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Creating Communities and Building Collections One Conversation at a Time

In this guest post, Allina Migoni (Reference Librarian, American Folklife Center) and Talia Guzmán-González (Reference Librarian, Hispanic Division) describe a new initiative honoring Hispanic Heritage Month 2020. This initiative is a collaboration between the American Folklife Center, Hispanic Division, and StoryCorps.

Have you ever sat down with family or friends to look at old photos? Do you like engaging in conversations about the history of your community? Has listening to a song ever taken you back to a special moment in your life? If you answered yes to any of these questions, join us in exploring the American Folklife Center’s collections, creating new memories together, and sharing those moments with us in our Latinx Heritage Stories Initiative.

To celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, the Hispanic Division and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, in collaboration with StoryCorps, are calling on members across the Latinx communities to engage with the Library’s collections by browsing through selected collection items and recording conversations about them with a friend or loved one. We invite you to donate your recorded conversations to help us tell a richer, fuller, and more detailed story of the Latinx experience in the US.

The Library of Congress holds an expansive collection of works by Latinx creators, as well as works about the history of the Caribbean, Latin America and Latinx communities. For the Latinx Heritage Stories Initiative we have selected photographs, music recordings, and interviews from the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection and California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collection, both of which are part of the American Folklife Center’s archive. The Chicago Ethnic Arts Project contains documentation of ethnic arts traditions in more than twenty ethnic communities in Chicago, gathered by folklorists in a field project directed by AFC between 1976 and 1981. The California Gold Collection, compiled by Sydney Robertson Cowell, includes recordings representing numerous ethnic groups in 12 languages, including Spanish and Portuguese. Both collections comprise hours of musical recordings, interviews, manuscripts, photographs, music scores, ephemera, and more. We want to invite the public to experience these items with friends and family, and then speak about their own experiences as part of diverse and unique Latinx communities. This will be a multi-year initiative, with new conversation topics and collection items highlighted each National Hispanic Heritage Month. This year’s theme is the intersection of arts and community spaces in Latinx neighborhoods of Chicago and Northern California.

Please browse through the collection items below and invite friends or family to talk about how these photographs and recordings relate to their own experiences. We also ask you to think about how the arts have brought your family, neighborhood, or culture together. You can use the “Great Questions” listed with each collection item to jump start your conversation!

Visit this link to StoryCorps for instructions on how to record your conversation using the StoryCorps Connect platform. This platform enables you to record a StoryCorps interview with a loved one remotely using video conference technology. Your contributions will be archived at the Library of Congress, and will complement our historical collections that help us tell the story of Latinx populations in their own voices.

Great Questions

People playing soccer in a park, with downtown Chicago buildings visible in the background.

Latino Soccer, Chicago, Illinois. Jonas Dovydenas, 1977. Chicago, Illinois. Photograph. Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection, Library of Congress. //www.loc.gov/item/afc1981004.b52861/

  • How has teamwork been a part of your life? Have you been in a sports club or team that identifies as Latinx?
  • Reflect on how being part of a team or league like the one shown may impact your sense of identity and community. Did you learn more about your culture through these settings? What does a typical gathering entail?
  • Look at this photo in the series: What do you see? Do any of these items look familiar?
  • There are three games of soccer being played here, as well as a “paletero” selling ice cream. This photo series is an example of how community can happen in public spaces, between friends, family, and even in our daily interactions with the stores and vendors of our neighborhood. What are some examples of gatherings and community in your own life?
A mural on the side of a commercial building depicting a rural scene. Two cars parked on the street in the foreground.

Mexican American Little Village neighborhood, Chicago, Illinois. Jonas Dovydenas, 1977. Photograph. Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection, Library of Congress //www.loc.gov/item/afc1981004.173/

  • Look at the images in the Mexican American village series. Does this community look familiar to you?  How do these spaces help create a sense of community?
  • How do similar spaces in your neighborhood impact your sense of belonging in your community and your own identity?
  • Reflect on your own neighborhood. How would you describe the stores and gathering spaces in your neighborhood?
  • Has your neighborhood changed since you were a child? In the last few years? How so, and why do you think that may be?
Man making cigars in an office points to something behind the photographer.

José Santana, cigar maker; Little Village neighborhood, Chicago, Illinois. Jonas Dovydenas, 1977. Photograph. Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection, Library of Congress. //www.loc.gov/item/afc1981004.b51719/

  • Mr. José Santana is making cigars from home, a practice that he probably learned in his native Puerto Rico. Are there any skills you learned at home or with family that you continue to practice today?
  • Have you learned any traditional art or crafts from your family?
  • What type of education or work do you do from home? This can include hobbies, art, and socializing.

