As a young man during the 1960s Juan Díaz worked in a foundry in Flint’s Buick City. The foundries were home to a large number of ethno-racial minorities, as the intense heat and “the extremely dangerous and dismal conditions” were less than desirable in a racialized labor hierarchy. At the time, Michigan’s automotive industry was booming, making the state an attractive destination for those seeking employment, including Latinas/os. In the mid 1960s, Michigan was home to the highest paid blue-collar workers on the planet and Flint led the state with the highest wages. Many Latinas/os were employed in the automotive industry, yet Michigan’s written history has not been inclusive of the vast experiences of Latinas/os. Through oral history interviews, the experiences of Latinas/os in the state of Michigan are being recovered and preserved.
The field of oral history has grown tremendously in recent times, and the same is the case with the Latina/o population in the United States. Contrary to popular belief, not all Latinas/os are newcomers to the US, and oral history is as old a tool to record history as it gets. Latinas/os have a direct bond with oral history as historically, family, local, and group history were preserved through oral traditions. The Oral History of Latina/os in Michigan Project (OHLM) at the Julian Samora Research Institute at Michigan State University builds upon the oral traditions among Latinas/os. To better understand the needs, challenges, and history of Latinas/os in Michigan, JSRI researchers have been collecting oral histories with elders over the past decade and are continually looking for persons to interview for the OHLM project.
From storytelling to the singing of corridos (folk ballads), Latinas/os have long been compelled to oral tradition. As a child growing up, I was intrigued by family members gathering around the dinner table in the evenings to retell stories of significant events that impacted their lives and their pueblito, La Palmita, Nuevo León, México. Conversations would start, “Te acuerdas cuando pusieron la luz en el rancho? ‘Si!’ Era el ’69. ‘No, se me hace que era el ’68.’ No, si era en ’69.” (“Remember when electricity was introduced in our village? ‘Of course!’ It was in ’69. ‘No, I think it was in ’68.’ No, it was in ’69.”) The discussions inevitably led to serious conversations about the ways of life and the challenges they confronted in their daily lives in order to survive. Through the collective memory of these interactions, the youth learned life lessons as family and local history were preserved and passed on by the elders reminiscing about the days of old. These were important lessons for a Chicano growing up in a different environment than that of the previous generation.
Chicanas/os and Latinas/os continue to be excluded in written works of history, especially in areas where they are constantly and erroneously seen as newcomers. For many people in Michigan, diversifying and bringing inclusion to the historical perspective is adding the African American experience, which is important, but incomplete. The historical perspective must go beyond the White and Black binary and must reflect the many ethnic peoples in our society. This is especially so since the experiences and lives of Latinas/os are integral to the state’s industries. We must continue to expand the historical perspective or else we will not understand our society and the diverse cultures and values that comprise Michigan and the nation. Through the OHLM project we learn about the experiences, discover the contributions of Latinas/os, and amplify the body of historical knowledge to better understand our communities, state, and nation.
When Dr. Rubén Martinez became the director of the Julian Samora Research Institute in 2007 he quickly became interested in the origins of the Latina/o populations throughout the state. He launched the OHLM project with several objectives in mind, including: 1) to discover, record, and disseminate the place-making activities of Latinas/os in Michigan, and 2) to better understand the experiences of Michigan’s Latina/o population. Focusing on settled out farmworkers, those who left the migrant stream, he parsed the process into three phases: 1) settling out, the decision to leave the migrant lifestyle; 2) settling down, moving into a particular community, and 3) settling in, joining secondary organizations in their communities.
To better appreciate and understand Michigan’s Latina/o population it is important to know their history. It is also important for Latinas/os to have an appreciation of their own history and have a sense of belonging without falling victims to the false narrative that casts them as recent immigrants and denies them claiming a first-class citizenship. By understanding the experiences of Latinas/os in Michigan, initiatives can be launched to improve their lives and policies can be shaped to integrate them within the state’s institutions.
