Miguel Leon

One of the most positive aspects of quarantining during this pandemic is that it has forced us to find new ways to communicate with others using alternative means. One is via virtual calls. Constant communication via virtual calls is, in and of itself, representative of a new era of communication. You discover new ways of talking to your parents, your family, friends, colleagues, coworkers, etc. New topics have emerged which is a pleasant surprise. Before the pandemic, I started a new project: writing an academic autobiography about my life as a professional historian. These virtual conversations have provided me with a lot of new material for my autobiography by listening to family and friends talking about their lives and common experiences and has taught me so many new things about remembering and selective memories.

                A crucial part of my autobiographical reflections is related to my interest in regional history of Peru. One of the most important sources of inspiration for my decision to become a historian was to study the history of the regions of my ancestors, these two are: Huánuco and the Conchucos region.   During the pandemic, I was invited twice to share my research on these regions via virtual talks. I was happily surprised by the new things I learned through these talks and the audience’s feedback.  First, I did not know that I had a larger audience. With Facebook Live I was able to learn that approximately 600 people were interested to see my talk. Some of these people, who live in small towns and even small Andean communities in Peru, followed my bibliography and asked very specific questions about my books.  I remember early in my career traveling to these regions and small towns with the desire to share my findings. It seems that now that I live 3,650 miles away, I discovered a new way to reach them. Second, one of the talks I gave was about the value of the documents of the Regional Archives of Huánuco. This talk was very personal because I heard recollections from workers of this archive and memories that they had about me as a young historian. Empathy was not one of my virtues during that time of my life. During the 1980s, to support myself I had to work my last two years of college, so I conducted my research during vacations. In one of my visits to the archives of Huánuco, I was not too happy to lose a half day of research because the workers of the archive were celebrating “Archivist Day” and I complained about it. Thirty years after that moment no one has forgotten my behavior and make humorous remarks about it today.  Yes, I was very passionate about reading the documents, discovering new things every day, waking up in the morning and knowing that the documents were going to provide me with another piece of the puzzle that I was solving. Now I laugh at myself and I celebrate the fact that even though I was a bit intolerant as a young historian, the workers of the archive remember it with a mixture of scandalous joy. 

                During 1997 and 1998 I did archival work in the Huánuco archives for my dissertation. Thanks to Columbia University and other institutions I was able to spend several months working in these archives. The Director, Deomar Hidalgo, (rest in peace, unfortunately died in a car accident a few years ago) was especially supportive of my work. While doing research, I talked to him about my research agendas and listened to him talk about his plans of cataloguing and indexing colonial documents. I finished my dissertation in 1999 and published it as a book in 2002. I went back to Huánuco as a SUNY professor many years later. In one of the many conversations, he sounded a bit frustrated with the fact that I now live in New York and I have many time constraints because I always had to return back to the USA. “Why did you move so far, Miguel?” he asked me.  I was caught by surprise and could not answer. He did not wait for an answer.   I still don’t know how to answer that question completely but I guess I found in New York a place to work well as a historian of regions of Peru despite that enormity of the distance. The pandemic, although horrific and cruel, has taught me that no matter the distance we can still continue to communicate, learn and support from one another.