Teaching Innovations

The Immigrant Experience and Student-Centered Learning: An Oral History Video Project

Louisa Schell Hoberman, March 1994

In 1912, a young woman from Bratislava who wanted to see the world set out for Argentina. Upon her arrival, she found a position as a governess in one of the Italian households that formed an important part of Argentina's immigrant community and learned Italian before she mastered Spanish. Later she married a carpenter, an Austro-Hungarian veteran of World War I, who had migrated to Buenos Aires to escape the likelihood of another European war; all his brothers had been killed in the Great War.

The granddaughter of this couple was a student in my University of Texas, Austin, course, "Latin America since 1810." One day, after a lecture on immigration, she began to tell me about her family's history. A Brazilian-born student, who had worked as a news photographer, overheard us and suggested that we film her account. The result was "Exploring Our Past" (EOP), an oral history video project, researched and filmed by five students and presented to the entire class of sixty-four during the next-to-last week of the fourteen-week semester.

Initially, I encouraged the students because I wanted to counteract the numbing experience of students at large public universities who take many lecture courses and who often lack sufficient opportunities to interact in the classroom, or as one of the students later put it, I wanted "to make a large class seem small." (Jonathan Zophy expressed similar goals in the February 1991 issue of Perspectives, and Mary Joan Cook pioneered some of the methods described below in the December 1990 issue.) In a class where about one-quarter of the students were apparently Latino, I wanted to provide those who wished to share family history—or, at least, that which was relevant to the course material—a chance to do so.

As the group of five continued to meet and talk, however, new dimensions of the EOP project took shape. Students became better acquainted with their own parents. But more important from an educational perspective, aspects of Latin American history, typically overshadowed by military coups and economic booms or busts, came to the foreground. For example, the widowed heiress to a bankrupt coffee plantation, who worked in a factory that made uniforms for the Bogot , Colombia, police force in order to support her ten children, became known as a historical actor. The pharmacist in northeastern Brazil, who distributed free medicines during a yellow fever epidemic in the late 1920s, emerged as another.

In addition, the diversity of the immigrant experience of the families became clear. For example, some were from well-to-do backgrounds, while others were of middle- and working-class origin. One student was the granddaughter of a migrant worker. All were influenced by the different national and regional cultures of Latin America. Finally, the value of informing the rest of the class, the students without personal ties to Latin America, was reaffirmed. In a nation where all but Native Americans are descended from immigrants who arrived here at some time in the past, EOP depicted struggles in which each of us could recognize elements of our own family history.

Methodology of the Oral History Project

In the seventh week of the semester, I distributed a description of the project to the students and invited those interested to notify me. First, we would videotape a group discussing, and possibly disagreeing about, events in Latin American history as experience by their families. Second, we would use the video to share the family histories with the class. An important part of the project was communicating the personal accounts to the whole class. By personifying history through some of the students, I hoped to make the topics studied more immediate to all.

Students participating in EOP were informed in writing that they would not receive extra credit for the project. Since only those with the Latin American connection could join, it would not be fair to the rest of the class if the project were used to improve grades. I did mention, however, that I would gladly refer to their work when writing letters of recommendation for graduate school or financial aid. Some were not entirely happy with this arrangement at first, but since participation was voluntary, they could withdraw. Fortunately, their initial enthusiasm prevailed. And since the completion of the project, I have indeed had two requests for such letters. To alleviate as much as possible a feeling of exclusion on the part of the rest of the class, I emphasized that the student audience's reaction was an important part of the project. The audience response would show how well we had communicated the family accounts and what in them could be substantiated or questioned by the other students.

The five students who volunteered were as ideal a group as I could have wished for; their families were from Mexico and Colombia, as well as from Brazil and Argentina. Moreover, the students represented different stages of the immigration cycle: Two were foreign-born, two had parents who were immigrants, and the last had grandparents who had come to south Texas in the 1910s.

I chatted with each student volunteer after class about what he or she casually remembered about the family's past. After discussing these memories, I suggested a few topics that were common among them. The familiar concerns of family research, such as region of origin, grandparents' occupations, and reasons for coming to the United States, were on my list, as were major political events, like the Mexican Revolution of 1910–20 and the authoritarian rule of Juan Domingo Perón (1946–55) in Argentina.