As early as the late 1890s, Mexicans1, mostly migrant workers from Texas began to travel to Michigan and found seasonal employment in the sugarbeet industry. While most farmworkers returned to their communities of origin at the end of the season, some began to settle out into Michigan’s various communities throughout the state. While the growing agriculture sector and the booming auto industry expanded work opportunities for Latinas/os in Michigan, political and social upheaval in both Mexico and Texas, where these folks mostly originated from, pushed them away from their communities. It is within this context that the OHLM project is rooted and JSRI staff members have worked diligently to conduct, transcribe, and incorporate oral histories into scholarly endeavors.
The OHLM project has targeted elderly community members with an understanding of their knowledge of their communities and an appreciation of their historical memory. Several of the interviewees are now deceased, but their oral history lives on at JSRI. As well, several interviewers have also passed through JSRI and have moved on to other jobs. A survey instrument was developed in both English and Spanish and has been used for every oral history interview that has been conducted, standardizing the areas of inquiry while allowing for differences in experiences. Every interview is audio recorded with two digital recorders to ensure it is captured with minimal technical problems. While some interviews are conducted in English, others are conducted in Spanish, and many are bilingual. Thus, an interviewer or oral historian must have bilingual skills, as using the language, whether it is English, Spanish, or a mixture of both, of the interviewees allows them to become comfortable with the conversation and truly express themselves.
Bilingualism facilitates discussion of topics that perhaps he or she may not discuss in monolingual terms. Chicano civil rights leader, Reies Lopez Tijerina explained it best, “De cuando en cuando sería bueno lucir el brío de nuestro idioma, lucir la fuerza del calor de nuestro espíritu. El espíritu de un pueblo está en el idioma. Si la cultura la clasificamos con números, el idioma sería el número uno de nuestra cultura” (Tijerina 5/9/69). [Every now and then it is good to let the light of our language shine through, let it shine on the strength of our spirit. The spirit of a community is its language. If we classify elements of culture numerically, language would be number one in our culture.] From an oral historian’s perspective, the comfort produced by addressing participants in their native language establishes an atmosphere that is conducive for their sharing of information that otherwise they might be hesitant to share.
Interviewees easily shift from English to Spanish language and often use Chicana/o terminology. Consequently, a transcriber must not only possess bilingual skill sets that include understanding and writing both languages but also bicultural skills and familiarity with Chicana/o culture. JSRI employs graduate and undergraduate students with these abilities and they are trained to transcribe each oral history interview with precision so that it can be analyzed and archived.
In being able to conduct successful oral histories with elder Latinas/os in Michigan, it is important to understand their communities and their struggles. While many interviewees came from Texas following the migrant stream, others are the sons and daughters of those migrants, and others are from Puerto Rico, Cuba and Central America. Despite the nostalgic memories they may have about the “good ole’ days,” interviewees share rough impoverished upbringings. It is also important to note the current conditions in which Michiganders find themselves. Michigan is one of the leading states in the nation promoting a neoliberal regime that has governed the state in the past thirty years. Representations of the neoliberal path Michigan is on include incessant tax cuts that force elimination of government programs, privatization of government functions, emergency managers, battered roads and highways, anti-labor unions, and other initiatives by those who have governed and continue to govern the state with a business perspective that benefits the few at the expense of the many.
Coming from an area with a nearly ninety-percent Latina/o population and arriving to Michigan where Latinas/os only comprise about five-percent of the population, several overt characteristics shared by many Latina/o Michiganders stand out. Despite the many barriers and challenges experienced by Latinas/os in Michigan, such as having led relatively culturally isolated lives from their rich historical backgrounds, they have an interest in reconnecting with those roots. They are a people who remain hopeful in their lives. Many of them are from farmworker backgrounds and César Chávez and the United Farm Workers Union slogan “¡Si Se puede!” still resonates with them.
Latinas/os in Michigan have weathered the storm unleashed on them by a neoliberal order responsible for the Great Recession of 2007-2008. The changes in the political landscape gave rise to a neoliberal order based on extreme laissez-faire principles that shape the economic system. It calls for an economy that is unregulated by government. This neoliberal order has privatized public goods, moving public dollars to the private sector while rolling back social programs that provide positive services to the community. The era of extreme laissez-faire has given rise to great income and wealth inequality as large corporations have become increasingly powerful, leading to increased corruption in a society in which workers are increasingly denied benefits and labor rights.
