Memorias: Preserving the Puerto Rican Experience in the United States through Oral Histories

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I hit pause on the camera, shut off the mics and just sat with her for a few moments as she cried. She was stunned, shocked that the weight of her own memory could bring her to tears in the presence of a stranger. Remembering her parents, her neighborhood, her lovers, and the work she'd done had brought up feelings she hadn't expected. I comforted her, waited until she was ready to begin again, and turned the camera back on.

For a people in migration, a people who've had their history written and rewritten by outsiders with their own tale to spin, we Puerto Ricans have shown ourselves to be a resilient and formidable group of storytellers, of ‘rememberers’. That's what makes working on Memorias, Centro's Oral History Project both exciting and humbling. I am in the presence of living history when I sit down with these people who've generously chosen to share their time, their story, their photographs—their lives—with us.

Let me ask you, do you know what Bill Aguado, Miguel Algarín, Elba Cabrera, Juan Cartagena, Miriam Colón, David Gonzalez, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Jesús “Papoleto” Meléndez, Virginia Sánchez-Korrol and Anita Vélez Mitchell have in common? Yes, they are all Puerto Ricans and yes they have contributed to our communities as artists, educators, people involved with government and policy work, media personalities and veterans of the armed forces. But they are also among the group of distinguished Puerto Ricans who have made a difference in multiple professional fields and communities and who have offered to video interviews of their lives to be preserved in the Centro Archives.

Memorias is a natural extension of Centro's “100 Puerto Ricans — Preserving Our History” campaign. We began this campaign as an effort to expand our archival collections, to strengthen the scope of our holdings, and to help add context to those collections already existing within our Archives. For the latest segment of the project, which we called 100 Puerto Ricans Preserving our History, we have been interviewing subjects over the last 18 months in order to gain a greater understanding of the Puerto Rican experience in the United States. Though we started with an initial goal of at least 100 new collections and oral histories to help celebrate Centro's 40th anniversary last year, the project took on a life of its own. We now have almost 300 individuals who've signed up to participate. 100 Puerto Ricans, at this point, is just the name of the project and a reminder of an original goal that we're proud to have surpassed.

So far, as part of Memorias, we’ve interviewed over 70 persons and plan to continue. We’ve been lucky enough to sit down with artists, educators, people involved with government and policy work, media personalities and veterans of the armed forces. Among others, interviewees have included actors, community organizers, university professors, lawyers, poets and writers, media personalities, journalists, veterans of the armed forces, politicians, teachers, musicians, cultural activists. They’ve given us their unique perspective on the Puerto Rican experiences here in the United States.

The generosity of these Puerto Ricans and many other renowned Puerto Ricans who have previously done these video interviews, and those who have donated public and private  records, other papers and memorabilia, offer a window to our past that would not be otherwise available or expand the information obtainable through public records and other sources of historical record. More importantly, oral histories provide a unique voice that serves as point of entry, an interpretative narrative for each individual’s archival collection.

With Memorias, Centros’ oral history project, we are interested in collecting and preserving oral histories of distinguished Puerto Ricans as a method of preserving the collective memory of our community. Oral histories are testimonies of the struggles and accomplishments of Puerto Ricans. They recreate history from the perspective of protagonists of past events and social movements. These are stories that in many cases would not have been told, or would have been forgotten. They bring depth and insights into the interpretation to the history of Puerto Ricans in the United States.

What is oral history? An oral history is a living document, the audio or video recording of someone’s life story or memories surrounding a particular historical event or era in order to contextualize its meaning and impact. Oral history differs from other forms of interviewing, particularly more journalistic forms, in that it is more concerned with the very subjective experience of the narrator rather than the objective facts associated with the era and/or event the narrator is describing.

Though the bulk of the interviews currently completed are with New York City-based Puerto Ricans, the project is national in scope. We have several done in Orlando and Miami, and are looking forward to expanding our holdings with new interview subjects in the Puerto Rican communities in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

Of course, Memorias is only the most current oral history project Centro has engaged in. We already had over 1,400 oral histories in our Archives, including those belonging to the Centro Labor Project and Puerto Ricans in New York Voices of Migration project. Some of the oral histories already in Centro’s collection include those of ASPIRA founder Antonia Pantoja and civil rights leader Gilberto Gerena Valentín, among many others.

Working on an oral history project, and gathering information in this way, is exciting particularly because of the very different lenses through which we are able to view the history of the Puerto Rican community here. People are excited to share their stories, to add to the Archives and to make their history available to the next generation of students, educators, artists, and researchers.

This project is a huge undertaking and involves more than just conducting the interviews. We do extensive background research on the people we will interview to better prepare ourselves and to be able to ask the best, most illuminating questions. A big part of the project is organizing the data that will be used to catalog and tag these interviews as archival documents so any researcher who can benefit from the information can find it intuitively. Eventually, these interviews will have metadata attached, will be edited for clarity, and will be made available on the Centro website and preserved in the Archives for generations to come.

One of the most exciting aspects of the project has been coming up with our own methodology, that is, our own system of conducting the interviews and background research and establishing relationships with the individuals and the community as a whole. For those of us working on the project, it’s been very important to form real and lasting relationships with our interview subjects and to do our best to make them feel comfortable and safe enough to share their stories with us.

Our methodology is based on forming this relationship with the subject. We do our best to meet with the people we will interview at least once before filming for a preliminary meeting. During this meeting we conduct a sort of pre-interview, asking very similar questions to the ones we will ask on camera. Because filming someone can be a nerve-wracking experience for the subject, this helps them to get used to us, and the personal details we’ll be asking them for.

Oral history can be such an emotional undertaking, and people respond in ways that are unexpected both to them and to us as interviewers. It’s been a real learning experience for all of us involved. At the end, we realize that Memorias is just a first step towards a more comprehensive archival collection, one that include many voices yet tell us the common stories of Puerto Ricans, one that looks at the past with the intention of building a legacy for the future.

If you would like to nominate someone to participate in Centro’s 100 Puerto Ricans campaign and Memorias, please reach out to us at 212.772.4198 or write to scastr@hunter.cuny.edu. We are interested in documenting the stories of Puerto Ricans who’ve contributed to our communities, all over the United States, in meaningful and lasting ways.

Centro would like to acknowledge the generous support from the City of New York and the Ford Foundation to this project.


Published 1 October 2014. © Center for Puerto Rican Studies.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.