The stories of Clara Allyn Benitz and Mary Elizabeth Gorman Sewell are part of an exhibit opening in Washington this month that celebrates a long-forgotten “epic” journey: the more than 60 teachers who, between 1869 and 1898, traveled from United States to Argentina to found schools or reorganize learning centers nationwide.
“I am proud that they have been recognized,” says Peter, the great-grandson of Clara, who graduated from a teaching college in Winona, Minnesota, and arrived in Argentina in 1878 as part of a contract to help his sister Frances at a school in Paraná. Love would later take Allyn Benitz across the river to Santa Fe.
The exhibit at the Argentine Embassy in Washington includes more than 40 digitized and restored portraits, as well as maps of pioneer travels in New England, Ohio, New Mexico and other parts of the United States who have traveled to the jungles, mountains and pampas.
“Almost all of them complied with the requirements of the Argentine government – they were young single teachers, attractive and from good families,” said Laura Ramos, the best-selling Argentine writer. Las Senoritas which inspired the exhibition.
At the recent Feria Internacional del Libro de Buenos Aires, Argentina’s world-renowned book fair, where she had just won the Primer Premio de la Crítica 2021-2022 award, Ramos enthusiastically told the stories she discovered through chance while taking refuge after a rainy afternoon. at the Sarmiento Museum.
“There I came across a dress identical to the one used in Little woman and discover their history. I started researching until I found the letters and diaries of many teachers at Duke University in North Carolina,” she recalls.
“In four years of research, I found many more letters at Rutgers University in Jersey, in the archives of astronomer Benjamin Gould, and in other archives in the United States and Argentina.”
Borges, lesbian love and syphilis
Some discoveries have had a particular impact.
From the diary of the Allyn sisters’ cousin, Ramos discovered that Jorge Luis Borges’ English grandmother, Frances Ann Haslam, had hosted many teachers at her home in Paraná.
“They were friends,” the author said.
She also discovered a lesbian relationship in Mendoza between Mary Morse and Margaret Collord, who had previously traveled as a missionary to Montevideo.
“After their deaths, Morse’s furious nephew came from the United States to make a bonfire of their letters and books which had shocked the people,” Ramos recalled. “They had requested to be buried together under a tombstone in the Mendoza cemetery reading: ‘They were not separated in their eternal rest.'”
Ramos also discovered that Agnès Trégent, married to a Frenchman, had died of paretic neuro-syphilis but “it was said that she died of cerebral palsy to protect the prestige of the teachers”.
Addie Stears died of typhoid fever in Paraná at the age of 22 and could not be buried in the cemetery as a Protestant, a sign of the religious discrimination suffered by many teachers.
In Cordoba, young Catholics threw stones and spat at Frances Armstrong.
Pedagogues with bow ties
Without a doubt, Ramos’ favorite story is that of Mary Graham, “the great pedagogue who gave lessons in a bow tie”.
The teacher took her students on long walks and offered debates and discussions.
“She wasn’t dictating but asking them, ‘That’s what Spencer says, what do you think?'” Ramos said.
It’s no surprise that Las Senoritas – with their adventures, their passionate loves, their religious clashes and their tragic fates – will soon be translated into English or made into a television series.
“My agent negotiates both things,” Ramos confirmed.
For this fan of Louise May Alcott, “it was a great thrill” that Mary Mann – wife of the great American pedagogue Horace Mann, friend of Domingo Sarmiento and main recruiting force for school teachers – was close to the Alcotts.
“Louisa May was then 33 years old but if she had been 10 years younger, she could have come. Indeed the whole ideology of the teachers is the same as that supported in Little woman: it was the spirit of the time, naturalist and proto-feminist one could say”, says the author.
While only 22 of the “Sarmiento brats” moved to Argentina when their contracts ended, Ramos has no doubts about the relevance of their contribution.
“They abolished corporal punishment and rote learning, encouraging physical exercise and discussion. They proposed games as a central element, education for both sexes and all classes, and vocational training for orphans and beggars,” she explained.
“Current teaching in Argentina is modeled on the parameters of these teachers.”