Why don’t we know more?
When students in a new course on U.S. Latino/a studies found themselves returning to that question again and again, it led them down the unexpected path of preserving their own stories.
They asked it upon hearing that César Chávez was once as well-known as Martin Luther King Jr. They asked it upon studying the Plan de San Diego, which called for forming an independent republic encompassing parts of Texas* and Mexico and led to retaliatory massacres of Mexican Americans.
“How do we know what we know?” asks Rick López ’93, professor of history and environmental studies and dean of new students, who co-taught the course last semester with Associate Professor of American Studies and Black Studies Solsiree Del Moral. “We know what we know only because it’s been organized and saved in certain ways. Certain things haven’t been saved.”
The two professors had planned to use historical documents in their class—which is designed as a foundational course for a newly approved major in Latinx and Latin American studies. But the students’ question led them to think about archival research in an unusual way.
From his own tenure as chair of La Causa in the 1990s, and later as its faculty liaison, López knew the student-run organization had boxes of old material in their offices. With permission from the La Causa board, six students in the course gathered and organized that material, and then found a new home for it in the College archives. The effort, López said, took the class “more deeply into the craft of history.”
“The liberal arts teaches students how to learn,” Lopez says—to “get something that has no clear path forward” and transform it into a project that can lead to novel insights.
For Mike Kelly, head of Archives and Special Collections, the La Causa project set a new precedent for what he hopes will be future curating efforts around campus and among alumni. In the past year, he’s worked with students to archive material from the Black Student Union and the Asian Students Association. He notes that the Queer Resource Center also has a vibrant, ongoing effort to conserve material it produces.