Oral Histories Share Unheard Stories

by Elizabeth Colombini

CASA Purchase, an outreach center for Latin American studies at Purchase College, organized a one-day event at the Neuberger Museum of Art on Oct. 24, titled “Telling Our Stories: Oral History and Ethnography in our Communities.”

The event is part of a larger project called the “Transmedia Oral History Project,” which enables Purchase students to record oral histories on campus and in local communities.  Leandro Benmergui, the director of CASA and a Latin American studies professor at SUNY Purchase, created the project as a way for students to connect to the experiences of others.

“It’s a way to learn about other people and to learn about other people’s experiences. It’s about giving voices to people who usually don’t have a voice,” said Benmergui, who explained how the event shows students and other faculty members how stories can be collected and how “we can make the invisible, visible.”

“Oral histories are important because it allows us to produce stories that otherwise we wouldn’t listen to. All these voices matter. We can create a mosaic of voices that include everyone,” he said.

In today’s amplified world of social media, writing journal entries has become an almost obsolete hobby and a person’s array of emotion are usually displayed across a screen with a 140-character limit. Concerned with these kinds of obstacles future historians will face, Benmergui said, “I don’t know how they are going to see everyday people in their everyday lives.”

One of the biggest breakthroughs oral histories are seeing in today’s tech savvy world, is the digital archival of recorded accounts. The Digital Collections Curator at Purchase College Mēagan Oliver demonstrated how digital archives are being used to save content done by students.  Although Oliver believes that the concept of digitally archiving information has evolved, she explains that many colleges are struggling to find a place to store digital content.

But according to Oliver, Purchase College currently has a Content Management System that provides open access for students to store and save their content.  In order for this system to work effectively and to be easily accessible, the information must be meticulously organized. “Material must be quality checked, remastered if the color is off, and then catalogued,” said Oliver. “All of this has to be entered by hand. If not, no one could find them.”

“The conducting of an oral history is itself personal and political and I think that is key,” said senior psychology major Yami Guzman who also attended the event. “It prompted me to think about the functions of memory differently.” To Guzman, oral histories are necessary for “cultural, social and political movements.”

During the afternoon portion of the event, which took place at the Humanities Building, director for the Columbia Center for Oral History Mary Marshall Clark demonstrated a live oral history interview. The demonstration was conducted by Benmergui and the Director of the Multicultural Center at Purchase College, Daisy Torres-Baez.  Benmergui asked open ended questions, allowing Torres-Baez to describe her upbringing in Port Chester and her struggles with learning the language of Quechua.

One of the hardest things about doing an oral history according to Clark, is “really finding the questions that open people up. Telling a story is like painting a painting, or rubbing a sculpture.  You can’t do it quickly. It should be a space where there is room for thought, where we ask people questions that cause them to rethink their lives.”