By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio
A statewide project, ‘Voces of a Pandemic,‘ has launched in an effort to record and archive Latino experiences in Iowa as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.
The project initially started at the University of Texas at Austin at its Voces Oral History Center, led by professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez. It was Rivas-Rodriguez’s idea that inspired Iowa State University professor Lucía Suárez to start an Iowa version of the project. She learned about it at the Latinx Studies Association conference in Washington D.C.
“Part two is the [ISU] Parks library wanted to do an oral history project,” Suárez explained about the “coalition birth” of Iowa’s rendition of ‘Voces of a Pandemic.’
The director of ISU’s U.S. Latino/a Studies Program jumped at the chance to specifically highlight Latino experiences.
“I saw a need. There’s a need for more stories of our Latinx communities here, right? There’s just a need for more connections,” Suárez said.
She said the oral histories project was first offered at the university as an Honors class, but Suárez said not one of the interviewees were Latino. That’s why she enlisted the help of student Iris Martinez. Now the inaugural intern for the Latino Studies Program project, Martinez leads the project for Iowa.
Martinez, who trained for the U.S. military in South Carolina before working as an intern, is a sophomore. This summer, she’s interviewing Latinos about their lives now that the pandemic is slowly beginning to subside. She said it’s important to remember everyday stories of Latinos, and not just what she calls “bad news” regarding immigration.
“We’re gonna all realize that everyone has a story and [for] the underrepresented people, it’s just so much harder to find their stories in history now,” Martinez said. “I feel like it’s so important to get their stories and just to make sure that we remember them.”
Suárez added the everyday stories act as a counter to the negative news surrounding Latinos. Such as, how many Latino communities were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Right now, Martinez said the process is based on trial and error to find out what works best for Iowans. The interviews are conducted over Zoom or in person. Martinez also allows her subjects to not use video if that makes them more comfortable.
She started in February with a focus on COVID-19, but now the topic has shifted. Since there are no longer mask mandates or other requirements to deter the spread of COVID-19, Martinez said she’ll ask people to reflect in a more thoughtful, big-picture way.
She said a theme most interviewees have touched on is isolation. She has mostly spoken to essential workers and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. She wants all different types of people to learn from this oral history endeavor.
“When historians do this kind of research, their main goal is making sure like, this is written down, remembered. But I think the purpose for ‘Voces’ to be including journalists and the public is so that people here and now realize like, this is going on. And these are the people that’s happening with and for,” Martinez said.
Suárez added this project isn’t just for Iowa, a majority white state, to learn about its Latino communities. It’s also for Latinos to feel empowered, and for their stories to be legitimized.
“I hope that they feel heard. I hope that they feel included, that they are part of a bigger picture,” Suárez said.
Martinez said she has gotten emotional while listening to people’s experiences. On average, she plans for conversations to be about 30 minutes, but she also won’t cut someone off if they need more time. Her goal for the conversations are to be as open as possible.
“I feel like when you do that to anybody, and they just start going and going, you realize how much they needed to like, tell their story,” Martinez said.
Suárez plans to continue the project even after the pandemic fades from the daily news.
“One of the things that’s like, really important is that Latinx aren’t an ‘other.’ We’re not an ‘other’ population, we’re part of the Iowa population,” Suárez said. “And we’re here to connect, we’re here to work together and that, you know, our stories are shared stories.”
The project inspired a new class at the university, Latina/o/x Life Stories: Memoirs and Oral Histories, where students will continue gathering Latino oral histories. That will begin in the fall of 2022.