Exhibit collects oral histories, tells local Latino stories | News

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WOONSOCKET – The Museum of Work and Culture has opened a new, bilingual exhibition titled “Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964,” which incorporates the Bracero federal work program and tells the stories of Latinos in Central Falls and Woonsocket.

Deborah Krieger, exhibit and program coordinator, said that she’s wanted to feature the Latino community since she started working at the museum. The bilingual “Bittersweet Harvest” posters come from a Smithsonian exhibit that ran in the mid-2000s, and she collaborated with Latino leaders and translators in Rhode Island to broaden the scope of the show and make it local to the northern Rhode Island community.

The exhibit is divided into three parts: the Bracero program, where 2 million Latino guest workers were brought to the United States to help with agricultural labor shortages following World War II; the revitalization of the textile industry in Central Falls through Colombian immigration, including “This Kind of Love, Our Love: Latino Stories in the Blackstone Valley, 1960s-Today;” and an exploration of Latinos in Woonsocket, including ongoing oral history collections.

Krieger told The Breeze that she purposefully focused on Latino communities in Central Falls and Woonsocket, which have the first and fourth highest Latino populations in the state, respectively, instead of Providence, in order to make it as local as possible.

Starting September, the Museum of Work and Culture will also be offering Spanish language tours in order to introduce more robust Spanish-language programming.

“We thought having a temporary exhibition that would be bilingual and then doing Spanish language tours would be a way to gauge interest,” Krieger explained.

Throughout the exhibit’s duration, which will be open until the end of September, there will be three opportunities for oral history collection in Woonsocket, Krieger said. The first is on June 26 at VIDA Church, and interested parties may sign up online or fill out a form at the exhibit. Valerie Gonzalez, who is a pastor at VIDA as well as a City Council member, has helped Krieger to get in touch with the Latino community in Woonsocket.

“We are very excited about this,” Gonzalez told The Breeze.

“There were a lot of local connections, I wanted to use this opportunity to connect the museum more with Latino communities around Rhode Island. That’s why I partnered with Marta Martínez from Rhode Island Latino Arts for a lot of the work,” Krieger said.

Martínez is the executive director of Rhode Island Latino Arts, an organization that “promotes, encourages, and preserves the art, history, heritage and cultures of Latinos in Rhode Island.” She also researched and wrote, “Latino History in Rhode Island: Nuestras Raíces,” which Krieger used to guide her curation.

Martínez already has around 113 recorded oral histories, some that still need to be transcribed from cassette tapes. She estimates that 21 have been digitized and processed and can be accessed on the RILA website.

“The intention [behind this project] is to make the history public, mainly because it was something that I, as a newcomer to Rhode Island, was inspired to start… I couldn’t find anything [about Latinos in RI] in the archives, and oftentimes the newspaper stories were negative about people who were arrested or homeless. So I decided to create it and decided it needed to be public,” Martínez said.

One part of the Bracero program that Martínez thinks should be addressed more is that Braceros in New England built the train tracks in the New Haven railway.

“If you take a train from Providence to New York or Philadelphia, those were built by Braceros, those tracks,” Martínez, whose father was a Bracero in the Southwest, explained.

She also works with kids in all local schools, primarily the urban cities. The mission of the oral history project was to make it public and make sure it recognized those underserved communities, Martínez said.

“We need to encourage people to come to the museum and come and share their oral history.. It doesn’t even have to be an elder, history is made every day so everybody’s story will become somebody’s story in 50 years, looking back,” Martínez explained.

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