Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Lizette Esquivel-Final Reflection

Entering this course I was very ignorant to the power of authority historians possess in relation to the publication, distribution and reception of historical figures and events. What historians deem as important is what you receive. Historians review archival materials such as pictures, notes, pamphlets and articles and are tasked with making sense of the material. After giving each article of material a meaning, they then relay their findings to the public (or smaller academic audiences) in a way that paints a picture of the historical happenings they perceive the materials to portray. This course really highlighted major issues that arise from a history writing process that allows historians to include and exclude whatever they find to be historically relevant.

Before learning the behind the scenes work that goes into preserving historical happenings and figures, it never really dawned on me the ways in which the identities and life experiences of a particular historian can tie into how they perceive and decipher the archival material. Gender, race, socioeconomic status and educational experience play heavy roles in how history is articulated. Even the way historians/librarians input archival materials into their databases can be skewed by the methods utilized to describe and stratify these materials. This process is influential in the making of a history that is often biased and singular. The experiences of various groups are often erased as historians use their judgement to determine what is important or valuable to the history they are choosing to display.

With the archiving and contextualizing of materials being heavily influenced by the identity and the life experiences of historians, the lens through which they view themselves, and the identities they carry, has a major influence on how their historical texts are formed.

Given the opportunity to engage in the history-writing process, I experienced this dilemma firsthand. As a Mexican-American woman whose family inhabited this country almost 100 years ago, my particular identity carries a lot of weight on my perception of the material. My family does not speak Spanish, and Mexican cultural practices have always been kept to a minimum - a consequence of my family’s generational experience of oppression and culture shaming in this country since the early 1900s. My life experiences have been shaped by poverty, cultural insecurity and structural inequality. As I digested the Oral History of Alicia Escalante, certain aspects of her experiences affected me in ways that can only be described as personally empowering and moving.  As a result, when writing her bio, I focused on the pieces of her catalog I could identify and connect with emotionally.
The bio could have come out very differently had it been written by a private-school educated, White middle-class male with a lack of value for the unique experiences of Latina women in the 1960s.

After cataloguing and dissecting Alicia Escalante’s oral history extensively, I chose to articulate her early life experiences, and the adversity she faced as a young woman, as the driving force to her success. I strategically focused on these challenges as I could personally identify with her experiences. Whether it be her experience with poverty, dealing with the welfare system, or the general cultural oppression that comes with all white administrative structures in this country, her story resonated with me. I had the urge to defy the usual biographical structure, which often times spends very little on the early life and extensively goes into the success of the person. By deciding not to stratify her success over the adversity she faced, I believe her story has the power to inspire those who share similar struggles, and who might stumble upon her biography, to overcome, achieve and to never settle. 

I have always believed that History has the power to influence and move people. As a young girl, I often wondered why there were never any Mexicans in my history books. I wondered endlessly why the “Great White Man History” I was taught never carved out a space for the Latinas whom I knew had been navigating the oppressions of this country for decades. The most I ever got was Cesar Chavez and the Labor Rights movement. The Chicano movement was not only disqualified from the text but there was also no inclusion of any Latina women whatsoever.

The erasure of the achievements of specific groups within historical texts is extremely significant since I believe it has the power to inadvertently (some might argue advertently) stymie upward mobility within those communities. Access to role models and the knowledge of historical cultural achievement are extremely important in the movements of people. I had very limited knowledge to role models to follow when conceiving of my life goals and the roles I could play in enacting change. I was completely ignorant to all the systems actively working against me and the multiple layers of adversity my people have to overcome in order to attain the upward mobility the "American Dream" presumes to promise. Accessibility to this type knowledge only came with my University of Michigan education. Which further makes this public domain important. Accessibility is key.

By telling Alicia Escalante's biography in a way that outlined her struggles, I hoped to show other Latinas that success is still attainable regardless of the struggles you may face. I want nothing more than for Latina women to understand their power and to realize they are never stuck within the bounds of gendered, racial, cultural, nor structural oppression. It is only through projects such as this that the much-needed accessibility of our history is given to the public. We owe it to ourselves to not hoard stories like those of Alicia Escalante, Evey Chapa, and Martha Cotera, in efforts to empower the women of my generation to stand in solidarity against the multilayered oppression we all experience.

