UCSB Latin American and Iberian Studies Program

Interview with Marisol Ramos, recently minted PhD!

Dr. Marisol Ramos is a scholar and archivist affiliated with LAIS. Currently, she serves as the subject librarian for Latin American and Iberian Studies, Spanish and Portuguese, and Chicana/o Studies at the UCSB Library. She recently defended her PhD dissertation on Puerto Rican writer Alejandro Tapia y Rivera at the University of Connecticut. In this interview, Dr. Ramos discusses the foundation of her research, new questions to look into, and how her position as an archivist and librarian aided her work.

What did you research in your dissertation?

I decided to study the literary work of a Puerto Rican writer from the nineteenth century, Alejandro Tapia y Rivera. In my research, I try to trace the different feminist and cosmopolitan discourses to find where from 1856 to 1882 he got the inspiration for his cosmopolitan and feminist writings. I’m really interested in women’s rights in general, but especially in the nineteenth century, and when I learned that Tapia had edited a magazine dedicated to women, I became intrigued by his work. One summer I decided to read everything that he wrote and I realized that he was doing and writing things that people hadn’t done before at that time. In the two magazines I studied, he would write letters that were really essays in which he used three female alter egos. Through these women alter egos, he would talk about how he wanted a better education for women. The set up was that these women would write letters to each other with grammar, physics and geography lessons. It was a way to educate women who were reading these essays and introduce the idea that women are just as capable as men. Along with this magazine discovery, when I was doing my readings I learned about the last novel he wrote before he died, which I considered to be the first feminist novel in Puerto Rico in the nineteenth century, and it discussed women’s rights to vote. With all this in mind, I decided to trace his influences. I traced the influence of the feminist and cosmopolitan discourse in his writings to develop a theoretical framework to study his literature that I call a cosmopolitan foundational literature. 

How did you come across Alejandro Tapia y Rivera as an author? Was this someone you had read earlier on in your education?

When I was young, I used to stay weekends at one of my aunt’s house in Puerto Rico; she was a social sciences teacher and had a copy of his memoirs. I think I was fourteen when I read it. I remember I was so impressed because the way he was talking about Puerto Rico at that time. His description about slavery in Puerto Rico and his commitment to abolition and eliminating discrimination were eye opening to me. I permanently borrowed that book from my aunt and I kept it for decades. When I was trying to decide on a topic for my dissertation, I remembered him. I was working as a librarian, some of my work was in the archives, and I came across a magazine that he had edited dedicated to women titled La Azucena. It was one of the most successful magazines published in Puerto Rico in the 19th century. Then, while doing more research, I learned that he had contributed with a column in the first literary magazine dedicated to women, La Guirnalda Puertorriqueña. It is in that magazine that Tapia introduced his female alter egos and their auto-educational project, since most women were banned from studying scientific knowledge past a certain point. I realized that his work was much greater that I had realized and I decided I wanted to explore more of him. When I read all his work, I realized I could trace the development of these ideas and its incorporation into his writing. 

In Puerto Rico, in academic circles, he is a well-known author and considered a foundational writer. However, I don’t think his work is as well known among the general public or whether it is still taught in schools anymore. Moreover, even the people who know of him tend to focus on his discussion about race, especially in his play, La cuarterona, but he is such a complex writer that touches on many other topics.  

How do you think being from Puerto Rico influenced Tapia’s work?

It wasn’t just living in Puerto Rico that shaped his life and influenced his work, but traveling out and meeting other like him through the many intellectual networks available during his life time that molded his experiences and ended up in his writing. Tapia wasn’t rich, but he was the son of a Spaniard who had married a Puerto Rican woman. Because he grew up in the capital, his best friends were people who became important in the history of Puerto Rico, meaning he was well connected. When he was 27, he was exiled to Spain because of a duel he lost with a military man. While in Spain, he reunited with some of his old friends from school and began participating in tertulias and conversations where he was interacting with different intellectuals who were talking about Puerto Rico’s colonial situation along with issues such as abolition and possible women’s rights. This experience changed him and he was able to bring these ideas back to Puerto Rico. Through his connections and travels, he was able to see what was happening in Spain, the United States, and England, and made him wonder how Puerto Rico emulated these modern and progressive countries. I feel that one of the things about being cosmopolitan is experiencing other people and cultures, and Tapia’s experiences going out and then coming back made him realized the inequalities that were occurring in Puerto Rico. These encounters allowed him to create a literature that was constantly denouncing injustice, claiming justice and sharing truths that people didn’t want to acknowledge and you can tell in his writing that he was always doing this in different ways. 

How did your education and position as a librarian affect the way you wrote and were able to research for your dissertation and topic?

My position as an archivist and librarian has helped my ability to navigate databases and conduct citation searches, which led me to being able to find a multitude of primary and secondary sources. In my research, I managed almost eight different theoretical lenses, since my research is very multidisciplinary, and being an archivist and understanding how archives work and knowing where to look primary texts was crucial to my success. Without looking at and through all of the sources that I was able to find, I would not have been able to finish my dissertation. 

Did your research lead you to other questions that you weren’t able to touch on in your dissertation? 

Yes. I’m curious about the role that the women surrounding Tapia played in his work. One of these is translations. Who translated English for him, the different speeches and texts about women’s rights that appeared in his novel? He mentioned in his memoir that he could read English but with the help of a dictionary, but that he wasn’t as fluent compared to French. I believe this role as a translator may have been played by Harriet Brewster Cornell, an American who was involved in abolition and feminist societies in New York and who was married to a good friend of his, Julio Vizcarrondo. There is no a lot of information about her, and many of the other women in Tapia’s life such as his wife, his sister, her mother and the women translators that worked for him in La Azucena. Part of the lack of information is because for a long time, historians and biographers of famous men saw women as accessories to men and their lives were not recorded or documented. I had been looking for clues about Harriet for years and I got my best hint on her whereabouts in relation to Tapia on Ancestry Library Edition, which is a database that we recently subscribed, but there is still so much that is unknown. I believe that she was one of the main influences for Tapia in his feminist writing and I don’t think he would have been able to talk about women’s rights without her. All these questions I have about who and what influenced him leads me to wondering about all the different women around him, including his wife. I hope one day to pursue this line of inquiry.

*This interview was conducted by Isabelle Tate-Arévalo