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This text revisits the work of scholars of the Mexican American experience who spearheaded the use of oral history in the 1970s, helping transform both history and the burgeoning field of ethnic studies.


historiography, ethnic studies, Mexican Americans, oral history

The advent of the US Latina & Latino Oral History Journal inspired a look back at the intersection of Mexican American history and oral history as first practiced in earnest four decades ago. Thus, this article focuses on books published from the late 1970s through the 1990s by the generation of historians who utilized oral history in Mexican American history at that time, in the process helping win by the dawn of the new millennium academic recognition for both Mexican American history and oral history.

Several trailblazing books utilizing Mexican American oral history appeared between 1976 and 1999, most of them produced by the baby boomer generation of historians who began their studies in the tumultuous era of the Vietnam War and the Chicana/o movement. These historians constituted part of a revisionist wave of young people who were overturning the "consensus school" of the midcentury, led by white male scholars who downplayed the role of structural and power factors such as race and class in influencing the course of American history.1 Chicano historians—and a few Chicanas (and a few young Anglos)—were determined to do their part to help rectify the scandalously underreported history of Mexican Americans that prevailed half a century ago. To take but one example, [End Page 4] the 1976 national meeting of the Organization of American Historians included not a single panel on US Mexicans—or any US Latina/os.2

A pioneering member of this rising generation of historians was Albert Camarillo. For his 1979 book Chicanos in a Changing Society, Camarillo interviewed almost thirty people regarding their community's history in Santa Barbara, California, and in a methodological index, he made several important points about oral history's efficacy for Latina/o history. He noted that "the importance of Chicano oral historical research becomes increasingly evident as historians begin to fill in the gaps of twentieth-century Chicano history," adding that "the dearth of traditional sources . . . necessitates the use of other source material, and quantifiable data and oral history are two main sources."3

Camarillo pointed out that some academics at that time saw interviews as only supplementing the information provided by written sources. Such an attitude toward oral history sources is indicative of the extent to which oral history, like the history of Mexican Americans, was considered marginal to "real" history. Camarillo pointed out that, actually, this type of source often provided historical information frequently "otherwise unobtainable. Oral history therefore becomes an important source for the reconstruction of certain aspects of local history (Chicano racial attitudes, the function of mutualistas, repatriation, and many other subjects)." Camarillo's interviews were informed by the recognition that economic and racial factors had worked to disadvantage the Mexicans of Santa Barbara, even as he spotlighted oral history as "the only source by which to record Chicano family life histories. In this way, the oral history interview can, as claimed by other oral historians, 'capture certain aspects of society which are difficult to display.'"4

The fact that written sources were not necessarily more reliable was underscored by historical documents that referred to Mexican Americans in racist terms. Also, this generation of historians had witnessed the trumped-up reports issued by the Johnson administration, featuring bogus body counts purporting to show military progress on the ground in Vietnam. The antiwar Vietnam generation of historians was especially affected, with most of them having engaged in antiwar activities, such as the mammoth Chicano Moratorium of 1970.5

This trailblazing use of oral history to tell an important but heretofore overlooked chapter of Mexican American history is also reflected in Ricardo Romo's 1983 book East Los Angeles: Portrait of a Barrio: the first history of this major Latina/o community. For its part, a 1987 book by James B. Lane and Edward J. Escobar, Forging a Community, chronicled the history of the Mexican community in northwestern Indiana.6

Meanwhile, as of 1986, the Organization of American Historians convention still had hosted only one, lone panel on Mexican Americans. It was attended by a mere handful of people—one of them being Camarillo.7 Of course the subsequent decades saw the revisionists' efforts bear fruit as the historical profession's definition of [End Page 5] important topics expanded well beyond its formerly tight focus on elite, white, Protestant men. The major historical conferences of more recent times have certainly reflected that fact. In 2013 the president of the Organization of American Historians was none other than Al Camarillo.8 Or take the principal historical professional group, the American Historical Association (AHA): the theme of its 2016 meeting was "Global Migrations: Empires, Nations, and Neighbors," and the AHA president at that time was Latina historian Vicki Ruiz, who that year also was awarded the prestigious National Humanities Medal. Indeed, she herself had served as president of the Organization of American Historians in 2005: the first Latina or Latino to do so.

Ruiz was doubly a pioneer: as a Latina doing Latina history and as someone who has been at the forefront with regard to oral history. No wonder she sponsored a session at the 2016 annual conference of the AHA called "Oral History on the Borders: Migration and Memory," writing: "My own work owes a great deal to those who have generously shared their memories with me. I remain humbled and honored by the depth of disclosure by narrators as they looked back on their hopes, dreams, life rhythms, and, at times, trauma."9 Three decades ago Ruiz wrote, "As a historian I have chosen oral interviews as the primary means by which to examine a cross section of Mexican women wage earners in food processing."10 This groundbreaking book, Cannery Women, Cannery Lives, greatly benefited from her interviews with heretofore unheralded historical players. Ruiz also tapped interviews by other historians: an increasingly available resource by the late 1980s. Together these sources afforded what she noted was "a far more complex picture" of the labor organizing conducted by these women, whose activities previous historians had largely treated as basically dictated from above by union officials. Here again, oral history contributed to an important chapter in the history of Mexican Americans.11

Then came Ruiz's monumental 1998 book, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican American Women in Twentieth-Century America: the first history of the largest cohort of women in the nation's largest immigrant group and largest minority group. Given the scope of From Out of the Shadows, one might think that this survey would rely almost entirely on secondary sources, but in fact Ruiz drew on a number of oral history interviews as well, most of which she conducted herself. This saga of women navigating unequal power relationships showcased the work of such important figures as radical national labor organizers and Latino rights pioneers Luisa Moreno and Josefina Fierro, including interviews with both of them that Camarillo had conducted in the mid-1970s.12

The 1989 book Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology, and Identity, 1930–1960, by Mario T. García, also broke new ground in several ways. Most famously, it delineated the "Mexican America generation" of leaders as mainly middle-class veterans of World War II and the Korean War, with this influential paradigm spawning a major historiographical debate, but García's use of oral history was valuable in another respect, as well: bringing attention to major Latina figures. These included [End Page 6] labor organizers of the 1930s as well as the leaders of the radical organization La Alianza Nacional México-Americana, which in the 1940s and 1950s anticipated the immigrant-rights activism of more recent times (even if García's book appeared more than a decade before that parallel was clear).13 Other books published before 2000 with oral history components that contributed to the history of Mexican Americans include Carl Allsup's 1982 American GI Forum: Origins and Evolution and, in particular, Zaragosa Vargas's books on Mexican American workers, starting with his 1993 Proletarians of the North: A History of Mexican Industrial Workers in Detroit and the Midwest.14

This generation of historians was operating virtually without a net with regard to oral history methodology. No oral history manual even existed until a small pamphlet was published in 1969, "Oral History for the Local Historical Society," and the Oral History Association had just recently been founded.15 The recording tool of choice was a cassette tape recorder—bulky in size until the advent of minicassette recorders in the 1980s—and with both machines lacking the easy duplicating and uploading or storage capabilities of today's digital recorders. At the time, however, these historians considered themselves fortunate in comparison to historians of the midcentury, who lugged suitcase-sized reel-to-reel machines to their interview sessions. Even less fortunate were the researchers of earlier decades: most famously, the historians and folklorists of the New Deal's major, groundbreaking Works Progress Administration (WPA) program. Some of the interviews were recorded solely via handwritten notes.