Garden of Roberto and Amelia Leval, Chicago, Illinois. Jonas Dovydenas, 1977. Photograph. Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection, Library of Congress. //www.loc.gov/item/afc1981004.176/

  • Do you see any items in this photo that remind you of your neighborhood?
  • How would you describe your home? Are there any interesting things that make your home unique?
  • Are there any decorations that you consider typical for your culture?
  • What does your neighborhood look like? What are some typical items in your home similar or different to others’?

Recording of band Los Amantes at El Romance Club, Chicago, Illinois
Philip B. George, 1977. Audio. //www.loc.gov/item/afc1981004_afs20771/

  • Do you recognize any of the songs in this recording?
  • Are there any Latin music clubs in your neighborhood you like to visit?
  • What is your favorite Latin music genre or performer?
  • What are some songs that remind you of home?

Interview with Gamaliel Ramírez from the El Taller organization, Chicago, Illinois
Philip B. George, 1977. Audio. //www.loc.gov/item/afc1981004_afs20758/

  • Gamaliel and El Taller Collective worked to “develop and promote” local Latinx artists. Do you know any artists in your neighborhood? How did you find out about them?
  • Gamaliel wants his murals and the workshops by El Taller to glorify his neighborhood as well as provide documentation for future generations. He believed art could uplift those around him. Have you seen the positive impact of arts in your own life?
  • Gamaliel talks about working with neighborhood gangs, local students, and the YMCA, as well as issues of gentrification and police violence his community has experienced. In what ways do you think the arts have helped you find common ground or identity with other Latinxs?
  • How have you learned about your own community’s history? What are some positive images of your neighborhood?
Three women around a small table with a potted plant on it. Two women are seated, and one is standing.

Aurora Calderon, Eleanor Rodriguez, and Cruz Lozada, group portrait, Oakland, California. Sidney Robertson Cowell, 1939. Photograph. W.P.A. California Folk Music Project collection, Library of Congress. //www.loc.gov/item/2017701220/

  • These 3 women were part of a music group in Oakland, Ca. Do you like to play music with friends?
  • Do you consider yourself a creative person? Who in your family would you describe as creative? Why?
  • How has music been important to you and your community? How has it brought you together?

Atotonilco
Performed by Frank Cunha, Joaquim Flores, and Olive Flores. Sidney Robertson, Collector. 1939. Audio. //www.loc.gov/item/2017701643/

  • This is a popular Mexican folk song. The singer is going back to his hometown. Do you know any songs that talk about going back home?
  • This song serves as a love letter to the singer’s hometown. How would you describe the beauty of your own hometown? What would your song’s lyrics be?
  • The singer describes his hometown as a beautiful place that he is returning to. Have you had to leave your hometown or are you still there? Would you like to return?

Cielito lindo (My sweetheart)
Performed by Lottie Espinosa. Sidney Robertson Cowell, Collector. 1939. Audio. //www.loc.gov/item/2017701710/

  • This is a song known and loved by many across Latin America, the Caribbean and the US. Does this song remind you of anything? When have you heard it?
  • What do the lyrics mean to you mean to you? What about the chorus “canta y no llores”?
  • What cheers you up when you’re feeling down?
  • Do you remember a situation where a person or a song has made you feel better?

Fado dos passarinhos (Fado of the little birds)
Performed by Alice Lemos Avila. Sidney Robertson Cowell, Collector. 1939. Audio. //www.loc.gov/item/2017701624/
See also: textual and melodic transcriptions. [1939] Manuscript/Mixed Material. //www.loc.gov/item/2017701141/

  • Fado is a traditional Portuguese musical genre. People of Portuguese heritage lived side-by-side with Latinos in areas like Oakland, CA. Frank Cunha and Alice Lemos Avila’s group included a member from Costa Rica, and performed traditional Mexican songs as part of their repertoire. What other nationalities are part of your own community and how have you incorporated their cultures in your own life?
  • The singer asks a little bird to lend them their wings so they can fly together and send love to someone dear to the singer. Who would you dedicate this song to if you could?
  • Have you ever missed anyone enough to want to write a song, a letter, or a poem for them? What did you say in your song?

About the American Folklife Center

The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to “preserve and present American folklife” through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs and training. The Center includes the Archive of Folk Culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. The American Folklife Center is the repository for all StoryCorps interviews.

About the Hispanic Division

The Hispanic Division was founded in 1939 and is the oldest international division at the Library of Congress. The Hispanic Reading Room is the primary access point for research related to the Caribbean, Latin America, Spain and Portugal; the indigenous cultures of those areas; and peoples throughout the world historically influenced by Luso-Hispanic heritage, including Latinos in the U.S. and peoples of Portuguese or Spanish heritage in Africa, Asia, and Oceania.

About the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library, offering access to the creative record of the United States — and extensive materials from around the world — both on-site and online. It is the main research arm of the U.S. Congress and the home of the U.S. Copyright Office. Explore collections, reference services and other programs and plan a visit at loc.gov; access the official site for U.S. federal legislative information at congress.gov; and register creative works of authorship at copyright.gov.

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