Research University

Close encounters of the cultural kind

Daniel Arbino, the Jay I. Kislak Chair and Curator at the Kislak Center at the University of Miami, seeks to honor the benefactor’s vision and bring the collection into the 21st century.
Daniel Arbino

Daniel Arbino will oversee the Jay I. Kislak Collection at the Otto G. Richter Library. Photo: Jose Cabrera/University of Miami

He grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of an Italian American couple. But Daniel Arbino refers to a sequence of “sparks” that fired his fascination with Caribbean and Latin American culture and led him to a lifelong encounter with the world of books and artistic artefacts. 

“There’s no rhyme or reason, no definitive moment or epiphany, but instead a series of beautiful moments—of sparks—that led me to Latin American culture and now here, to Miami and the University,” said Arbino, librarian professor and the inaugural Jay I. Kislak Chair and Curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection, housed in Special Collections at the Otto G. Richter Library on the Coral Gables Campus. 

The Jay I. Kislak Family Foundation celebrated Arbino’s arrival. 

"We are delighted to welcome Daniel Arbino as the new chair and curator of the Kislak Center at the University of Miami, said Tomas Bartelmo, the foundation’s chief executive officer. “The Kislak Family Foundation appreciates the initiative of the University in attracting such a distinguished scholar to carry forward the spirit that animated Jay Kislak's exceptional commitment to the early history of the Americas." 

From his childhood, Arbino remembered that many stores in Cincinnati were shuttering their doors and that it seemed fashionable to leave to go elsewhere. That trend stimulated a sense that a wilder world was beckoning. 

Reading and books heightened that sense. Arbino’s father owned a candy factory and his mother worked in retail, neither profession overtly “literary,” yet Arbino was encouraged to read—and his choices were often surprising. 

“My mother was wonderful. We’d go to bookstores and all she cared was that I was reading—she didn’t care what I was reading,” Arbino said. “‘Go pick out a book,’ she’d say, and for whatever reason I’d pick out these Haitian and Jamaican books. She would look at the cover and ask: ‘This is what you want to read?’ I’d nod, and she’d say, ‘okay then.’” 

In addition to the Caribbean books, another “spark” in the form of island music sifted into the Arbino home. Arbino’s mother, who’d grown up in the 1960s in a working class, low-income neighborhood in Cincinnati, resonated with the messages of reggae icon Bob Marley. 

“Mom loved Marley’s music. She played the greatest hits but encouraged me to explore the B side of the albums and the deep cuts—I got into it and really went with it,” Arbino recounted. “This was another one of those bigger moments to explore beyond the world that we knew that had a profound impact on my life.” 

Arbino relocated to Albuquerque where he earned both an undergraduate degree in Spanish and Portuguese and then a master’s in Hispanic literature. He enmeshed himself in the Hispanic culture so prevalent in the area. From there, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in Hispanic and Lusophone literatures and cultures at the University of Minnesota. After earning his doctorate, he taught for a stint at a small college in rural Kentucky but was dissatisfied with the teaching experience. Still, he liked academia, looked for alternatives to stay in the arena, and shifted his focus to library studies. He moved back to the Southwest where he completed an online master’s degree in library and information science. 

While in his last semester in 2016, he accepted an in-person teaching position with Tulane University that proved more enjoyable, then in 2017 the University of Texas at Austin recruited him to head collection development for its Benson Latin American Collection, where he served as librarian for the Andean region and for U.S. Latina/o studies. 

The opportunity to chair and curate the University’s Kislak Collection “was right in my wheelhouse” and gifted Arbino the key to satisfy his fascination and live in a truly hemispheric city of the Americas. 

“As chair and curator, I have a responsibility to the Jay I. Kislak name and to honor the collection and his goals. To me that starts with encounters and their legacies, and I prefer the word ‘encounter’ to ‘exploration,’ which can have a lot of weight to it,” Arbino said. 

His first purchases for the collection include a set of 33 Afro-Colombian posters produced over the past four years that say: “We exist.” 

“The Kislak Collection is amazing, and what does that mean to add those posters and put them in dialogue with materials from the 16th century that have a very different viewpoint?” Arbino said. “Suddenly this collection can have different voices in dialogue with each other, acknowledging that tension, acknowledging the conflicts and the legacies of histories. When I think about collections, I think about how we can build out the voices within—that’s how I sleep at night. A pluralism of voices within a collection will always be my driving force.” 

Arthur Dunkelman, who knew Jay Kislak, worked with him at the Kislak Family Foundation, and who has managed the gallery and collection since it opened in March 2018 at the University of Miami, has been instrumental in helping Arbino’s transition. 

“Arthur is our memory—he knew Jay Kislak. I didn’t have that honor, so for me it’s an opportunity in our weekly meetings to learn and to understand Jay Kislak and his vision,” Arbino said. 

Cristina Favretto, director of Special Collections, is delighted that Arbino has joined her department's team. 

"Daniel not only brings a wealth of knowledge to this position, but also a fresh perspective on connections between centuries past and the present that can be illustrated through books, documents, and ephemera,” Favretto said. “I know that all the communities who use our materials will benefit from his dedication and scholarship." 

To his new position, Arbino brings a lifelong love of books and a ‘romantic’ view of the role of the librarian. 

“So, how can we build upon what we already have? That’s what drives me—and my research will show this, too—that I’ve always been interested in the communities that don’t have much of a voice,” Arbino said. “And what does that mean in all the complications?”