When they were applying for a Summerlee Foundation grant to fund their Latina History Project, Southwestern professors Brenda Sendejo and Alison Kafer did not intend to collect oral histories from the University’s students, professors, and alumni, but that’s where the research eventually took them. At first, the project’s aim was simply to digitize a photo exhibit of Chicana feminists called Rostros y Almas /Faces & Souls. But once Sendejo, Kafer, and their student researchers, Tori Vasquez ’15 and Nani Romero ’16, started combing through the documents, it became clear they were sitting on a treasure trove of primary source material about Latina/o history and the Chicana Feminist Movement in Central Texas. This was material that had been sitting in boxes collecting dust, untouched for more than a decade. It was obvious that the Latina History Project would be about more than digitization; it would be about giving a voice to historical narratives that had been hiding in plain sight.
It was serendipitous that the team even came across the Rostros y Almas materials in the first place. The exhibit had originally been part of a Brown Symposium at Southwestern in the early 1990s. Since then the photos have always hung somewhere on campus; currently on the second floor of the F.W. Olin Building—but, Vasquez said, “they’re not something that you really notice unless you’re paying attention.”
Fortunately for the Latina History Project, Professor of Art Mary Visser was paying attention. According to Sendejo, when Visser found out about the project’s interest in Chicana/o history in Central Texas, she reached out, saying she had some “amazing materials” from an exhibit co-curated by Visser and Lupita Barrera in 1992. “They were going to get rid of them after the exhibit,” said Sendejo, “but Mary saw their importance as archival materials, so she kept them. We can’t thank her enough.”
Visser wasn’t wrong. The materials were amazing. Rostros y Almas was a series of photographs of Central Texas Latina feminists by San Antonio photographer Mary Jessie Garza, and documents such as calendars, flyers, and journal entries, all depicting their activism. “It’s a really impressive collection of smaller things from these women’s lives,” said Vasquez. “There is a lot of evidence of the community that they created for themselves. For that to just be hidden away was crazy.”
It seemed even crazier when Vasquez and her collaborators visited the Office of Special Collections and saw how little material there was on local Latina history. After that, she said, “one of our goals was to be able to get the actual physical material stored in the special collections in the library.”
And store it they did. “The students engaged in digitizing over a hundred different archival materials,” said Sendejo. “That was then developed into an online archive for anyone to access for classes and scholarship.” The Latina History Project made this long-hidden primary source material available for all to see.
Not long after that they invited one of the women featured in the exhibit, Martha P. Cotera, and two other prominent Chicana feminists, Yolanda Leyva and Maria Elena Martinez, to campus. “They came and were actually speakers at the Jessie Daniel Ames feminist studies lecture last year,” recalled Sendejo. “Then we got them to meet with students and faculty, and Tori got to interview them for the History Project.”
This activity proved rewarding for both the students and faculty involved. “Hearing them talk was awesome,” Vasquez said.
Alison Kafer added, “I remember this energized excitement from the students.” She said it was “pretty amazing” to watch them collect “these stories that hadn’t been recorded before.”
This type of work makes the Latina History Project a threetiered learning opportunity, according to Sendejo. On one level, the documents and oral histories serve as sources for knowledge. Students can read and analyze them, as they would any other text from one of their classes. On the second level, by digitizing the documents and collecting the oral histories, the students themselves are engaging in knowledge production, and learning valuable skills in the process. “Students are learning research skills and engaging in conducting original research,” said Sendejo, adding that they’ve “learned how to work with archival materials, how to digitize those materials.”
Kafer noted that “learning how to collect an oral history is also a really difficult but energizing experience in terms of learning how to listen to people.”
The third tier is a bit more personal. “Using oral history and these kinds of methodologies,” said Sendejo, “actually helps students to see themselves represented in scholarship.” This is especially important for Southwestern’s growing Latina/o population, which includes all four of the Latina History Projects past and present student researchers, Vasquez and Romero, along with junior Stephanie Garcia, and senior Denise Ovalle. “When students can see themselves represented and can partake in knowledge production on their own history,” said Sendejo, “it can actually help with retention efforts.”
Both Vasquez and Ovalle say their work with the Latina History Project has been empowering in this way. “Being able to work on a project like that makes you feel like you have a voice,” said Ovalle. “You bring that energy with you in the wider world.” She said that working on the Latina History Project and learning about the Chicana/o activists that have come before her has made her see more value in her own experiences. Maybe her story could be as impactful for others as theirs have been for her.
Vasquez said that early on in her work with the Latina History Project, “it became important for us to see ourselves, and our own histories, represented at our own university.” That’s why they started collecting oral histories from people in the Southwestern community. The team wondered how marginalized communities felt they were being represented on campus. Did they feel like they belonged?
To answer that question, the Latina History Project team has reached out to Southwestern students, professors, and alumni, but they aren’t only collecting oral histories from members of the Latina/o community. “We did open it up to the entire campus,” Vasquez said. “We wanted a bunch of different voices to talk about their experiences at Southwestern.”
Recently, Sendejo said, “another student approached me about doing oral histories of African-American students,” and she hopes other groups on campus start to contribute as well.
Kafer hopes that through word of mouth the project will “really start to mushroom out,” to different communities across campus. “As more people on campus start to learn about the project,” she said, “we are finding more students who either want to be involved as student workers, or who want to contribute their own stories, or recommend other people’s stories being collected.” To Kafer, one of the Latina History Project’s chief goals is “to make larger connections to the Georgetown community.” The team wants to know “what stories can be collected here and how can those stories be of use, not just to students, but to people off campus as well.”
In the four years since it began, the Latina History Project has already made great contributions to the local community. Its website is up and running, and serves as a valuable archive of primary-source material, including oral history audio clips.
But perhaps what is most special about the Latina History Project is that it allows students a type of education that they won’t necessarily find anywhere else. Ovalle, a senior who is currently working on the project, called the work “engaging” and “eye-opening.” She said taking oral histories and being able to “look at the history, listen to these stories, put them together and see the bigger picture overall is definitely an experience that you do not get in a textbook.”
Vasquez, who has since graduated and is now teaching, said that her work studying marginalized communities through the Latina History Project put her in touch with people who came before her who have struggled, which allowed her to see “the beauty in how much they gave.”
“Probably one of the greatest things I ever took away was that if I ever feel like this stuff ’s really hard, or if I ever experience exclusivity, like I’m unwelcome, it’s not a new thing,” Vasquez said. “There are people before me who have felt that and they worked hard so that I would never feel that.” Her work with the Latina History Project has made her realize she is “part of a legacy of work, and of dreams.”
That’s a sense of empowerment that Sendejo and Kafer say is essential to the Southwestern community. For Kafer, the Latina History Project is “a way to make clear that these stories matter. Given the current context, it’s even more vital that we make that explicit.” She added, “it’s not merely about tolerating people from different backgrounds, with different perspectives and different identities. It’s about desiring a place where we can all be and flourish together.”
Sendejo said this work “doesn’t come without its challenges.” But, she added, “the more we collaborate and look for opportunities to break down these divisions, I think we can really reap the benefits of a deeper understanding of one another. I think that projects like this really serve to do that, and it’s really important, especially right now.”