International Collections Librarian forging a path as a scholar, connector, mentor 

Milton Machuca-Galvez understands the merit of self-sufficiency, a quality that has proven worthwhile throughout a career that has included transporting essential supplies into remote mountain ranges, as well as decades of research, teaching, and academic leadership in sometimes new and unfamiliar places. 

Along the way, Machuca-Galvez has built and experienced the power of leadership, collaboration, and partnership through libraries, and he has developed a resume of supporting the same with minority-majority and marginalized communities - values he brings to his role as Librarian for Spanish, Portuguese, Latin America, and Caribbean Studies at KU.  

Milton Machuca-Galvez in the Watson Library stacks.

Machuca-Galvez grew up and completed his undergraduate studies in El Salvador, following his interests in the humanities and languages from a young age. 

“I don’t come from a rich family. Financial stability was not guaranteed,” Machuca-Galvez said. “Being the first in my family, I embarked on the journey to college without any prior guidance. Much of what I've learned, I've had to discover through intuition and self-reliance. This path has been challenging at times. However, I've always strived to make the best of the limited resources available to me." 

While working full-time, Machuca-Galvez completed his Licenciatura in Psychology at Central American University, a private Jesuit university also known as UCA El Salvador, as the ongoing Civil War raged, leaving the country in 1984 when his studies were completed.  

“I left [El Salvador] with the idea that I would not return, or at least that I would not return to the same country I was leaving,” Machuca-Galvez said.  

He went to Panama, where he continued his connection with the Jesuits and the Roman Catholic Church, working with the indigenous Ngäbe people. Machuca-Galvez functioned in various modes for the parish, producing a bimonthly bulletin and monitoring indigenous news to support advocacy and leadership in the indigenous community regarding land agreements and other issues. He also headed up a supply distribution center, transporting important resources into the mountains for the communities who lived there. 

“At that time, you could only reach the mountain up to a certain point driving a 4x4 truck; then you would have to walk, or people would meet you with horses,” he said. “Those things have changed a lot since then, but at that time, we were the suppliers of salt, rice, and anything you can imagine you need from a grocery store, except produce.” 

Machuca-Galvez said his time in Panama was a joy, with sometimes dramatic turns such as when a member of the community was bitten by a snake, and he had to rush her to the hospital. The work was also his first experience understanding how individual actors and organizations use power to maintain marginalization of an indigenous population. 

“I think the happiest years of my life were spent in Panama. It was a fantastic experience. At the same time, the divide I witnessed was clear in Panama between the elite, the non-indigenous, and the marginalized, dispossessed indigenous people,” he said. 

In 1989 when Machuca-Galvez was in his twenties, he survived the invasion of Panama by the United States, a tumultuous and dangerous time of open violence.  

“I was very close to being killed when my truck was stolen at gunpoint,” he said. 

Once the invasion passed, he realized he wanted to advance his education and set about deciding to do so outside the country.  

“It was hard to leave Panama, but I was clear that I needed to continue my studies,” he said. 

A Jesuit friend helped him navigate the process of applying to graduate schools, and he was accepted into an anthropology doctoral program at Temple University in Philadelphia. Machuca-Galvez was excited by this next adventure, but the transition was difficult. 

“The first semester was horrible,” he said. “I had competence in English but not academic English. And the cultural style [of academic interaction] in the United States was very different -- I didn’t know that ideas were criticized with passionate words, but you don’t take it personally. And we were reading one book or more a week in my second language, plus articles. In these years I improved my English mostly on my own.” 

In addition, his classes built on topics he hadn’t studied before, leaving him feeling left behind and in constant “working-late mode” to complete the required topics in tandem with the coursework. 

“There was no single Latino professor who could mentor me, so I was figuring things out on my own all the time,” he said. “But what I have learned as part of my experience is the one who gets the Ph.D. may not be the most intelligent one, but the persistent one.” 

Machuca-Galvez was persistent, making progress in his coursework, embracing an opportunity to work on a documentary project, and securing a graduate teaching assistantship that gave him his first experience teaching anthropology to U.S. undergraduates. He also continued finding opportunities to function as a mentor, a role he began to embrace.

