Oral History Techniques & Results
La Partera: Story of a Midwife (University of Michigan Press, 1980)
In 1975 I was working as a community organizer in Las Vegas, New Mexico when a young mother introduced me to Doña Jesusita Aragon, the last traditional licenced midwife in New Mexico. "Someone should tell her story,"the young woman said. I thought it would be a good community organizing project and talked to Jesusita, who agreed. I searched the community for someone to do it in Spanish, then after my family planned to move, Jesusita asked me to do it on my own.
My only experience with oral history had been reading, All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, by Theodore Rosengarten. I tried to imagine the steps to take to write such a book, and using a reel-to-reel tape recorder, I asked Jesusita about her life events, techniques, and visions of meaning.
We taped as she watched over women in labor, cooked tortillas, cleaned her small home and clinic, and as we searched for the remnants of her childhood ranch on the plains of New Mexico. I also photographed some of her births and assisted in small ways. I transcribed the tapes and developed new questions, doing as much background reading as I could find.
I also located other, no longer practicing Latina midwives and elderly Anglo public health workers from the period and reconstructed a previous, largely female care system for the pregnant women of the time. I included historical and contemporary photographs. Finally, I put Jesusita’s words in chronological order and cut repetitive phrases. The field of oral history was only developing at the time, and I was in a totally non-academic setting so had no co-workers with whom to discuss the methods. Now I realize that I probably influenced her narrative more than I thought at the time, but I did record some of her remarkable stories. The transcripts are at the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University, where they can be examined. I still have the original tapes.
Instead of being listed as author, in a similar manner to other such books, I should have been identified as the person who compiled and edited the text, In addition, more of my background and social context should have been listed in the Introduction. I was interested in the interrelationship between the Anglo and Hispanic culture of the time, but now I would have more sophisticated techniques to deal with research questions. Still, Jesusita’s book spread throughout the region in New Mexico, it includes women’s names that might have otherwise been lost, and Jesusita became known as an important historical actor.
Dignity: Lower Income Women Tell of Their Lives and Struggles (University of Michigan Press, 1985)
We moved to Wisconsin in 1976, and I passionately wanted to continue doing oral histories. This time I had read Studs Terkel’s book, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They feel About What They Do. It inspired me deeply. As a result, I decided to interview poor and work-class women from around the country from a variety of work and economic backgrounds, making sure I interviewed at least 50% women of color. I still had no advanced scholarly training and did not know how to design statistical categories. Nevertheless, I wanted passionately to let readers know how hard poor women worked and the meaning of their lives.
I contacted friends of friends, church social action groups, labor unions, and contacts I made through activist groups, newspapers, and other publications when trying to find people to interview. And I took extra jobs to pay for costs. I traveled throughout the United States, excluding the Northeast because I could not afford it.
I asked the women questions that had formed my life during economically difficult times. They included inquiries about economics, what experiences they had that they specifically attributed to being female or to their racial/ ethnic/ religious backgrounds, their sources of joy and hope, and beliefs that gave their lives meaning. While I was now nearly middle class myself, their answers gave me profound glimpses into socially difficult, but productive and resilient working-class lives. My interviews were open ended and included listening techniques I had acquired while working in a women’s crisis center. I also photographed the women and had the women sign releases. We eventually collected ten of their stories into a book that portrayed beauty and struggles of their lives and the dignity with which they faced their challenges.
Journey of the Sparrows
As I did my oral history research in the 1980s, living in Wisconsin and Arizona, I interviewed undocumented girls and women who had escaped north without papers from Mexico and Central America. Once in the United States secretly, these young people took dangerous hidden jobs in farms, kitchens, and factories. I was especially moved by two teenage sisters from El Salvador who traveled north in the winter, nailed in a crate in the back of a truck where they almost froze.
One of the sisters had been raped and was pregnant, and the girls’ parents had been murdered by soldiers backed by the United States. After interviewing them and other Latinas in similar situations, I felt like I would burst with their narratives. I searched my mind for a format to tell their stories without risking their hiding spaces and identities. Suddenly, one night I thought, "They’ve acted with so much courage, I’ll write a young-adult adventure novel about them, disguising their who they are."
I knew I could not do the extensive research alone and was assisted by my dear Mexicana friend, Maria Elena Lucas, and Daisy Cubias, an immigrant from El Salvador. I adapted characters from other women I’d interviewed and traveled to the different settings, including repeatedly crossing the border by myself. The result was Journey of the Sparrows, written with the assistance of Daisy Cubias and published by Puffin Books (a division of Penguin) in 1991. It has been translated into six languages, made into a play, and is the subject of many high school and college classes.
