Digital Humanities and Colonial Latin American Studies

Hannah Alpert-Abrams (, University of Texas at Austin, United States of America and Clayton McCarl (, University of North Florida, USA and Ernesto Priani (, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico and Linda Rodriguez (, New York University, USA and Diego Jimenez Baldillo (, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico and Patricia Murrieta-Flores (, University of Chester, UK and Bruno Martins (, University of Lisbon, Portugal and Ian Gregory (, Lancaster University, UK

Digital Humanities & Colonial Latin American Studies Roundtable


Colonial Latin American studies is an interdisciplinary field that crosses methodological frontiers in order to expand our understanding of the colonial past. This involves the bridging of disciplinary divides, as scholars trained in archaeology, literature, art history, and linguistics come together to define, examine, and seek to understand the historical record, even as it remains elusive and heterogeneous. As in comparable fields based in other parts of the world, including Europe and North America, this interdisciplinary work has depended on the use of computational methods, digital platforms, and digital pedagogy. Yet in the case of colonial Latin American studies, the field has yet to directly address the unique impact of the digital humanities on colonial research. How do the particular cultural and material circumstances of Latin American studies inform the application of digital methods to colonial research? What are the responsibilities of scholars using digital platforms to represent colonial materials? And how should scholars of colonial Latin America respond to the political, cultural, and economic structures that shape transnational collaborations in the digital age?

This bilingual panel addresses these questions by uniting scholars at different career stages, across disciplinary and national boundaries, who are applying the methods of digital humanities to the field of colonial Latin American studies. The papers represented explore the construction of colonial corpora, the application of computational methodology, and the development of digital systems for encoding and display. Panelists will make 10-minute presentations of their work, providing points of departure for a more general discussion about how digital tools and methodologies can alter the way we interact with textual and visual objects within colonial Latin American studies, as well as how we might create sustainable corpora within our field and preserve them for the long term. We hope that this session can contribute to the construction of a DH community within the study of colonial Latin America, in order to create a space for experimentation and the exploration of theoretical and methodological concerns, and to give greater visibility to digital work currently underway. We believe this will have implications for the growth of the field and for our ability to value this work in the specific context of professionalization, tenure, and promotion.

Métodos digitales: repatriación o expatriación de documentos coloniales

Ernesto Priani, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

¿Son los métodos digitales un instrumento para “repatriar” documentos del patrimonio histórico colonial o, por el contrario, son un instrumento para una nueva expatriación de esos materiales? Los estudios coloniales en Latinoamérica requieren de estrategias multinacionales para desarrollar un mejor conocimiento de la cultura colonial por, al menos, dos diferentes razones: la dispersión de los materiales en repositorios de diversos países y la conformación geográfica de la colonia que no corresponde con los actuales estados nacionales. Los métodos digitales representan una oportunidad para llevar a cabo una estrategia que rebase fronteras (Oceanic Exchanges Project Team), pero su uso no está exento de problemas de orden cultural, epistémico y geopolítico (Fiormonte et al.). Una revisión rápida de los proyectos de estudios coloniales con herramientas digitales muestra un desbalance entre proyectos iniciados y desarrollados en Latinoamérica y los que se llevan a cabo sobre todo en Estados Unidos, así como desequilibrios entre países latinoamericanos. Este desnivel tiene que ver, por supuesto, con cuestiones de recursos y perspectivas culturales, pero concretamente con la distinta penetración de los métodos digitales en las academias de Latinoamérica y de Estados Unidos. Tal desequilibrio representa una distorsión que nos obliga a cuestionar el sentido que tiene el uso de métodos digitales. No únicamente está el problema de a quién pertenecen los materiales digitalizados, sino a qué horizonte cultural responden sus formas de representación o de análisis, qué implicaciones tiene el uso de tal o cual tecnología, y cómo se reciben en los distintos países.

Building Early Colonial Corpora for Digital Scholarship

Hannah Alpert-Abrams, University of Texas at Austin

The application of digital humanities methodologies to early colonial texts from Latin America depends on the development of digital corpora that represent colonial discourse with reasonable accuracy. Difficulties arise, however, when we seek to describe such a corpus in the colonial case. Regional variation in the use of historical orthography, the unique conditions of colonial printing, and the widespread integration of Spanish and indigenous languages significantly impacted the shape of inscription during the colonial period. Processes of transcription, lemmatization, and analysis, however, require linguistic normalization. This process is made more difficult when we consider the technological limitations of tools for textual processing, which often originated for use on modern, monolingual, Anglophone texts. In this talk, I will address the challenges of developing a colonial corpus from these Anglophone tools, drawing on the Reading the First Books project as a case study. Reading the First Books was a two-year, multi-institutional, NEH-funded effort to develop tools for the automatic transcription of early modern printed books. The project, which concluded in December of 2017, was successful in expanding automatic transcription tools for use on multilingual, orthographically variant, early-modern printed books. It was not successful, however, in using that tool to automatically transcribe an early colonial corpus. In reflecting on these outcomes, this talk will identify key challenges in colonial corpus construction, and propose ways forward for the automatic transcription of early colonial texts.

