Eastside high schoolers get a lesson in oral history


Steve Barrios knows all about passing along stories. The kind of fleeting tales that zoom through cyberspace via MySpace and e-mail recounting the latest gossip on campus.

But not until recently did the 16-year-old discover a new kind of storytelling, the ancient form of oral history. The Roosevelt High School sophomore took part in a 10-month project organized by Cal State Los Angeles that pulled students off computers and put them face to face with five female activists from across the Eastside to conduct interviews and document their histories.

Their work will be part of a 20-minute video documentary that will be archived at the university and other institutions. It is also slated to debut at the college’s film festival in May. On Saturday, Barrios and others for the first time showcased an unedited version of “Las Grandes de East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights: Women as Community Builders” at the Southwest Oral History Assn. conference at USC.


The event offered a four-day series of panels highlighting community groups often overlooked in history books.

Topics included Mexican surfers in Venice, Chicano activists on the Westside, Japanese Americans in the San Fernando Valley, and gays in Oceanside and Camp Pendleton.

Baby-faced with a head full of tight curls, Barrios stood out in a room full of librarians and historians, men and women armed with PhDs and master’s degrees in the art of storytelling. He is one of three remaining members of about a dozen students originally recruited from Roosevelt in July to participate in the project. Most of the teenagers were distracted by social lives, sports schedules and “other things that seemed cooler than oral history,” Barrios said.

He had always wanted to know more about his Boyle Heights neighborhood but didn’t know where to start until he volunteered for the video project.

“I learned a lot about the legacy of a person,” Barrios said. “About stuff I’m not gonna find in books or the computer, and that I want to tell my kids about one day.”

The project, paid for by the California Council for the Humanities, was led by Dionne Espinoza, an associate professor of Chicano studies and liberal studies at Cal State L.A., and Claudia Rodriguez, a writer and performer. The two chose five influential women from the Eastside, an area that has gained national attention in the past for powerful grass-roots movements organized by women.


The list includes Juana Gutierrez with Mothers of East Los Angeles Santa Isabel, a decades-old group that fights for social and environmental justice in the area; Theresa Soriano, president of Casa del Mexicano, a Boyle Heights center that reaches out to immigrants; Ofelia Esparza, a renowned artist and altar-maker; Josefina Lopez, an acclaimed playwright and founder of a community theater house; and Susana Reynoso, an influential teacher at Roosevelt High School for 15 years.

“We really wanted to draw out how women are contributing to this community,” said Espinoza, who hopes that, once the project wraps up in May, the idea will be picked up and continued by a community organization.

In a separate project, the Chicano Resource Center at the county’s East Los Angeles Library is launching its own oral history program with a $10,000 media grant. It will recruit high school students from across the Eastside to interview more than 100 community elders about their lives and the area’s history.

Students will be taught video skills and their work will be archived at the center.

Persuading students to participate in the Cal State-organized project, sans school credit, was no easy task. Espinoza and Rodriguez launched a MySpace page promoting the idea, did presentations on campus and incorporated video into the project, rather than using an old-fashioned voice recorder.

In the interviews, the students’ bashful voices can be heard asking the influential women how they reached their goals, what obstacles they faced and why they chose to continue living on the Eastside after all these years.

“People take from the community, but you also have to give back,” Lopez, the playwright, explains to the teenagers.


The experience made Frances Pacheco, 17, more curious about the past and, in a way, about her future.

“If I ever get to be someone important, I want to be like that,” she said. “To go back to Boyle Heights and live there, give back and enjoy the memories.”