The Miami Herald
Fri, Sept. 25, 2009

Project preserves stories of Hispanics in U.S.


Gustavo Mestas walked 57 blocks a day to medical school because he didn't have the money for the bus. But he still saved up enough money to buy his daughter a Barbie doll to replace the roomful of dolls she left behind when the family fled Cuba.

His daughter's voice breaks as she recounts the story as part of a new initiative by the oral history project, StoryCorps, to record and preserve the life stories of Hispanics across the United States and Puerto Rico.

``I want you to know that you have had the greatest influence in my life of anyone and I love you and I respect you and admire you,'' Ileana Smith tells Mestas of Georgetown, Del.

StoryCorps has recorded 30,000 interviews since its start in 2003 and launched other initiatives, including one in 2007 to record stories of African Americans. But David Isay, who started the national effort to get people talking -- and listening -- said the response from the Hispanic community has been unprecedented for the program called Historias.

There has been a ``sense of excitement and gratitude that Latino voices are going to be heard, respected and preserved,'' he said. ``We at StoryCorps are honored to be the ones recording these important stories. It's time for these stories to be heard.''

The 40-minute interviews will be conducted during the next year in cities including Miami; San Diego; Chicago; Houston; Taos, New Mexico; Yuma, Arizona; and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Bilingual workers will collect the interviews, which resemble intimate conversations between family members or close friends. Some end in tears, others in laughter.

``These are the stories that make up the fabric of our country,'' said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who said he encouraged StoryCorps to focus on Hispanics, the fastest growing population in the United States. ``I know how important the lives and experiences of Hispanics are in telling America's story.''

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and his brother, U.S. Rep. John Salazar, reminisced about growing up poor in Colorado, making their own toys and sharing shoes in one of the recorded stories. ``I remember walking to school and my left foot was size 10 and my right foot was only a size 5,'' John Salazar said, laughing. ``That was so embarrassing. But I thank God that we had to go through stuff like that.''

In Miami, StoryCorps' MobileBooth, a shiny silver Airstream trailer equipped with a professional recording studio, will set up shop in January 2010. For a month, StoryCorps will collect stories from exiles from Fidel Castro's Cuba, along with tales of assimilation from South Florida's burgeoning community of Venezuelans, Colombians and other non-Cuban Hispanics.

Some stories are already available on the project's website at There's Lourdes Villanueva, interviewed in Tampa, telling her son, Roger, about growing up in a family of migrant workers and getting in trouble for speaking Spanish. In the interview, he remembers his mother telling him she wanted to set an example by getting her high school diploma and then a community college degree, often skipping lunch to study. ``I had to hurry up and graduate before you guys did because I knew you guys were coming right behind me,'' she says.

Isay said he believes the recordings could help to quell some of the rancor that has marked the summer and the debate over revamping the nation's immigration laws.

``These stories show us how much more we share in common as a nation than divides us,'' Isay said, ``a truth that's particularly important to recognize now when we seem to be spending so much time shouting at each other and so little time listening.

``When you hear the stories of real people speaking from the heart, you can't deny you're hearing the truth,'' hesaid.

Isay's goal is to record more than 1,000 interviews across the country with Hispanics living in big cities and rural communities. The project is funded by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Several Hispanic congressmen who attended the initiative's rollout near the U.S. Capitol said the recognition is welcome.

``I really think there is a great danger of losing the history of how we got to where we are,'' said Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., adding that he remembered his father picketing the local New York television station, to convince it to broadcast an hour a week of Spanish programming.

``Now we have networks I can't even keep up with,'' he said, noting the television cameras from Telemundo and Univision. ``I have a story to tell. I have my parents' story to tell. I have my community's story to tell.''

Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, noted that the grape workers who waged a five-year strike and boycott against growers for better working conditions are dying out and that ``many of their individual stories have never been adequately preserved.''

``These accounts are crucial, not just to document a profound piece of American history . . . but also because they played a central role in propelling forward the larger movement for Latino civil and economic rights,'' he said.

All interview participants get a copy of the recording on a CD and, with their consent, the recordings will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Some excerpts will air on various public radio programs, including National Public Radio's Morning Edition, which airs StoryCorps' interviews on Fridays.

In Miami, StoryCorps is working with the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami to help identify potential participants.

Reservations can also be made by calling StoryCorps at 800-850-4406.