The TOHA Board of Directors is pleased to recognize students in the Zeta Gamma Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society at Victoria College in Victoria, Texas, with the Mary Faye Barnes Award for Excellence in Community History for their Hispanic Oral History Project. Dr. Karen Hagan, professor in the Victoria College Department of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences provided the following description of the project in her nomination narrative:
In the summer of 2010, several students from Victoria College’s Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) honor society and Dr. Karen Hagan began what they assumed would be a fairly simple task. They planned to interview members of the local Hispanic community in hopes of creating a presentation for the national PTK organization. The project’s goal was twofold. The students wanted to create something that would stand out with the honor society. In addition, they wanted to learn something about the lives and experiences of people like themselves: individuals who live in small Texas towns, quietly going about their business, largely ignored in the passage of time. An oral history project, it was agreed, could give voice to these people and leave a permanent record of at least some of their experiences.
But whom to interview? Dr. Hagan initially considered Victoria College students, thinking their diverse backgrounds and experiences would make for interesting interviews. However, the College already had programs and scholarships that enabled students to tell their stories, so it seemed the project needed to step out of the school itself. The decision to interview members of the Hispanic community occurred all at once. Why not interview people from a growing population that many individuals assumed they understood already and even stereotyped? Accordingly, on July 21, 2010, the project commenced in a room at the Museum of the Coastal Bend with one nervous history professor, one equally nervous student interviewer, and one Victoria College employee who had graciously volunteered to serve as a test subject.
According to Dr. Hagan, most of the student participants assumed the project would last about a month and then begin to close down once the initial enthusiasm faded. What happened, however, surprised them all. After that first interview, they simply began asking around, approaching friends, colleagues, and fellow students. Local members of the Hispanic community were happy to speak to the students. Within a few weeks, they had gathered three interviews, and the students had more lined up.
Then they started to come up with novel ways of recruiting more narrators. When Victoria College hosted cartoonist Hector Cantu, student Jose Aguirre suggested the group set up a Hispanic oral history booth at the lecture venue. This worked well. As people left the lecture, many stopped by the booth and signed up to be interviewed. Mr. Aguirre then came up with the idea of getting the local Spanish-language newspaper , Revista de Victoria, to interview the group about the project. More people signed up to speak to the students after the article appeared in print. The Victoria Advocate also gave the group an interview and a write-up. Students Laura Banda and Jose Aguirre recruited within the Hispanic community and lined up a number of interviews. Rosa Muzquiz and Tina Eggemeyer also participated in at least one interview and helped bring in more subjects for the project.
Momentum increased as time passed. Mr. Aguirre began conducting interviews in Spanish on his own, which he then translated and transcribed. He and Dr. Hagan started doing one or two interviews a week as the project matured. And people talked. They spoke without reservation, sharing details of their lives, their beliefs, their successes, and failures.
The project fulfilled all of its goals. In the spring of 2011, the Victoria College Zeta Gamma Chapter presented its project to the national PTK organization and received permission to participate in the poster competition at PTK’s international conference in Seattle, Washington. The students and PTK sponsors attended this conference, and quotes from the project interviews were displayed for people all over the world to see. The average citizens of Victoria, Texas, were now sharing their words on an international stage.
Those who participated in the project benefitted greatly and learned a great deal about interviewing, research, respect, and transcription. Before interviews began, she had read about oral history using information provided by the Oral History Association. The group developed a consent form and an interview protocol. Every interview started with some discussion of the project, in which the interviewers addressed what the project hoped to accomplish, what the narrator could expect, and where the transcripts and recordings would be archived. Interviewers explained the consent form as well, and interviews did not proceed until the narrators had read and signed. Each person had the option of restricting the interview to the extent that he or she desired. Most interviews took place at Victoria College in classrooms or in a conference room. A handful took place in private homes. Interviewers did not follow a predetermined set of questions, beyond asking basic information about age and birthplace, but instead let the speaker guide the interview from topic to topic.
Transcribing took time, a great deal of time. The interviews were recorded on a digital device and then transcribed twice: once to get the words on the page and then again to double-check for accuracy. Jose Aguirre and Dr. Hagan did the verbatim transcriptions. In the end, the project assembled interviews from thirteen men and fifteen women, which made up several hundred pages of type. The group planned from the start to donate the interviews and transcripts to the Victoria College library so future generations might see a brief snapshot of Victoria Hispanics from the world of 2010-11. But then they thought about a book that assembled quotes from the interviews into something people could read and hold and perhaps find echoes of themselves within its pages. Local Hispanics spoke, after all. Why not reply back? Why not present their words, opinions, and ideas, their dreams and failures, their life stories to the community?
In 2013-14, keeping with the idea of letting the community speak, Dr. Hagan pulled quotes from the interviews to create a seventy-eight-page book, parts of which have been read aloud at a local history conference. The book is organized thematically and includes spotlight sections that focus on individual participants. While compiling the quotes, Dr. Hagan spoke to the participants to ensure that everyone involved was aware of the manner in which their quotes were going to be used.
The Victoria College Hispanic Oral History Project sought to give a voice to the voiceless and preserve at least some of the stories of individuals often overlooked in history. The book and the transcripts will ensure that the project participants will continue to be heard by generations to come. Their words will challenge assumptions, sometimes shock and surprise, and teach an important lesson: that average citizens often lead anything but average lives.