New Library Project Puts History in Hands of People
By Brian Hiro
One of Jennifer Ho’s charges as a communities and cultures archivist for the Cal State San Marcos library is to enlist people from the community to tell their own stories and help document the history of the region that the university calls home.
Last year, when Ho noticed that Community Relations & University Engagement was awarding grants for faculty or staff to partner with the community in new and innovative ways, she knew she had just the right proposal. Ho received $5,000 to launch the North County Oral History Initiative, a novel project that took work that Ho and other archivists do – recording interviews of people talking about their lives – and put it in the hands of everyday citizens.
“Even if you have zero money or things to pass down to your kids, you can still sit down and tell your own story, if given the opportunity,” Ho said.
For the initiative, Ho teamed up with Tanis Brown, a member of the first CSUSM graduating class and a retired CSUSM employee who since 2009 has served as president of the San Marcos Historical Society. Last September, the organization hosted two days of workshops at which Ho trained a dozen community members (whom Brown had recruited) in the art of oral history – what it is, how to record an interview, how to ask questions, how to follow tangents.
The trainees then were dispatched into the community with instructions to apply what they had learned and record oral histories with a few people of their choosing. The result is 24 original interviews of North County residents telling their own life stories.
Last Thursday, the nearly year-long projected culminated with a showcase event at the historical society at Heritage Park in San Marcos. Ho and Brown gathered with the interviewers, the narrators (oral history lingo for those telling their story) and other guests to celebrate the participants in the initiative.
“I just think of how gracious people have been to take the time to be part of this,” Brown said. “Because sometimes being interviewed can be a little bit awkward, and you’re trusting people to share your story publicly, and in perpetuity.
“Also, like so many things that happen in life, here's an opportunity to bring a previously unknown group of people together, and all of a sudden, they have this link. They have partnered to create something bigger than just who they are. It's all these stories combined that are our legacy, and hopefully students coming up can learn from these stories.”
Among both the interviewers and narrators, there were unexpected treasures. A few weeks before the workshops last fall, for instance, an elderly woman showed up at the historical society building to share some photographs that the center might want for its collections. It emerged that the woman, Lucy Wheeler, had a background in agriculture but that, out of a desire to try something new, she had picked up photojournalism in her 80s. Brown informed her of the oral history project, and Wheeler eagerly signed on.
Wheeler ended up conducting three interviews with families who were longtime farmers in North County, including George and Althea Nagata, Japanese American farmers based in Oceanside who were incarcerated as part of the Japanese internment camps during World War II.
“Their interview was really special and interesting,” Ho said.
Other highlights among the narrators were Gezai Berhane, a beloved CSUSM employee who was interviewed by Brown (a classmate from the inaugural CSUSM graduating class) around the time of his retirement last December; Diania Caudell, a member of the San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians who learned basket weaving from her cultural elders after sustaining a serious back injury; Rebecca Jones and Sharon Jenkins, mayor and deputy mayor of San Marcos, respectively; and Eva Tinoco, a Mexican immigrant whose six daughters include San Marcos City Councilwoman María Nuñez and Arcela Nuñez-Alvarez, former director of the National Latino Research Center at CSUSM.
“Our little project really engaged a wide scope of San Marcos and North County residents who came here maybe without a plan,” Brown said. “And look what happened.”
Ho is so pleased by the model she created through the North County Oral History Initiative that she anticipates replicating it in multiple ways. She and Brown already have discussed using the same process with the CSUSM Retirees Association. And though students weren’t involved in the recently completed project, Ho can envision working with a class or student organization in the future.
“For example, I could train students from the Latinx Center in oral history in the same way we did with this workshop and then maybe partner with some Latinx-focused group so that the students can interview people in their own community, people who look like them and don’t see themselves in the historical record,” she said. “I want to put students in the driver's seat when it comes to record keeping.”
The North County Oral History Initiative, which features video recordings and full transcripts of all 24 interviews, soon will become the latest addition to Voices of North County, the larger repository for all oral histories accumulated by Special Collections during its five years of existence.
“What I've gotten from this project is that people are really interested in history,” Ho said. “People are interested in other people's stories, and it's gratifying to me to be able to facilitate that.”
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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