Practicum in Tlaxcala, Mexico

Dominik photo

By: Dominik Maslanka, 3rd Year Student in Latin American Studies and Museum & Hertiage Studies

On the sixth of May, 2014, I boarded my flight from Calgary to Houston. This was my first step towards taking part in something that I always wanted to accomplish: having the opportunity to work in a museum. The planning for this journey began in July 2013 when I took part in a field school to Puebla, Mexico. It was after a tour of the state archives that I expressed interest in a possible internship. Following a brief chat with the director of El Museo de la Memoria (The Museum of Memory), Dr. Juan Carlos Ramos, months of careful planning began, and with the help of two professors from the University of Calgary, Geography professor, Dr. Denise Brown, and Museum Studies professor, Dr. Michele Hardy. With their assistance, I was able to begin my practicum.  The circumstances surrounding my time in Mexico were truly unique in that they provided me with an opportunity to pursue both of my scholastic interests: Latin American Studies, which is my degree stream, and  Museum and Heritage studies, which is my minor concentration.

The six weeks that I spent at El Museo de la Memoria provided me with an opportunity to apply knowledge learned in various Museum and Latin American Studies courses and apply them to a working environment. My internship also provided me with an opportunity to practice an equally important skill: to further explore the Spanish language. I will admit, the prospect of being placed in a Spanish speaking environment did seem daunting after having taken but a few Spanish courses. With that said, I found that as I had no other choice, using Spanish became second nature, and after a few days communicating with my co-workers and with locals proved to be quite enjoyable. I especially enjoyed learning local expressions, which differed greatly from the ‘formal’ Spanish taught in class. Certainly, such colloquialisms could be learned by reading a novel or in a course covering local expressions, but were undoubtedly better received when experienced in a local context.

Over the course of my time at the museum, I had the opportunity to explore a variety of museum roles, from collections management to interpreting visitor data to acting as an English speaking tour guide. My itinerary covered the entire breadth of a museum’s functions. A memorable moment came when I was studying social-media efforts at the museum and I was invited to take part in a fifteen minute interview where I spoke of my experience in Tlaxcala. It was refreshing to see that people were as willing to learn about Canadian culture as I was to learn about Mexican culture. Moreover, this particular experience allowed me to see that although we may be thousands of kilometers apart, there is commonality between us as nations.

One may be inclined to think that because I was assigned to work in a specific museum, the majority of my working hours were spent in that particular institution. On the contrary, my schedule allowed me to visit a number of surrounding museums, providing me with an opportunity to experience a number of different museums within the state. This broad range of museums included those whose subject matter represented a national interest such as El Museo Nacional de Titere (The National Puppet Museum), located in nearby Huamantla, while others such as El Museo Comunitario Mixcoahtecutli de Matlalohcan (The Community Museum of Matlalohcan) focused on content that was specific to that particular municipality. This museum, in particular, featured a large number of artefacts, from textiles and archaeological pieces to a meteorite which had landed near the town. One may be inclined to ask if  a museum such as this one, with its collection spanning a multitude of research areas, provides its visitors with pertinent information about the region  or if the multiple elements detract from the quality of the museum’s collection. In my eyes, it was because of the multiple elements that a visitor such as myself could have a well-rounded view of all of the changes that the community had undergone over the years.

Having the opportunity to view museums in various stages of development presented me with an opportunity to become reacquainted with the purpose for which a museum is established. Many are accustomed to think of museums as institutions that house but the rarest of artworks and artefacts, when, in fact, they also play a vital role in preserving the history and traditions of the areas in which they are established, or the subject matter that they embrace. Among the more rewarding aspects of my practicum was having the opportunity to observe how various youth groups interacted with the exhibits. For many, visiting El Museo de la Memoria provided them with an opportunity to view what they were learning in the classroom in a more tangible manner. It was interesting to see that the students, (contrary to my experiences visiting museums as a young student in Canada) were quite interested in the museum’s content and followed directions attentively. The latter brought to my attention the importance of a good relationship between school districts and cultural institutions such as museums, because it is this relationship that sets the foundation for students to enjoy learning about the history of the region in which the museum is located.  Perhaps what was most impressive was the fact that for being the smallest state in Mexico, the state of Tlaxcala had a large number of museums, especially when considering its relatively low population density. Conceivably this high concentration is due to the region having placed a high priority on investing in infrastructure and institutions that aim to disseminate cultural and historical knowledge.

