Politics & Government

Oral history project turns focus on Hispanics in America

WASHINGTON -- Gustavo Mestas walked 57 blocks a day to medical school because he didn't have the money for the bus. He still saved up enough money to buy his daughter a Barbie doll, however, to replace the roomful of dolls she'd left behind in Cuba.

Recounting the story in Georgetown, Del., his daughter, Ileana Smith, chokes up.

"I want you to know that you have had the greatest influence in my life of anyone, and I love you and I respect you and admire you," she tells him, the interview now part of Historias, a new initiative by the oral history project StoryCorps to record and preserve the life stories of Hispanics across the United States and Puerto Rico.

StoryCorps already has recorded 30,000 interviews since its start in 2003 and launched other initiatives, including one in 2007 to record the stories of African-Americans. David Isay, who started the national effort to get people talking — and listening — said the response from the Hispanic community had been unprecedented, however.

There's been a "sense of excitement and gratitude that Latino voices are going to be heard, respected and preserved," he said.

The 40-minute interviews will be conducted over the next year in cities that include Miami, San Diego, Chicago, Houston, Taos, N.M., Yuma, Ariz., and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Bilingual facilitators will collect the interviews, which resemble intimate conversations between family members or close friends. Some end in tears, others in laughter.

"These are the stories that make up the fabric of our country," said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who said he'd encouraged StoryCorps to focus on Hispanics, the fastest-growing population in the U.S. "I know how important the lives and experiences of Hispanics are in telling America's story."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and his brother, Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., reminisce about growing up poor in Colorado, making their own toys and sharing shoes.

"I remember walking to school and my left foot was size 10 and my right foot was only a size 5," John Salazar says, laughing. "That was so embarrassing. But I thank God that we had to go through stuff like that."

In Miami, StoryCorps' MobileBooth, a shiny silver Airstream trailer equipped with a professional recording studio, will set up shop in January. For a month, StoryCorps will collect stories from exiles from Fidel Castro's Cuba, along with tales of assimilation from South Florida's burgeoning community of Venezuelans, Colombians and other non-Cuban Hispanics.

Some stories are already available on the project's Web site. There's Lourdes Villanueva, who was interviewed in Tampa, Fla., telling her son, Roger, about growing up in a family of migrant workers and getting in trouble for speaking Spanish. He remembers his mother telling him she wanted to set an example and get her high school diploma, then a degree from a community college, and that she often skipped lunch to study.

"I had to hurry up and graduate before you guys did because I knew you guys were coming right behind me," she says.

Isay said he thought that the recordings could help to quell some of the rancor that had marked the summer, and the debate over revamping the nation's immigration laws.

"These stories show us how much more we share in common as a nation than divides us," Isay said, "a truth that's particularly important to recognize now, when we seem to be spending so much time shouting at each other and so little time listening.

"When you hear the stories of real people speaking from the heart, you can't deny you're hearing the truth."

Isay's goal is to record more than 1,000 interviews across the county with Hispanics who live in big cities and rural communities. The project is funded by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Several Hispanic members of Congress who attended the initiative's rollout Thursday near the U.S. Capitol said the recognition was welcome.

"I really think there is a great danger of losing the history of how we got to where we are," said Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., adding that he remembered his father picketing their local New York television station for an hour a week of Spanish programming.

"Now we have networks I can't even keep up with," he said, noting the cameras from Telemundo and Univision. "I have a story to tell, I have my parents' story to tell, I have my community's story to tell."

Arturo Rodriguez, the president of the United Farm Workers of America, noted that the grape workers who waged a five-year strike and boycott against growers for better working conditions are dying out and "many of their individual stories have never been adequately preserved."

"These accounts are crucial, not just to document a profound piece of American history ... but also because they played a central role in propelling forward the larger movement for Latino civil and economic rights," he said.

All interview participants get copies of the recordings on CDs, and with their consent the recordings will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Excerpts from some of them will air on various public radio programs, including National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," which airs StoryCorps interviews on Fridays.


Bilingual facilitators will collect interviews across the country through door-to-door, MobileBooth and StoryBooth services. Some cities will host visits of three to five days, others a month or up to a year.

Reservations for sharing stories during StoryCorps' Historias national tour may be made by calling 1-800-850-4406.


Listen to some of the stories


Banks fight to kill proposed consumer protection agency

Once a steel capital, Pittsburgh now a model new economy

Sebelius: Swine flu vaccine will be available in October

Air tanker contract competition rules ignore WTO ruling

Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington