With the arrival of new interviewer Cristina Kim, the Oral History Center enters a new era: for the first time in several years, after the retirement of several interviewers and directors, the Oral History Center is fully staffed with a new director and four new full-time interviewers hired since 2013. Cristina joins us from NPR partner, StoryCorps. A UC Santa Cruz graduate, she also holds master’s degrees from Columbia University and Brown University.
In July I sat down to talk with her about her life and work and about the past and future of the Oral History Center. We began our discussion the way most OHC interviews usually begin, with questions about family background and upbringing. So I learned that Cristina was born in San Diego and raised in the Bay Area, the youngest of three. Her parents are immigrants; her sisters were born in Spain. “My mom is from Madrid, and my dad is actually from Kwangju, South Korea. I think my childhood was framed by the fact that I’m the only U.S.-born person in my immediate family.”
Cristina has a strong interest in theory, identity, and social movements, and all three of her degrees are interdisciplinary. At Santa Cruz she majored in Latin-American and Latino studies. “But LatinX studies,” she notes, “is the more inclusive term. As a scholar I’m interested in inclusion and the ability to look at complex and changing identities, going beyond gender binaries and the nationalist project and really breaking down boundaries. I think that that drives a lot of my work.”
She is happy to be back in California, and is well suited to work on the Oral History Center’s mission: regional history with national and global implications. “I always admired the particular terroir, if you will, of the Bay Area. I like its counterculture history, the nature aspect, the food; I felt really identified with that. I was never one of those people that wanted or felt the need to fly the coop. It’s only now that I’ve returned to California that I realize that the five years that I spent in the East Coast really expanded me intellectually.”
As a graduate student in American Studies at Columbia and Brown, Cristina benefited from mentors and archives. Historian Alice Kessler-Harris was particularly important to her development as a scholar. “It was thanks to her that I learned about the oral history office at Columbia, and about what interviews can add to the study of history. You can interview prominent players, and you should, but oral history also allows you to get perspectives from the bottom up.” While working in archives and writing her thesis about the radio programming of the U. S. Bureau of Home Economics from 1928 to 1943, Cristina wondered about the missing voices of the target audience for those broadcasts. Then she discovered letters that homemakers had written to the producers in response to the show. But there were no recorded interviews with those women. What might oral history have contributed to primary source documents in archives? When her thesis was completed, Cristina decided to undertake some interviews with proprietors of food trucks, exploring Asian American identity, masculinity, entrepreneurship, and the merging of various food ways.
After finishing her second master’s degree at Brown, Cristina joined StoryCorps where she worked as a program specialist for “StoryCorps @ your library,” a program that provided equipment and training and programmatic support to public libraries. “We worked with the Ferguson Public Library, we worked with the Providence Community Library. Because of the good work we did there, and just the excellent feedback we got from our libraries, we worked with IMLS to create a grant that would specifically work with tribal libraries, and their very specific needs. We provided the training and the tools for the tribal libraries and their partners to collect and archive the stories that they find meaningful.”
Now, at the Oral History Center, she finds herself working in a library. “I have such deep respect for librarians, libraries, archives, and archivists. I always found libraries to be my home. Whenever I walk into them, I feel at peace. There’s no greater joy than walking in and grabbing too many books that I’m never going to be able to read in one sitting. It’s like a delicious banquet.”
At the Oral History Center Cristina will build on an extensive collection of interviews in university history, ethnic studies, food and wine, and other fields. She begins her work here with interviews of foundations and service organizations (such as Rotary International) and is also supporting OHC historian Todd Holmes as he develops a new series of oral histories about the creation and development of Chicano studies. She looks forward to conducting interviews with a wide range of narrators and is especially interested in the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Department of Ethnic Studies at Berkeley and the chance to build on the Center’s extensive collection of interviews in university history and social movements.
-Linda Norton, Senior Editor