Unofficial Archives: Crafting History from Family Documents & Material Culture

At its best, public history combines theory, practice, and experimentation. Rather than a set of skills, I approach public history as a process, often a collaborative one. My own training emerges as much from my participation in the South El Monte Arts Posse, an arts collective based in South El Monte, as it does from my efforts to think and write about the history of transnational migration and citizenship. For “East of East: Mapping Community Narratives in South El Monte and El Monte,” SEMAP arrived at a theory of public history only by simultaneously thinking about and constructing new ways to collect primary sources and present and experience history. For example, East of East’s most recent creation is not an essay or an oral history, but a mural on a neighborhood wall. We were inspired by the discovery a 16mm film in the basement of South El Monte’s city hall and the city’s lost murals of the 1960s and 1970s.

As a new professor in public history, I am faced with the challenge of teaching something that I myself was never taught, not in the formal sense at least. I decided to open my introduction to public history course with a theoretical interrogation of the historical process: the production of archives and the writing of history. My students read (and I think enjoyed) Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s 1995 classic Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. It provided us with an opportunity to think about the relationship between power (namely exclusion) and history as well as the many ways in which history exists and operates outside of the academy. By combining it with Emma Pérez’s “Queering the Borderlands: The Challenges of Excavating the Invisible and Unheard,” we were able to think about not only the colonial logic of the archive, but how we might deploy the “decolonial imaginary” to find queer voices and resistance. After these theoretical writings, we looked at the various ways in which historians are using “unofficial archives” (migrant letters, material objects, and photographs) to create new historical narratives. Armed with theory and a few case studies, students were asked to use a “primary source” from their family’s “unofficial” archive to produce a historical narrative. These students, predominately first-generation college students, used diaries, photographs, 100-year old coins, and migrant letters to tell stories of loss and death, love and courtship, and migration and exile. We’re happy to share a few of those papers here.

  1. Tyler Caffee, “The Untold Story of a Prison Guard’s Struggle”
  2. Vanna Nauk, “A Past Resurfaced: Memories of Survival and Escape from the Khmer Rouge”
  3. Carlos Alexandro Gutierrez de Espinosa, “Mateo’s Coins”
  4. Michelle Cabrera, “Grapes of Wrath: Pauline Cabrera’s 1968 Summer”
  5. Sidney Cook, “Quilted History”
  6. Ava Morrow, “Rubles and Juicy Fruit: Touring Russia During the Cold War and Today”