or even towns, giving readers the unique vantage of extremely local points of view.

These new acquisitions also support the work of the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies’ grant “Dispossessions in the Americas: The Extraction of Bodies, Land, and Heritage from La Conquista to the Present.” The Dispossessions project examines processes of historical and contemporary dispossession, focusing on territories, bodies, and cultural heritages throughout the Americas. A number of books in the collection emphasize the themes of this multi-year, cross-campus project, including Acceso a la Tierra: ¿Por los Caminos del Mercado o del Estado?: Propuesta para un Modelo Alternativo de Acceso, published by the Instituto de Estudios Agrarios y Rurales (Access to Land: By Way of the Market or the State? Proposal for an Alternative Access Model by the Institute of Agrarian and Rural Studies) and La Construcción Jurídica de la Población Afrocaribeña Costarricense (1940-2014) (The Juridical Construction of the Afro-Caribbean Costa Rican Population [1940-2014]) by Mónica María Pérez Granados.  

Unfortunately, the work of Central American scholars and writers only rarely leaves the borders of their own countries. Outside of specialized vendors who work primarily with academic libraries, there is not an established international market for Central American authors. Scholars may not even see their work circulate much within their own countries, particularly in areas where armed conflicts target intellectuals, including authors and publishers. Additionally, books can be prohibitively expensive for many people in countries with high rates of poverty. 

Despite these obstacles, university presses, independent presses, and community-oriented presses, such as presses featuring work by and for Indigenous audiences, have endured or emerged. For example, "Los Indígenas También Queremos Ser Guatemaltecos...": Entre la Exclusión y la Democracia (1950-1985) (“We the Indigenous also Want to be Guatemalans…”: Between Exclusion and Democracy [1950-1985]) was published by Maya’ Wuj Editorial, a Guatemalan publishing house dedicated to publishing on Indigenous issues by Indigenous scholars like the book’s author, Alberto Esquit Choy. While the majority of the books we received in this collection are published by academic presses (university or research organizations), we have also sought to highlight material written by and for marginalized voices within Central America.   

While comparatively small, the audiovisual materials acquired as part of the Central American collection contain items with no known counterparts in other U.S. libraries. Examples include the CD set of Honduran protest music, 25 Éxitos de la Resistencia: 25 Canciones del Movimiento Revolucionario de Honduras and the documentary Rutilio Vive, about the life of Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest who worked alongside Óscar Romero to better the lives of the people of El Salvador until his assassination in 1977.  

The Central American ephemera materials are an especially unique and exciting piece of this purchase. They consist primarily of posters and pamphlets from the personal collection of Dr. Fred Morgner, co-owner of Central American book supplier Vientos Tropicales. Beginning in 1984, Morgner lived in Central America while working for the Library of Congress to gather significant printed matter for the region for the Library of Congress’s collections. During this time period, much of Central America was immersed in Cold War internal armed conflicts that spanned decades (Guatemala 1960-1996, El Salvador 1979-1992, and Nicaragua 1961-1990, most significantly). Despite the difficulties of acquisition travel, Morgner was able to gather a substantial collection of material from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. Most of the material was sourced from government institutions, revolutionary groups, human rights organizations, and other civil society organizations, such as women’s groups, labor groups, and liberation theologians.

Some of the posters in the ephemera collection speak directly to the U.S. role in Cold War conflicts, including material both for and against the U.S.-backed Contras in Nicaragua. Given the enduring impacts of not just the conflicts themselves but the factors driving them in much of Central America today, understanding this time period is essential for any analysis of contemporary politics in the region, including reasons for migration. The United States played an enormous role in fueling the violence in Central America in the late 20th Century, and it is important for students in U.S. institutions like the Penn to grasp the consequences of U.S. military interventions, including covert operations.   

These materials present unique opportunities for researchers within and visiting Penn. Not only does this collection allow researchers to study the context of the political and social conflicts in the 1980s and 1990s in Central America, it also invites scholars to consider the use of graphic arts as political messages to reach a popular audience. Some of the posters are colorful and quite beautiful, which is not necessarily what one would expect to see from a collection of images and artworks created during times of intense conflict. These materials make visible not only anger, but hopes and desires for the future of the countries they represent. They are not only diagnoses of a terrible present, but also visions for a future of peace and greater equality.

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