From the Trash to the Archive: Preserving the Legacy of Ximena Bunster

How does the personal library of a renowned academic and intellectual end up in the trash? What happens when academics who do not comply with gender mandates die?

Carla Magri
January 27, 2023

May 2022. Julio Fernández, a recent law school graduate, was walking along Malaquías Concha, a street in the Providencia area of the Chilean capital of Santiago. It was night time but he spotted some boxes next to a municipal trash can. He stopped out of curiosity and realized they contained books. Shocked by the violence of the image of books being thrown away as garbage, he checked a few of them out. Realizing they all belonged to a “Ximena Bunster,” he googled her name and learned about the work of this woman, an anthropologist, feminist, and university professor. He didn’t hesitate; with the help of a supermarket cart, he moved the boxes to his apartment and spent the next days cataloging the books: 177 in total. He was astonished: “So many ideas, so much knowledge thrown out to the street!” He immediately promised himself that he would only give them to someone who he knew would take care of them.

But who was this mysterious woman?  Let’s rewind several decades.

Ximena Bunster (1931-2019) was 23 years old when she became the youngest university professor in Chile. Later, she was the first Latin American woman to win a Fulbright scholarship to pursue graduate studies in the United States. In 1968 she graduated from Columbia with a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Teachers College (TC), at a time when the discipline was not yet taught as a degree in Chilean universities. One of the reasons for Bunster to choose TC was that there she could study under the guidance of Margaret Mead, a renowned professor and thinker, and one of the most progressive minds of the 20th century, who not only became her mentor, doctoral supervisor, and biggest intellectual influence, but also her friend for almost two decades, until Mead’s death in 1978.

During her doctoral research Bunster lived for two years with a Mapuche community in the province of Cautín, in the south of Chile. After her Ph.D., she resumed teaching at Universidad de Chile, spending a brief period of seven months at Oxford University in the UK and returning to Chile a month before the September 1973 coup. An opponent of the new dictatorial military regime that ruled over Chile, she moved to the United States as an exile. There, she worked at NYU, Clark and ten other universities, where she led a productive career centered around urban anthropology, gender studies, human rights, and the role of women during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, publishing articles such as: “Watch out for the little Nazi man that all of us have inside: The mobilization and demobilization of women in militarized Chile;”Talking pictures: a study of proletarian mothers in Lima, Peru” and “Female employment, occupational status, and socioeconomic characteristics of the family in Mexico.”

She left an imprint in US academia not only because of her work, but also because she was one of the first women to ever file a sexual harassment complaint against a professor at a US university. In 1979, Bunster denounced Sidney Peck, a tenured professor of Sociology at Clark University and head of her department. At the time, Bunster, who was working as a visiting associate professor of Anthropology, didn’t hold permanent residency in the US and was therefore in a vulnerable position if she were to lose her job, but decided to move forward with the case regardless. After the university refused to act on her several charges, she, along with fellow co-worker Betsy Stanko, filed a legal complaint for sexual harassment, which came to be known as Stanko vs Clark et al (they used Stanko’s last name to protect Bunster’s legal status in the country). The lawsuit eventually included the versions of other researchers, students and witnesses who supported the allegations against Peck.

After the return of democracy in Chile, between 1991 and 2005 Bunster resumed her work at Universidad de Chile’s School of Social Sciences as a tenured professor in the Anthropology Department, becoming an emeritus professor in 2008 and focusing her research on ageing studies. She died in April 2019 at the age of 87, having had no children but leaving behind a fruitful academic career, as acknowledged by the Amanda Labarca Merit Award she received, the highest academic recognition given to women by Universidad de Chile.

Now let’s fast forward to May 2022. How does the personal library of an academic and intellectual like Bunster end up in the trash? That was the question that Julio Fernández and Nicolás Leiva kept asking themselves. About the same time as Fernández's discovery, Leiva (a sociologist)  found 25 of Bunster’s books in the exact same place. Luckily, they both had the same instinct, and in November 2022 around 200 books of Ximena Bunster’s personal library were donated to Universidad de Chile, where they are currently being catalogued and restored in the Central Archive.

Though the story has a somewhat happy ending, it raises a whole set of questions: How did Bunster’s library end up in the trash? How many other books were there and are lost? Archivists from Universidad de Chile’s Central Archive estimate that a person who dedicated their life to academia and research accumulates at least 2,000 books. Who inherited them and what did they do with them? And also, what happens when women who do not comply with gender mandates and do not have children die? Who takes care of their heritage?

Read here an article published by Universidad de Chile about the conservation of Bunster’s library.