The students agreed from the beginning that an edited version of the video could be shown to the rest of the class. Since I was concerned about the students' privacy and right to their stories, I consulted the University of Texas Institutional Review Board office, which provided me with a model consent form that I modified to suit the project. (I also read the Guidelines and Principles of the Oral History Association, which may be purchased from the AHA.) My form stated that my purpose was to assess the potential of the oral history video for teaching courses with a multicultural content and for contributing to mutual understanding and respect within the university community. It listed the risks and benefits that might be expected if the video were shown outside the class. Finally, the form offered the students the chance to view the video before deciding whether to consent to the uses I envisioned for it, which were listed on the form. (These uses included articles describing EOP in professional publications, such as Perspectives.) The main ways the students chose to protect their privacy were by introducing themselves in the video by first name only and by avoiding the use of credits at the end. The Brazilian news photographer, Daniel de Paula, who provided many useful suggestions about the filming and who helped me edit the videotape, chose to be identified. At the end of spring semester, I handed out a reminder that the students could withdraw their consent at any time. Once the grades were given, there was no further need to please the instructor, which might have been one motive for participation. So far, however, none has opted for this choice.

Surprises in One's Family History

We decided at the beginning to concentrate on informal interviews with parents, uncles, and aunts. (All the grandparents had died, but their stories had been passed on.) The students who spoke to their parents in Spanish or Portuguese translated those accounts into English for the discussion. Given the time constraints and the fact that the students would not receive extra credit, they believed they had a choice between library research and consulting their families. The latter source, they decided, would provide original material of greater interest to the rest of the class, especially since the student audience already had knowledge of such standard topics as Brazilian military dictatorships (1964–85) through their assigned reading.

Thus armed, the participating students went home or telephoned their families during spring break in the eighth week of the semester. One also wrote to a cousin in Michigan who had been writing a history of her family. I gave them examples of relevant, open-ended interview questions, but I did not brief them systematically. I counted on their excitement, their knowledge of some family stories that they could probe further, and the aptitude I already knew they had at eliciting information. In this case, the informal approach worked, but in the future I will provide handouts on interviewing methods and then set aside an hour to discuss them. (In addition, helpful models can be found in Edward Ives, The Tape-Recorded Interview [University of Tennessee Press, 1987]; the American Association for State and Local History, Technical Leaflet 123; American Archivist [summer 1984]; and Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past [Oxford University Press, 1988]).

The students were moved by what they heard in their conversations with their families. Parents recounted suffering and adventures that had been too painful or disruptive to share with their children previously. I was surprised and pleased that two of the fathers wanted to participate in the project. One was videotaped by his daughter at home; the other drove from Houston with his wife to join the filming session in Austin. One member of the student audience asked, "Why no mothers?" None had volunteered. In the future, I shall encourage participating students to invite their mothers. If the more traditional mothers were reluctant to speak, students could stress how important it is to have their accounts since they had the primary responsibility of caring for the children and keeping the family together. Hearing mothers' accounts too would allow us to test the validity of stereotypes about Latin American women and would provide a different viewpoint on the same family events.

Over the next two weeks, the students chatted with one another outside class about their findings. They were surprised to discover some things in common. Two were daughters of physician fathers who had completed their medical training in several countries before settling in Houston. Although they identified with Latin American culture, these students did not necessarily have Spanish surnames, nor had they known one another prior to the class. Getting ready for the video led them to talk among themselves about shared experiences. By the time we met as a group one evening, therefore, they had already initiated relationships that made them feel more comfortable discussing personal subjects.

I told them the discussion should follow their train of thought, but that I would occasionally interject questions, clarify statements made, or encourage them when there were pauses. My other role was that of secretary, and I prepared an approximate transcript of the meeting for review before the taping. I also suggested writing a script, but they decided this would make them self-conscious and inhibit rather than help. They were right. As it turned out, the loose format lent a lively quality to the presentation.

