Centro’s Oral History Project Presented to the Community

On October 22nd, Centro presented our Oral History Project to members of the community at Hunter College. Centro’s director, Edwin Meléndez, gave a brief introduction about the project while interviewers presented preliminary findings as they shared some clips from some of the over 70 interviews conducted so far. “The Oral History Project started two years ago as a medium for accelerating the process of data collection for the ‘100 Puerto Ricans’ campaign,” said Meléndez during the introduction.

Now called Memorias, this project is a new phase with a life of its own that promises to shed light on the manifestation of the Puerto Rican community in a wide range of perspectives and experiences. Ismael Garcia-Colón, professor at the College of Staten Island and the CUNY Graduate Center, moderated the forum. Gacia-Colón briefly discussed how the methodology of oral history was instrumental in the formation of the Centro Library in the 1970s. Then Cynthia Tobar, Shakti Castro and Sarah Molinari discussed their personal experiences as interviewers, the reasons that brought them to work on this project and some of the insights they have learned from the process. Each one also presented short clips from some of the interviews they have conducted.

First Cynthia Tobar spoke about her passion for oral history. She was part of the Welfare Rights Initiative (WRI), a grassroots student activist organization at Hunter College where she initiated an oral history project to document the story of the organization. She also interviewed marchers at Occupy Wall Street and realized how this personal approach to documenting history appealed to her. “The effect of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in community building is what inspired me the most,” said Tobar. She demonstrated this idea with a sample of interviews screened, the first being with Milagros O’Toole. O’Toole’s long career of community work as board member of The Puerto Rican Family Institute, the Head Start Policy Board and The National 100 Hispanic Women, Inc., and her appointment as the first woman and Puerto Rican Deputy Commissioner for Operations for the New York State Office of General Services from 1986 to 1995 is noteworthy. In the interview, she spoke about the ways we are called to help the community, to step up for our people and to give back. “The concept of everyday heroism, sharing what she has and giving back to her community inspired me about O’Toole” said Tobar. The same commitment was expressed in the next two interviews presented. One with track coach and trainer Tony Ruiz and the other with LGBT community activist Reverend Carmen Hernández. For Tobar, the sense of community of all interviewed demonstrated a resilience that breaks a stigma of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. “The same struggles that affect the population as a whole, affect us; we have everyday heroes working hard for the betterment of our communities everywhere,” said Tobar.

Shakti Castro sees herself as a facilitator of the telling of stories from great Puerto Ricans that not many people may know. “Taking control of the narrative of our stories is essential to telling the whole story,” said Castro, who has worked with the Oral History Project since the beginning. Castro feels inspired every day by the openness of the people she interviews and by the bonds of trust and respect she has been able to witness. She presented three inspiring segments of interviews with pioneering women. Virginia Sanchez-Korrol, author of From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City; Carmen Dinos, a pioneer in the field of bilingual education in public schools and Alma Rubal-López, author of On Becoming Nuyoricans. Castro said she was particularly inspired by the tenacity and bravery of these women, and shared about Carmen Dinos, “one of the first bilingual educators in the city of N.Y., when bilingual education was non-existent. Many of our parents and grandparents were coming to this city and were not able to get educated in their language. They were not able to advance in their education. Having a woman like Dinos, who fought for bilingual education and got the resources to train bilingual educators, represents an important contribution to our community success today,” said Castro.

Finally, Sarah Molinari showed segments of interviews with Marina Ortiz, founder of Virtual Boricua Gallery and Roger Cabán, photographer, artist and co-founder of a collective that promotes and exhibits works by photographers of color named En Foco. Ortiz was also a pioneer in her field, creating a virtual place to honor the life and legacy of our poets and artists. She later founded the nonprofit organization East Harlem Preservation. In her interview segment she spoke about the imminent need for creating spaces, both in our neighborhoods and online, to remember our heroes and to save their work for future generations. Roger Cabán’s interview was particularly emotive. He remembered a scene from his childhood visiting La Marqueta in East Harlem. His colorful memories of the produce and foods sold there, her mother interacting with vendors and neighbors; the sense of community even perceptible to a small child was fascinating. It was a magical visual story from the mouth of a prime source of living history.

The presentation concluded with a Q&A session. Some of the questions were about the timing and ways of making these interviews available to the public. The team expressed they are in the process of adding metadata, subtitles and transcripts to the interviews as well as studying the best ways to make these available to the public in a coherent and integrated way. The community members present at the forum left the room inspired and excited about the real life stories of our people and the opportunities this project can represent in the future.

To read an article by Shakti Castro on the Memorias Oral History Project for Centro Voices Click Here.

For information on all upcoming events Click Here.