Forged under the Sun/Forjada bajo el sol: The Life of Maria Elena Lucas (University of Michigan Press, 1993)
The last chapter of Dignity told the story of Maria Elena Lucas, a farm worker and United Farm Worker organizer who was the oldest of 17 children and who began to work in shrimp basins and in the fields when she was five. She now worked in the nurseries in Onarga, Illinois and formally and informally organized undocumented Mexican workers. We met through a church migrant ministry. The first time I traveled to be with her for a long weekend, we both came down with severe food poisoning where we stayed in a house without plumbing. By the end of the weekend, our lives seemed forged together. I traveled to be with her a number of times, becoming close to her growing family, while she directed a United Farm Union Service Center and worked under César Chávez.
After her story was told in Dignity, she moved to her childhood home in Brownsville, Texas. At that time, I visited her as a friend. Then, on March 3, 1988, she was poisoned by a crop dusting airplane who sprayed her with pesticides. She almost died. Her children called me, and a few weeks later I flew to see her. Our close relationship took on an intensity we had not had before. At that point, she told me about an old red truck, buried in the mud in a field near the Rio Grande. The cab of the truck contained a trunk that held her old writings. She’d had only three years of school in total, but she had written songs, poems, diaries, a play, and letters to God since her childhood and stored many of them in that truck. I returned when she was well, and we dug out the trunk. The writings were safe.
We also began tape recording her story for a book length narrative, recording while we sat on the doorstep of her small travel trailer, drove down highways, ate at fast food restaurants, and crossed the border. The total transcripts equal 1,500 pages. We supplemented the work with about 1.5000 pages of her writings. Using the basic technique I had used when compiling Jesusita’s book, I then put together a narrative, interwove many of her writings, and read the work to her out loud, gaining her approval.
I had begun the PhD program in graduate school in American history part way through the process. In between our visits I did much research about Chicano culture, the migrant worker economic system, racial and ethnic oppression in South Texas, and many other subject. I wrote long lists of questions, which I took to her.
Finally, when writing the Introduction, I wrote more about my own social context and our relationship and a more sophisticated historical and cultural background. Maria Elena and I have been close friends for forty years now, talking long distance every day or two. She has helped me with my subsequent writing. We are too old and disabled to visit much now, but we will share an intimacy until we die.
Work and Family: Low Income and Minority Women Talk About Their Lives (an archive collection)
In 1993, with the help of a Ford Foundation grant, I had my oral history collection transcribed and placed in the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University. This way, crucial stories of women’s lives could be preserved for generations and influence upcoming students. The collection is six thousand pages long and is also found in six other research libraries. Updated in the year 2000, it will include fifteen additional sets of transcripts. It also includes journals of 52 years of my life, from 1968 to 2000, with notes about my oral history experiences.
Moisture of the Earth: Mary Robinson, Civil Rights and Textile Union Activist (University of Michigan Press, 2009)
I met Mary Robinson in 1980, the same summer that I met Maria Elena. Textile unions were organizing poor workers in the South, and I hoped to interview someone from ACTWU. I got the name of the national labor union from a church social action agency and called union headquarters in New York. They gave me the name of an African American grass-roots union activist in Montgomery, Alabama–Mary Robinson. Like Maria Elena, Mary has become my very close friend for 40 years and the subject of one of my books. After I got her name, I wrote Mary and asked if I could visit and record her story. I learned as much background history as I could, eventually earned enough money to pay the costs, and I drove South in my old car.
Mary met in in her apartment between shifts and served me coffee. She was warm and exuberant and laughed as she greeted me. She looked out the window and saw my car. Later she told me she had agreed to work with me when she realized I had driven that car from the North to see her. Mary let me turn on the recorder almost immediately.
A few minutes later, she began to tell me the story of her childhood as a poor sharecropper’s daughter north of Montgomery. She watched me closely as I reacted to her stories, then suddenly told me a tragic story of the time she murdered her doll after her sister was given a white doll and she was given a black doll, the only doll left in the store. Heartbroken about it’s color, she took a hoe and chopped the doll into pieces, burying each piece behind the smokehouse. As she did so, she cried and hollered, "I don’t want you, you black thing." She had absorbed racial attitudes toward her color and, terrified of the Ku Klux Klan, she tried to reject her own color in the only way a small child could.
I responded to the story with quiet horror. My response seemed to form a pact between us, and Mary told me many narratives of her childhood in a repressive regime and her eventual fight for justice through the civil rights and textile union movement. Those interviews resulted in a chapter in Dignity. We had responded to each other warmly, and a few years later, she traveled to my home in Wisconsin, where she met my family. We had a wonderful visit, and she became especially close to my adopted African American daughter.
Years passed and we continued to visit back and forth. Whenever we did so, we taped. Mary attended my children’s weddings, as honorary family friend. Finally, I finished Maria Elena’s book and we began doing Mary’s. Now we really explored her background, crawling over deteriorating buildings, searching out land records and signatures signed with an X, and finding elderly union members. They included a friend of the subject of the oral history, All God’s Dangers, the book that had inspired me when I did my first oral history with Jesusita Aragon. Mary and I constructed a detailed map of memory of her childhood sharecropping community. We worked on the book for 23 years and also developed 1,500 pages of transcripts with additional photographs.
