“‘Rice All the Time?’: Chinese Americans in the Bay Area in the Early 20th Century”

Miranda Jiang is an Undergraduate Research Apprentice at the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. She is a UC Berkeley history major graduating in Spring 2022.

San Francisco Chinatown
“San Francisco,” by Dorothea Lange, 1961, courtesy of Oakland Museum of California.

The Bay Area is home to San Francisco Chinatown, the first Chinatown in the United States. By the 1900s, there were second- and third-generation Chinese Americans living here who had spent their entire lives in the US. Interviews in the Oral History Center illuminate the experiences of these Chinese Americans who grew up in the Bay Area, and not just in Chinatown. What were the daily lives like of Chinese American youths living in Berkeley, or Emeryville, in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s? This is “Rice All the Time?”, an oral history performance about their experiences, brought to you in an audio format and performed by five young Chinese Americans.

Audience feedback form 

This episode focuses on the experiences of one ethnic group. While we discuss Chinese American experiences with identity and discrimination, we recognize that this is just one part of a broad history of people of color in the United States. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people, have made it even more evident that systemic bigotry is far from being a relic of history. We hope that after listening, you will engage in further conversation about racism in our nation and the complex experiences of people of color who live in the United States.

“Rice All the Time?” features direct quotes from interviews with Royce Ong, Alfred Soo, Maggie Gee, Theodore B. Lee, Dorothy Eng, Thomas W. Chinn, Young Oy Bo Lee, and Doris Shoong Lee. They describe their experiences with racial discrimination, through schoolyard bullying and housing exclusion. Some describe Chinese food with fondness, some with disdain. You will hear about after-school Chinese classes and the presence, or lack of, a local Chinese community. 

This is a culmination of work I began in the fall of 2019 – I wrote a blog post about the process of creating the script. 

While creating this performance, I related to some of their experiences, and was also surprised to hear many of them. It’s made me reflect on my conception of Chinese American history and my own identity as a Chinese American. I hope that “Rice All the Time?” fosters similar introspection in you.

Performed by Maggie Deng, Deborah Qu, Lauren Pong, and Diane Chao. Written and produced by Miranda Jiang. Editing and sound design by Shanna Farrell.

Cantonese readings of Young Oy Bo Lee’s lines accompany the English to reflect the original language of her interview. 

 

Transcript:

Audio:  (music)

Shanna Farrell: Hello and welcome to The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. 

Lately, things have been challenging and uncertain. We’re enduring an order to shelter-in-place, trying to read the news, but not too much, and prioritize self-care. Like many of you, we’re in need of some relief.

So, we’d like to provide you with some. Episodes in this series, which we’re calling “Coronavirus Relief,” may sound different from those we’ve produced in the past, that tell narrative stories drawing from our collection of oral histories. But like many of you, we at the Oral History Center are in need of a break.

We’ll be adding some new episodes in this Coronavirus Relief series with stories from the field, things that have been on our mind, interviews that have been helping us get through, and find small moments of happiness.

Audio: (quotes spoken by performers, layered over each other) 

(music)

Miranda Jiang:   Hi, I’m Miranda Jiang, a history undergrad at UC Berkeley. You’re about to listen to an oral history performance I created called “‘Rice All the Time?’: Chinese Americans in the Bay Area in the Early 20th Century.” I originally intended for “‘Rice All the Time?” to be performed by a few of my fellow students in front of a live audience. But, of course, because of COVID-19 cancellations, we’re now bringing you this performance in an audio format.

“Rice All the Time?” presents perspectives of multiple Chinese people growing up in the Bay Area in the early 20th century. It places their words into conversation with each other, and it invites you, as listeners, to interpret them. 

Before we get to the performance, I’d like to share with you a little background on the history of Chinese people in California. 

Chinese immigration to the United States began in the mid-19th century. Thousands came to California as forty-niners during the Gold Rush. Racial resentment among white settlers in the West led to the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred the immigration of Chinese laborers to the US. The Act slowed the entrance of Chinese men, and denied entrance to virtually all women except those married to merchants. 

