Los Recuerdos del Barrio en Flagstaff

A Conversation with Peter Runge

Coya Vergara Martinez and her brother Alejandro Vergara posing at her O’Leary Street residence in Flagstaff, 1970.

Peter Runge, head of Special Collections and Archives at Northern Arizona University, discusses one of Cline Library’s collections, Los Recuerdos del Barrio en Flagstaff. A series of audio or visual interviews with members of the Mexican, Mexican American, and Spanish Basque communities in Northern Arizona, this oral history project bloomed from the effort of Delia Ceballos Munoz, Cline’s former library specialist and principal investigator. Munoz conducted every interview, in both English and Spanish, from 1997 until the collection’s end (and her retirement) in 2017. The interviewees talk about life in Flagstaff, from bigotry and discrimination to school, work, food, church, and more. This collection received great financial support from the Arizona Humanities organization and is deeply loved and appreciated for bringing to light the significant contributions made to Flagstaff by the people of these communities.

How would you describe the collection to a perfect stranger?

Peter Runge is the Head of Special Collections and Archives at Cline Library of Northern Arizona University. He is responsible for the administrative oversight and leadership of the department and has served in this role since 2013. Peter enjoys learning more about the history, culture, and people of the northern Arizona and the Colorado Plateau and developing relationships with the community members of the region. As part of his leadership of the department, Peter, along with his team at Special Collections and Archives, is committed to working with underrepresented communities to preserve and make available their history and stories. Peter is originally from the northeast and Atlantic coast region of American but has lived in Flagstaff since 2005 with his wife and their two children.

Los Recuerdos del Barrio en Flagstaff oral history project documents a cultural and ethnic demographic in Flagstaff that has been historically underrepresented in the archival record of the region. The project was and remains an intentional effort to raise awareness of the voices and stories of Mexican, Mexican American, and Spanish Basques to preserve, make available, and celebrate the activities, history, and culture of this group. This particular demographic played, and continues to play, a significant role in the economic and cultural milieu of Flagstaff. Much of Flagstaff’s development is tied either directly or indirectly to the Mexican, Mexican American, and Spanish Basque people who lived or currently live in the area. Several industries associated with Flagstaff and northern Arizona are connected to them, including the lumber industry, ranching, and sheepherding. We see the cultural impact of this group through architecture, food, religion and cultural practices, discrimination, education, recreation, and more.

Who is the intended audience of the Los Recuerdos collection? How do you envision undergraduates using the collection?

The intended audience is broad. Special Collections and Archives documents the human and natural history of the Colorado Plateau, with an emphasis on its southwest corner. The people, activities, and events being captured by this project fit perfectly in our collecting scope and help provide a richer and more robust picture of the human history of the region. In this sense, it is a treasure for the individuals who participate in the project as well as their respective families.

Cresencio and Manuela Bobadilla inside their grocery store, El Desierto, 1960.

We also see great interest in the project from faculty members who connect the interviews with curriculum that addresses some of the subjects discussed in the interviews. In the past, we’ve partnered with faculty from the following academic departments and programs: history, anthropology, College of Education, First Year Seminar, modern languages, and liberal studies. Given that the oral histories, their transcripts, and a related exhibit are all available online and freely accessible, it’s difficult to specifically relate how undergraduate and graduate students are using the content, other than developing a broader understanding of the impact and experiences the Mexican, Mexican American, and Spanish Basque have had on the culture and development of Flagstaff and northern Arizona.

Librarians at the NAU Cline Library began conducting interviews in 1997 and continued through 2015. How did this project begin? What was the process of finding people to interview?

The project grew out of a desire to document the lives, stories, and activities of the Mexican, Mexican American, and Spanish Basque families and individuals living in Flagstaff. Up until this point, the Cline Library Special Collections and Archives had very few collections that documented this community, yet we understood that it was vital to Flagstaff’s early development in the late 19th and 20th centuries. A library staff member, Delia Ceballos Munoz, brought this collecting lacuna to the attention of the then department head, Karen Underhill. Delia and Karen understood that they had an opportunity to fill this gap and the resources necessary to capture this history. They applied for a grant through the Arizona Humanities Council (now Arizona Humanities) and with $5,000 went forward with an oral history project to capture as many stories as possible with the funding. The project was well received and successful from the start, in large part due to Delia’s familial and social connections with the community. Delia served as the principle interviewer for entire project until her retirement in the spring of 2017. We would very much like to see Delia return to the project as a volunteer oral historian.

Antero Bobadilla in El Desierto delivery truck with Ismael Bobadilla leaning against the truck, 1950.

This collection contains two parts: recorded oral histories and family photographs. How did you decide whether to do an audio or video recording? What is the transcription and cataloging process for audio clips and photographs?

When the project commenced in 1997, the library only used audio recording technology. Eventually we upgraded to VHS, which added a visual component that really enhanced the project. Now we’re using a digital recorder, which has made the capture, preservation, and access of the oral histories more efficient and of a higher quality. During the interviews, often the narrators would offer photographs to accompany their oral histories. These were helpful visual enhancements to the stories, especially for the interviews that were captured only in audio.

The interviews are transcribed and available as searchable companion pieces to the audio or visual files. This feature of the project was a priority for the department in order to enhance accessibility and discoverability. Early in the project, a portion of the Arizona Humanities Council funding went to having the oral histories transcribed professionally. Each oral history in the Los Recuerdos del Barrio en Flagstaff is cataloged with appropriate and specific descriptive metadata. As noted above, this enhances access, discoverability, and relationships with other similar interviews, people, and subjects. Additionally, Special Collections and Archives has a finding aid for the project, which provides context and understanding for the interviews, and we created a catalog record for the project in our online catalog.