Today’s neoliberal order denies funding of projects that promote the public good. The communities of the participants in the OHLM Project reflect these regressive policies. From the field notes of the oral histories we note the neighborhoods in the many areas we have conducted interviews including, Lansing, Flint, Saginaw, Detroit, and other surrounding communities throughout the state. With the infrastructure in decline, epitomized by the endless cracks and potholes on the highways and the closure of community centers, working communities seem abandoned and are not reflective of the once proud automotive state that was Michigan. Impoverished neighborhoods in Lansing, Flint, and Detroit are inundated with “Party Stores” at almost every corner with signs promoting all the “essentials” for the community: “Beer, Wine, and Lotto.” Worse yet is the continuing Flint water crisis which, despite the lack of attention it is receiving in this election year, continues to threaten the lives of thousands of people. These are the living conditions in which many Michiganders find themselves today.
The Migrant Stream
Farm labor is backbreaking work, but like other difficult jobs the intensity eventually gets lost in the monotony and then it just becomes routine. Hard labor becomes normalized by farmworkers whose daily work in America’s food systems brings food to the tables of millions of people. Yet, when describing their day, an interviewee simply recalled,
Waking up early in the mornings we would go to either hoe or pick whatever the crop was at the time and then work until four o’clock, five o’clock. I enjoyed it at the time. Sometimes it would be boring. Sometimes it was long and hot days, but I always thought it [was] good exercise2 (OHLM #008).
Despite the less than ideal working conditions, the interviewee’s memory carries positive experiences from being a migrant farmworker.
Many of the OHLM participants spent their youth traveling to Michigan with their families as migrant farmworkers in Michigan’s vast agricultural sector. This entailed traveling every year, spring through fall, between Texas and Michigan and sometimes to other locations.
I guess you know I was very mature at that time, but yeah, we would do a farm until September, sometimes October. We would pick cucumbers or cabbage, harvest the cabbage or cauliflower, and then that was it. That was the end of the season. Then we would go to school and the following year the same thing (OHLM #008).
Families would return to their homes in Texas for winter with their small earnings and prepare for the next season. The same participant elaborated:
Then we would wait until the next spring to start all over again, so it was a routine. We would go back to school, and then the last two years, my junior year and senior, they started migrant school for the migrants during the summer in Sturgis [Michigan]. Since we spoke Spanish we were recruited to summer school, it was very interesting (OHLM #008).
The agricultural cycle became engrained in the lives of migrant farmworkers even though the lifestyle meant that the family would have to travel extensively. It also inevitably interrupted the education of farmworker children. Bringing comfort to these difficult times was the fact that regardless of where they were or how difficult the job was, the family remained together.
I remember California was one [of the work destinations] that we went to, but at that time I was not old enough to work. I think I was like maybe nine or ten years old or something like that, and I would stay with my siblings, with my sisters at home. I think it was a couple of years we went out there and back to Texas; and the following year we went to Bear Lake, Michigan and they picked strawberries and raspberries, then back to Texas (OHLM #008).
Another participant recalls their days as migrant farmworkers trying to make ends meet. “My dad used to work at a slaughterhouse, right there, in Weslaco, Texas. Me acuerdo, we would make barbacoa on Saturday nights. My dad would send us to las calles, gritando ‘barbacoa, 35 cents a pound,’ fijate, me and my sister!” (OHLM # 025). Whether it was in their community of origin or in their work destination, farmworker children worked to contribute to the family’s income.
Every late spring the journey to the Midwest would begin for many of these Tejanas/os from the Río Grande Valley. Out of necessity, they left behind their warm comfortable worlds in South Texas for a rigid and culturally colder Midwest where they often encountered racism and/or cultural resentment. “I remember vividly that we would stop at some of these restaurants, they wouldn’t let us in. They [Mexican American adults] had to order and receive food through the backdoor” (OHLM # 025). The sudden acts of racial discrimination made migrant farmworkers feel unwelcome, yet they had to endure the treatment to economically sustain their families.
