“If Indiana Jones had been hunting antique books instead of antiquities, Steven Spielberg might have based the character on J. León Helguera. The Vanderbilt University professor emeritus of history has spent the better part of a lifetime on the trail of rare books.”
–The Nashville Scene, “A Face in the Crowd,” 22 June 2003
There may not be a human gene specific to bibliophiles, but the love of books is certainly in J. León Helguera’s blood. Helguera was born in New York City, and one of his earliest memories is of accompanying his maternal grandmother as she searched the shelves of secondhand bookshops in that great city for rare volumes of Austrian and German prose and poetry. When he was 14 years old, he discovered that a love of books was not confined to his mother’s side of the family. “I came to live for some years in Mexico, and I became aware that my uncles and great-aunts and great-uncles, too, possessed sizable libraries,” he recalls. “My paternal grandmother’s siblings also had extensive religious tracts, periodicals, and works of Spanish literature.”
Helguera’s interest in antique books was well established by the time he graduated from high school, served a stint with the U.S. Army, and returned to Mexico to earn his BA from Mexico City College in 1948. After graduation, Helguera returned to the U.S. and tried his hand briefly at antiquarian bookselling. Acceptance into the graduate history program at University of North Carolina brought him to Chapel Hill in 1949. The move also marked the real beginning of his love affair with Colombia. “I had an uncle from Bogotá, but it wasn’t until I entered graduate school that I really focused on that country,” Helguera says.
After earning his MA, Helguera decided to pursue his doctorate and chose Colombian military figure General T.C. de Mosquera as the topic of his dissertation. Packing up his wife Byrd and their two young children, Helguera headed to Colombia in 1953 for a year of research. He recalls the way the country looked back then. “Bogotá sits on a relatively flat plain set against mountains, which were still forested 50 years ago. There was a lot of game near the city—even a few of the very small local deer–and the swamps were full of fish.”
After obtaining his PhD and teaching at North Carolina State University, Helguera joined the history faculty at Vanderbilt in 1962. Byrd S. Helguera also began her career at Vanderbilt and was associate director of the Medical Center Library until her retirement.
Over the years, Helguera has published extensively on Latin American topics and received many academic honors and fellowships relating to his field of expertise. Even in his retirement he continues to speak and write on Colombia and other topics. He was interviewed by National Public Radio in November 2000 on the 25th anniversary of Generalísimo Francisco Franco’s death, regarding that figure’s place in Spanish history, and in 2001 Helguera’s paper on 19th century traditional Colombian history was presented at the 48th Annual Southeastern Council on Latin American Studies in Veracruz, Mexico.
Although his active collecting has slowed now, Helguera still seems to relish the thrill of the chase – even when it ends in frustration. “I still wake up at 2 AM sometimes, enraged at the things that got away from me,” he confesses.