Ron Briggs, Associate Professor of Spanish & Latin American Cultures, delves into the literary scene in Lima, Peru, at the end of the nineteenth century in his new book The Moral Electricity of Print: Transatlantic Education and the Lima Women's Circuit, 1876-1910. In this special “Break This Down” interview to mark Latinx Heritage Month (September 15—October 15; also known as Hispanic Heritage Month), Briggs discusses the power and influence of the literary salons of Lima and how they were revolutionary in giving voice to a formerly colonized, and then liberated, people. In the actions of this literary community, as men and women worked toward the same educational goals, Briggs argues, we see the birth of a truly independent Latin American literature.

What is significant about the literary scene in Lima, Peru, in the late nineteenth century, and what was the place of women within this scene?

Lima had been a center of publishing and trade since the 1500s, and it retained its influence after independence as a crossroads for shipping to Asia, Europe, and the United States. The University of San Marcos (founded in 1551) was the first “American” university, and it helped make Lima a center for legal and political thought. A series of economic and political crises heightened the degree of intellectual engagement with print outlets in the late nineteenth century, and women played prominent roles in this literary surge as writers, editors, and social and cultural critics—roles that twentieth-century histories tended to leave out.

What is “moral electricity” and what is its connection with the Lima women’s literary scene?

Moral electricity refers to the mutual exchange of influence between human beings. During the French Revolution, observers spoke of the “moral electricity” generated by crowds. In subsequent decades, social and educational reformers shifted that effect to print media and referred to a book’s capacity to transform its readers.  The women in the Lima circuit believed that their work as writers could transform the republic by transforming the public. They hoped to turn their readers into more empathetic and more engaged citizens.

Maria Hinojosa ‘84—anchor and executive producer of Latino USA on National Public Radio, and founder, president, and CEO of Futuro Media Group—describes how her experience at Barnard shaped her journalistic career and appears in the Barnard video “A Women’s College.”

In what ways did the intellectual activity of the veladas literarias (literary salons) influence Hispanic-American culture?

Organized by an Argentine exile who also ran a school, the veladas brought together prominent intellectuals from all over the world. Many of these women maintained close contact with progressive contemporaries in Europe and the United States. While they didn’t use the term “network,” they were indeed prolific networkers and believers in the power of networking. They were also telling each other’s stories, producing histories of women writers and choice intellectuals whom they felt deserved new consideration as civic exemplars. Their recovery efforts can be seen as early templates for the resurrection of “hidden figures” that is, laudably, happening today across many cultures. Margot Lee Shatterly’s account of the African American women who powered NASA and Doris Meyer’s rethinking of the Spanish-American essay through the lens of women writers are both luminous contemporary examples of the kind of work the Lima women’s circuit advanced in its day.

In what ways do we experience the influence of this literary scene in Hispanic-American culture today?

The women of the Lima circuit agreed on the social impact of art and the need to position themselves in a global Spanish-speaking community. Today I see their legacy at work in Ni Una Menos, a feminist collective that opposes machismo. Begun by artists in Argentina, its influence has spread throughout the Spanish-speaking world. In Peru, the focus on building bridges across boundaries of race, language, and geography remains an important concern. The professor and critic Francesca Denegri and the novelist Claudia Salazar Jiménez have used their respective platforms to bring literature to bear on the social fissures that still cleave Peruvian society.

The Latinx Heritage Month committee—a collaboration between Barnard College and Columbia University and a Student of Color initiative of Barnard’s Student Life office—works closely with students and the surrounding community to address issues impacting Latinos and Latin Americans internationally, within the United States, and on campus. Information about Latinx Heritage Month events are found here.

Homepage image: Estudio para La plaza mayor de Lima (Study for Lima’s Main Square), ca. 1854, Juan Mauricio Rugendas (1802-1858). Coleccíon Museo de Arte de Lima. Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Press. 


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