Racism existed in South Texas, but it was clear where Mexicans and Mexican Americans were not allowed. Especially in a town like Weslaco that remained segregated by the railroad well into the 1960s. In Weslaco, the railroad tracks ran (and continue to run) east and west dividing the town into north and south. South Weslaco, the Anglo part of town, had paved streets with English names and well-built homes. North Weslaco, El Pueblo Mexicano, was filled primarily with impoverished homes and unpaved streets. Supporting segregation in Weslaco was a despicable racist ideology —“The wind blows from the southeast in the Valley,” explained Juanita Elizondo Garza. “Anglos did not want Mexicans living in South Weslaco because they would have to smell them [they claimed] as the wind blew from the southeast into the north. My God, can you believe that?”3
To many Mexican American families, the decision to settle out of the migrant stream did not come easy. They lived between two worlds, each being as important as the other. The migrant world in Michigan, although only seasonal or temporary, allowed families to earn the necessary income to subsist back in their home communities in Texas. Many of these Tejanos left their hearts and dreams in Texas and eagerly waited to return to their home communities. However, economic opportunity triumphed and motivated many families to settle out of the migrant stream. At times the settling out process took several years as migrant farmworkers had to psychologically detach themselves from their communities of origin.
Family unity and wellbeing for Chicanas/os and Latinas/os remained critical and influenced many families to settleout of the migrant stream. Parents observed the struggles their students endured in transferring schools and missing instructional time. After a few years, families sought a less transient lifestyle and settled out of the migrant stream. “Back when I was ten years old, my parents used to go back and forth, they would travel up here for the summer to work in the fields, then go back to Texas,” recalled a sixty-year-old single female. “And I think it was 1965 that they settled in Stockbridge, Michigan, and we just stayed here. And that was it” (OHLM # 008). For this family the migrant stream ended, yet their lives as farmworkers continued.
Although Latinas/os looked for work in various industries, especially in the automotive plants, many remained working in agriculture. “When we went to Sturgis, Michigan is when they [parents] settled; [we] stayed in Sturgis,” commented a sixty-year-old female. She continued,
Then we were in that farm for about eight years, we had the same farmer. We would transplant the cucumber plants, the pickle plants and then we would hoe them, harvest them, and then pick them. And then it was the cabbage and the cauliflower, and that was it, that was like the end of the season. Then we would go to school and the following year the same thing (OHLM #008).
Agriculture remained part of life for many Latina/o families who depended on crops to survive. Their knowledge of the industry is evident in the oral histories.
While it took some families decades to settle out of the migrant stream, it took others just a couple of years. This was true for one Saginaw family that envisioned more to life than traveling year after year as a migrant family. “We’d go to Ohio, we went to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana picking tomatoes. Bueno, [picking] everything. We did that for two, three years, and then, finally, my dad settled out in Saginaw,” commented an eighty-year-old male who had returned to live in Texas (OHLM #025). An eighty-nine-year-old great-grandmother recalls her parent’s decision to settle out of the migrant stream and relocate to Freeland, “I don’t know how my folks decided that were going to sell our house [in Texas] because we were going back up to Michigan and we stayed there. That’s what we did. We’ve been up here since then. So, we sold the little house and we came up here” (OHLM #035). Although her memory of the exact details was fading, she was able to share important aspects of her life and community history.
For many of the interviewees settling out of the migrant stream, the decision was the best option for themselves and their families. “Well, you know, there were better wages over here. They made a better living and there were more opportunities over here. I know my stepfather wanted to go back to Texas, he always migrated back and forth,” commented an eighty-three-year-old male. He continued,
Anyway, my mom talked him into staying over here as there were more opportunities, especially for the younger people. You could get educated, you could get a lot of more things over here. And there wasn’t that much racism over here. I mean, I don’t know I was four years old when I came over here. People tell me and I don’t remember anything about Texas, but that’s the way we ended up here… In 1938, we settled out here (OHLM #022).
Settling down in a new community became the next phase for Latina/o Michiganders, who faced the challenges of their new environment in the frigid Midwest. Adults found year-round work, a home, and enrolled their children in schools. Many were the first or one of the few Latina/o households in their communities. Attracting early Chicanas/os to Michigan was the sugar beet industry. Early arrivals in Lansing worked at the Michigan Sugar Plant, “There was a company on West Grand River, a sugar company,” recalled a ninety-two-year-old man whose family was one of the first Latina/o families in Lansing (OHLM #028). The plant recruited workers from Texas who transitioned into lifelong Michiganders.