Perhaps now I can take the time to summarize my experience over my six weeks of working in a museum in Mexico. What has this experience taught me about museums and living abroad? Has it instilled in me the desire to take up further graduate studies in the museum field? And lastly, what advice would I give other students who may be looking to follow in my footsteps and complete an international practicum of their own? I should begin by saying that the lessons learned through an opportunity such as this are invaluable for any student with an interest in museums and cultural management alike. Certainly, many museums do offer brief ‘behind the scenes’ tours for a few lucky visitors, but having the opportunity to observe how a museum functions as an employee allows one to appreciate all of the different roles of a museum and its staff. My time at El Museo de la Memoria provided me with the opportunity to experience the museum as an integrated whole with a director heading the operation, as opposed to being comprised of many different parts. As opportunities such as exhibition preparations presented themselves, I realized that although the director (and curator) was responsible for carrying out the role of interpretation and research, the other employees played an equally important role in supporting the exhibition through custodial work, such as setting up the exhibition, and bringing the new display to the public’s attention, through various media interviews and social media postings.

To conclude, a museum is only as good as the sum of its parts. When visiting a museum, I invite you to look around and appreciate the effort put forward by those who you may not see credited in the galleries, for their roles may not be immediately visible, but they are certainly not unappreciated. Moreover, as you can imagine, the greatest thrill of this experience was completing such a task in a foreign country. As a rather seasoned traveller, I had little to no problem adapting to my new surroundings. However, if I could provide a piece of advice for future students, it would be to have a good understanding of the Spanish language before going because as I learned in the beginning, it is rather difficult to come across an English speaker. Secondly, when embarking on such a journey, it is important to remain flexible. Of course the only fixed schedule one has to adhere to are the daily work hours, as I had learned, but other things can change rapidly, and the ability to adapt to those changes is an indispensable tool to have in your arsenal.

As my taxi left my hotel on a brisk morning in late June, I wondered about all that I had experienced over the past six weeks and how much more of an informed student I had become. Perhaps most importantly, my time has made me realize that although there is a long way to go yet, I would certainly like to continue in the field of Museum Studies and eventually find employment in such an institution. Lastly, if you are a student looking to participate in a museum practicum such as this one, I say go for it! The experience will likely stay with you for years to come!



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Dr. Serge Zaïtzeff, 1940-2014

By Elizabeth Montes Garcés

Serge Zaitzeff

The University of Calgary’s Latin American Research Centre mourns the loss of our friend and colleague, Dr. Serge Zaïtzeff, who passed away on June 12, 2014.

Serge Zaïtzeff was born in Versailles, France, in 1940.  He was a professor of Mexican Literature in the Department of French, Italian and Spanish. He joined the University of Calgary in 1963 and earned his PhD at Indiana University in 1970 with a dissertation on the analysis of Rafael López’ poetry and prose fiction. His field of expertise was Mexican “Modernismo”, the generation of “Contemporáneos”, and the works by the members of “Ateneo de la Juventud”. He did excellent archival work, and as a result of his extensive research, he published several volumes that chronicled the literary, social, and political atmosphere of post-revolutionary Mexico.  In addition, he edited several volumes of correspondence among key figures of the period, such as the great essayist Alfonso Reyes and other Mexican intellectuals such as Rafael Cabrera, Xavier Icaza, Manuel Toussaint, Genaro Estrada, Antonio Castro Leal, and South American writers such as Juana de Ibarbourou, German Arciniegas, and German Pardo García, to mention just a few.  He also investigated and published manuscripts on the correspondence among other famous Latin American writers such as Gabriela Mistral and Carlos Pellicer, and a study on the works written by the Mexican poet Juan José Tablada during his diplomatic service in Colombia and Venezuela.

Zaïtzeff was passionate about recovering figures who had been obscured by the critics. Such was the case of Julio Torri (1889-1970), a prose fiction writer, who, according to Zaïtzeff, anticipated in his fiction the traits that one can find in the fantastic literature produced later by the Argentineans Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar.  Zaïtzeff published several books on Julio Torri, including El arte de Julio Torri  (1983), Julio Torri y la crítica  (1981),  Julio Torri: diálogo de libros (1980), and compiled his letters and major works in Epistolarios (1995), and Obra omplete (2011).

