Nostalgia as a Path to Knowledge Across Cultures


Nostalgia as a Path to Knowledge Across Cultures

Global Student Spotlight: Elizabeth Mirabal
Elizabeth Mirabal headshot

econd-year Spanish graduate student Elizabeth Mirabal traveled from Havana to UVA to expand her studies in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Latin American literature, Caribbean literature, and Cuban studies. She spoke about ways nostalgia permeates her intellectual interests, as well as her personal experiences in Charlottesville, and shared her advice for students interested in international research.

You recently returned from a research trip to the Smathers Library in Florida for your project “Nostalgic Networks of Intimate Writing: Diaristic and Epistolary Discourses in the Nineteenth-Century Spanish Caribbean.” Can you tell us about this project and what you discovered in the Smathers Library?

Mirabal: I am interested in looking at diaries and letters, especially from the nineteenth-century Spanish Caribbean, to elucidate the uses of nostalgia in texts written in situations of exile or displacement. I plan to explore to what extent this feeling of nostalgia became an expressive device in the face of multiple losses and displacement. In terms of my archival work, I conceived a research project that combines new analysis of renowned diaries and letters, and lesser-known or even ignored manuscript materials such as correspondence by and about free and enslaved Afro-Cubans in the nineteenth century.
During my visit to the Smathers Library at the University of Florida, I consulted a book specially prepared for María Mantilla with photographs of all the letters that José Martí wrote to her when she was a child. This book was carefully preserved within a delicate case with a blue bow. A heated debate persists today about whether Mantilla was the biological daughter of José Martí, a 19th-century Latin American intellectual widely known in American academia for his influential essay “Nuestra América.” This book was clearly symbolically important both to Mantilla and to the Cuban authorities, who took the trouble to put it together for her during the celebrations of Martí’s centenary. This demonstrates the ways in which texts can hold nostalgia and intimacy, which in turn form networks across generations. On the other hand, my searches in the archive of Cuban enslaved death certificates and burial letters have made me think about the work of scholars like Saidiya Hartman and Celia E. Naylor. One of the death certificates I read was for Alejo, a twelve-year-old boy whose mother was enslaved and the certificate referred to him as “son of an unknown father.” It is most likely that Alejo was the product of a rape perpetrated by a white man. In the case of enslaved Afro-descendants, we do not have formal letters. However, these certificates, written in the form of a letter to the cemeteries to ensure burials, allow us to understand how violence emerges.

Elizabeth Mirabal, Ph.D. Student in the Department of Spanish at UVA, conducting research in the reading room of Special Collections, Smathers Library, University of Florida.
Elizabeth Mirabal, Ph.D. Student in the Department of Spanish at UVA, conducting research in the reading room of Special Collections, Smathers Library, University of Florida.

How did you become interested in this topic?

Mirabal: When I entered the University of Havana to study Journalism, my first projects were oriented toward the reconstruction of a literary canon affected by displacement and hidden narratives. I developed an interest in exploring how Cuban writers in the late nineteenth century expressed melancholia through their letters and diaries as a strategy to understand exile. That interest in exiled writers eventually led me to examine other Cuban experiences of diaspora in the twentieth century.
After I finished my B.A., I explored the counterpoint and the dissonance between patriotism and exile in their poetry, short stories, and epistolary writing. My work in this period culminated in the publication of the anthology La intimidad de la historia/ The Intimacy of History (2013) and the new edition of the Cuban painter and poet Juana Borrero’s Poesía completa/Complete Poetry (2016). This research also shaped my creative writing in La isla de las mujeres tristes/The Island of Sad Women (2014), a novel inspired by Borrero and her literary universe.
I still remembered how much I enjoyed the archival research that preceded those books. The daguerreotypes, the mourning paper on which they wrote their letters, helped me get into the flavor of that time and of a Havana that seemed very strange to me, which was almost a place made of shadows. In Cuba, many of these materials are not microfilmed. Therefore, I had the strange privilege of touching or seeing real private documents. Archival research produces a relationship that comes through the senses, with a letter that is no longer a dead letter, but a living one. Sometimes you even have the luck of perceiving certain almost extinct scents in those documents. Both this experience, and the status of these genres as less canonical, gave me the idea of delving into letters and diaries.

Can you tell us about your journey from Cuba to UVA? How has the transition been?

Mirabal: This is a difficult question because my journey has been a long and particular one, as in the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost when the poetic “I” said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.” Even though I had researched nineteenth- and twentieth-century Latin American literature, Caribbean literature, and Cuban studies since 2009, I felt that I needed to expand my academic horizons, undertaking comparative coursework on a broader regional scale. The graduate program of the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese (SIP) is preparing me for a career as a literary scholar, teacher, and critic. For instance, Professor Charlotte Rogers’ work focusing on “critical nostalgia” will serve as an important guide for the kind of analysis I hope to pursue. Also, because of the interdisciplinary projection of SIP, I have been able to take a course with Professor Carmen Lamas on Nineteenth Century Latinx that will be key for my project.
Regarding the transition, UVA and Charlottesville’s community offers infinite possibilities to find and build a space of your own. The language of the Humanities is universal, and as far as you can read, learn, and write, you will always be at home in many ways. For example, I used to enjoy visiting second-hand bookstores in my city. When I discovered 2nd Act Books, it was as if I were transporting myself across time and space to Havana.

When I discovered 2nd Act Books, it was as if I were transporting myself across time and space to Havana. What I mean by this is that culture and knowledge help to make any transition, however difficult, a new and stimulating path of possibilities.

What are your next steps after UVA?

Mirabal: My most immediate aim is to finish my coursework as part of the Ph.D. program in Spanish. During the summers, I would like to continue conducting archival research to position the idea of sadness in the Caribbean in relation to exile in the tradition of these diasporic communities. Right now, all that I can say about my next steps after UVA is that, as a Cuban scholar, I would like to contribute to the goal of academic, cultural, and intellectual diversity in the U.S. academe through research and teaching.

What advice would you give to students just embarking on international research at UVA?

Mirabal: My advice would be to approach your research topics without prejudice, with genuine intellectual curiosity, and with enough room for surprise. And, above all, continue working with honesty, even when they may experience fear or insecurities. Those are the first steps to start to make associations in what is found and to build bridges between elements that are apparently unrelated, but that are part of a most profound and interrelated conversation.