In the post-World War II economic boom, Fisher Body Auto Plant (General Motors Division) also attracted Latinas/os to Lansing. An eighty-seven-year-old woman described her arrival in Lansing from Texas in 1946:
No había mucha gente [Mexicana], pero la familia Velásquez vivía aquí por la Case [Street]. El señor Randy tenía una hija y un hijo. Ellos nos rentaron a nosotros cuando llegamos. Pues no había muchas casas de renta. Especialmente no había gente Mexicana. Entonces ellos nos rentaron a nosotros un apartamento. Y, ahí vivimos como un año. Mi esposo agarró trabajo en el Fisher Body, right away, luego-luego! Y le gustó y ahí se quedó. Y trabajó casi como treinta años en eso (OHLM #009).4
This woman’s husband was able to find work at the Fisher Body Plant, and the pair settled down in Lansing. Another participant spoke about being the only Latina/o family in her community:
We were the only ones [Mexicans], and we got along real well. I still have one of my friends that I went to school with; she lives in Arkansas. We still keep in touch. But, yeah, I went to school there. Then they [my parents] bought this property here, and then later on we got two acres, and then the other two acres with the house. Later on, my husband and I bought it (OHLM #035).
The attractive wages and benefits afforded by the automotive industry appealed to raza from Texas who grew tired of the limited opportunities in their home state and by agricultural work that was back-breaking and relatively inconsistent due to weather. “My uncles on my mother’s side all went to work for General Motors in Flint. So, it was maybe five of them,” remembers a seventy-year-old male from Clio. He provided details of how his family members settled down and obtained employment:
They worked agriculture and then applied for jobs in General Motors. For example, [they worked in] what they call the change of the equipment or the change of machinery, ‘change over.’ That’s what it was called at the factories when the models would change from one year to the next. Some of them were laid off so they would work in the crops, picking crops and so forth, around Genesee and Lapeer counties (OHLM #036).
Through a hard-work ethic and diligence, Chicanas/os persisted and demonstrated tough character as they took on different types of jobs in times of adversity.
While GM attracted many workers, agriculture, including the beet industry, paved the way for many Mexican Americans to settle down and transition to life-long Michiganders. The eighty-nine-year-old great-grandmother recalls settling down in Freeland in the 1930s,
And at that first house that we stayed there was a [beet] field right there so my dad would be out there because you’d have to thin them [the plants] because they’re so thick. So, he’d be out there and he’d take three or four rows. I’d go and take one row and [he would] make sure that I was doing it right. So, we picked them all up and took them to the house and then we’d have to wash them. And then she’d cook them and it was just like spinach (OHLM # 035).
Agriculture allowed any families the opportunity to settle down and get acclimated in Michigan, and from there many transitioned into other sectors of labor including the automotive sector.
Once these early Latina/o pioneers settled down in Michigan, they settled into their respective communities and became involved in civic and social matters. Latinas/os are not just a labor force, they have a political and social consciousness, and they became active participants in society. Both, Latina/o youth and adults sought an education and upward mobility. They became involved in labor unions, civic organizations, church congregations, and other community groups with the aspirations of creating a more inclusive society that would offer more opportunities to their children. Through their efforts in settling in, the forging of a Latina/o community is vivid in their memories as they began to take ownership of their neighborhoods and society.
While some Chicanas/os slowly settled in, others took a running start by connecting with socially active and prominent community leaders. “So, I was working at Fischer Body por la noche y luego durante el día iba a LCC [Lansing Community College]; in 1967 ya tenia credits porque a lot of the credits que traje didn’t transfer,” commented a seventy-five-year-old male who is now living in Texas. He added in his eloquent bilingual tone,
Y luego este Rubén Alfaro quería que trabajara en Fischer Body. Lunes y miércoles iba a la escuela, y martes y Saturdays I was a welder. Ayudaba a un señor que conocí que necesitaba ayuda, y me quede a few years. Y luego, creo que era en ‘68 o ‘69 que Ángel (José Ángel Gutiérrez) me hablo de que estaban haciendo un research study en el department de Labor con MSU5 (OHLM #033).
With connections to the right people, and arriving at an opportune time when the Chicano community found itself entangled in the midst of political and social upheaval, this autoworker-turned-community activist was not only able to settle into the community in Lansing, but he was “sent to the front-lines” in the battle for social equity in which Chicanas/os found themselves.
