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Raphael Soto holds up a small sample of his wares at a fruit stand in The Bronx, one of five county-level divisions within sprawling New York City, New York. August 25, 2018. Photo: Carol, M. Highsmith, photographer. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Honoring Hispanic Americans: Celebrating Mexican American Contributions

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This post was written by Lynn Weinstein a Business Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

The first “National Hispanic Heritage Week” was observed in 1968 following a joint resolution passed by Congress to recognize the contributions of the Hispanic and Latino communities to American History. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan expanded the observance to span from mid-September to mid-October to coincide with the celebration of the independence days of five Central American countries. This year’s theme for National Hispanic Heritage Month is “Esperanza: A Celebration of Hispanic Heritage and Hope.”

Woman pictured from the waist up sitting in front of a microphone.
Irma Concepción Villa. 2016. Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center.

I decided to concentrate on Mexican American contributions to the U.S. economy for this blog by using a number of resources available through the Library of Congress American Folklife Center (AFC), looking through the lens of occupational information. I will examine Mexican American contributions recorded by the  Occupational Folklife Project (OFP), the related individual worker reflections celebrated in the new America Works podcast, and the StoryCorps project, which has its archive at the Library of Congress.

The OFP began in 2010 as a multi-year project by the American Folklife Center to document the culture of contemporary American workers during an era of economic and social transition.  Recent immigrant workers in Iowa’s meatpacking industry were interviewed as part of a 2015-2016 Archie Green Fellows Project (AGFP). Among the individuals interviewed were Zabdiel Morales Algandar, a union organizer originally from Mazatlán, Mexico; Mario Ruiz Ronquillo, who painted aircraft and worked in a restaurant prior to working at a meatpacking plant and who used his superior English language skills to become a union organizer and union representative; and Irma Concepción Villa, born in Mexico to a family with roots in both farming and local politics, who has worked in meat processing, a fiberglass shop, and, at the time of the interview, was cleaning homes and working as a dietician assistant.

Casual photo of a man from the shoulders up looking at the camera.
Mario Ruiz Ronquillo. 2015. Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center.

Many other Mexican Americans are featured in the OFP, including in the following AFC Projects:  Tobacco Workers of the Connecticut River Valley; Stable Views: Voices and Stories from the Thoroughbred Racetrack; Taking Care–Documenting the Occupational Culture of Home Care Workers; and Fresh Produce Workers in Arizona. These interviews touch on topics that include: diversity and discrimination in employment and the workplace, migrant labor, industrial relations, wages, employee rights, and day laborers, as well as unions and collective bargaining.

The podcast, “America Works,” is based on the Library’s OFP collection and tells fascinating stories of American workers by bringing the voices of workers throughout the country to listeners. The series celebrates the diversity and tenacity of the American workforce, as each 10-minute episode introduces listeners to an individual worker whose first-person narrative adds to the wealth of our shared national experience. The June 3, 2021, episode features Bernardo “Bernie” Piña, a fresh produce sales manager at Ciruli Brothers, a family-owned fresh produce import company in Nogales, Arizona, that was interviewed as part of the Fresh Produce Workers in Arizona Project.  Mr. Piña, a third-generation produce worker, discusses with folklorist Nic Hartmann, the importance of understanding and empathizing with the amount of risk involved in farming, as well as the effort, investment, time, and work it takes to bring produce to the market.  Mr. Piña reflects on the need to appreciate the huge selection of fruits and vegetables that are available at fair prices throughout the country.

The StoryCorps’ archive comprises one of the first and the largest born-digital collections of human voices, featuring tens of thousands of conversations recorded across the United States and around the world. Access to this collection is openly available to you at home through the StoryCorps online archive, and these archives are also maintained through the Library’s Folklife Center. If you search “Mexican Americans” in the online archive search box, you can listen to personal experiences that reflect on occupations and vocations, the job market, entrepreneurial and creative endeavors, the experiences of  low income first generation students, and the importance of education. StoryCorps captures the experiences of Mexican American teachers, cattle ranchers, military personnel, and entrepreneurs. If you are interested in using or listening to StoryCorps interviews in person at the Library, please refer to the American Folklife Center’s website for information on how to access the collection.

Working people and immigrants are often marginalized in today’s society. Even though the pandemic has brought with it an attitude of “we are all in this together,” the workers on the front line of delivering essential services, which are the backbone of the U.S. economy, are often putting themselves at higher risk, to deliver those services.

Learn More:

Mural on side of La Chiquita Bakery depicting Mexican-American family life in San Antonio, Texas. April 15, 2014. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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