One of the newest research and scholarship gems of the University of Texas at Austin is the UT Voces Oral History Center directed by Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez. Founded in 1999, the Center has perhaps the largest holdings in a digital format of more than 1600 taped interviews with Latinos. The collection of interviews includes voices of veterans of three major wars as well as voices of important civic, political, professional, and artistic leaders of Texas and beyond.
Voces has a working relationship with the Benson Latin American Collection, considered the best in the world, as well as relationships with the Center for Mexican American Studies [CMAS] at UT Austin. The Benson’s holdings include the papers of Mexican Americans in politics, the arts, and music. CMAS, founded 50 years ago by the distinguished anthropology and humanities professor Dr. Americo Paredes, contributes annually to outstanding studies in social sciences and humanities. Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez has also recently been appointed the new incoming director of CMAS.
The idea for an oral history project came to Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez while she was working as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News in the late 1980s. Her interest in the Mexican American oral history project originated when she was writing a series of stories on the MALDEF higher education case filed in South Texas. The MALDEF class-action lawsuit charged the state with discrimination against Mexican Americans in South Texas because of the State’s inadequate funding of colleges in the area. [ See Teresa Palomo]
MALDEF’s focus on Texas’s public higher-education system in LULAC et al. v. Richards et al. led Rivas-Rodriguez to interview Pete Tijerina, the civil rights organization’s founder, and a prominent civil rights lawyer. Tijerina concluded the interview with the comment “All us old civil rights warhorses are WWII vets.” Rivas-Rodriguez was familiar with Stud Terkel’s book, “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II, and thought it might be time
to write about Mexican Americans. Her story on Mexican American World War II veterans appeared as a 1992 cover article for the Dallas Morning News.
A journalism graduate of the University of Texas with a graduate degree from the prestigious journalism program at Columbia Univerisity, Rivas-Rodriguez paused her writing career in the mid-1990s to pursue a Ph.D. at the Univesity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Upon receiving her doctoral degree in communications, she accepted a teaching position at the Univesity of Texas at Austin.
In 1998, as a new Assistant Professor in UT’s College of Communication, Rivas-Rodriguez managed to secure a small grant that enabled her to purchase tape recorders allowing her to interview Latino World War II veterans. Her first interviews took her to the Central Library in San Antonio, Texas. Not satisfied with her limited knowledge of conducting interviews, she signed up for a two-week summer oral history training session at Columbia University. Following that training, she set off for Los Angeles where she interviewed several Latino veterans on a Sunday morning at the offices of former Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard.
In Los Angeles and other cities, Rivas-Rodriguez found enthusiastic reception and positive support for her World War II project. Among the Latino veterans who agreed to an interview in Los Angeles was a gentleman who arrived with an oxygen tank by his side. He proved more than able to tell his accounts of the war. The oral history project received a technical boost when documentary movie producer, Hector Galan, suggested that Rivas-Rodriguez utilize video High 8 cameras. She liked the idea, finding that filming did indeed prove superior to only an audio recorder.
On the day following a July 4th, 1999 article by Veronica Flores of the San Antonio Express-News about the Rivas-Rodriguez interviews and stories with World War II veterans, dozens of callers interested in her project left messages on her telephone. There was great interest in the stories she was collecting and the narratives she told, and others wanted to be a part of the project.
Rivas-Rodriguez credits her success in part to colleagues from other disciplines who have helped her in her oral history journey. During her early years of conducting interviews, she found support in Washington D.C. where the Veterans Readjustment Counseling Center assisted her with interviews of Latino veterans. In the first
years of creating her oral history center, Rivas-Rodriguez worked with U.C. Berkeley historian David Montejano and University of Arizona anthropologist Carlos Velez-Ibanez.
In 2009, she co-edited with Emilio Zamora the book Beyond the Latino World War II Hero: The Social and Political Legacy of a Generation. [UT Press]
I visited Rivas-Rodriguez in her offices at the UT Moody College of Communications in Austin last year and was impressed with the range, depth, and significance of her research operation. Her student assistants not only build their writing skills but also learn new techniques associated with social media communication and research using interviews. Rivas-Rodriguez makes sure that her students are also well-read in Mexican American studies. The students I met were well trained in conducting oral history interviews and were part of the team that actually conducted interviews and archived the narratives. Rivas-Rodriguez explained that the students involved in the oral history project will benefit by knowing how to use video digital equipment, which includes learning techniques of recording, lighting, and editing.
As a historian, I know the value of these interviews. The Hollywood-produced film documentaries of the past decades omitted the participation of Mexican Americans in World War II. Approximately 500,000 Mexican Americans served in World War II. Their valor earned them an abundance of military service recognitions and heroic medals. Rivas-Rodriguez and her team provide ample historical evidence that military service in World War II enabled the first generation of Mexican Americans to attend college in large numbers through the education benefits of the G.I. Bill. For the first time in American history, a significant number of Mexican Americans joined the professional class of lawyers, doctors, and educators.