Why don’t we know more?
That’s the question students in a course on U.S. Latino/a history kept returning to throughout the fall semester and one that eventually led them down the unexpected path of preserving their own stories.
The students asked this question 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 California and Mexico, and led to retaliatory massacres of Mexican Americans.
“How do we know what we know?” asked Rick Lopez ’93, who co-taught the course 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.”
Lopez, a professor of history and environmental studies and dean of new students, says the two professors had always planned to incorporate historical documents into their course, which is designed to be a foundational course for a new major in Latinx and Latin American Studies (LLAS). But the students’ questions led to an even more interesting opportunity.
From his own tenure as the chair of La Causa in the 1990s and later as the faculty liason for the group, Lopez knew the student-run organization had boxes of old material in their offices. With permission from the La Causa board, six of his students gathered and organized the material, and found a new home for it in the Amherst College Archives. The unusual effort, Lopez says, took his 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 could lead to novel insights.
For Michael Kelly, head of Archives and Special Collections, the La Causa archives sets 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, and he notes that the Queer Resource Center also has a vibrant, ongoing effort to conserve the material they produce.
The La Causa project outlived the history class. Once they realized the effort was too time-consuming to complete in a semester, the students and Lopez 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.
Helena Burgueno ’19, who is also a member of La Causa, said that the work has made her more conscious of how a tangible record “serves as official acknowledgement that the group exists and that it is a part of the school’s history that’s worth preserving.”
“Working in the archives has…made me feel surprisingly more connected to Amherst,” she noted. “By learning more about the school's history, I’ve come to feel closer to the college in general—it makes me feel as though I’m a part of the Amherst legacy.”
In the La Causa materials, she and other students learned of an initiative in the 1970s to hire faculty of color and to institute a Latino/Chicano studies department. They uncovered information on campus visits by Chávez and his fellow United Farm Workers founder Dolores Huerta.
But for Lopez, one of the biggest surprises was how well he himself was represented. As a student, Lopez was active in La Causa. Searching through cardboard boxes, his students discovered odd scraps from his tenure, including an undergraduate essay and his checklist of things to bring to college (socks, contact lens fluid, a tortilla press, chiles and cans of beans).
“They told me they decided to put a whole Lopez folder in the archive,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a little embarrassing.”