Endangered Archives


EAP165: Rescue of two photographic collections of rapidly changing cultures in rural Guatemala dating from the 1890s through to the 1930s

The Center for Mesoamerican Research (CIRMA) is a non-profit foundation founded in 1978 and based in Antigua, Guatemala. As part of its mission to recuperate and preserve historical records and to promote historical research about Guatemala, CIRMA has built the most comprehensive social science library in Central America, an historical archive with more than 7,000,000 documents in forty collections, and a photographic archive that today constitutes Guatemala's premier archive of visual history, with more than 1,000,000 images in 104 collections.

This project aims to rescue more than 4,300 glass plate negatives showing daily life in the interior of Guatemala at the turn of the 20th century. Taken by the photographers Juan de Jesús Yas (Japan's first immigrant to Guatemala), José Domingo Noriega, and the Mexican of Italian descent Italian Tomás Zanotti, the images are central to the understanding of ethnicity and culture in Guatemala. Inherently fragile and made more so by climatic and geologic conditions in Guatemala, the glass plate negatives will be transferred onto flexible negatives, copied digitally, and made publicly available for the first time to researchers and the general public.

The three photographers - Yas, Noriega, and Zanotti - produced arguably the most extensive photographs on culture and ethnicity in Guatemala in the late 19 th and early 20th centuries. Their images document the evolving nature of interethnic relations in Guatemala, the emerging syncretism and dialogue between native cultures and Western culture, and the broad cultural change provoked by the expansion of the coffee industry as of the late 19th century. At a time when virtually all other photographers focused on the metropolitan elite in the nation's capital, these three revealed the rapidly changing cultures in the interior of the country.

Kohei Yasu (who became Juan José de Jesús Yas in Guatemala) was the first person to migrate from Japan to Guatemala in 1877. He settled in Antigua, the former colonial capital of the Spanish empire in Mesoamerica. He and his godson, José Domingo Noriega, photographed mestizos of all classes, indigenous families, and civilian and religious elites, recording the professional identity and social status of their subjects. They also documented local popular traditions and the natural and urban landscape of the region, leaving an excellent record of the state of Antigua's colonial architecture in the late 1800s -- after the 1773 earthquake but before the devastating earthquake of 1976 which left the city in ruins.

Tomás Zanotti was a contemporary of Yas, and born in Mexico to a Mexican mother and an Italian father. He migrated to Guatemala in the 1890s and settled in Quetzaltenango, located in the Western highlands. He photographed Mayan people, German, Chinese, and mestizo families in the studio, in their own homes, and in activities of their choosing, and documented the rapid social and cultural change brought on by the rise of coffee culture in that region.

Both the Yas-Noriega collection, acquired by CIRMA in the early 1980s, and the Zanotti collection, on extended loan to CIRMA by the Girón family as of 1990, arrived partially deteriorated. They had been poorly stored in Guatemala and had been exposed to high levels of humidity and variable temperatures. Many had developed bubbles, flaking emulsion, or were scratched and stained, and others were chipped. Since arriving at CIRMA, the glass plates have been stored in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment. With some cleaning and repair, these glass plate negatives will transfer well onto internegatives.

These two collections are the only significant collections of images of their kind in existence today. The glass plates are extremely fragile and susceptible to breaking, further flaking, and scratching caused by dust and age. The fragility of the glass plates requires expert handling and thus the plates are not accessible to researchers or the general public except in exceptional circumstances.


EAP165/2: Tomás Zanotti Fund [1898-1950]


The photographs in this fund portray the architecture and historical monuments of the city of Quetzaltenango (or Xela as it is usually called), its people and significant historical events between about 1898 and 1950. In these photographs one can see buildings, squares, parks and churches which are emblematic of the city. Furthermore, he portrays a large number of people from the highlands, including the villages near Xela: San Martín Sacatepéquez, San Cristóbal Totonicapán, Almolonga, Cajolá, Tejutla San Marcos, Cantel, Concepción Chiquirichapa, Zunil and others. In this fund one can appreciate a large number of traditional costumes from the western region of the country and it is a valuable contribution to the study of highland textiles. Since it is a fund from a photographic studio, there is a large number of portraits of aristocratic and well off social classes from this highland region. There are also some examples of mortuary portraits, a custom practiced during the first half of the twentieth century.

3567 glass plate negatives


EAP165/2/21: Series 034 [1898-1950]

Extent: 92 TIFF images
Level: File
Scope and Content: "

This series contains photographs of Maya K'iche' women, men, couples and families from Quetzaltenango, Almolonga, San Cristóbal Totonicapán and San Francisco El Alto and Maya Mam people from Tejutla San Marcos and Cajolá. It also contains portraits of ladino people from Quetzaltenango: soldiers, children, men, women, families and couples.

92 Glass plate negatives

Language(s) English
Script(s) Latin
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