Alumna Virginia Ann Newton Remembers ILAS
October 12, 2014
Perhaps I was first conscious of my love for the culture of Latin America through music and dance. At the age of four, my parents took me to a dance where the famous Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz played. All the children sat on a big bale of hay and Mr. Arnaz gave each one a teddy bear.
Growing up I was always involved in dance and music. I played the piano and recall enjoying “El Manicero” (the Peanut Vendor), a famous Cuban son. I did tap, ballet, ballroom, but always enjoyed the Latin dances.
My first trip to Mexico was with my father, who sold fresh limes shipped by train from Monterrey to Ponca City, Oklahoma (where I grew up). I was in junior high school. I was totally bewitched by the culture.
At Stephens College, where I received my AA degree, I took a tour of Mexico, followed by summer school (Spanish language and Mexican folk dances) at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM). As a member of the Flying Club at Stephens College, I flew (with my instructor in a small plane) roundtrip from Columbia, Missouri, to Monterrey, Mexico.
Following my BA in history from Oklahoma State University, I received a Masonic scholarship to study international relations at George Washington University (GWU), where I took excellent courses in Latin American politics and history. Ironically, GWU was located only a few blocks from the Organization of American States (OAS), where I would be working three decades later.
After completing my master's degree in librarianship from the University of Washington, I worked as head of the Art Library at The University of Texas at Austin. I studied Portuguese and for three months lived in a favela in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, where I worked downtown in a rare book shop/publishing company. When scholarships for a post-graduate certificate in Latin American librarianship became available, I took all those courses (bibliography, acquisitions, book publishing, and archives), as taught by Dr. Nettie Lee Benson. These librarians subsequently accepted important positions in libraries in the United States, including the Organization of American States (OAS).
I accepted a position at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, as the Latin American librarian and archivist. One of my activities included participation in the Texas Consortium for Microfilming Mexican Archival Resources. Trinity University was responsible for filming municipal archives dating back to 1599 from the states of Nuevo León and Saltillo. I made several trips to the Monterrey to the library at the ITESM, where supervised the microfilming. I was an active member of the Latin American Studies Committee at Trinity University. We made contacts with Mexican historians and librarians followed by invitations to their scholarly meetings. I bought library materials for the library on our various trips and set up exchange programs. I was able to spend a few weeks for two summers studying Spanish in an intensive language school in Cuernavaca, Mexico. In the course of my work I established longtime friendships with several Mexican librarians and historians.
A couple of years later I completed a master of arts degree in Latin American studies at The University of Texas. My dream job was to work in a position where I could use my skills in the field of Latin American librarianship, archives, and history, but for this, I needed further education at The University of Texas.
Before entering the PhD program I examined three possible programs: history, library science, or the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS). All three wanted me but the History and Library Science departments wanted me to teach. I decided by far the best one for me was ILAS.
First, I could spread my wings and take most any class I wanted—Dr. Américo Paredes in Latin American folklore, courses in Latin American art, political science with Dr. Karl Schmitt, and undergraduate courses in Mexican history from Dr. Richard Sinkin and graduate classes from Dr. Nettie Lee Benson. Then, the institute gave me scholarships for every year of classwork and helped me get the Fulbright-Hays scholarship and all others I needed to finish the dissertation. Not only that, I was selected University Fellow from ILAS (the fellows are the outstanding PhD candidates from all University of Texas departments.) I was nominated for membership in Phi Kappa Phi.
I was the only student who took every course Dr. Nettie Lee Benson taught in Latin American history, archives, and library science. This was not easy. Dr. Benson quickly reduced the size of her history seminars (from 16 to 5) after the first meeting when she handed out the very demanding class syllabus.
Personally I felt privileged to have Dr. Benson as my teacher, mentor, and friend. Before Dr. Benson was awarded the Aztec Eagle Award by the president of Mexico, she asked me if I could help her find something to wear. I described all the eligible items in my wardrobe and she told me what she had in hers. I was very touched. Dr. Benson was a master in the art of persuasion. I found out many years later she called a head librarian whom she didn’t know and told her she had to hire me. I got the job.
Dr. Benson was a scholar who was totally devoted to her work—her coffee break amounted to putting instant coffee in her cup of cold water and continuing to work.
She didn’t eat lunch until 3:00 p.m. She was ever present in the library—evenings, weekends, and holidays. We got by with nothing—she knew who was working and it better be on her classes. Also, she was often consulted by scholars from this hemisphere and her students were in key political, academic, and library positions throughout the hemisphere.
The United States developed the first Modern Records Management Program in the world. As a Fulbright scholar in Mexico I learned Latin American countries were looking to the United States to develop their own programs. I wanted more experience in records management. Instead of accepting a position teaching courses in Latin American librarianship, I went to Juneau, Alaska, where I served as Alaska State Archivist at the Alaska State Archives and Records Management Agency.
In the end, because of the fine education at The University of Texas Institute of Latin American Studies, and the excellent reputation of the Benson Latin American Collection, I found my dream job as director of the Columbus Memorial Library at the OAS. This was no ordinary job.
The qualifications for the position included a PhD in Latin American history; master’s in library science; and certified archivist and records manager. The OAS is the oldest regional international government organization, dating back to 1889, predating the United Nations. The organization has been the central permanent institution for hemispheric dialogue on political, economic, social, educational, cultural, scientific, and technological matters. It is the only international organization whose member states have committed themselves to the promotion of representative democracy.
The library was the first office established. The fabulous building housing the library and the secretariat of this organization was built by Andrew Carnegie in 1910. As the director of the Library, I was responsible for four distinct programs: the traditional library, with books, periodicals, historical maps and photographs, and manuscripts; the archives and records management; and indexing and preserving the publications and printed documents of the OAS itself.
I was one of two women among the 28 directors. I worked for 35 member countries spanning this hemisphere and there were four official languages (Spanish, English, Portuguese, and French). A deep understanding of the politics of these countries was essential. I had to learn how to work with high-level diplomats. The job was exciting and very challenging. However, as a director, I was always treated with kindness and respect.
Years ago when my husband asked me to marry him, he asked if I wanted a quarter horse or a diamond ring. I said I wanted a back support chair for my office and we had to learn the Argentine tango.