Oral histories: an invitation to reflection

“Oh, please tell me what my son will be,” my mother glanced anxiously from me to Ultima. “He will be a man of learning,” Ultima said sadly. “¡Madre de Dios!” my mother cried and cross herself.

Bless me Ultima Rudolfo Anaya

This summer, while doing research in the Latino Native American Cultural Center’s archives[1] and conducting oral histories interviews there were three aspects that kept reappearing: 1) The importance of family and community, 2) never forgetting where you come from, 3) and education.

The alumni I had the honor of meeting have been cooperative, understanding, and giving of their time. I realized that asking about their experiences at the University of Iowa and the Cultural Center has been long overdue. Their journeys are filled with wisdom and illustrate historic moments not only within Iowa and the University but throughout the entire country. Oral histories give us a window into the past, through the lives of the narrators. David H. Mould writes, “interviewing, to put it bluntly, is a deliberate act of involvement in other people’s lives” (82)[2]. Although the narrator can refuse to answer any of the questions asked, it is still a moment of vulnerability as they articulate their moments of success and setbacks. I had never conducted oral histories before this internship. However, it has been one of the most rewarding projects I have participated in while at the university. I feel fortunate that I was able to meet and hear the stories of incredible human beings.

The participants I have interviewed so far, shared their aspirations to continue with their education and their journey to be where they are today.  While education was encouraged within their households, most of the time it was a teacher, a friend, or an LNACC member who helped them broaden their horizons. People who believed in them and the power of education. I was profoundly inspired by each person I spoke with, and I realized that their stories resonated with my own experiences. When I get asked why I am in Iowa, I always reply: “it is a long story”. Which is the truth. For me to be here, living in Iowa City, attending the University of Iowa, working on my Ph.D., and being part of the HPG internship, it took many decisions on my part, within my family, but also among other people who had never met me, but that had a saying in how my potential future would look like. Individuals who saw education as something essential in life. I am and will be forever grateful.  Growing up, I never thought I could pursue higher education.  I tell people it is my dream, and even though, once, someone said it sounded cliché, I stand by it. It was my dream; It is my dream.

 I have been reflecting on my journey, as I conducted the oral history interviews. I realized that my love for literature and education comes from my grandparents. I wish I had known about oral histories before, I wish I had a time machine, to speak with them one more time.  My maternal grandfather did not know how to read or write, but he had the most incredible memory. Growing up, he would tell my cousins and me many stories, funny and scary ones; about gosht, lost treasures, witches, and his interactions with Hungarian fortune tellers.  He remembered important historic events, such as when he saw a plane fly over our community for the first time, and stories about the end of the Mexican Revolution. My paternal grandfather learned to read and write on his own, and would constantly read the bible, medicinal books he owned, and my textbooks.  My love for reading comes from him. He told me about our ancestors, about when the sugar cane plantations in our community were replaced by coffee.  I also, want to credit my grandmothers, because they were nurturing and shared many words of wisdom with me. I am thankful to my parents because although they never had the opportunity to continue with their education and despite the difficulties, they never stopped me from following my dream.

With this project comes great responsibility, these stories must be shared with a larger audience.  I look forward to the continuation of this project when these oral histories are available to the public and anyone can listen and learn about such inspiring people. YES, I am reiterating it, “inspiring people”. They were few of the first Latinas/os and Native American students to attend the University of Iowa. Their stories matter because they have paved the way for today’s generation. Their stories tell us why we should never take education for granted. Their stories are testimonies of resilience, struggles, and hopes for the future. Their stories tell us why representation can make a difference.

This internship has reinforced my values, and the importance of what I treasure most in life, my family, and my education. The stories I heard have been a reminder to persevere no matter what. Thank you to those who continue doing the work, investing in education, broadening horizons, and encouraging the younger generations to follow their dreams. Sometimes it takes one person, to tell you, it is possible!

Life at the Cultural Center: conferences, cultural events, protests, and more…
Life at the Cultural Center: conferences, cultural events, protests, and more…

[1] https://guides.lib.uiowa.edu/c.php?g=131974&p=7535785#s-lg-box-23931151

[2] DeBlasio, Donna M, Charles F Ganzert, David H Mould, Stephen H Paschen, and Howard L Sacks. Catching Stories. 1st ed. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 2009. Web.

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