Oral History Goes West

Documenting the Ethnic Studies Struggles through Oral History: A Conversation between the University of Florida and the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program 

By Yareliz Mendez-Zamora, 3rd Year History Major

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Latina/o Diaspora in the Americas Class, Tucson, Arizona
Location: Prescott College, featuring Dr. Ernesto Mirelese

“Si el plan no funciona, cambia el plan. No cambies la meta.”“If your plan doesn’t work change it. Don’t change the goal.” Latino Proverb

In the fall of 2014, the Latina Diaspora in the Americas Project at the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program was started under the guidance of Dr. Paul Ortiz and Génesis Lara. It is the first project of its kind at the University of Florida with the intention of creating a space for the gathering and preservation of knowledge from members of the Latina/o Diaspora. The project also seeks to gain insight about political and historical memories that constitutes the Global South or the Nuevo South. A groundbreaking class was launched from this project titled the “Latin@ Diaspora in the Americas.”

I didn’t know that the peers in my class would become my LDAP family. Even though the eleven of us had different majors, came from all walks of life, and wish to pursue different career paths, through our love for our identities and our shared histories, we have discovered a passion to make a difference in our communities.

One of the most impactful lessons of that class was a case study focusing on the banned Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson, Arizona. This program encouraged students of low income and under-resourced communities to graduate high school and to pursue a college education. A major focus of the program was a focus on transformative education, critical analysis and giving back to our communities. In class, we watched the documentary “Precious Knowledge”, which was based on the banning of the MAS program in Tucson.  It was heart wrenching to see how despite the desire from students and teachers to continue learning and teaching together, the Arizona legislature still banned the program.

When the trip to Tucson was proposed last fall, it seemed surreal. I, along with the majority of my peers, had never traveled to the West Coast before. It represented an opportunity to experience a different kind of U.S. culture.

After two cancelled flights, two drives to Orlando, and a number of delays—WE MADE IT. Tucson, Arizona—the site that gained national attention after the banning of the national recognized ethnic studies program of the Tucson Unified School District.

Tucson was the site of a war; it continues to be the site of resistance and love. Today, we had a discussion about Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. It was a deep and fortifying conversation between the students from Prescott College and the University of Florida. It was amazing to see how so many perspectives came together and made sense of our shared histories. What does it mean to “return to history?” How can we make sure that the narratives that had been previously ignored are now centered? How can we make sure that the contributions that individuals have made are truly considered and not forgotten the next day?

For Brittney Mejia, a 4th year History major, “Being in a place where you have the freedom to be honest and to explore issues that affect us is liberating. To know I’m not the only one that feels the way I do – to be in a place where everyone wants to share their unique perception and ideas – to be in a place where everyone understands, and those who don’t take the time to listen, that is powerful. We are blessed to be here.”

Frida Kahlo said, “I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”

I can count the number of times a three-hour block period at the University of Florida has managed to keep my attention for its entire duration on one hand. There are only two classes where I have been actively engaged for the whole three hours, which is surprising considering that I’ve had a three hour block since my first semester. When Todd started his lecture today, I was immediately immersed in the material. My peers and I saw what we learned about in the classroom at the University of Florida come to life in Tucson. There are no words to describe the energy that was in the classroom and seeing people come together with one goal, to approach a community that has been fighting for years with respect, love, and understanding.

Academia, in maintaining a discourse of “objectivity,” creates a space where the power dynamics between the subaltern and the dominant are maintained and groomed. Within this class, we managed to dismantle certain barriers and truly see ourselves reflected in a curriculum where critical thinking skills were valued but translated in a different way. We learned about the importance of the Nahui Ollin. Self-reflection will lead to transformation.

There were three main themes we centered our discussion on:

  1. What is history? When Cabral writes about the return of history, whose history are we returning to?
  2. What is the role of the historian?
  3. How can we make sure that every narrative is included?

History is not stagnant nor is it dead. It would be wrong to think that the indigenous people were not active participants in history; their stories are simply buried under a binary that is usually thought of as European Colonizers over the Indigenous population, instead of a sliding scale. We talked about the language that we use, how it is exclusionary rather than inclusive.

The topic of the role of the historian was hotly debated. Should the historian simply document what happened? Should a historian simply preserve materials? One of the students argued that there was a new type of historian rising, the historian-advocate. Is this even a historian? The answer was of course.

The same way that history is not dead, it is not linear. There were multiple events happening at any given moment. What was agreed on was that every narrative needs to be included, however these narratives—the one that have been silenced—need to be taken in a way that is understood to both peoples. After all, if we take their narratives without the other side understanding what is happening, isn’t that a type of robbing?

UF students in AZ

UF students Joselin Padron-Rasines and Richard Lainez, together with Prescott College Graduate Student Miriel Manning interview Julianna Leon former student of banned Ethnic Studies program.

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Ethnic Studies panel created by the University of Florida, Prescott College and Tucson Community.

diaspora class

Latina/o Diaspora in the Americas Class, Tucson, Arizona

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