I had wanted to film in the history department lounge, where we could control sound and other distractions and could set up an interesting backdrop, but the students preferred an outdoors setting. Again, I followed their lead, and we sat in a sun-dappled grove outside the history department building. In spite of some background distraction, the attractive surroundings seemed to stimulate conversation. The original video lasted sixty minutes, but since the class was only fifty minutes long, Daniel and I edited the tape in the university's audio-visual lab to a thirty-eight-minute version. The participating students previewed and approved it, and I then showed it to the class two weeks after the taping.

The Student Audience: What Did They Learn?

What did the video tell the rest of the students? For one thing, it made "key events" learned about in class more immediate. It also gave them new twists. By the time of the class viewing, the students had read about the Mexican Revolution. Now they learned that two of their classmates' great-grandfathers had been hanged by government troops and that other relatives were so desperate that they had violated a tenet of machismo by dressing as women to avoid being drafted into either government or revolutionary armies. The famous battalions of Pancho Villa had recruited widely in the states of northern Mexico where these students' families had lived. Their great-grandparents' families had supported Villa's goal of land reform, but they did not want to die for him.

The student audience also learned that the paternal grandfathers of two of their classmates had been journalists in provincial towns in Colombia and Brazil in the 1920s and 1930s. (There were several journalism majors in this class.) Journalism was a career well suited to liberal, intellectually oriented youths of modest circumstances in Latin America, and both grandfathers used it to advance socially and to try to persuade others of the need for social change. They protested against the power of local clergy and landowners. One grandfather was denounced from the town pulpit; the other was forced to flee. Precisely for this reason, the journalists' sons (the fathers of the participating students) shunned political activism. However, one was not entirely successful in avoiding it. He lost his work permit for two years under the Brazilian military dictatorship, which began in 1964, after he had participated in a merchant-marine strike.

In addition, the student audience could see how flesh-and-blood, flawed historical figures can be turned into revered objects of religious cults. They had already studied Pancho Villa, the controversial general of the Mexican Revolution. Now they learned from one of the participating students that a cult of Villa, begun in the 1960s to "clear his name," continues to flourish in northern Mexico. Villa (who was assassinated in 1923) has been resurrected by devotees who set up altars to honor him and to pray to him for protection. Another student in EOP sharply criticized the practice. Villa may have been generous and patriotic, she agreed, but he also allowed his men to rape and murder civilians. Why revere him at all? The student audience was exposed to these conflicting reactions to Villa's multifaceted record. A few strongly defended him. In the future, I will arrange more class time to build upon differences in historical interpretation.

Another historical figure who was re-created in a saint-like role was Padre Cicero, a Brazilian priest from the drought-burdened northeastern state of Cear . In the 1890s, he had turned himself into the object of a cult, with alleged powers to heal and real ability to pressure state authorities on his parishioners' behalf. The family member of the student who recounted Padre Cicero's story was from this part of the country and, along with many other tourists, he had visited the shrine. The rest of the class could learn how historical figures became myths. I pointed out how history can become part of everyday life when its actors are seen as meeting some people's present-day needs.

Starting an Informal Family Archive

Documents that the participating students discovered in their homes were an unanticipated result of the project. The Mexican American student whose mother honored Villa brought in her Pancho Villa prayer card, which contained verses and a picture of the "Centaur of the North." The Brazilian student unearthed an article written by his journalist grandfather in 1937. It was the man's only extant article because his grandmother, fearing persecution during the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas, had burned all her husband's writings, except this piece, which had accidentally escaped her frantic effort to erase her husband's dangerous left-wing political past.

Both documents were translated, photocopied, and distributed to the rest of the class. The prayer card showed how Mexican popular beliefs generate their own type of artifacts and keep the revolution alive in a distinctive way, while the article criticizing Brazilian landowners for price gouging offered valuable insight into provincial politics. The project showed all students that they too might find valuable historical materials among their own family records.

