In Search of an Unknown Spanish Reformer

History professor María Bárbara Zepeda Cortés examines the life of José de Gálvez and why he was erased from the history books

A case of mistaken identity, documents overlooked for centuries and one forgotten man who would change the course of politics across the Americas. Sound like the plot of an action thriller? This was just a leave year at California’s Huntington Library for assistant history professor María Bárbara Zepeda Cortés.

Zepeda Cortés came to the Huntington’s archive in San Marino, Calif., to work on her own manuscript—a book on the 18th-century Spanish reformer and politician José de Gálvez.

A Spaniard sent to impose the crown’s law in colonial Mexico, Gálvez is not well known today despite his massive influence over modern politics in the region. Huntington Library is home to the largest collection of papers on Gálvez in the United States, though it’s not immediately clear to visitors what exactly is held there.

“Due to the description available at the Huntington, I thought they were mostly boring papers,” Zepeda Cortés said, laughing.

She thought she might find familiar material: bureaucratic letters between Gálvez and his superiors that discussed the politics of the time.

Partway through her fellowship, she chanced a closer look at the archive—and found an entirely new channel to follow in her research.

“I discovered that the documents were actually very exciting and that they gave me some new information that I did not expect,” she said.

Of particular interest to Zepeda Cortés were bold critiques of Gálvez, New Spain’s inspector general. The anonymous political paperstook different forms, withpoems, satires and diatribes that all took aim at Gálvez for his modernization projects in present-day Mexico.

This discovery was compelling for Zepeda Cortés; it demonstrated her thesis that what she calls reckless politics is not a new development in the region. It was present all along, before the state was even realized.

“Even before the [press] was developed,” she said, “there were means to criticize politicians.”

It was one of the most important moments, in the sense that before I was writing about politics in the Spanish [reform] era, with Gálvez’s life as a proxy to that story.

A Glimpse into the Past
Another pleasant surprise came with this discovery: personal notes inserted into letters between Gálvez and the Spanish viceroy. In his letters, Gálvez spoke about his health, asked about the viceroy’s wife and detailed the dinner he’d had—a rare window into the man’s world.

“It was one of the most important moments, in the sense that before I was writing about politics in the Spanish [reform] era, with Gálvez’s life as a proxy to that story,”said Zepeda Cortés.

Now, she has the material to write a biography rich with details that eluded historians up to this point.

“This is very exciting and ambitious, [since] there are no biographies of Gálvez to this day,” she said.

That’s an odd fact, considering how influential Gálvez continues to be. As the leader of a major moment of reform in the 18th century, his imprints are everywhere. Many of the political structures we take for granted in North, South and Central America were his idea, from the colonization of the West Pacific Coast that formed cities like San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles to the creation of a viceroyalty in present-day Argentina that was the precursor to the modern state.

“When people refer to policies that the Spanish crown was issuing, they are [often talking about] Gálvez’s policies,” she said.

Yet, historians are incredibly limited when they seek out a complete picture of Gálvez. According to Zepeda Cortés, just one book exists that comes close to a biography—with only eight pages devoted to his life—and that is more than 100 years old. Zepeda Cortés hopes to change that and to offer a much-needed resource for scholars.

“I think my book will be the new reference,” she said.

One of the reasons for this relative dearth is Gálvez’s complex legacy. In the centuries since his tenure, his influence has been contested and his accomplishments buried.

“When he died, there was an anti-Gálvez backlash,” said Zepeda Cortés.

His contemporaries tried to reverse some of the reforms he made and took credit for others. The indigenous lives lost and exploited as a result of his conquests are also stains on his legacy.

A Dialogue Is Needed
Zepeda Cortés believes it was the extent of Gálvez’s reach that ultimately removed him from the pages of history.

“Because he had acquired too much power as an imperial minister at one moment, [it] was better simply not to talk about it,” she said.

Now, she thinks, is the time to have that conversation. Though most historians refer only to the post-independence era when they discuss politics in present-day Mexico and Latin America, Zepeda Cortés believes that the lead-up to this period can be instructive.

“One of my arguments is that the new politics did not emerge out of a vacuum,” she said. “Even though we were under colonial rule, there was a lot of back and forth between the people involved in state affairs.”

After her Gálvez research is complete, Zepeda Cortés’ work may move in a number of directions. She plans to publish her book before 2020, the 300-year anniversary of Gálvez’s birth in 1720 Spain. And her next projects are already percolating. She may expand on some smaller narrativesthat turned up while she studied Gálvez.

“I don’t know if I will be able to leave the 18th century,” she laughed. “Through Gálvez, I have heard many fascinating stories.”

Biography as a mediumhas also captured her imagination; she is gathering material for a book about politics in the Caribbean but finds herself drawn toward the personalities that carry the story.

“I’m thinking about a strange relationship I’ve found [among] democratic leaders in the 20th century who fought against Latin American dictators,” she said. “These three leaders from Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Costa Rica had a very intense relationship.”

Zepeda Cortés looks forward to providing a glimpse into Gálvez’s life that has long been lacking. She says that she sees a book tour planned for 2020 as the chance to awaken interest among historians and popular audiences.

“And let the world know, here in the United States and in Spain and Latin America, how this very powerful man just slipped through the cracks in history,” she said. “And simply avoided a biography.”

by Violet Baron