Integrating their children in school systems became a top priority for Chicanas/os despite the fact that they themselves had a limited formal education. “We arrived in Flint when I was probably about three or four and started public school in Flint and I needed a lot of help,” recalls a seventy-year-old male participant. He continued sharing about his educational experiences, “In fact, a very nice lady, Ms. Johnson knew I needed extra help and she took the time to help me with reading, but you know it was always difficult for me in school” (OHLM #036). Notwithstanding the educational challenges he faced, the participant continued his education and went on to become a school teacher and served his community for over twenty years.
Latina/o baby boomers saw their parents’ generation demand a place in their communities by participating in civic organizations and becoming part of labor unions, actions that not only represented the settling-in process, but that were quintessential models of becoming part of their larger communities. A resident from the Flint area explained:
My father spoke English because he was in the War (World War II), and later he was a member of the GI Forum. So, I think it was his connections that got him through groups and the union. Everyone belonged to a union, you know, and that helped him with [his] English. My mother learned English as she grew older in Flint, but she prefers to speak Spanish. We spoke Spanish at home and English at school and then kind of mixed it up as we learned along (OHLM #036).
By interacting with American institutions and intertwining their own culture and language, Latinas/os in Michigan developed their own spaces in communities throughout Michigan.
By the mid 1960s, Latinas/os in Michigan were well tied to national Chicano efforts seeking equality. No other movement was more relevant to Latina/o Michiganders than the farmworker struggle led by César Chávez and the United Farm Workers Union. A now retired barber and community organizer shared his recollection of hosting Chávez and supporting the farmworker struggle for equality in Michigan:
The migrant thing is always close to me, and this was close to me in 1965 when César Chávez was starting his movement in Delano [California]. He went to Michigan, you know, and he had heard about me somehow or other because I had a barbershop almost right next to the State Capital. And, I would lobby with some of these legislators on migrant legislation that was coming up. César Chávez at that time would go around with the grape boycott and I met him, and he’d stay over in my house. He wanted me to leave Michigan and go to Delano with him, and I said: ‘Well, hell, I got four kids,’ and they were all in school, and I said: ‘I’ll help you as much as I can.’ I was very involved with the Movement. That inspired me to do more for the Hispanic community. So, back in 1968, there was a migrant march from Saginaw to Lansing. I was involved with it because it was [for] legislation to cover the farmworkers with workman’s compensation. If they were to get hurt on the job, somebody had to be responsible. We wanted them [legislators] to include them [farmworkers] in the Workman’s Compensation Bill back in 1965 (OHLM #025).
In the settling-in process Latinas/os of this generation strived for social and political inclusion by attempting to cement ties with national leaders such as César Chávez and Robert Kennedy.
The movement for social change was fueled by college students at Michigan State University who actively sought inclusion from within the system in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the late 1960s, Chicanas/os began to see the dwindling number of migrant farmworkers being employed in the state. Due to the decline of the sugar beet industry and the mechanization of agricultural work, there was less demand for farmworkers. A group of Chicanas/os saw an opportune time to demand change and fulfillment of the promises of the Morrill Act, which established land-grant institutions, and MSU served as its model. They called for retraining the Latina/o workforce that found itself unemployed due to the mechanization of the agricultural industry.
One student used the Morrill Act to argue that it was the responsibility of the land-grant institution to re-train farmworkers:
I got to reading in the library. Somebody had been looking at the Morrill Act and left the page open. The Morrill Act says that universities like Michigan State were created in the United States to help those who worked the land. So, migrant workers, right? They meant the farmer o el dueño pero no dice farmer, dice ‘those who worked the land’.
He closed his argument by highlighting that:
Michigan State... fue uno de los pioneers in the mechanization of agriculture. That displaced a lot of migrant workers. So, what we started saying was that MSU and other colleges in the nation have the responsibility to re-train and resettle their migrant workers because it’s in the Morrill Act (OHLM #033).
According to this participant, through these efforts MSU became more accessible to Latinas/os who aspired for a life beyond the beet, cherry, and apple fields. Through an agreement reached with the administration, scholarships began to trickle down to Latinas/os tying them to an institution that had been limited to women and people of color.