“In addition to supporting all my students, I was working with minority students who looked to me as an example of someone who is making it, getting a Ph.D.,” he said. 

Though being an instructor and graduate student was difficult at times, especially at first, he learned that collaborating with colleagues was key. For example, a friend in his program was teaching the same summer course, and Machuca-Galvez worked with him, sitting in on his classes to observe before teaching the same topics in his own classes. The partnership paid off with engaging discussions and instructional success for both, a collaborative leadership style Machuca-Galvez continues to offer others in his work. He completed his coursework and comprehensive exams and earned his doctoral degree in anthropology from Temple in 2004, “a happy day.” 

Machuca-Galvez added additional teaching experience to his resume at Swarthmore College, a prestigious liberal arts college in Pennsylvania where he taught Spanish and anthropology, and later became Director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Latin American Studies. He also taught at the Claremont Colleges in the greater Los Angeles area and directed a study abroad summer program. Throughout his teaching and work with students, Machuca-Galvez appreciated the importance of librarians and libraries. 

“I learned the value of working with librarians side-by-side. It was amazing how they provided value in a class,” he said. “They would open our world to students and teach them how to research it. I can’t describe how good it was to work with them. I thought I knew a lot of tricks, but they would come with a bag full of super tricks.” 

Machuca-Galvez accrued more than 25 years of teaching experience overall, much of it at Swarthmore. Throughout his time teaching, he embraced opportunities to serve as the type of mentor he had once needed. 

“My awareness of living as a minority grew exponentially, I think as I became a citizen [of the United States] and then realized who is struggling here. And now that I’m a citizen, I thought, I have a duty to help others,” he said. “So, any student that I could help, I would say, you’re here for a reason; let me help you to succeed.” 

In 2017, Machuca-Galvez began to think about a career shift to librarianship, a change that felt natural and combined many of his skills and interests. 

“The equivalent to the dean at Swarthmore Libraries frequently would tell me, ‘Since the moment I met you, I thought you would make a superb librarian,’” he said. “She told me, ‘if you’re serious about changing careers, you should start going to library school.’” 

He followed her advice and worked for a time at the Swarthmore library while completing his master’s degree in library and information science from Rutgers University. After the pandemic, he served as Humanities Librarian and Visiting Scholar at the University of New Mexico. 

His position with KU Libraries, which began in the fall of 2022, was a natural fit. 

Machuca-Galvez appreciates the outstanding collections at KU Libraries and enjoys working with students.  

“I have discovered works here that I only knew previously via a reference page,” he said, describing a rare set of books by an American explorer in the 1800s Central America, materials from 1930s Costa Rica, and volumes from El Salvador that he had never seen before. “It’s exhilarating to see those materials,” he said. 

“I'm enjoying working with different stakeholders, including the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and collaborating with the students," Machuca-Galvez said. "I do miss having a semester side-by-side with the students and getting to know them well, but I taught four classes just last week. It's exciting to demonstrate what I, as a librarian, can do for them if they allow me, and what they can achieve on their own." 

Machuca-Galvez is making his own contributions to the resources available by bringing and increasing his networks to maintain and develop the collections, and with proactive and ongoing communications with faculty about what materials they need. 

He has also kept up with his own research and continued the task of translating significant anthropological ethnographies about Panama into Spanish. Recently, he began working with artificial intelligence applications to convert a Swedish work from the early 1900s, which focuses on the indigenous Guna people of Panama, into Spanish.  

“While the text may reflect a particular perspective, it holds immense historical value,” he said. It's knowledge that was extracted and disseminated in the global north but never made its way back to the Guna people.” 

Translating the work to Spanish could help with that return and is also proving to be an example of the collaboration Machuca-Galvez values in the field of librarianship. So far, the project has included consultation about AI translation, teamwork with KU Libraries colleagues, and collaboration with friends in Panama. 

“One thing I admire about librarians is that a lot of the work is done in teams. You can work by yourself, but there’s value in working together. And that’s something I hadn’t experienced as much in the past,” Machuca-Galvez said. “When my current translation work is completed, it will go to an open-access repository with KU Libraries, and then people in Panama, and people all over the world can get it in Spanish.” 

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