The WPA interviews had major methodological problems, of course, especially the sessions with people formerly enslaved. The interviewers attempted to transcribe African American dialects—as if the interviewers themselves didn't have accents (!) —and with these whites conducting the sessions at a time when racial segregation was at its peak. It is reasonable to assume that the interviews conducted with ethnic Mexicans were similarly problematic. Indeed, there is a great need for a study of these interviews, particularly with an eye to the unequal power dynamics that prevailed in this era when discrimination against US Mexicans had become entrenched.16

That the senior members of history departments in the 1970s were men (and they were all men) who had come of age in the primitive era before electronic recording may have contributed to their relative lack of interest in oral history. Or to put it another way, the advent of cassette tapes reinforced the tendency of the rising baby boomer generation to utilize oral history as one of the main tools in documenting history from the ground up, with these two factors reinforcing each other. At any rate, many of these rising young historians looked outside their own discipline for advice, models, and support, especially to archivists, journalists, and sociologists.

Also bent on correcting the near exclusion of Mexican Americans from the US historical saga, the baby boomer generation of archivists expanded the notion of what was worthy of preserving, cataloging, and recording. Over the course of forty [End Page 7] years these trailblazing professionals have conducted, cataloged, and, in recent years, featured online thousands upon thousands of oral history interviews. And as writers of books in their own right that drew on oral history, the work of these scholars has proved doubly valuable to historians.

In Texas alone, visionary archival trailblazers included Oscar J. Martínez, the driving force behind the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso and Thomas Kreneck, founding director of the Mexican American collections at the Houston Metropolitan Library. Worthy of special note is the University of Texas at Austin's Mexican American Collection: founded, and directed for many years, by Margo Gutiérrez.17 Similar trailblazers were active beyond Texas. To take just one example, the archivist Christine Marín spearheaded the establishment of the extensive Chicana/o Research Collection at Arizona State University and has published important work in the field. Indeed, she may have been the first Chicana to present a paper at the leading gender history forum, the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities.18

But staying with the Texas example, in the 1990s some wonderful new Latino/a oral history collections were founded there, notably José Angel Gutiérrez's Tejano Voices center at the University of Texas at Arlington and Maggie Rivas-Rodríguez's Voces Oral History Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Since 1999 her institute has conducted more than one thousand interviews and published five books based on a portion of them—not to mention spearheading the campaign to make Ken Burns's famed PBS series on World War II acknowledge the disproportionate participation of Latinos: the ethnic group to have earned the most Medals of Honor in the war.19

Rivas-Rodríguez also conducted many interviews as a reporter for the first draft of history—that is, journalism—before entering graduate school (including as the chief US–Mexico border correspondent for the Dallas Morning News.) Indeed, journalists were very helpful for many historians starting out in oral history in the 1970s, when history departments were less than supportive. One of the main models was provided by the journalist-cum-oral historian Studs Terkel. From his oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, one learns to conduct wide-ranging interviews: let the recorder run, listen deeply, ask follow-up questions. But then one takes the most telling snippets on the same subtheme and pieces them together carefully, as in a mosaic. In the Terkel mode, my 1976 book Chicanos in South Bend: Some Historical Narratives used interview excerpts thematically, under topic headings such as "Strangers in the City" and "The Bracero Program." And so Hard Times provided the quote for the opening page of Chicanos in South Bend: "This is a memory book, rather than one of hard fact and precise statistic . . . for the people in this book . . . their rememberings are their truths."20

A number of the historians starting out in the 1970s also turned to sociologists for help with the interview process, given that they had systematic training in this area. For instance, in the appendix to his history of Mexican Santa Barbara, Camarillo [End Page 8] indicated that the interview subjects were asked mostly the same set of questions, as in the social science survey model.21 For his part, the budding sociologist Gilberto Cárdenas, founder of the Centro de Estudios Chicanos e Investigaciones Sociales at the University of Notre Dame, provided me with the opportunity to write Chicanos in South Bend in 1976.22 Although he was a still a graduate student at the time, Cárdenas had the administrative savvy to land ethnic heritage studies grants for Chicanos in South Bend as well as two other studies of Mexican South Bend: a documentary history and a statistical profile. The Centro de Estudios Chicanos also indirectly provided the subject for my book LBJ and Mexican Americans: The Paradox of Power (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997). One of the work-study students transcribing the tapes for Chicanos in South Bend, Virginia Espinosa, mentioned that her father had worked on the LBJ Ranch. "Wouldn't it be interesting," I thought, "to analyze one of the most powerful modern political figures from the vantage point of Mexican Americans?" Moreover, this prominent president could serve as a hook to draw members of the dominant society into the history of Mexican American organizing.