The Immigrant Experience

At the end of the filming, the conversation took an unexpected and significant turn. I asked the father who was present what he now thought about Argentina, which he had fled to save his life in 1954. His reason for leaving had been political. As a member of a leftist Peronist group, critical of the dictator, he had falsely been labeled a communist and had almost been arrested. The United States had offered immediate refuge, but it took many years, including the completion of his medical training in Venezuela, before he established himself here professionally.

This father stressed that although economic and political problems were often intertwined in Latin America, the economic motive for immigration was more common. The perennial attraction of the United States for immigrants was its standard of living. "Why do they come? The movies! Everyone looks rich, everyone looks happy. We were not in a happy country." Despite his traumatic departure from his native country, this father also spoke of continuing affection for different aspects of Argentine culture, including the beef, and he suggested that an older person would not be as critical of his homeland as he had been in his younger, student days. His remarks led me to observe that immigrants often have two loyalties, though they are not equal in intensity, and that this double identity on some level of consciousness is at the heart of the immigrant experience.

These comments stimulated the rest of the group spontaneously to explain what it meant to their families to leave their native country and to try to adapt to another culture. People achieved this in different ways. Some parents returned to visit, others never did. One father brought his parents to live with him in Texas, others left almost all relatives behind. This was another way to make a basic point about Latin America. North Americans often see it as a homogeneous region, but as these individual stories indicate, Latin America is made up of very different societies, which contain much diversity. In the videotaping, as emotions came to the surface, all the participating students expressed pride in their Latin American background, but they also affirmed their attachment to the United States. The student audience could see how affection for another culture does not preclude a strong identification with this country.

Evaluation of "Exploring Our Past"

At the final exam, I distributed my own evaluation form. With an eye to improving the project for future use, I asked the students eight questions about their response to the video. Of the forty-two responses received, thirty checked the most positive response, "Seeing the video was interesting." Eleven found it "mildly interesting," and one found it "boring." A majority (thirty-two) stated that "seeing the video added more to my knowledge of Latin America." Almost all (thirty-nine) believed the video "helped me understand how my classmates feel about their Latin American heritage."

With these results I concluded, first, that I had achieved my purpose of showing the student audience important and sympathetic aspects of their classmates' personal history that were relevant to the course material. This exposure, I hope, will lead to greater receptivity to different cultures and also to a belief that most North Americans share significant common experiences. I also concluded that the video had provided original perspectives on the events described in their texts, perspectives that facilitated learning and retention. "Hearing people talk about their families' role in these events makes history much easier to understand," one student remarked on the evaluation questionnaire.

When I asked what improvements could be made, several students recommended adding a few short readings on the topics mentioned in the video prior to the viewing and providing more time for discussion afterward. In the future, I will either schedule a longer class in the evening and allot thirty minutes for discussion after the film, or break the film at midpoint and show the sections during two different sessions. Another change I will make is to offer credit for participation. Students will have the choice of working on the oral history video or writing a critique of a scholarly book. Those who participate in the video will also write a short paper, relating and then testing their families' account against written versions from academic sources. As one participant put it, "This class gave me a more objective view of Latin American history to contrast with the embellished stories of my uncles and aunts."

The "Exploring Our Past" project enabled us to evaluate what multiculturalism means in our particular educational setting. It gave us the opportunity to ground this widely used term in our reality as teacher and students of modern Latin American history. As the students did oral history research with their families, they unearthed valuable information and gained practice in communicating it to others. By interacting with one another and with me, they also learned that family accounts must be tested against the time-honored criteria of the historian: accumulation of evidence from a variety of sources and an analysis that is as objective as possible. "Exploring Our Past" showed students that it is possible to examine the past critically as well as affectionately.

Louisa Schell Hoberman is lecturer in the Department of History, University of Texas, Austin. Her book, Mexico's Merchant Elite, 1590–1660. Silver, State, and Society (Duke University Press, 1991), was awarded the "Spain and America in the Quincentennial of the Discovery" Second Prize for 1991. She is also coeditor of Cities and Society in Colonial Latin America (University of New Mexico Press, 1992, 5th printing). She received her PhD from Columbia University. She would like to thank Catherine Lugar and David Montejano for their advice about conducting oral history interviews and Emily Socolov for her information about Mexican popular religious cults.