In the settling-in process, Latinas/os began to incorporate themselves into their larger communities. Chicanas/os took a more active role in demanding equal opportunities for success in their communities, in labor, and in the education systems as they dreamed beyond the agricultural and automotive world and sought a better place in society for their families and community. Today, vibrant pockets of Latina/o culture are evident throughout the state.
Spinoff Projects and Continuous Research
The OHLM Project has led to other specialized oral history projects that have resulted in publications and exhibits. An early spinoff project focused on the contributions of Latinas/os in the formation of Cristo Rey Church in Lansing and culminated with a book celebrating its 50th anniversary.6 Interacting with church and community members, JSRI Director Rubén Martinez and colleagues wrote about the struggles by the Latina/o community. He and a colleague, Pilar Horner, published, “Hay que Sufrir: The meaning of suffering among Former Mexican American Migrant Farmworkers,” which shed light on the way former farmworkers interpret their hardships and social suffering.7
As the OHLM project grew, Martinez and researchers at JSRI, became increasingly interested in the lives of Latina/o autoworkers and launched the Latina/o Autoworkers project with colleague, Daniel Velez Ortiz. Oral history interviews were conducted with former and current autoworkers, and their contributions led to an exhibit at the Michigan State University Museum in 2015 that was funded by Motor Cities National Heritage Area. While these oral histories were being collected, JSRI researchers encountered former autoworkers who transitioned into business owners in the auto supply chain. The interest blossomed into “Hicimos el Camino en Michigan: Latino Business Pioneers,” an article based on thirty-three oral history interviews conducted with Latina/o business owners in the state.8 Oral history interviews with Latina/o auto supply-chain business owners were included in this study as were restaurant, store, athletic shop, and cleaning company owners, among others who pursued their own businesses in Michigan’s economy.
The OHLM project continues as JSRI researchers and students work to collect and transcribe oral histories. The latest projects to incorporate oral histories with Latina/o Michiganders include Richard Cruz Davila’s “MI Música: An Introduction to Música Tejana in Michigan” and other projects that help fill a void that exists in the literature on the Latina/o experience in Michigan. Director Rubén Martinez has conducted focus groups with Latina/o agricultural producers and with dairy workers. These projects explore the challenges Latinas/os continue to face in the agricultural industry.
Although today Latinas/os continue to be employed in the agricultural sector in Michigan, Latinas/os have grown beyond the traditional farmworker roles and hold important jobs in communities throughout “The Wolverine State.” Nevertheless, most people would not know this as, like other ethno-racial groups and women, Latinas/os have been excluded from written history by mainstream writers. Take Michigan history, for example. The history of Latinas/os is seldom considered, if ever mentioned, in books, discussions, and literature. The Julian Samora Research Institute will continue to expand the body of knowledge of Latina/o Michiganders.
1The term ethnic Mexican refers to all Mexicans regardless of nationality.
2Quotes have been edited minimally for readability.
3Juanita E. Garza, conversation with author, Weslaco, TX, December 4, 2010.
4There was not many Mexicans, only the Velásquez family that lived on Case [Street]. Mr. Randy had a daughter and a son. They rented a place to us when we first arrived. Well, there were not many homes for rent. Specifically, there was not any Mexicans. Then they rented us our first apartment. We lived there for about one year. My husband found work right away at Fisher Body. He liked it and he stayed working there. He worked there for about thirty years.
5Rubén Alfaro wanted me to work at Fisher Body. Mondays and Wednesdays I attended school, and Tuesdays and Saturdays I worked as a welder. I assisted a man who needed help and I stayed here a few years. Then in about ’68 or ’69, José Ángel Gutiérrez called me over a research study that was being conducted by the department of labor with MSU.
6Rubén O. Martinez, Evangelina Palma Ramitez, and Pilar Horner. A Brief History of Cristo Rey Church. Lansing, MI: Bradford Printing, 2011.
7Pilar Horner, and Rubén Martinez. “Hay que Sufrir: The meaning of suffering among Former Mexican American Migrant Farmworkers,” Latino Studies (2015).
8Juan D. Coronado and Rubén Martinez. “Hicimos el Camino en Michigan: Latino Business Pioneers,” Dialogo (2018).