LBJ and Mexican Americans thus relied on oral histories as well as the written record. For instance, leaders of the Mexican American civil rights group the American GI Forum told of forging a strong connection with Lyndon Johnson and using that connection to lobby, with mixed results, for Great Society programs tailored to the needs of Mexican Americans. They had less success in getting the White House aides to include Mexican Americans in the policy-planning meetings—at least until several protests led the administration to set up the Interagency Committee on Mexican American Affairs, headed by GI Forum official Vicente Ximenes. But as interviews with Ximenes and other Mexican American leaders revealed, by then it was too late; the escalating war in Vietnam and the rising Chicano movement were increasingly drawing people away from LBJ. For the GI Forum leaders this turn of events would prove especially fraught, given their military identity and the fact that their relationship to the now-embattled president dated to 1949 (when the GI Forum had made headlines alongside the young Senator Johnson in opposing the exclusion by a South Texas funeral home of a Mexican American killed in World War II).

Mexican American activists would make history in 1968 when they largely threw their support behind the nascent presidential campaign of Senator Robert Kennedy, which was instrumental in his decision to enter the race. This, in turn, would prove a major factor in President Johnson's decision not to run for reelection. Still, the alliance between LBJ and Mexican Americans did make a difference, as with Lupe Anguiano serving as the first Latina in a major White House post, where she was crucial to the passage of the bilingual education bill. Those were "exciting days," she recalled. "We were so strong in really helping the country to really deal with these issues"—this, even if, like most women, Anguiano was passed over for promotion in favor of a male.23 She would go on to be a founder of the National Women's Political Caucus. [End Page 9]

LBJ and Mexican Americans also benefited from oral history interviews with top Johnson advisers, from White House special assistant and press secretary Bill Moyers to Texas governor John Connally, who had served as chief of staff for Senator Johnson. But while Mexican Americans were queried about their evolution as leaders, the biographical stories of the Johnson aides themselves were seldom germane, and so the questions to them centered on Mexican American topics related to LBJ.

Oral histories from the 1970s also proved important to my 2014 study Democratic Renewal and the Mutual Aid Legacy of US Mexicans. These interviews from forty years earlier included sessions with some of the last surviving mutualista leaders who had organized in the early twentieth century in the face of oppression and near destitution. Their recollections bring that era to life, as with Lucas Garza, a longtime leader of the largest and one of the oldest mutualista organizations in San Antonio, Sociedad de la Unión. He recalled that even during the horrific influenza outbreak of World War I, when "La Unión" was forced to cancel two meetings because of the illness of its officers, it still managed to pay out illness benefits. Born in the Mexican town of Villa Hidalgo in 1908, Garza came to Laredo at the age of fifteen with his father and brother. There they toiled in the coal mines for ten hours per day for seventy-five cents a day, so they quit and headed to San Antonio, where he signed up to work for the railroad. Laying tracks brought him to Houston, Galveston—where he survived the record-breaking 1915 hurricane—and finally to the great rail hub of Chicago. Garza managed to join the American Federation of Labor (AFL), even though at this time the AFL was lobbying strenuously in favor of a restrictive quota against Mexican immigrants. A family tragedy impelled him to return to San Antonio, but his brother found him work for the city and, even more, touted the advantages of joining La Unión. Two years later his beloved brother passed away, and to the end of his days, Lucas Garza vividly pictured the solemn funeral that this mutualista organization held for him, the members solemnly processing in full regalia.

