Roger Thayer Stone Center For Latin American Studies

Tulane University

Tulane's Latin American Library welcomes the Melgar Collection

April 24th, 2013

On April 12, the Latin American Library celebrated the public opening of the General Rafael E. Melgar Collection with a talk, exhibit, and reception. The event was designed to highlight the depth and breadth of this exciting new addition to the Latin American Library’s prestigious Special Collections holdings. Javier Garcíadiego, distinguished Mexican historian and President of the Colegio de México gave a talk entitled ‘€œRafael Melgar and Twentieth-Century Mexican
History.‘€ He discussed in broad terms the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the post-revolutionary political history of Mexico to give context to the participation of General Rafael E. Melgar‘€™s participation in the Revolution and the various roles he played in the consolidation of the nation in subsequent decades. Also in attendance were members of the General’s family – his son, Licenciado Daniel Melgar, who also spoke at the reception, his wife and two of General Melgar‘€™s grandsons. Señor Melgar and the other members of his family were very gratified to see General Melgar‘€™s collection taking its place along with other important early twentieth-century Latin American research collections at Tulane.

The Rafael E. Melgar Collection contains over 60,000 individual items and a diverse selection of archival materials, including correspondence, political papers and reports, posters and other printed ephemera, receipts, telegrams, photographs, and newspaper articles. He was, as Christine Hernandez, Curator of the Special Collections at the LAL, explains, “supremely concerned with documenting his work and kept everything meticulously organized.” Hernandez adds that,
the “size and comprehensiveness of the collection make it a real gem of this library.” It fills an important niche. The LAL has a strong collection of political ephemera from all over Latin America, but did not previously have extensive manuscript holdings from the last century in Mexico. The Melgar collection thus both compliments and expands the LAL’s current holdings.

General Melgar at his desk.

General Melgar was a consumate politician, so his collection of papers will certainly appeal to scholars interested in politics.. Throughout his career, Melgar worked to implement the ideals of the Mexican Revolution within the Mexican state. He spent his early years fighting as a revolutionary in Oaxaca, but over his 40-year political career he would serve as a congressman, senator, governor, and ambassador (to the Netherlands).

Melgar was perhaps best known for creating and leading the Nationalist Campaign begun in the late 1920s and early 30s in response to the global economic downturn (commonly referred to as the Great Depression). One of the principal aims of the Nationalist Campaign was to promote and support Mexican industry, business, and local food producers – Buy Mexican! Hecho en Mexico. As part of this effort, Melgar also acted to foment a greater sense of Mexican national identity, encouraging his compatriots to identify as Mexican through various public events, programmed activities in the public schools, locally sponsored activities, and programs through the popular media.. The campaign included the promotion of nationalist festivals and celebrations, such as the one depicted in the photograph below.

In 1935, Melgar was appointed by then president Lázaro Cárdenas to serve as governor of Quitana Roo, then still a territory and not yet a state. His mission was to bring the underdeveloped, primarily indigenous Maya region into the fold of modern Mexico. Melgar worked to improve basic infrastructure: building roads, providing clean water, establishing ports, regulating the exploitation and distribution of natural resources, and laying the foundations for the tourism industry that to a great extent now defines modern Quitana Roo. As governor, Melgar was tasked with solidifying and securing the boundaries between Quintana Roo and what was then British Honduras (modern day Belize). He both prevented theft of Mexican resources and started cooperatives for the men working in the important gum industry cutting the trees and processing the raw material. As in his nationalist campaigns of the previous decade, Melgar worked in Quintana Roo to assure that Mexican resources would benefit Mexicans.

New concrete border marker raised in Quintana Roo during Melgar’s governorship

The beautifully curated exhibition, will be on display at the Latin American Library through the summer, gives visitors an introduction to General Rafael E. Melgar himself, but also to the incredible collection that bears his name. In the lobby outside the entrance, images of revolution in Mexico (the War of Independence and the Revolution of 1910) from other parts of the LAL’s Special Collections complement the Melgar collection. These include photographs of former Mexican presidents Álvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles, both of whom Melgar knew personally from his time as a revolutionary. Entering the LAL, a timeline on one wall introduces the viewer to the events of the General’s life, illustrated by items specifically chosen to give a sense of the diversity of the collection materials. Cases in the main exhibition space expand on this timeline, focusing on specific moments in Melgar’s political life narrated with original materials from the collection. Melgar’s impressive career and incredible range of contacts shaped the collection now housed at the LAL. As Hernandez notes, “He had a keen sense for knowing how to work and engage with people from all walks of life … that takes a special personality, and he seemed to have it.”

A poster from the Melgar collection promoting Federal Schools

Mexico + People
Carol McMichael Reese
Professor - Architecture