Wisconsin Latinx history project to shine light on communities, create expansive digital archive

By Laurel White

A multidisciplinary project with School of Education ties is working to document and preserve the rich history and contemporary experiences of Latinx communities in Wisconsin. 

The project, “¡Presente!: Documenting Latinx History in Wisconsin,” is creating an expansive, bilingual digital archive of primary sources and scholarly essays on diverse Latinx communities throughout the state. The project aims to elevate voices in the communities, as well as create a deep and rich educational resource for teachers. 

Diego Román

Diego Román, an assistant professor in the School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, is one of the leaders of the project. He says the effort aims to elevate the voices of Latinx Wisconsinites who live in urban and rural communities across the state and contribute in myriad ways to their local economies and cultures.

“These are stories we don’t normally hear a lot about,” Román says. “Part of the idea of the project is changing the narrative about the contributions of these communities.”

Over the next several years, researchers leading the project hope to compile a sweeping collection of oral history interviews and cultural artifacts — ranging from photographs to clothing, music, and more — into a searchable, open-access repository holding as many as 3,000 historical primary sources. 

“It’s a different way of looking at what’s a primary source, and how we can disseminate this information and make it accessible to everyone,” Román says. “The idea is to create an electronic archive, a “digital edition,” to have a centralized electronic place for the histories of Latinx communities around the state, so if you want to know about Cubans in Wisconsin, you can go and hear their voices.”

The information will be sorted into thematic sections including migration, labor, education, politics and activism, arts and media, and community life. Researchers plan to offer community education events focused on the material, as well as materials and curriculum for K-12 and university courses.  

Román’s research for the project is focusing on the Ecuadorian indigenous community across the state, including in the cities of Weyauwega and Hudson. He and research assistant Luis Gonzalez-Quizhpe, a UW–Madison graduate, Ecuadorian indigenous community member, and current graduate student at Harvard University, are working with the community to understand and document how its members work to sustain their Ecuadorian indigeneity in Wisconsin. That includes learning about how community members teach their language and sustain traditions intergenerationally, in and out of formal educational settings. 

“We are thinking about the diaspora in immigration,” Román explains. 

He hopes to make a K-12 lesson plan about sustaining indigeneity in the diaspora available in the archive sometime this year. 

The project represents an exciting new area of study for Román, whose research generally focuses on the design and implementation of bilingual and science education programs, particularly on environmental topics, to multilingual students.

“I’m not a historian and I’m not a geographer — learning how their fields and disciplines work has been fantastic on a personal and professional level,” he says. 

Román was invited to join the effort by project co-leader Almita Miranda, an assistant professor in the Department of Chican@ & Latin@ Studies and Department of Geography. Other project co-leaders are Andrea-Teresa Arenas, a professor emerita in the Department of Chican@ & Latin@ Studies, and Cheryl Jiménez Frei, an assistant professor of history and Latin American and Latinx studies at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. Organizational project partners include the Wisconsin Latinx History Collective and the Wisconsin Historical Society.

In November, the project received a new, $125,000 implementation grant from the National Archives that may be renewed for up to 10 years. It recently completed a two-year planning grant, funded by the same organization, that included establishing crucial relationships with communities across the state. Those community relationships will help the project thrive, according to a statement about the project from the UW–Madison Chican@ & Latin@ Studies Program.

“Rooted in the public historical principle of shared authority, “¡Presente!” invites faculty, students, and community researchers to share in the interpretative and meaning-making process of understanding the past,” the statement said. “Such a process removes barriers that have excluded marginalized histories in official narratives of collective identity and history, allowing community partners to participate in documenting and interpreting their histories.”

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