Uncovering the hidden history of Latinos in Iowa

UI librarian wins national award for "Migration is Beautiful" project, archive of Latino history in Iowa

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IOWA CITY — For the past 12 years, Janet Weaver — Ph.D. candidate and assistant curator of the Iowa Women’s Archives — has collected histories of Latinas and Latinos in the state, stories that may have otherwise gone untold.

Her project, “Migration is Beautiful” — which compiled Latino Iowan’s oral histories, photos, diaries, newspaper clippings and more into an online exhibit — earned her an award for achievement in women and gender studies announced in February by the American Library Association.

“Archivists work behind the scenes most of the time and don’t get a lot of recognition for their hard work and deep knowledge that they acquire,” said Kären Mason, curator of the Iowa Women’s Archives at the University of Iowa Library. “She’s spent years doing research and has an incredible depth of knowledge about Latinos in Iowa.”

Although originally from Texas, Weaver spent much of her life in England. She earned her master’s degree in modern history from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 1978 and moved to Iowa in 1985. Her interest in Latino history began while working on the Iowa Labor History Oral Project for the State Historical Society from 1999 to 2001.

 

“It was the first time I became aware of Iowa’s long Latino history,” she said. “It was fascinating. I thought, why don’t I know this? ... It was a story untold.”

When she joined the Iowa Women’s Archives staff in 2001, she continued working with Latinos in the state to collect and share their stories.

In 2005, Mason started the Mujeres Latinas project, which gathered histories of Latinas and their families in Iowa. By 2008, Mason, Weaver and a handful of other UI archivists, librarians, graduate students and community members had gathered more than 100 oral histories.

“Migration is Beautiful” was developed from the Mujeres Latinas project, serving as a means to share online the history they had gathered, Weaver said.

Over the years, Weaver developed close relationships with Latino communities around the state, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, a civil rights organization of which Weaver is now a member.

Weaver’s close ties with the community led many families to share not only their stories, but also donate letters, memoirs, photos and other cherished items.

“We would not have nearly the collection we have had she not developed those relationships,” Mason said. “Archives are all about trust — people give you precious materials if they know you will treat it with respect. Her relationship with these communities has been key.”

 

The website showcases 40 vignettes from individuals and their families, some of which include audio files, photos and other documents to illustrate their stories.

“We’ve developed a very rich archive,” Weaver said. “History really comes alive when you connect context to primary documents. It’s more interesting than just reading a book.”

In addition to the vignettes, visitors also will find an interactive map that uses census data to show Latino settlement throughout the state as well as information on four topics: early migration, barrios and neighborhoods, the impact of World War II and the Latin American citizen league in Iowa.

The goal of the project, Weaver said, is to highlight the contributions Latinos have made to Iowa history, to serve as an educational resource for educators and scholars and to give back to those who donated their history to the archive.

“It’s a sacrifice to give away these items, which is why I feel it’s important to give back to these communities,” Weaver said. “These people have been so generous that we have this resource now.”

Weaver emphasized that although she led the project, she could not have done it without collaboration from UI students including Catherine Babikian, Alyse Burnside, Katie Gandhi and Ethan DeGross, librarians Hannah Scates Kettler, Vitalina Nova, Robert Shepard and Bethany Davis and artist Favianna Rodriguez, who created the image of a monarch butterfly used in the site’s logo.

And although she is proud of the project so far, Weaver said there still is work to be done.

“The Iowa Women’s Archives still is collecting and preserving historical documents and ephemera that illuminate Iowa’s Latino history,” she said. “We hope ‘Migration is Beautiful’ will encourage Latinas in different Iowa communities to participate in the Mujeres Latinas project so we can continue to expand our knowledge and understanding of this important part of Iowa history.”

Mason agreed.

“We’re all about preserving histories of those left out of the history books,” she said.

Telling the untold stories, Weaver added, is especially important now.

“In order to understand the present, we need to understand the past,” she said. “How can we make policy today if we don’t know what happened in the past? Migration is an integral part of who we are as a nation and what Iowa is today.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8364; elizabeth.zabel@thegazette.com

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