The Chicana Feminist movement in the 1960s was aimed at breaking away from the gendered, racial, cultural, and structural discrimination that suppressed our power and mobility. First, this movement worked to take ownership of our indigenous and Mexican history to use it as a form of empowerment. Instead of channeling Cuauhtémoc and Zapata, whom were figures held high within the Chicano movement, Latinas repainted our history to include figures like Las Adelitas of the Mexican Revolution and Coyolxauhqui - in efforts to break free of the oppressive power structures of the Chicano Movement. The men of the movement recognized Chicana women as "belonging in the kitchen" despite them often carrying the brunt of the behind-the-scenes work.

The Chicana Feminist movement also contrasted vastly with white feminist movements during the time because they were able to isolate and understand the triple oppression Latina women are faced with. It is not only that we as women are unequal to men, we as women of color are not equal to white women, and further we as a cultural group are not only a racial “other” but some of our cultural holdings oppress the mobility of our women. It was only in recognition of this triple oppression that Chicana Feminist Leaders were able to reject and fight against it. The Chicana movement was an important time for Latinas because we began to not only fight for our rights, we began to occupy spaces of Leadership that historically were not open to us.

Having spent a lot of time within the archive, it is ever clear to me that Latina women during the 60s and well after that, did, and still do, amazing and impactful community work all while navigating through various challenges of motherhood, poverty, racism, and structural oppression. It has been an honor to participate in the archival project and through it I have learned not only about the great things my elders have accomplished, but more importantly, I have been empowered to continue their work. I have also learned that navigating the same oppressions today that they did 50 years ago, I can and shall overcome. It has been a great experience, one that, although tedious, and challenging, was very enriching for me.  

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Monday, December 14, 2015

Shirley Rivas, Final Reflection

I took this course on a whim in order to satisfy my hunger for feminism and as a Latina, I was interested to learn more about Chicana history. I knew that oral histories was at the crux of this course, but looking back, I really did not know what I was getting myself into. This course was extremely interdisciplinary and it really made for a demanding experience where we were actually learning knew content, and then being asked to engage and execute action on our newfound knowledge. This idea of putting what we learn in a course to actually come up with a final product that is a part of something as revolutionary as Chicana por mi Raza was truly not what I was expecting, it was much more.
            For one, the idea of creating history was unprecedented idea to me because as far as I knew, all types of histories must be recorded one way or another, right? However that may be true, I found out soon into the course that there are some histories that are widely accepted and one’s that are not. For this particular project, we were asked to not only record the history of a Chicana woman residing in the Midwest, but also scan and make digital copies of their own personal archives. Through talking during class time and really understanding the impact we were creating in the realm of history making, I was dismayed to realize that there are truly some people who would not find this type of work either important or legitimate. This has partly to do with the women themselves; many of these women are not easy to find on a Google search and many of them have not had people previous to us interested in the work they have done in the Chicana movement. It is disheartening to come to terms with the reality of this situation because as I have come to find out, all of these women have an important history to tell and many of them have kept large amounts of records to substantiate their history.
            The women that have taken part in the Chicana por mi Raza project are women that have taken part in the Chicana movement and have collected items related to the movement. But in reality, they might not have collected these items thinking one day it would be important to someone studying Chicano/a history. They may have collected items and taken/kept photographs for their own use, much like a keepsake, to remember about this time where they were fighting for the rights of their people. Since the Chicana movement is a history that many have not taken a want to record/preserve, these women’s items have remained in their basements, closets, drawers, and more of the usual suspects. It might not have been until we entered their homes that these items have finally touched the light. Not only are we taking an interested in seeing their archives, but we are just as interested in preserving their archives in a digital form! The point of making digital and having it assessable at basically any given computer/laptop is not only a unique form of history making, but it is also a unique subject matter. These women are at this unique position of having their histories finally being told and the items that seemed to only take up space in their homes are now substantiated from a historical standpoint.
            As far as the actual actions involved with the recording, gathering, scanning, and so forth involved with constructing someone’s history, it was all less intuitive that I had imagined it to be. Especially since the course at first glance seems to just heavily rely on recording what these women tell us about their own history and their involvement with the Chicana movement, I was really surprised to find out all of the “additional” work that needed to be put forth. To start, recording someone’s oral history is not as simple as recording off of one’s iPhone. Not that I thought we were going to record using our iPhones, however, using the recording and lighting equipment from the ISS Media Center was more than I had bargained for. The actual camera had many components from putting the cameras on the proper settings and setting up the microphone to our particular Chicana, Juana, Professor Cotera who was conducting the interview, and setting up the Zoom recorder. Not to mention the fact that the oral history recording is just a fraction of the work that goes into creating their history.
Additional to the oral history, we had to collect items to scan and put into our digital archive in Medici (let me tell you, learning and mastering Medici could be a course all in its own). Juana had items scattered around her home that we deemed important to scan/document and we did all of the scanning and picture taking the time we were there. This helped with allowing us to have plenty of more time post-interview to catalog all of her items. This process is really time consuming because it requires knowledge of the item itself and knowledge on using Medici and the format of the Excel worksheet for this project. Although it was all very labor intensive, I am really glad to have had that experience because I was really given the opportunity to see what all goes into creating an accessible history from scratch. There were many times where we had to go back and tweak things here and there (an we continue to do so), but overall, it was great to see our hard work take true form. Professor Cotera really is not joking when she says that this project really has no true ending.

