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Esperanza Bravo de Varona, who helped found the Cuban Heritage Collection, passes away

The librarian and archivist’s vision to pull together all the Cuban ephemera into one central place led to the founding of the Cuban Heritage Collection, the largest repository of Cuban documents outside the island.
Esperanza Bravo de Varona
Esperanza Bravo de Varona's career at the University of Miami spanned 45 years. Photo: Jose Miguel Cabrera/University of Miami Libraries

Esperanza Bravo de Varona, a Cuban American librarian and archivist who helped create the University of Miami Libraries’ Cuban Heritage Collection (CHC), passed away Thursday in her home in Miami surrounded by family. She was 95.

With unparalleled leadership, creativity, and service, de Varona worked tirelessly to build and establish the CHC as one of the most comprehensive, internationally recognized archives in the world—with the largest repository of Cuban ephemera from the island and its diaspora. An academic chair was named in her honor. 

“Esperanza Bravo de Varona was an exceptional archivist and librarian whose vision and commitment to building a repository documenting the history of Cuba and exile communities inspired her colleagues and donors to join her in a shared mission,” said Charles Eckman, dean of University Libraries. “As a result of her leadership, the Cuban Heritage Collection has become an archive with a global reputation as the largest collection documenting Cuban history outside of the island and the largest record anywhere of the global Cuban diaspora.

“De Varona's passion and efforts have left a lasting legacy to future generations of researchers and community members, and she has established an enduring collaborative model for the preservation of cultural memory,” Eckman noted.

With a career at the University that spanned 45 years, de Varona mentored many colleagues, including Amanda T. Moreno, the current interim Esperanza Bravo de Varona Chair and archivist for the CHC. 

“Esperanza’s lifelong commitment to the preservation of Cuban cultural heritage is, in part, what inspired me to pursue a career in libraries and archives after working under her as a student assistant at the Cuban Heritage Collection,” said Moreno. “She was a natural leader, and it was inspirational to see everything she achieved as a woman in this profession. I am honored to carry on the work that she cared so deeply about.”

Along with librarian Rosa Abella, Ana Rosa Nuñez, Lesbia Orta Varona, and Gladys Gomez Rossie, de Varona began working in the University Libraries division in the late 1960s. 

With their own initiative—and later, with the help of the administration—the five Cuban women collected documents, posters, newspapers, maps, books, and anything that had to do with Cuba and the Cuban exile experience. These documents were all stored in different parts of the library. 

“Esperanza had the drive to bring all the Cuban collections together,” said Gomez Rossie. Her colleague, Orta Varona, who worked with her since 1967 until they both retired in 2013, describes de Varona as a top librarian.

“But besides that, she had a vision to pull all the Cuban collection together,” Orta Varona said. “And she found the right people to make that happen.”

Jose Bared, a trustee emeritus with the University of Miami Board of Trustees, met de Varona 40 years ago and recalled how hard she worked to create the CHC. 

“She was so persuasive and persistent in trying to establish the Cuban Heritage Collection,” he said. “It was her passion.”De Varona was able to convince former University president Henry King Stanford to grant her the space to do it, according to Bared. 

“She was so persuasive that the first check that the CHC received was from the personal account of Henry King Stanford,” Bared pointed out. Stanford became the first president of the Amigos of the Cuban Heritage Collection, the board that serves as the fundraising arm of the archive. 

During one of her many outings to community events, de Varona met Cuban philanthropist Elena Diaz Versón, who donated the first $1 million to what would become the CHC. 

Through a shared passion for preserving Cuban heritage, de Varona met Olga Goizueta, the late chair of The Goizueta Foundation. To this day, the foundation supports the CHC’s acquisition, processing, and digitization of materials and the creation of the undergraduate scholars and graduate fellows research programs. 

“Esperanza was an inspirational, visionary leader. Without her passionate commitment to her community and its history, the extraordinary Cuban Heritage Collection could not have become a reality,” said Roberto S. Goizueta, director of The Goizueta Foundation. “She will be sorely missed, but many generations of future scholars, students, and community leaders will continue to benefit from her legacy.” 

De Varona’s reputation and influence attracted many valuable collections to the University, and she was an outstanding ambassador for the Libraries and the University, Gomez Rossie noted.

She served as president of the Society of Florida Archivists and as a member of the State Historical Records Advisory Board, appointed by three consecutive governors. As chair of the Steering Committee International Council on Archives, de Varona traveled extensively, always speaking about Cuba and the collection, Gomez Rossie indicated. 

“She spoke at many conferences around the world,” Gomez Rossie said. “She visited Israel, Spain, China. She loved to travel and to speak about her work.”

Born in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, on Sept. 29, 1927, de Varona was the third of four children of Romulo Bravo and Armantina Lopez Calleja. In her early years, she studied at Colegio del Apostolado and later attended college at the University of Havana, where she graduated with a Ph.D. in philosophy. 

She met her late husband, Francisco Javier de Varona, in Havana in 1948. They were married on July 9, 1950, and had four children. A daughter, Lourdes, died in infancy. 

In 1955, because of her husband's work, the family moved to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.  

Since she had all her family in Cuba, de Varona often traveled back to the island. When she was pregnant with her third child, she flew to Havana to give birth so her child could be a Cuban national. Her daughter was born days before the communist revolution in December 1958, leading de Varona to flee in a hurry with her newborn on the last flight that left Havana for the Dominican Republic, de Varona family members reported. 

The family spent the next several years in the Dominican Republic, until April 1965, when the Dominican Civil War forced them out of Santo Domingo. 

In Miami, while raising her three children, she obtained a Master of Library Science from Florida State University. In 1966, she contributed to the establishment of the library at Our Lady of Lourdes Academy in Miami. A devout Catholic, de Varona attended mass every day.

De Varona is survived by her three adult children, Beatriz de Varona Craft, Frank J. Varona, and Esperanza de Varona Rodriguez; son-in-law Arsenio Rodriguez and daughter in-law Beth Varona; nine grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren; as well as nieces, nephews, beloved friends, and relatives.

“Although this moment is difficult, we find comfort knowing her legacy will live on,” said her granddaughter Laura Rodriguez. “Not only through the Esperanza Bravo de Varona Chair, but also because her contributions left a permanent mark on Cuban history and culture.”