News Column

Hispanic Archivist Has Big Job Ahead of Her

August 25, 2013
houston public library
The Julia Ideson Building of the Houston Public Library houses the Houston Metropolitan Research Center.

With Houston's Hispanic population approaching 44 percent, the Houston Public Library for the first time has formally designated an archivist to oversee its growing collection of Mexican-America letters, photographs, documents and publications. Mikaela Garza Selley, who this month will receive a master's degree in public history from the University of Houston, joined the library's Metropolitan Research Center earlier this year. She visited last week with reporter Allan Turner. Excerpts from that conversation follow:

Q: Archivist Thomas Kreneck established the center's Hispanic collection a generation ago and archivist Carolina Villarroel has labored to expand it. We can say it's well-established, but how well is it known in the larger Hispanic community?

A: I would say it's not very widely known. Based on my experience speaking to community groups and leaders, most of the time the response has been pure surprise that we have almost 100 collections in the Hispanic component. What that says to me is that promotion is going to be a major part of my job.

Q: What are some of the collection's strengths?

A: Publications. We've got 20, some of them in English, some Spanish, some of them bilingual. We have one of the first Spanish-language papers, La Gaceta Mexicana, started in 1927. It only lasted a few years. From the Chicano movement, we have Papel Chicano. These two alone give you an idea of the breadth of what we can provide researchers.

Q: How did those papers differ?

A: Mexicana was very business-oriented, all in Spanish. It was very much a promotion of Mexican identity, not American. It was very representative of the community at that time, made up of recent immigrants trying to re-create a business community in Houston. Fast forward to the 1960s and Chicano ... was very movement-based. It represented a more vocal, strident voice in the community.

Q: Again, the center long has had significant Hispanic collections. What is your role in regard to managing them?

A: We have 98 Hispanic archival collections, but only roughly half are fully processed, organized and readily available to the public. At this point, I'm just getting back into the stacks to see what we have there. We have boxes of stuff.

Do they just need inventorying or do they need a lot more reorganization? Are there films in them and can they be salvaged? A lot has been done, but a major part of my job is getting things in position to post them online. That's our ultimate goal.

Q: Photographs?

A: We have an amazing photographic collection. We have a lot of family photos. That's one of our most significant collections. They are very personal items -- local businesses, Houston scenery -- ranging from the 1920s to the 1980s.

Q: Motion pictures?

A: Every time I come across films, I freak out. I found one from 1957 of a women's social club's dance at the Shamrock Hotel. When it comes to minority collections, it's a little difficult to find these kind of primary sources.

Q: What has been your biggest surprise?

A: I was going through the League of United Latin American Citizens collection -- meeting notes, correspondence -- when I came across a listing for an honor roll of Hispanic servicemen from World War II. I expected just a printed out sheet of names, but what I found was this leather-bound volume with gilt letters on the cover. Inside, the men signed their names.

It was about Hispanics proving their American identity, about how much they would do for a country that was still treating them as second-class citizens. The book was done with so much care and love.

Q: What's the biggest task facing you?

A: We're not finished collecting. The 1930s, 1940s and 1950s -- Thomas Kreneck did an amazing job of capturing those years.

But there is still so much to be captured. I'm still hearing from people asking about this business from the 1930s or that pharmacist in the 1940s.

Everyone I meet has at least five projects they want me to do. This is a community that has been here for generations. There's a long history to record.

___

(c)2013 the Houston Chronicle

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Source: Copyright Houston_Chronicl 2013


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