Author of more than fifty works, Zaïtzeff was one of the most prolific critics in Mexican literature. His books were published by important publishing houses in Mexico such as Fondo de Cultura Económica, Universidad Autónoma de México, and El Colegio de México.   He received the Xavier Villaurrutia award in 1983 for his book El arte de Julio Torri, and was named a corresponding member of the Mexican Academy of Language in 1982.

Serge was also a kind and generous man who shared his knowledge and his taste for Latin American popular music with many generations of undergraduate and graduate students and colleagues in the Department of French, Italian and Spanish.  He enjoyed good wine and good conversation, and he made enduring friendships in the many Latin American countries where he was invited to lecture.

We will miss a true intellectual, a devoted researcher of Mexican Literature, and a wonderful colleague.  May he rest in peace and his writings endure for future generations.


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IN MEMORIAM Gabriel García Márquez

By: Dr. Elizabeth Montes Garcés

On Apemontesril 17th the world witnessed the passing of a true literary giant, perhaps the greatest one of our time, Colombian novelist and journalist Gabriel García Márquez. An international icon, he inspired the imaginations of countless readers around the world. As a lifelong traveller, García Márquez’s journey began at 14 years of age when he left his childhood home in Aracataca, a village on Colombia’s Caribbean coastline; he travelled to Zipaquirá within the cold and gloomy Andean highlands to begin his studies in a colonial school that ultimately provided him the academic setting to hone his skills as a writer and an opportunity to devour many literary classics. Thus began a long and productive relationship between this world-renowned author and the literary arts. His natural talent for language combined with a creative imagination and a profound knowledge of human nature allowed him to create the legendary village of Macondo, a place so unique that the most astonishing events ever imaginable could become reality. Through a masterful control of the written word, García Márquez invites the reader to experience this new world, much like a father’s gentle touch guides his child to discover ice for the very first time.

In Macondo we meet many unforgettable individuals, such as José Arcadio Buendía and Ursula Iguarán, who, like García Márquez’s own maternal grandparents, emigrated from La Guajira in search of “a place of great promise” in order to create a “village filled with happiness and joy”. This notion of one’s life as a journey manifests itself through the lives and experiences of various protagonists: José Arcadio and his travels around the world, Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s involvement in the nation’s civil wars, Melquiades and his arrivals in the village with new and interesting inventions, and José Arcadio the second’s search for his beloved Fernanda in Bogotá. The journeys experienced by these fascinating characters very much parallel García Marquez’s own travels around Colombia as a correspondent for the Barranquilla Herald or the Bogotá Spectator, gathering information regarding local tragedies. One particular news story, The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, unexpectedly forced him to flee Colombia for Europe, as a result of the censorship brought forth by the government of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. His journalistic endeavours forced him to take up exile on more than one occasion, events that enriched his life and career as a writer, journalist, and screenwriter. They also imbued García Márquez with experiences that eventually inspired him to study film at the National Film School in Rome, to meet the extraordinary editor Carmen Balcells in Barcelona, and to appreciate the reality of Latin America from the viewpoint of a Parisian. It is also during his exile in Mexico that he wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). The novel was a sudden hit, and not only with native Spanish-speakers already familiar with the author and his work. In fact it quickly gained an unexpected level of popularity abroad, and consequently shed a new light on Latin America as a literary setting and its identity within the collective imaginations of international readers.

Although García Márquez’s marvellous stories exude the storytelling spirit of a nomadic minstrel, reminiscent of the style of legendary Colombian musician Francisco el Hombre, they are ever-mindful of the Latin American reality, and as such serve as a chronicle of a continent plagued by violence, political repression, social injustice, exploitation and hunger. This reality is present in such famous novels as The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) as well as the author’s prolific body of journalistic work. Guided by his firm political convictions, García Márquez actively supported the Cuban Revolution, the resistance to General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, and the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua.

In 1982 he gained well-deserved world recognition by winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. He continued to publish unique works where the notion of love, the only antidote to loneliness, is featured as the common narrative thread. These include Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) and Of Love and Other Demons (1994). Now, after a lifetime of hardships and successes, the literary master sets out on one last journey. Just like Bolivar in The General in His Labyrinth (1989), or Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, lovers who cross the Magdalena River to vanquish death, he calls upon the ferryman, climbs aboard Charon’s boat, and sails toward eternity.

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