Addressing the Challenges in the Semi-automated Identification, Extraction and Analysis of Information from Early Colonial Documents and the XVI Corpus Known as Relaciones Geográficas

Patricia Murrieta-Flores, University of Chester

Diego Jiménez-Badillo, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia

Bruno Martins, University of Lisbon

Ian Gregory, Lancaster University

With the advent of digitization of original and edited collections of historical documents, as well as the creation of novel methods such as Geographical Text Analysis and the use of techniques derived from Natural Language Processing (NLP), Machine Learning and Corpus Linguistics, opportunities have recently emerged to develop new approaches for the study of vast collections of early colonial sources. Within the project “Digging into Early Colonial Mexico: A Large-Scale Computational Analysis of Sixteenth-Century Historical Sources,” funded by the Trans-Atlantic Platform for Social Sciences and the Humanities, we will be refining and developing computational methodologies to identify, extract, cross-reference, and analyse the sixteenth-century corpus of the Relaciones Geográficas of New Spain. Over the course of the next three years, we will be looking not only to advance the creation of computational techniques for the mining of information from these early colonial sources and to solve different historiographical questions related to the geographies contained within them, but also to confront a set of challenges that have rarely been addressed before. For example, although the field of Digital Humanities has seen progress in the use of NLP methods for the automated identification of proper names in historical documents, this research has been carried out substantially in the context of the English language, and rarely with documents in which two languages are combined. In the case of this project, we are dealing with documents written in a combination of early modern Spanish and other non-European languages such as Nahuatl. Another important challenge lies in the geoparsing of these documents, where we are confronting issues that range from spelling variations of place names in Spanish and Nahuatl, to the geographic disambiguation of these places. This paper will address, through this particular example, the challenges that any scholar attempting data mining and/or macro-analysis of colonial Latin American documents would face, delving into the ways we are dealing with them.

Theoretical Problems in the Semantic Markup of Colonial American Maritime Texts

Clayton McCarl, University of North Florida

To date, little work has been done on semantic markup as an area of editorial theory, or as a theoretical domain of relevance to the field of colonial Latin American studies. In my current research, I address this situation in part by considering parameters for the markup of maritime texts. Such writings deal largely in references to external worlds of people, places and objects—named and unnamed, known and unknown, real and imagined—, and our understanding of such texts hinges on our ability to decipher their codification of complex, unfamiliar realities. In developing a markup scheme for exploring taxonomies of externality in colonial-era maritime texts, I have encountered several theoretical issues that I believe have consequences beyond my current project. In this presentation, I will consider specifically the conceptual ambiguities that such a markup scheme may expose; consider the interpretive danger that such an editorial approach might pose; and examine ways in which, through such a process of markup, we might come to experience differently these textual objects.

Digital Aponte: Mitigating Archival Loss through Digital Methods

Linda Rodriguez, New York University

Archives are political projects. In the context of the colonial Americas, historian Kathryn Burns suggests “we make our archives and sources part of our research, looking at them as well as through them.” To do so, she argues, expands our understanding of the historical relationships of power that condition their production. In this paper, I analyze how digital methods can help us look at, and through, documents that register loss. I focus on the Digital Aponte project that aims to make present a lost work of art. Jose Antonio Aponte (?-1812) was a free man of color, soldier, sculptor, and creator of a “book of paintings” in colonial Havana. Aponte’s book has been lost, or destroyed, but his descriptions of the book’s pages survive in the archival record, part of his testimony following his arrest for conspiring to plan slave rebellions. Digital Aponte presents this trial testimony, with plans to add explanatory annotations of Aponte’s robust descriptions, along with contextual information. I explore how digital methods enable the project’s objective to foreground the archival document as a generative text.

Appendix A

  1. Burns, K. (2010). Into the Archive:
    Writing and Power in Colonial Peru. Durham: Duke University Press.
  2. Fiormonte, D., Schmidt, D. Monella, P. and Sordi, P. (2015). “The Politics of Code. How Digital Representations and Languages Shape Culture.” Extended Abstract, ICTs & Society Conference. (accessed 1 May 2017).
  3. Oceanic Exchanges Project Team (2017).
    Oceanic Exchanges: Tracing Global Information Networks in Historical Newspaper Repositories, 1840-1914. DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/WA94S (accessed 1 May 2017).

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