The following is a guest post by American Folklife Center (AFC) Folklife Specialist Nancy Groce on AFC Community Collections Grant recipient Rocío del Aguila Carreno about her project, “Fiestas: Latinx Celebrations in Western Kansas.” This post is part of the Of the People blog series featuring the 2022 awardees of the American Folklife Center’s Community Collections Grants program. The Community Collections Grants program is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative, which seeks to create new opportunities to engage with the Library of Congress and to add their perspectives to the Library’s collections, allowing the national library to share a more inclusive American story.
Like any dynamic culture, America is always evolving. The AFC’s Community Collections Grants program funds research into and cultural documentation of our changing nation by supporting local researchers and community members throughout the U.S. as they document contemporary American culture. The materials they are producing and sharing with the AFC archives will inform both contemporary and future generations about today’s America.
As part of the competitive process that selected the ten projects to receive 2022 Community Collections Grants, we are delighted to support a highly-qualified team of documentarians from Wichita State University (WSU) for their project, Fiestas: Latinx Celebrations in Western Kansas, which is currently well underway. This post highlights the team’s work-in-progress and previews some of the exciting materials that they will be sending to the AFC archives.
The WSU “Fiestas” research team is headed by Peruvian-born Professor Rocío del Aguila Carreno, who teaches in WSU’s Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures Department and has done extensive research on Latin American food, culture and literature. Other members of the team include: WSU Professor Enrique Navarro, who teaches contemporary Latin American literature and culture; oral historian and WSU Professor Dr. Jay M. Price; anthropologist and project facilitator at WSU’s Community Engagement Institute Dr. Hugo Pérez Trejo, and photojournalist and documentarian Travis McCarty.
Since last spring, they have been documenting the Hispanic cultural heritage of western Kansas focusing on public and private cultural celebrations in communities like Dodge, Liberal and Garden City, where more than half of the population is now Latinx. They are videotaping events and interviewing community members to document social and familial events (such as Quinceañeras) as well as foodways and religious celebrations (such as la Fiesta de la Candelaria). “This is a project,” they noted in their proposal, ”about tradition, immigration, storytelling, and empowerment through recipes, pictures, and videos. We want to honor the struggle of Hispanic immigrants in Western Kansas and their immense contribution to the local culture.”
The team is still in the middle of doing their fieldwork. When I spoke with project leader Del Aguila recently, she was enthusiastic about how well their research was going. The team was busy filming multicultural events, had recorded a naturalization ceremony, and was doing interviews with Latinx community cultural organizers overseeing public events as well as family members organizing private Latinx celebrations.
“There are a lot of ‘aha’ moments in this project,” Del Aguila told me. For example, while she was knew that a majority of immigrants in the Kansas Latinx community came from Mexico, she was fascinated by the diversity of regional cultural practices she had encountered. Immigrants from the states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Zacatecas and the rural areas north of Mexico City are all heavily represented in western Kansas.
As an example, she told me about a Quinceañera they had recently documented:
Different areas of Mexico, they have different traditions…and every time you find something new – as researchers, something that will really catch your attention…So, for example, if you have a Quinceañera you eat! [But at this one] some people are expecting to have some food to go. They’re like, “No, I have to take this.” It’s an old tradition of Mexico, it’s not something that you would do in the main cities in Mexico, but it’s something that you would do in some provinces. Especially older people – they’re like, “Well, where’s my lunch for tomorrow?” So you have to have a lot of food!
Although the Mexican community is dominant, Dr. Del Aguila and her team also are encountering Latinx immigrants from other parts of Latin and South America. Like the Mexicans, these people were drawn to western Kansas to work at well-paid but grueling jobs in the area’s meat packing industry. Although these diverse communities continued to practice some of their own traditions, as a scholar Del Aguila and her colleagues were intrigued with how many of them were adopting Mexican and Mexican American customs and practices at the same time those practices were also changing.
The team is particularly interested in documenting Quinceañeras, parties that mark a young girl coming of age on her fifteenth birthday, which have grown in size and importance among Latinx families in western Kansas. “One of the questions we had is why,” she said, continuing:
I mean, these are people who are working people. It’s not left-over money. This is a lot of preparation, a lot of saving and a lot of deciding to put your money into this…. [In Kansas] all these small components are not small. Hiring one or two bands, or a band and a DJ for one party –not for a wedding, for a Quinceañera!
In Mexico, Quinceañeras can be big events, but in western Kansas they are becoming huge. Del Aguila thinks it might be for several reasons. First it’s a community event that reunites geographically dispersed families:
It’s like a funeral that everyone HAS to come to, but better. Quinceañeras are events that people want to attend so they travel from different areas to get together as a family… To see someone after 8 or 10 years–that has to be wonderful! To see the grandparents; to share the tradition.
It’s a show-off event. That you made it. That you’re doing well. Not only to spend money but have [properly attended to] all these details… For example, the invitations, the little appetizers on the tables, a choreographed dance, the dresses. Interesting and important to see how all the traditions are coming together – and you can see it all in one event.
Finally, Dr. Del Aguila talked about how her fieldwork was shaping her broader understanding as a scholar. She is particularly interested in the process of culture change and ‘Americanization,’ and in exploring what these celebrations mean to the families and community members:
A lot of the events that we’ve been to are trying to showcase the beauty of Hispanic traditions. And it’s been so enjoyable…Because we’re working in culture and community, there’s always something changing, something evolving…It’s amazing because in the case of western Kansas, there’s so many immigrants that the mix is special.
In speaking with Professor Del Aguila, it occurred to me that this project is documenting the process of ‘Americanization’ in real time. She and her colleagues are creating a snapshot of their regional community that is in the midst of celebrating its roots while creating its future. Like previous immigrant communities, members of the Latinx communities of western Kansas are trying to: preserve the best of their birth-cultures; adapt to the culture(s) of their new homeland; and support the cultural heritages they want to pass along to their American-born descendants.
The Fiestas: Latinx Celebrations in Western Kansas project complements other collections in the AFC archives documenting diverse immigrant communities, their experiences of making the U.S. home, and keeping their cultural heritages alive. For instance, online collections include California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties, the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection, the Lowell Folklife Project Collection, and the Italian Americans in the West Project Collection.
Find out more about the AFC’s Community Collections Grants program here.