Voces y Caras: Hispanic Communities of North Florida

Constanza M. López Baquero (constanza.lopez@unf.edu), University of North Florida, United States of America

Voces y Caras: Hispanic Communities of North Florida is an ongoing project that explores the power of digital testimonio (Benmayor, 2012) to make visible hidden communities and enable processes of self-discovery by students of Latinx origin in the U.S. The project engages heritage speakers of Spanish in the process of developing questions and recording interviews with members of the Hispanic/Latinx community in North Florida, a population that has been, according to many, deliberately made invisible.

Since the inception of the project in 2012, 109 interviews have been conducted, recorded, transcribed and archived. The project serves at least four purposes: (1) It recognizes immigrants as an indispensable part of our society in a political environment increasingly hostile to them, (2) it puts students who are heritage speakers of Spanish in contact with their cultural and historical backgrounds, (3) it gives these students the opportunity to recognize themselves in the stories of others, and (4) it serves as a pedagogical tool that creates communities in and outside of the classroom.

Digital testimonio provides an important tool for teaching bicultural students who are searching for their own identities, particularly those who live in an area, like North Florida, where they feel pressure to assimilate or avoid the stereotypes that surround being Latinx in the United States. In many cases, these students are largely disconnected from their own histories, as the Hispanic roots of much of the United States, as well as the history of Latin America, are barely present, if represented at all, in mainstream curriculum. As the Latinx community in the U.S. gains visibility, in part through the negative ramifications of the current political climate, these students are increasingly interested in understanding how they fit into a larger Latinx identity, as well as in vindicating the misperceptions or distortions of Latinx people that they witness in the media.

Since our students live in a large geographical area without a center for immigrants, or a specifically Latinx neighborhood like you would find in Orlando or Miami, many feel lost because they are not fully accepted into the mainstream culture. Furthermore, Latinx make up a small percentage of the university’s population and this furthers their feeling of alienation. When they come to my class, they learn about the value of community and history. Voces y Caras is a collection of stories that are testimonial and as Rina Benmayor has stated, “ Testimonio, thus, expresses the central values of situated knowledge production, embodied theorizing, and community engagement, and thus can be considered a signature pedagogy,” which can be “grounded in liberatory values and methods.” By learning about other Latinx and what they are doing to influence our city, students discover their own stories. The sacrifices and traumas of other immigrants help them shape their own identities and claim their rights to belong to the U.S., and also to the culture where they, or their parents came from. Benmayor highlights the benefit of this type of projects because it “engages students first hand in reproducing the processes of (1) situated knowledge production, (2) embodied theorizing, and (3) collective practice that are foundational to the field. These processes constitute core epistemologies for Latin[x] Studies, ones that we hope all of our students learn to perform in their lives as well as in their professional futures” (2012: 509).

As I ponder upon my project, I believe that its value resides largely with the opportunities it offers for engagement with local communities. As Will Fenton argued in a recent opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, such use of scholarship to connect with the public is sorely lacking in the Digital Humanities today. I believe, furthermore, that this project demonstrates how digital approaches can be deployed in ways that are truly transformational for students from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds.

There is an organic connection between oral history projects and digital humanities. Listening to the stories of others make us more empathetic. These stories arouse feelings of love and compassion because we can recognize our stories in others. In this line, Voces y Caras highlights the achievements of the community. This is particularly relevant in our present political environment where immigrants have been perceived as a problem rather than what they are; an indispensable part of our society that contributes greatly to its growth. The recordings, excerpts of the interviews, and pictures of the interviewees are available online at  vocesycaras.weebly.com.


Appendix A

Bibliography
  1. BENMAYOR R. (2012). Digital Testimonio as a Signature Pedagogy for Latin@ Studies.  Equity and Excellence in Education. 45, 507-524.
  2. BENMAYOR, R. (2008). Digital Storytelling as a Signature Pedagogy for the New Humanities.  Arts and Humanities in Higher Education. 7, 188-204.
  3. FENTON, W. (2018). Literary scholars should use digital humanities to reach the oft-ignored 'public' (opinion).  Technology and Learning Blog: Inside Higher Ed. 2018-01.