THIS IS MY LAST DIRECTOR’S LETTER for Portal, and while time feels as if it’s flown by, LLILAS Benson has achieved many milestones since my term began. In the past four years, the partnership between the academic unit, LLILAS, and the library, Benson, grew from an experiment in collaborative scholarship into a reality, showing that we are greater than the sum of our parts. I often boast that we are “the best Latin American Studies program in the United States and the finest Latin American library in the world.” This remains as true in 2020 as ever.
Our student program is thriving. We graduated the first PhDs from our revamped program, which attracts bright, highly motivated students, many of them from underrepresented populations across Latin America. The Benson has continued to acquire world-class materials, adding to stellar collections such as the papers of priest, activist, and poet Ernesto Cardenal. Grants from major foundations such as Tinker, Mellon, NEH, as well as the U.S. Department of Education have been wildly successful, opening up a wide range of new opportunities. Supported by the University of Texas Libraries and the College of Liberal Arts, we have made major strides in digital scholarship and post-custodial archiving. And, despite a radically changed world, we continue to plan a wide array of events to commemorate the Benson Centennial in 2021.
Last, but by no means least, thanks to the enthusiastic support of the LLILAS Benson Advisory Council, we were able to match the $10 million gift from Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long. This achievement owes much to my predecessors and our dynamic development officers—along with the President’s Office, which contributed the final installment of the match. Donor involvement allows us to recruit and fully fund the best graduate students, expand our public programing, enhance the impact of our collections through digital scholarship, and support unique initiatives such as AILLA, the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America—an asset of worldwide importance that originated due to the effort and monetary commitment of a single visionary faculty donor. We simply could not do what we do without you, especially as economic hard times put new strains on university resources.
My final day as director of LLILAS Benson marks the thirtieth anniversary of the date on which I first started at UT. I have been close to Latin American Studies the entire time. I served with four previous directors, and I am very proud to be the first woman in this job. Taking the long view, as historians tend to do, I can see that, although every director leaves their imprint on the program, LLILAS Benson is a deep and rolling river that continues in its course regardless of who is in charge. This is largely due to our excellent staff. People choose to work here because they care about our mission; it’s rarely “just a day job.” The commitment, professionalism, and enthusiasm of our staff keep us on track through good times and challenges.
One of the greatest pleasures of being director has been meeting with alumni, some my former students. A number of them work in fields associated with Latin American Studies, as politicians and journalists, archivists and artists, activists and community leaders, professors and attorneys, in NGOs, sharing lives of meaning and purpose with the world. The influence of LLILAS Benson is centrifugal.
At heart, I remain a teacher and researcher, and to that I now return. I leave LLILAS Benson in the able hands of Javier Auyero, a professor in sociology, who will serve as interim director until the world stabilizes enough to hold an international search. Javier is a loyal friend of LLILAS Benson. He has sat on our Executive Committee and served for the past four years as our Director of Public Programs. A renowned scholar and a native of Argentina, he is a favorite teacher and mentor to our students and a powerful advocate for our program and the partnership. He will also be LLILAS Benson’s first Latin American director.
It is bittersweet to leave LLILAS Benson, especially now, at a time unlike any other, when the world has turned upside down. The global pandemic, which has claimed so many and so much, also consumed my final semester as director. Important events—a major international conference, residencies by visiting scholars, our students’ graduation—simply could not happen. As I write this, our country is roiled by justified outrage at police violence toward Black people and the societal institutions that perpetuate racism and discrimination. Yet the events of this year only confirm what I’ve believed all along: that knowledge production, a hunger for justice, respect for others, and meaningful engagement with people and ideas—all at the heart of LLILAS Benson’s mission—matter very much indeed.
As I step onto the shore, I am profoundly grateful to have been LLILAS Benson’s leader. And now, our river runs on.
Virginia Garrard, Outgoing Director, LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections