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Brenes Mesén, Roberto, 1874-1947



  • Existence: 1874 - 1947


Roberto Brenes Mesen, educator, political critic, poet, and philologist, was born on July 6, 1874 in San Jose, Costa Rica, His parents were Martin Brenes Cordoba and Elena Mesen Perez, both of whom died young, leaving Roberto to be raised by his paternal uncle, Don Alberto Brenes. As a child Brenes Mesen attended various private academies in San Jose before entering the Escuela Nueva in 1886. He completed his undergraduate education at the Liceo de Costa Rica in 1892, and after receiving the diploma of Maestro Normal he took a job as schoolmaster in the town of Alajuela. In 1894 he requested a transfer back to San Jose where he was then employed at the Liceo de Costa Rica for the next two years. During this time Brenes Mesen also studied law, and in 1897 he received a scholarship to pursue graduate studies at the Instituto Pedagogico in Santiago, Chile. It was here that he started his study of philosophy and philology--both interests that would continue throughout his life. It was also while he was in Chile that Brenes Mesen came to be profoundly influenced by the Modernist movement in Spanish literature as pioneered by the poet Ruben Dario and others in his literary circle.

In 1900 Brenes Mesen was awarded the degree of Professor of Spanish and French and he returned to Costa Rica with an appointment as Professor of Spanish, Psychology and Logic at the Liceo de Costa Rica. For the next few years he served as director of the Colegio Superior de Senoritas and the Colegio de San Luis Gonzaga de Cartago, and in 1904 he was made director of the Liceo de Heredia. He continued his teaching, administrative duties, and pedagogical writing until 1909, when he was appointed Secretary of Public Education for Costa Rica. During this period he was engaged in an anti-clerical campaign, and his ideological commitment became clearly centered around the issues of liberty and democracy. Brenes Mesen served as Secretary of Public Education until 1913 when he became Secretary of Foreign Affairs.

In 1914-1915 he acted as Minister Plenipotentiary to Washington D.C. Back in Costa Rica in 1916 he was appointed professor and director of the Escuela Normal, and that same year he was a delegate to the Second Pan-American Scientific Congress by invitation of the Carnegie Foundation. In 1917-1918 he again was appointed Minister of Education, but due to mounting political tensions in Costa Rica, Brenes Mesen immigrated to the United States in 1918.

From 1920-1926 Brenes Mesen held the position of Professor of Romance Languages at Syracuse University. In 1926 he came to Northwestern University as Professor of Romance Languages--a position he held until his retirement in 1939. During these years in the United States Brenes Mesen wrote prolifically, and he enjoyed a literary and scholarly reputation in both the United States and Latin America. Much of his writing concerned Spanish literature and grammar, but he also contributed numerous critical reviews and essays on other subjects to a variety of Spanish journals. During his years at Northwestern, Brenes Mesen wrote two of his most important books of poetry, Los dioses vuelvan (1928) and En busca del grial (1935), as well as a novel, Lazaro de Betania (1932). These latter works reflect Brenes Mesen's deep and continuing interest in mysticism and comparative religion.

In 1939 Brenes Mesen retired from his active career at Northwestern University and was made professor emeritus. That same year he and his wife returned to San Jose, Costa Rica. Although the beginning of World War II marked an increase in the amount of Brenes Mesen's political writings which continued over the next several years, he never stopped pursuing his philosophical and literary work.

From the 1930s on Brenes Mesen was increasingly involved in numerous journalistic and cultural activities. In 1938 he co-founded the Instituto Iberoamericano in Mexico and became co-editor of the Revista Iberoamericana; a journal designed to promote pan-American cultural exchange. At the same time he was involved in the activities of the Asociacibn de Escritores y Artistas Americanas, the Instituto Cultural Costarricense-Argentino, and the Instituto de las Espanas. Following his return to Costa Rica in 1939 Brenes Mesen actively continued his efforts to promote a true pan-American cultural understanding, which he viewed as especially vital in the light of the contemporary political situation. In his role as an unofficial pan-American good-will ambassador Brenes Mesen made a lecture tour to the United States in 1944 where he spoke at several southern universities, and in 1946 he took part in the inauguration ceremonies of the Facultad de Humanidades at the University of El Salvador and the University of San Carlos in Guatemala. On the return trip from Guatemala he was stricken with a heart attack. He was seriously ill for several months and died in San Jose, Costa Rica on May 19, 1947.

In addition to the associations mentioned above, Brenes Mesen was a member of the Modern Languages Association, the American Association of University Professors, and a corresponding member (appointed in 1922) of the Spanish Academy in Madrid. He was one of the earliest leaders of the theosophical movement in Costa Rica at the turn of the century, and he held active membership in the Theosophical Society of Chicago (Oak Park) and the Logia Dharana in Costa Rica. Roberto Brenes Mesen was also a Thirty-third Degree Mason, and in 1918 and again in 1942 he served as Grand Master of the Gran Logia de Costa Rica.

            Brenes Mesen was married on August 26, 1900 to Ana Maria Carrillo. The couple had eight children (Joselina, Edin, Fresia, Dalai, Hiram, Soleida, Flaminio, and Ana Maria). Of these only Edin, Fresia, and Dalai survived to adulthood. Both Edin and Dalai Brenes became language professors, and Fresia won critical acclaim for her poetry. Brenes Mesen's wife was a devoted assistant in her husband's career, and it was she who copied many of his manuscripts, transcribed his notes, and maintained the scrapbooks and files of pertinent newspaper clippings.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Roberto Brenes Mesen (1874-1947) Papers

Identifier: 11/3/12/5

Roberto Brenes Mesen, educator, political critic, poet, and philologist, taught in Northwestern University's Department of Romance Languages from 1926-1939. His Papers consist of biographical materials, correspondence, teaching materials, research materials, publications, and critical studies. The majority of the matieral is in Spanish.

Dates: 1893 - 1976