As Garza noted, mutualista organizations provided support and a sense of pride for legions of people at a time when "Mexican" was often hurled as an epithet. Indeed, this movement provided a network of grassroots support for labor organizing and community organizing, as in 1934, when the Pro-Schools Defense League (Liga Pro-Defensa Escolar) lobbied the Texas state legislature for a reduction in the length of school board members' terms to make them more responsible to parents on the West Side of San Antonio. Sociedad de la Unión's telegram read, "Our organization, composed of more than 500 members request you support bill . . . shortening term members school board."24

Oral history interviews also proved crucial for tracking down and preserving highly valuable documentary material for historians studying Mexican American topics in the 1970s, when the historical establishment showed little interest in such primary sources. For instance, Lucas Garza indicated the existence of Sociedad de la Unión [End Page 10] records dating from the 1880s. These voluminous, detailed minute books and membership rolls were stored in a cubbyhole above the men's room in the association's barrio headquarters. "When the new highway eliminated our original office we almost didn't bring the records with us," he noted. Today they are housed in the Mexican American Collection of Our Lady of the Lake University.25

Historians researching Mexican American topics and engaged in oral history forty years ago were akin to archeologists: making the initial discoveries, building a foundation of historical findings on which more complex explications could be constructed. In more recent decades, scholars have explored important factors that were not the focus of those who first began doing Mexican American history in earnest—angles ranging from transnational research to the role of religion to queer history to whiteness studies to limning any conservative historical trends in the barrios. Indeed, historians today can explore contradictory, even messy, chapters of the Mexican American story (e.g., crime) without fear of playing into a historical establishment that presented white males as the yardstick for significant contributions, as was the case forty years ago.26

Over the course of four decades, the historians who pioneered both Mexican American history and oral history have been fortunate to witness—and have a hand in—the emergence of both fields from the perceived margins of scholarship to their rightful places at the center of the historical discipline. Still, with ethnic studies programs facing renewed attack in our times, never was it more important to encourage work in the history of Mexican Americans, as informed by oral history interviews providing a voice for everyone in that story.27 [End Page 11]

Julie Leininger Pycior

Julie Leininger Pycior is professor of history at Manhattan College. She has published three books on Latina/o history, most recently Democratic Renewal and the Mutual Aid Legacy of Mexican Americans (Texas A&M University Press, 2014). She is editor of the best-selling Moyers on America: A Journalist and His Times (New Press, 2004), and she has served as a historical consultant for PBS.


1. Given the oral history angle, of necessity the trailblazing books on Mexican Americans that focused on earlier historical periods cannot be cited. Ernesto Chávez, "Chicano/a History: Its Origins, Purpose, and Future," Pacific Historical Review 82, no. 4 (November 2013): 505–519.

2. Program, "Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians," April 9–11, 1976, St. Louis, MO.

3. Albert Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 243.

4. Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society, 234, 244.

5. Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society, 243–244; Tom Hayden, "Who Will Tell the Story of the Peace Movement?" The Nation, April 30, 2015,; Chávez, "Chicano/a History"; Mario T. García, "An Important Day in Chicano History: The Chicano Moratorium," National Catholic Reporter,

6. Ricardo Romo, East Los Angeles: Portrait of a Barrio (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983), 183, 185, 188; Office of the President, University of Texas at San Antonio, "President's Bio,"; James B. Lane and Edward J. Escobar, Forging a Community (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).

7. Program, "Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians," New York City, April 10–12, 1986. The author attended that sole OAH Mexican American session, along with Camarillo and three other people.

8. Albert Camarillo, "A Letter from the OAH President," January 2013,; Office of the President, UTSA, "President's Bio." Ricardo Romo served as president of the University of Texas at San Antonio from 1999 to 2017.

