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Colonial Documents in Cuba

The January 16, 2017 AP article celebrating the efforts of the Lafevor brothers, from University of Texas at Arlington to digitize parochial records in Cuba, took me back to a similar trip to Cuba in February, 1989.

Traveling with Gene Lyon, of the University of Florida, and Gene’s wife Dot, along with a grad student, our team’s objective was to microfilm parochial records previously identified at two locations as the destination for resettlement by some of the nearly 2,500 Spanish citizens who migrated from St. Augustine to Cuba in 1763.

Records in St. Augustine and UF confirmed some residents of St. Augustine resettled in the vicinity of Ceiba Mocha and Matanzas.

Historians postulated, as the Spanish from Florida were agrarian; resettling to rural villages might have made sense.

Our team was to identify church archives containing parochial information of the descendants of these St. Augustine refugees and if possible, microfilm the birth, confirmation, marriage and death records from these archives.

Parochial records are permanent records. These records are culturally significant and have long provided the foundation for identity records. For as long as the Spanish have created parochial records much is done to preserve these records.

We started at the church in Ceiba Mocha.

The sheer volume of records exceeded what was anticipated by a factor of five. After weeks of discussion with a researcher from UF who had recently returned from Ceiba Mocha, we used his estimate and double the supplies needed to microfilm the expected records. The volume confronting us at the church was significantly greater than we could realistically film in the time allotted with the supplies at hand.

Of greater concern, the paper was in such poor condition, it took longer to film than we would have liked as special handling was required to protect the brittle paper while filming.

The paper used to record these events is usually of high grade rag paper, with the expectation the information will last for a very long time. The problem is, even the best, highest quality acid free paper will eventually succumb to the effects of heat and humidity. Humidity is the enemy. Humidity combined with the inability of the Cuban churches to raise sufficient funds to repair roofs or store their records in climate controlled environments results in brittle paper.

The repetitive absorption and release of the moisture chemically alters the paper, making the paper brittle and at the same time allowing the acid in the gall ink to eat through paper.

As the paper becomes brittle, the aging process accelerates.

On our later 1994 visit to Havana we found storage conditions in some of churches in Habana Vieja so humid the parochial volumes were past the point of no return. Even if whisked into a proper storage environment, the cumulative damage wrought by heat and humidity rendered the damage beyond the correction of lay staffers. Only expensive preservation steps could be taken just to preserve, let alone capture the informational content of theses archives.

While our focus was on church records, it is estimated somewhere in order of 25+ million pages of “Early Contact” (a term used to identify those records which pertain to the earliest contact by Europeans in the Western Hemisphere) documents exist. These documents are stored in the ARCHIVO NACIONAL DE LA REPÚBLICA DE CUBA, located a few blocks from the harbor on the Calle Compostela. Many of these documents predate the English settlement of North America and have not been readily available to scholars beyond Cuba’s shores.

My greatest fear is not the process scholars must endure; the crawling through the visa and bureaucratic landmines, the travel arrangements, the bad food and climate, but the continued degradation of the paper. Should the Legajos become readily available to researchers, just how many minds would be able to access the records before the paper breaks down to the extent this priceless information is lost forever?

I applaud the efforts of the Lafevor brothers to digitize these most valuable records, and wish them God speed on their efforts.

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