The Latino and Hispanic population is the largest ethnic minority group in the United States. But many of their stories are left out of the historical record.
Across the country, a number of academic institutions are trying to change that, one oral history at a time. One of the latest is in Nevada.
Lynnette Arvelo Sawyer moved from Puerto Rico to the United States mainland in 1978. That’s where she began her career as a teacher. But she soon noticed that something was missing.
“I realized that there was no curriculum or any place to show Latino culture,” Arvelo Sawyer said.
So she set up a small display in her Las Vegas classroom with a handful of artifacts from Puerto Rico.
Over time, that collection grew, and now she has artifacts from more than a dozen Latin American countries. She showed me just a handful of them one afternoon in Las Vegas.
“This particular piece is from Panama,” she said. “This little wall hanging from Ecuador...OK and this is from Mexico, it’s to help make chocolate. And they make that wonderful hot cocoa.”
All this work led Arvelo Sawyer to create the Hispanic Museum of Nevada. Her goal is to unite all the Spanish-speaking Latino cultures in Las Vegas, and to showcase their contributions to the greater community.
“I think the perception is that Latinos are farmers, and they don’t do this and that,” she said. “I mean, there’s that population, but there’s a lot of professional people here, a lot of professional Latinos.”
Arvelo Sawyer’s story is now one of more than 100 oral histories collected as part of the Latinx Voices of Southern Nevada project by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is the first Latina to serve as a U.S. Senator, and also the first to donate her oral history, and her family’s, to the project. She points to President Trump calling Mexicans rapists and drug dealers. She says these oral histories will help set the record straight by showing who Latinos really are and what they’ve contributed to our communities.
“It also tells the younger generation and shows our strength in who we are, and what we have accomplished and can accomplish for the future,” Cortez Masto said.
Interviews for the project can be intense and can last several hours. They touch on everything from past trauma to the current political climate.
Claytee White is the director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV, which oversees this project. She previously collected the stories of her own community for a similar program, Documenting the African American Experience. She’s now leading the charge on this project.
“Some of the immigration stories can be so painful,” White said. “That’s kind of shocking sometimes.”
Like immigrants who fled war-torn countries or arrived here in the U.S. only to deal with racism and discrimination.
“We know that they happen, but to actually see the person, witness the person telling that story,” White said. “What I’ve learned more than anything else is that men cry more than women.”
And while this project focuses on southern Nevada, White says this work could be done anywhere.
“The Latinx community is browning the country all over the country,” White said. “So North Carolina—we have workers, all kinds of workers in factories, in fields, so any place we could do this project.”
UCLA and Notre Dame already have, and Utah State University launched its own project in 2007.
If you look at the numbers, it makes sense. From 2010 to 2017, in our region alone, the Latino and Hispanic population grew by 13 percent. And the Census Bureau estimates that by 2050, a quarter of the U.S. population will be Latino.
It’s why UNLV grad student Monserrath Hernandez involved. She wanted to help illuminate the stories from her community.
“Latinos tend to be put into a box,” Hernandez said. “But people don’t understand that it’s such a diverse community that a box isn’t enough. It’s more like a spectrum, right? With different shades and colors and functions.”
Part of that box, she says, has to do with a new term for her community—Latinx. It’s designed to be inclusive of all genders.
“As inclusive and wonderful as it is, it’s also very exclusive, because it is a very elitist term,” she said. “When you go into the community and you’re talking to your average worker who speaks for the most part Spanish, they’re going to say, ‘What is that?’”
Hernandez is working with other bilingual students to compile research and conduct interviews. And the group recently released a podcast of some of the highlights.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.