Through this project, I was able to put my love for feminism and social justice together in a really unique way. These women’s histories are not superficially important to most because the Chicana movement is not something taught inside most public schools, but once you dig deeper, you realize that everyone’s histories have the potential to be “important,” it just comes down to who has the power to create these histories in an accessible way. Through this course, we did something about the systemic exclusion of a few women’s histories and us students were given the power to create history. This was a great privilege because not everyone is empowered to take part in history making. Through this project, we are not only giving the spotlight to these women, but we are also paving the way for a new generation of history making and inclusion.

Ramiro Alvarez, Exit Reflection

I knew, roughly and loosely, that history, or should I say History™, was a bit of a mess, to say the least, before taking AMCULT 498. Most of what I knew and was learning in “progressive” spaces, however, was how history was inaccurate; the facts didn’t line up with what “actually happened.” A lot of this was common sense—Columbus did not discover the Americas—and a lot of it was adding historical sound bites back into the mix of larger stories, for example I have seen efforts to add more information into already existing timelines of slavery, women’s rights, and indigenous rights as a way of “correcting history.” These historical sound bites, as I called them, in a way reified the white man’s timeline by acknowledging some sort of legitimacy to it, even as more information was added to them. This information I’m referring to can be anything from more direct quotes from non-white figures that were there—for example, inserting into the white man’s timeline a sleuth of subversive Harriet Tubman quotes—or something like uncovering more factual specificity to how bad Native Americans were bing treated. In other words, the facts of white history were challenged for what they left out, but they weren’t challenged for how their memory practices were built to leave people out, to pacify and subdue radicals like Tubman, and to focus on facts.
            There was definitely a hollow feeling to this method of correcting history. Why do we need such factual accuracy to convince people in 2015 that our ancestors suffered in parallel ways to how we suffer today? When will we stop? Until we’ve recovered every single fact in obscured history? Volumes and volumes of corrective history can be written, but when will people get around to reading it and internalizing it? All of these questions swarmed my already anxious and cracked understanding of how I would help save the world. And while I had a feeling that an emphasis of factual history was the wrong route to take to save our collective memory, I did not really understand how white supremacy had hijacked our understandings of “subjective” and “objective.” What sounded to me like two forces that can exist in balance like the poles of North and South do, looked more like a harsh binary where both ends were mutually exclusive and fixed, with objectivity as the true, proper, and more valuable piece. It seems common sense to me now, but all it took to interrogate this notion was asking, who is making the history and who is calling their bias interpretation objective?
            I remember mentioning once in class that the extent of what I knew about history production was grade school history textbooks. The only exposure I had to this field of history reunification was through the banned books cases and conservative, white supremacist history text book debates taking place in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. I had never once considered how even something like a PBS documentary is a form of history creation. Adding to that list, now I understand how historical journals, museums, documentaries, holidays, organizations, art, etc., all embody a role in history creation. But if these institutions are not getting their information from textbooks or their own research, where is it coming from? In comes the archive.
            About two years before taking this class I had visited the Bentley Historical Library on North Campus to poke my nose around some of the collections made for Latinx student organizations. I went with the intention of coming out with lists of worthy material to incorporate into the project I had at hand during that time. I went in with the intention of spending a couple of hours at the archive, sure, but a satisfying couple of hours nonetheless. Wow, was I in for a surprise.
