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The two professors had planned to use historical documents in their class—which is designed as a foundational course for a newly approved major in Latinx and Latin American studies.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.

How We Know What We Know
Six students gathered old material from La Causa and found a home for it in the College archives.

The La Causa project outlived the course. Once they realized the effort was too time-consuming to complete in a semester, several students and López successfully petitioned for $1,287 in funding through the Gregory S. Call Academic Interns program. That money is now allowing four students to continue their work in categorizing the material. 

The project is a way to “leave behind a testament to the importance of the club,” says Helena Burgueno ’19, a student in the course and a member of La Causa. “By learning more about the school’s history, I’ve come to feel closer to the College in general,” she adds. “It makes me feel as though I’m a part of the Amherst legacy.”

In the La Causa materials, Burgueno and other students learned of an initiative in the 1970s to hire faculty of color. They also uncovered information on campus visits by Chávez and his fellow United Farm Workers founder Dolores Huerta. 

But for López, one of the biggest surprises was how well he himself was represented. Searching in cardboard boxes, his students discovered odd scraps from his tenure at La Causa, including an undergraduate essay and his checklist of things to bring to college (socks, contact lens fluid, a tortilla press, chiles, cans of beans). 

“They told me they decided to put a whole López folder in the archive,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a little embarrassing.” 

*This is corrected from the original version of the article, which mistakengly said the Plan de San Diego encompassed parts of California and Mexico. It actually encompassed parts of Texas and Mexico.