Luisa R. de Arreola and husband on their wedding day, Canyon Diablo, near Winslow, AZ, 1925.

This collection touches upon the Depression-era period of the early twentieth century. Was there a desire to keep the interviews to a specific era?

There was never an intent to limit the timeframe of the project. Many of the interviews and stories harken back to the early 20th century, but several of them touch upon more contemporaneous activities and events. Increasingly, the people we interview are sharing stories and history that help us understand the latter half of the 20th century and the early 21st century in northern Arizona. Our goal was to document the people of Los Recuerdos del Barrio en Flagstaff as broadly as possible.

Since the beginning, this project has garnered support from the local Hispanic community and received funding from Arizona Humanities. Why do you think this project was so important to the local community and others in Arizona and the surrounding states?

This is an incredibly important project on four fronts. First, as mentioned above, it serves to document the history, culture, people, and activities of a community that had previously been underrepresented in the cultural heritage repositories of the region. The contributions of this community to the development of Flagstaff cannot be underestimated or undervalued, and sadly, their history was not being preserved. This project intended to fill that gap in the cultural and historical record of northern Arizona.

Second, this project is a celebration of the Mexican, Mexican American, and Spanish Basque people of Flagstaff, and more broadly, Arizona and the Southwest. This collection has always been a cultural treasure for Flagstaff and the region. In many ways, the project is a gift to the people who participated. So often the details of our familial stories and histories are diluted and eventually lost across generations. Los Recuerdos del Barrio en Flagstaff ensures that these stories are preserved so future generations can enjoy and learn from them.

Benjamin Aginiga in the United States Navy, age 21, 1945.

Third, in our current political environment, the project has taken on a new significance. The project highlights and illustrates the rich cultural contributions of the Mexican, Mexican American, and Spanish Basques to northern Arizona and the state of Arizona; it also brings to light the numerous challenges they have faced and continue to face, including discrimination, segregation, racism, cultural eradication, and marginalization. As Shakespeare noted in The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.” It is my hope that this project creates understanding and empathy, not only for the Mexican, Mexican American, and Spanish Basque, but for any ethnic, cultural, or religious group that is or has been marginalized and/or discriminated against.

Fourth, it is my hope that the project serves as a road map for others to replicate, whether that be archivists, community activists, or other ethnic communities. We started this project with a little seed money from the Arizona Humanities, and continued it with a large dose of passion and commitment from a few individuals. It certainly takes funding, technology, and infrastructure to do something similar, but it also requires patience, trust, and mutual respect.

Do you have a favorite interview? A favorite photograph?

This is a difficult question to answer. I would say that I’m most proud of and excited about the breadth of the project rather than one specific interview. There may be other ethnographic oral history projects similar to this one across the country, but this is the most ambitious and longstanding oral history project documenting a specific ethnic and cultural community in northern Arizona. Each story is a significant and important thread that makes up the tapestry of this community. As we have learned, many of the stories and families overlap, adding a rich context and depth of understanding to the Mexican, Mexican American, and Spanish Basques in northern Arizona.

The American school system is known to whitewash the past and exclude teaching on the histories of all individuals in America. What is the value in creating an official catalog of Hispanic-American history from the perspectives of Hispanic individuals? Why is it important to not only show the hardships, but also the everyday experiences of school, church, family, jobs, and social lives?

The Monterey Club holding their festival in the basement of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, 1945.

This is a complex question. I agree with the statement that history is frequently conveyed from a hegemonic perspective, which can limit the understanding and appreciation of other perspectives. I feel as though the pendulum is swinging in a direction that values other perspectives, which leads to a deeper understanding of our collective and shared history. Los Recuerdos del Barrio en Flagstaff in an excellent example of an effort to document, preserve, and make available a historical and cultural perspective of Flagstaff’s history that had previously not been available outside that specific community.

Today, we see faculty members on campus and community members reaching out to learn more about this community, its people, accomplishments, fortitude, challenges, and disappointments. There are themes in the oral histories that resonate within the Los Recuerdos del Barrio en Flagstaff community that also resonate with other similarly marginalized communities, not only in Flagstaff and northern Arizona, but across the country. Themes such as discrimination, alienation, segregation, cultural appropriation, and systemic cultural eradication are evident in these interviews, but I would suggest that these are issues faced by indigenous peoples, African Americans, Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, and many other ethnic and cultural communities. There are lessons for all of us to learn and value from these interviews.

The team behind this collection actively recorded interviews for almost twenty years. Did the interview process change at all? Are there hopes to conduct more interviews?

Alejandro Vergara and Hilario Esparza working for the Arizona Lumber and Timber Company as lumberjacks, 1930.

The team is relatively small. Initially, Karen Underhill worked with Delia Ceballos Munoz to get the project started, but since then, the driving energy and the person who conducted every interview is Delia. Delia worked in the library for nearly 30 years, the last ten of which were in Special Collections and Archives. She’s always been an ardent advocate for and supporter of the preservation and celebration of her community. We are deeply grateful that a part of Delia’s work and the stories of her community will be preserved and made available to future generations. Do we hope to conduct more interviews? Delia retired about a year ago; prior to her retirement, I extended an open invitation for her to continue working on Los Recuerdos del Barrio en Flagstaff, should she be interested. I plan on sharing this interview with her, and my hope is that she will have some time to volunteer with us to continue the excellent work she’s done to date.

All images belong to: Northern Arizona University, Cline Library Special Collections and Archives, Los Recuerdos del Barrio en Flagstaff Collection.
Find out more about Los Recuerdos del Barrio en Flagstaff at: http://azarchivesonline.org/xtf/view?docId=ead/nau/Los_Recuerdosextras.xml

This interview was conducted by Sabrina Cofer. She is a Central Connecticut State University graduate and an editorial intern at Choice.