            From my understanding, the Bentley’s archive is like many archives in protocol and safety measures, and that is exactly my issue. For one, two hours there still had me empty-handed. Second of all, the organization of the material was not enough for me to search productively; it was clear that an online search engine style of research was going to have me going in circles and I needed to start thinking like an archivist, but where would I get that training other than trial and error?
            Eventually after three visits, I got the hang of it and my project was complete. However, I walked away from that experience with a sour taste in my mouth. If this building closes when most people are getting out of work, who is this here for? If it takes hours to find one piece of relevant information, who is this here for? If the finding aides aren’t as intuitive as one would think, who is this here for? If it takes a team of people and a very large building to call yourself an archive, who can realistically reproduce this?
The archive is alive and well for the wealthy, the elite, and the knowing. It is because of these inaccessible qualities that we get that difficult feedback loop where those interrupting the archive are those very same minds and bodies that are appraising what goes in the archive in the first place. The archive then becomes synonymous with maintenance, validation, and reification of and for existing methods of history creation and distribution. The archive then merely functions as the sandbox for oppressive reality creation that can’t be refuted because “it’s in the archive,” in other words, it’s objective truth.
            What I have learned in this class is that “correcting” history is an endless battle if we do not eliminate the possibility for more misinformation to be created. I am not suggesting we abolish archives, but that we transition to a style of memory upkeep that is genuinely guiding us to a healthy future; the creation of a “living” and communal archive that does not seek permanence, but is permanent in the ways we are constantly interacting with it as something we need—because at the end of the day I still believe societies need a sort of archive, especially in the age of mass information and hyper-visibility.
Much like how self-awareness functions in humans, where the past serves as an enormous pool of valuable lessons if interpreted honestly and wholly, the “living” archive can serve that purpose of inspiration for new creation, new ideas, new ways of living that are reflective of the lived past, not the “past” embedded in dates and facts, as those components of history are static and therefore not ideas, something that by definition is constantly dynamic.
            This is reflective of how I want to live my life. I do not want to live with a linear understanding of myself or my people that cuts us up between identity labels and “successes.” I want to be ever evolving, preserved only in the moment, and inspired by both the surreal nature of what has happened and the uncertainty of what can happen. But with this current placement of the archive, I cannot connect with that inspiration. At all. The future seems predictable; after all, the feedback loop is predictable. The past seems dead and not worthy of exploration, just veneration, and that is also uninspiring for it is prescriptive and therefore not authentic to whom I am.

I walk away from AMCULT 498 with a reignited love for the Chicana movement. But what I carry out of this experience more than anything is inspiration in the form of constant re-envisioning as praxis. Is that not what growth is? I leave the constant pressure to understand myself factually and embrace the possibility to understand myself abstractly, poetically, and alive, even if that isn’t as “satisfying” or as easy to communicate to others as facts are. Factual fixation is something to unlearn from this white supremacist culture and I thank Maria and her class for getting me started on that lifelong endeavor.
When I walked into this class in September, I was entirely unfamiliar with both the historical background of Chicana feminism and the methods for collecting oral histories and developing this project. Now, just a few months later, I cannot believe how far I have come. This class is so unlike any class I have ever taken before. As a pre-med student, I am used to big lecture halls and long exams. A class of only seven people working on an archive about a topic I knew nothing about actually seemed quite scary to me because I had no idea what to expect.