The most difficult part of compiling the final narration was putting the stories we had collected over 23 years in chronological order as a seamless memory. As such, the stories were somewhat distorted. Since the publication of the book, we have continued to be extremely close friends, visiting each other and talking on the phone every few days.
After Maria Elena, Mary, and I finished their works, we attempted to do another group labor. This time I told them the stories of my life, and they asked me questions. We called the work, Collaborative Voices. The work was never finished, but we learned a great deal about each others’ lives, and Mary traveled with me to my childhood home in Iowa, where we traced my past. I was extraordinarily moved by the whole process, and it helped relieve me from some traumatic memories. It also gave me special insight into the oral history project as we "turned the recorder around."
Memory, Meaning, and Resistance: Reflecting on Oral History and Women at the Margins (University of Michigan Press, 2017)
I continued to do oral histories of now 100 marginal and working-class women gathered from a variety of racial, ethnic, and geographical backgrounds. Over 50% were women of color. At this point, I had my PhD in history, and I now could better analyze my body of work, identifying common themes in women’s lives and resistance. From the beginning, I tried to work on the inseparable, compounding effects of gender, race, ethnicity, and class on women’s lives, what is now called intersectionality. I structured this book thematically, with each chapter analyzing a concept that runs through the oral histories, e.g. agency, activism, and religion. I especially think the chapter on spirituality and resistance is unique. While working on it I was repeatedly struck by the women’s struggles to find meaning in their hard lives and their collective resilience. I hope it will serve as an inspiration to oral historians as well as others.
Redemptive Memory: Women Activists and the Struggle for Justice (to be published next)
I was taking a course in history and memory several years ago when I sat up in bed at 2 AM and said, "Redemptive Memory," then added, "and the Search for Justice." In the early morning darkness, I wrote out notes on the process by which individual and group memory can change the structure of how we experience history and give us strength, insight, alliance, a form of redemption, and the energy necessary for the work for justice. I based the theory on my observations of the many trauma survivors I had interviewed. They had faced social violence, told stories about it, and developed a group consciousness in relationships of solidarity. At that point, they testified politically and fought for change. I did this work using a political analysis of justice based on historical, sacred, and secular theories. The process of writing the book was thrilling, and I maintained many old relationships and made new ones. It led me to some of my most creative work. It is professionally edited and is ready for publication.
I’m working now on a blog that I hope will inspire people as we struggle as a country with inequality, social fallout from climate change, and the movement toward fascism. It gives another example of how we can use insights from oral histories. I call the blog, The Strength We Need: 50 Years of Oral Histories, and it includes examples from my life and the lives of women I have interviewed. I supplement those examples with concepts and theories from contemporary thinkers. Finally, I ask for responses and experiences from readers as we attempt to build an on-line community of people who will not accept defeat.
Roads Not Taken
There are several semi-regrets I have about my oral history life, although they are the results of lack of resources–primarily money and time. I wish that I had worked with other oral historians, especially early in my life when the field was first opening up. I worked out my techniques without a give and take with other scholars. Now there are many conferences on methods, ethics, and such issues as the nature of memory, but they were not available then, and, besides, I did not have the finances to attend them. Also, I wish I had taken advantage of the Oral History Association, and I feel I could have learned much from it’s publications and conferences. I would have loved to have been part of an actual oral history project, where participants are trained and work together on specific subjects.
On a scholarly level, I wish I had the resources necessary to do oral histories and analysis with groups, such as groups of women fighting against environmental racism. I have recently absorbed the book by Margaret A McLaren, Women’s Activism, Feminism, and Social Justice (part of Studies in Feminist Philosphy) 2019. McLaren studies activism, as I frequently do, but she enters into the scholarly conversation from standpoints of social justice groups, such as grass-roots fair trade organizations and cooperatives in India, not from the standpoint of individuals in the United States, like I have. She earned her PhD earlier in her life than I did; she had more scholarly backing; and she undoubtedly had more financial resources than I had. Still, we seem to have had shared underlying values, and our work compliments each other. If starting my life over, I would have not only include oral histories of individuals, but also with associated groups. I did that somewhat with small groups (such as migrant workers, textile workers, and miners’ wives) but not in some clearly planned out manner.
However, I certainly do not regret my life and work. I have formed extremely close relationships through it and have had wonderful experiences. I am now almost eighty, and it’s time for younger scholars to begin their work. I wish them much goodness.
Finally, I want to thank my husband David and our children. Over the decades David helped me in countless ways, but most importantly, he helped raise our children to be the wonderful people they are. He often parented by himself when I was traveling. We always had to scrape together money for the projects, and he relieved me of child care so I could take extra jobs to pay for expenses. He truly believed in my work. It was a mission for us both. Also, our children were cooperative and allowed me freedom to concentrate on my work during their adolescence–a tremendous gift. I profoundly thank each ofthem.