9. Vicki Ruiz, "The Past Is Ever Present: Presidential Sessions at the 2016 Meeting," Perspectives on History (blog), December 1, 2015,; Organization of American Historians, "Past Officers,"; "Oral History on the Borders: Migration and Memory," Conference Program, American Historical Association, 2016,

10. Vicki L. Ruiz, Cannery Women, Cannery Lives (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987), xvi.

11. Ruiz, Cannery Women, Cannery Lives, 46.

12. Ruiz, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 199, 246–247; Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society, 199, 247.

13. David Gutiérrez, "An Ethnic Consensus? Mexican American Political Activism since the Great Depression," Reviews in American History 19, no. 2 (June 1991): 289–295; Mario T. García, Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology, Identity, 1930–1960 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), chap. 8 and p. 305.

14. Carl Allsup, American GI Forum: Origins and Evolution (Austin, TX: Center for Mexican American Studies, 1982); Zaragosa Vargas, Proletarians of the North: A History of Mexican Industrial Workers in Detroit and the Midwest, 1917–1933 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); and Vargas, Labor Rights Are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

15. Willa K. Baum, Oral History for the Local Historical Society (Nashville, TN: American Society for State and Local History, 1969).

16. Sharon Ann Musher, "Contesting 'The Way the Almighty Wants It': Crafting Memories of Ex-Slaves in the Slave Narrative Collection," American Quarterly 53, no. 1 (March 2001): 1–31. On the solidifying of discrimination and segregation, see, e.g., David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1936 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986).

17. Kreneck went on to do important archival work as director of the collections at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi. University of Texas at El Paso, "Institute of Oral History,"; University of Arizona, "About Oscar Martínez,"; Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, "Dr. Thomas A. Kreneck,"; University of Texas at Austin, "UT Experts: Margo Gutiérrez,"

18. The author attended Marín's Berkshire session. "Christine Marín,"; Berkshire Conference of Women Historians,"

19. University of Texas at Arlington, "Tejano Voices,"; University of Texas at Austin, "Maggie Rivas-Rodríguez,"; "Welcome to Defend the Honor!,"; Julie Leininger Pycior, "Latino Soldiers," New York Times, February 19, 1991,

20. Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970), 3.

21. Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society, 245.

22. Julie Leininger, Chicanos in South Bend: Some Historical Narratives (Notre Dame, IN: Centro de Estudios Chicanos, 1976); Jim D. Faught, The Social and Economic Conditions of the Spanish Origin in South Bend (Notre Dame, IN: Centro de Estudios Chicanos e Investigaciones Sociales, 1974). The documentary history was written by history graduate student Barbara Driscoll (publication information not available).

23. Lupe Anguiano, telephone interview by Julie Leininger Pycior, August 10, 1992, Julie Leininger Pycior Interview Collection, Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin. Anguiano's interview was included in Leininger Pycior's LBJ and Mexican Americans: The Paradox of Power (University of Texas Press, 1997), 184–185. Of the 43 interview subjects for that book, tapes from 27 of them are housed as part of the Leininger Pycior Collection at the Benson.

24. Julie Leininger Pycior, Democratic Renewal and the Mutual Aid Legacy of US Mexicans (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2014.) Of course this 2014 book also relied on oral history interviews conducted much more recently as well.

25. Sociedad de la Unión Collection, Mexican American Studies Collection, Center for Mexican American Studies and Research, Our Lady of the Lake University,

26. Stephen J. Pitti, The Devil in the Silicon Valley: Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003); Xóchitl Bada, Jonathan Fox, Robert Donelly, and Andrew Selee, Context Matters: Latino Immigrant Civic Engagement in Nine U.S. Cities (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, 2010); E. Mark Moreno, "Mexican American Street Gangs, Migration, and Violence in the Yakima Valley," Pacific Northwest Quarterly 97, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 131–138.

27. "Court Rules Racial Animus at Root of Ouster of Ethnic Studies Program," Nonprofit Quarterly, August 28, 2017,; Chávez, "Chicano/a History"; Alex Saragoza, "The Significance of Recent Chicano-Related Historical Writings: An Appraisal," Ethnic Affairs, no. 1 (Fall 1987): 24–63.

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