Over the course of the semester, learning about Chicano activism opened my eyes to the way history is portrayed in the mainstream. I had never heard of things like the blowouts or the Denver Youth Conferences before. Throughout middle and high school, textbooks never mention these monumental events, and this is entirely unfair to young students. They are taught to see a certain side of history as the truth instead of molding together multiple stories to create an inclusive and more accurate history. Based on the lack of Chicanas in the textbooks I grew up reading, it appears that Chicanas have rarely, if ever, done anything of historical significance. It is obvious that this is not true, but without learning about them in history classes, many young students would never know the differences that they have made in society. Marie and Lizette discussed during our last class period how the lack of narratives of Chicanas leaves young girls without any role models. Often times, people do not realize what they have the power to do if they do not see examples of it. Chicana Por Mi Raza has the ability to inspire people to make changes in society. The public website is available to anyone to learn about influential women whom they’ve probably never heard of before. It is so important for people to have resources like this to see that it is not just white people or men who have made lasting impacts on society.

This course also taught me more than I ever thought I’d know about the process of archiving materials and recording history. I had never even visited an archive until we went to the Bentley, and I definitely had never filmed a person’s oral history before. At first, it was really hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that we were going to look at boxes of a woman’s collection, decide what was important enough to save, upload it to a digital archive, and display parts of it on a public website along with a short description of the woman’s life that we would create. To me, this huge responsibility seemed overwhelming. How was I at all qualified to decide what of this woman’s belongings was relevant to a movement I’d never heard of? How was I qualified to write another person’s biography? Fortunately, as we worked through the semester, I found that I was gaining enough knowledge about the movement to be comfortable doing these things.

When the time came for our mid-semester biocuration assignment, I realized that writing a short biography wasn’t that scary, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed the responsibility. I only watched seven clips, each about ten or fifteen minutes long, but I felt like I knew a lot about Gloria Arellanes, the woman whose CPMR page I was assigned to work on. She was sharing intimate details of her life and telling funny or shocking stories that I wouldn’t soon forget. Writing her biography made me feel connected to her even though I had not and probably never would meet her. As a group of both undergraduate and graduate students from diverse backgrounds and with very different life experiences, I think we were each drawn to a different person for this assignment. I chose to watch Gloria’s oral history and write her biography because we had learned that she was involved in a free clinic in Los Angeles. As someone who is very interested in medicine and public health, I found it inspiring to see how Gloria, a woman without any background in the medical field, helped her community gain access to better health care and became very respected by the larger public health facilities and hospitals. Gloria’s achievements go far beyond El Barrio Free Clinic, and I am honored that I got to share part of her life story on a public platform so that she may inspire others and get some of the recognition that she deserves.

Eventually, after all the training with the camera equipment and Final Cut Pro, I felt prepared to conduct Juana Gonzales’s oral history with Shirley and Katelynn. This was a difficult interview, and the process was truly a team effort. We were also in a bit of a time crunch because Juana wanted to finish the interview by three o’clock, and she had a lot of material to scan and take pictures of. Despite the difficulty of the interview, I am grateful that Juana invited us into her home to share parts of her life. The experience showed me that conducting an oral history will never be exactly what you expect. Everyone reacts differently to being filmed, and it can be a lot of work to make someone comfortable talking about themselves in front of a camera.

At the beginning of the year, I could not envision exactly what people would do with our work. I knew that scholars would use the archive for their research, but I wasn’t sure who would be looking at our public website. As I learned more about the project, it was exciting to see how the website would allow anyone to learn about these women’s contributions to the Chicano movement and their work toward women’s equality. I had not realized that this material could also be used in art until Maria told us that one of her students created a play based on women featured in the archive. There are so many different ways that the archive and website can aid others in their studies, their art, and filling gaps in history. I’m so glad I got to be a part of this unique experience because I got to contribute to the historical narrative of our country.