Voces is an ongoing collaborative effort between UT students, faculty, and community participants to record and preserve the history of Latina and Latinos living during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Since its origin in 1999, the project has collected nearly 1,000 interviews documenting the experiences of Latina and Latino military personnel and civilians across U.S and Puerto Rico. To preserve and provide greater public accessibility, Voces houses each participant’s videotaped interview, digitized photographs, and other donated memorabilia at the UT Austin Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection. The project Director, UT Journalism Professor Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, invites interested members of the public and academic communities to view the material and participate in the scholarly and artistic productions of books, plays, and exhibits the project has generated. Thinking in Public caught up with Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez to discuss the inception of the project, how the focus has developed and progressed, student and public involvement, and what the Voces team envisions the future of the project to include.
What were your primary motivations to create this project in 1999?
To bridge a gap in the literature about the Latino WWII generation and civil rights so that the Latino story would be included in our country’s narrative. Over the years, I had read books and watched movies and documentaries about the U.S. involvement in World War II and was exasperated that Latinas/os were either given short shrift or, more commonly, left out entirely. An oral history was something that could address the omissions.
The Latino WWII generation accomplished a great deal to tear down barriers: integrating public safety departments throughout the country; desegregating schools for Latinos/as; creating major civil rights organizations, including the American G.I. Forum and the Mexican American Legal and Educational Forum. In 1999, there was only one book, Among the Valiant, by Raul Morin, that laid out the basics. I always say that had it not been for that generation, people like me would never have had the opportunities we’ve had.
Why is an oral history project that captures the Latino/a wartime experience important?
For Latinas/os and other underrepresented groups, the creation of primary and secondary sources is a relatively new development. If a researcher isn’t able to access primary sources about Latinas/os– or does not know of the existence of those sources – their research may well leave out the Latino perspective. And it goes on: Latinas/os, the general public and scholars who read those books, documentaries, journalistic treatments, remain unaware of the contributions and participation of Latinas/os. It is crucial for school-aged Latinos/as to see themselves reflected in history books.
World War II, the period we first focused on, transformed our entire country, including Latinas/os. So, you can’t tell the full story about the U.S. and World War II without including the Latino perspective. It’s particularly important because there were thousands of Mexican citizens who had grown up in the U.S. but who served in the military; and Puerto Ricans, who had become American citizens in 1917 because of the Jones Act, also served. On the homefront, Latinas worked for military contractors and that in turn changed family dynamics. We have amazing stories: a family with eight sons in WWII; Afro Latinos who served in “colored” units; Ace fighter pilots who had at least five aerial “kills.”
And we have taken on leadership roles when needed. In early 2007, when we learned that Ken Burns had produced a 14.5-hour documentary on the U.S. and World War II and that he had omitted a Latino perspective, we protested. We had the primary sources, including photographs, and we had the contacts. The protest cut across generational, political, socio-economic and ethnic lines. Our project was created to ensure that Latinos/as would be included in our country’s historical narrative and we had the duty of speaking up and not backing down. We worked with several Latino activists across the country and created a grassroots effort called Defend the Honor.
How as the project changed and developed from its original focus in 1999?
From the project’s earliest days, we were often asked when we would interview Vietnam War vets. I knew it was a rich subject, but the focus was on the older generation at the start.
When we got a major grant in 2010 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency, we were able to expand to the Korean and Vietnam War periods. By the way, we do have a number of veterans who served in all three wars.
In 2014, we added a Political and Civic Engagement collection. Even from its earliest days, the project had been interviewing people who become politically and/or civically active. So the thread was there already. We wanted to interview people who could speak to those political and civic efforts. There are remarkable stories there!
On campus, we have a close partnership with the Libraries. The Nettie Lee Benson Collection houses our archives and the general libraries digitize our interviews and administer our website. We also have a partnership with the Center for Mexican American Studies, which is paying for the publication of a journal, the U.S. Latina & Latino Oral History Journal. The University of Texas Press is our publisher. And the Division and Diversity and Community Engagement has been one of our supporters.
As a Journalism Professor, how have you involved your students in the expansion of Voces? How can members of the public become involved?
In my class Oral History as Journalism, we focus on a specific topic. In spring 2017, we’re looking at the South Texas Border Initiative – which former Gov. Rick Perry helped to pass. This legislation provided funding to colleges and universities along the border so that they could create more graduate programs, among other things. So my students learn about oral history, the topic we’re investigating and then they do an interview, write a story and an index. The long versions of their stories appear on our website, vocesoralhistoryproject.org, and shorter versions appear in our newsletters. They also produce some multimedia which they post on Vimeo. So my students are a huge part of our project.
We do encourage people to interview their own family members. We have all our materials needed for an interview (pre-interview form which includes a consent form; a suggested questionnaire; some background they should know beforehand) online for downloading. Usually the biggest challenge is the equipment: we like good external microphones, over-the-ear headphones, a video camera that can accommodate the mics and headphones; and a tripod. We’ve had some success.
Can you discuss the public and academic work that has resulted because of the creation of the project?
We’ve produced five books; organized and housed major conferences and symposia (our last major conference was in 2015, Latinos, the Voting Rights Act and Political Engagement); our interviews have provided a foundation for three plays; our digitized photographs have appeared in national documentaries, as well as several regional and local documentaries; we have organized a few photo exhibits; our WWII educational materials for grades 5-up are available on our website; our annual newsletter is mailed out to our interview subjects and key supporters.
With the publication of our annual journal, the U.S. Latina & Latino Oral History Journal, we have institutionalized the research effort of the project. We are hoping that the journal will inspire academics and community members to undertake this work.
What do you and the Voces Advisory Committee envision for the future of the project?
Voces will host a Voces Oral History Summer Institute July 1-14, 2017, for faculty and graduate students wishing to use oral history as a research method. We are holding a two-day Voces Short Courses on July 29 & 30, 2017, for people who have wanted to write a book, an op-ed, and more — but need to know where to start. We’ll connect them with experts.
We’re also getting ready to celebrate our 1,000th interviews (fall 217); and then in 2019, we’ll be celebrating our 20th anniversary. In addition, we’re re-tooling our website to make it more nimble and modern and will be raising funds for that. Finally, we’re launching a campaign to raise $4 million in an endowment to ensure the long-term continuation and survival of our work.