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A few years ago, the University of Texas successfully recruited celebrated Mayanist David Stuart from Harvard. The youngest-ever recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant,” and an elite Mesoamerican scholar featured in the award-winning PBS documentary Cracking the Maya Code, Stuart was a new faculty star.
UT’s big catch paid off—Stuart recently used his stellar connections to help the University acquire an amazing new academic research center in Central America. Casa Herrera, in Antigua, Guatemala, now provides UT students a home base as they study abroad, and faculty and staff a place to host programs. Here, Stuart explains why the casa is so special, and how it all came about.
The Alcalde: How would you summarize the way you came to acquire Casa Herrera, from the idea dawning in 2005 to the facility opening for UT use this fall?
David Stuart: The idea of creating a teaching and research center in Central America goes back a few years—in fact, to when I was still teaching at Harvard before coming to UT in 2004. We had preliminary discussions then, but they didn’t quite materialize—the timing wasn’t right. Well, one day when I was settling into my new position at UT I had a meeting with colleagues from the College of Fine Arts, and that old idea popped into my head. Would UT be interested in creating such a center? I sensed a good deal of interest.
Soon my close friend and fellow archaeologist from Guatemala, Bárbara Arroyo, told me that her family had this amazing property in Antigua, the Casa Herrera—a huge house from the 16th century that had fallen into disrepair. They weren’t sure what to do with the place, so Bárbara went to the family’s business foundation, the Fundación Pantaleon, and broached the idea. They loved the concept and soon committed to restoring the house for our eventual use.
The Alcalde: How much did the University invest?
DS: The University paid nothing for the physical restoration of the house, which is owned by the Fundación Pantaleon, but UT continues to invest a fairly modest sum each year to maintain its programming. We require about a minimum of about $80,000 a year to operate the house, employ staff, and fund some of our events. We need to have things self-sustaining, of course, so we’re looking at creative ways we can generate revenue and seek donations, as well as expand programs.
The Alcalde: Describe what makes this colonial building so special to someone who hasn’t seen it.
DS: The Casa Herrera is an architectural jewel. It’s been painstakingly restored and probably looks much like it probably did 300 years ago, with its large central courtyard, wooden columns, and ornately carved doors and woodwork—much of it original to the house, in fact. The courtyard is surrounded by 22 rooms of different sizes and functions, including classrooms, offices, residential apartments, and a beautiful, modern kitchen. Everyone who walks into the courtyard through the huge main doors is stunned by how gorgeous it is.
The Alcalde: How are things going so far this semester?
DS: I just got back to Austin a few days ago from greeting our students and helping things get started. So far it’s been great. I saw lots of happy faces, and the students are just soaking everything in right now. Antigua has long been a haven for international students, and the entire town is a gorgeous place to experience. Also, I should mention that the students jumped right into the thick of the presidential elections in Guatemala—an experience very different from what they see in the U.S.
The Alcalde: How many students and faculty are using the Casa now?
DS: The Casa Herrera has hosted a number of scholars and students over the past couple of years. We’ve had a number of international conferences and seminars, and several graduate students from UT and other universities have stayed there to work on various endeavors, mostly concentrating on archaeology and art history. For our first semester abroad this fall we have 15 students, with three UT faculty members teaching.
The Alcalde: Some people might ask why The University of Texas needs a study facility in Guatemala. What would you say?
DS: For decades UT-Austin has been one of the very top universities in the world for the study of ancient Mesoamerican archaeology, history, and culture. That’s why I jumped at the chance to come to UT from Harvard a few years ago. We’ll always have a focus on the exciting new discoveries and research going on in those fields, but I see the Casa Herrera as potentially so much more. Now more than ever, Central America is part of the cultural and economic fabric of the United States, and connections between the two areas will only continue to deepen and strengthen. Not many realize it, but Guatemala is on our doorstep, closer to Austin than Washington, D.C. With its troubled history and deep historical ties to the U.S., Guatemala is an incredible laboratory for examining many of the issues and challenges facing Latin America as a whole. Its juxtapositions of ancient and modern, indigenous and European, are incredible and endlessly fascinating.
The Alcalde: Why is Antigua such an ideal location for the kind of Mesoamerican studies you’re undertaking?
DS: Antigua is just an ideal location, period. It’s high in the mountains, always cool and surrounded by gorgeous volcanoes. There in the highlands one is never too far from everything that’s both modern and traditional in Guatemala. For years Antigua itself has been a destination for international travelers, including artists, writers, and scholars. And it’s also very accessible, just a short drive from the airport in nearby Guatemala City.
The Alcalde: How is the experience different from the experience UT students and faculty would have without their own University facility?
DS: There are always many international students in Antigua, but the Casa Herrera offers our UT students a great advantage: a home base where they can always feel centered and supported, even when staying with their host families around town. We have dedicated teaching spaces and areas where the students can study and concentrate without any outside distractions. They can also see and experience some of the other events we’ll be hosting, like conferences, seminars, lecture, or musical performances. We want to offer as rich and varied an experience as we possibly can for our students.
The Alcalde: How is your own research on Mesoamerican art and hieroglyphic writing progressing now as you work from this home base?
DS: My research seems to be ever-expanding, and students are a big reason for that. These are really exciting and interesting times in Mesoamerican archaeology, with new and surprising discoveries happening every year. I’m really excited to share these developments with students, and to develop programs and courses so other faculty can get involved. I can already tell that teaching both in Austin and Antigua will be incredibly rewarding.
Lead photo courtesy The Mesoamerica Center. All other photos by Caitlin Earley.