Chinese immigration continued despite the Exclusion Act, which was only repealed in 1943, along with other anti-Chinese regulations. The number of Chinese women in the US increased steadily after 1900. Chinese Americans in the Bay Area and elsewhere built vibrant communities.

This performance is made of direct quotes from oral histories in the archival collection of the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library, here at UC Berkeley. It features the experiences of eight Chinese Americans who lived in the Bay Area from the 1920s to the 1950s. All, except one, were second or third-generation Chinese Americans who had spent all of their lives in the US. Alongside each other, these stories reveal a rich history and diversity of experiences within one ethnic group. 

While you’re listening, I have some questions for you to keep in mind.

Think about what you know now of the Chinese American community in the Bay Area. Does hearing these experiences change your perception of their history? If so, how? What can their experiences with discrimination and identity teach us now, during the time of coronavirus and particularly visible racism against Asian people? How do you relate to these stories, many from almost a century ago? 

After listening, I want to hear your feedback! Whether they’re answers to the questions I posed or other thoughts, please take a few minutes to fill out the Google form in the show notes. I appreciate any comments you may have, because your feedback will be super helpful to an article I’m working on about this project. 

Now, please sit back and enjoy this performance of “Rice All the Time?”

Audio: (music)

Royce Ong (spoken by Diane Chao): There was not another Chinese family in Point Richmond, even a café or anything. Outside of my own relatives, I never had seen another Chinese. 

Alfred Soo (spoken by Deborah Qu): … living in Berkeley, there weren’t very many Asians in my area. The Asians living in that area were probably my cousins.

Maggie Gee (spoken by Maggie Deng): It was before the onset of the war that brought in lots of people from elsewheres. Berkeley was integrated, in that sense… There were blacks, whites living in the neighborhood, quite a few Japanese, and some Chinese. More Japanese in my neighborhood than Chinese.

Theodore Lee (spoken by Lauren Pong): We didn’t know any Chinese. We lived in a neighborhood where we were the only Chinese. I went to a school where my family was the only Chinese in the school… 

Dorothy Eng (spoken by Maggie Deng): [In Emeryville] there were three families, all Cantonese… It was an all white town. All [my mother] had was me, her children, and her husband whom she hardly knew.

Soo: … fortunately I didn’t experience any [teasing] that I can recall.

Eng: My father was very protective because he had seen the meanness to the Chinese, how they were treated, and he wanted to protect us because we were in a white community.

Theodore Lee: I wasn’t treated any differently because, remember now, these are people who are not snobby people; they’re working-class white, who tend, on the whole, to be friendly people. They’re not overly secure. There’s no snobbery. There’s no snobbery in our neighborhood. There was none.

Eng: … when I was in grammar school I hated it because I was never included, never included. All the years at grammar school I was not included in the classroom, I was not included in the playground. I can remember seeing myself going out during playtime, and I would be just standing there practically invisible. If I would go over to the rings because nobody else was there and start to swing, they would come and gather and push me off. The teachers were not there for you, the kids were just mean to you.

Audio: (sounds of children on a playground)

(music)

Ong: I think it was the Exclusion Act that didn’t allow the Asians to own property…“Asian” especially meant “Chinese…” The Exclusion Act had stopped them from immigrating and stopped them from owning property in the United States, especially California. I think they had their own law that was a little [more] stringent than the United States’ law. They were even segregated in the schools, when you read history. 

Gee: I’ve lived around town in Berkeley, and Berkeley was a very difficult town to rent in, for non- whites … We really couldn’t find a place to live [there], because there would be a place available but when we came to see them, the place was rented. It became very discouraging… I sort of gave up. My sister, she’d call ahead of time and say that she was Chinese.

Thomas W. Chinn (spoken by Deborah Qu): We found out when we moved to San Francisco that the only place we could live in was Chinatown, because no one would rent to us or sell us a home outside of Chinatown.

Gee: I was hurt, more than anything else. Many years later I served on a commission on housing discrimination in the city of Berkeley. This was actually before the Rumford bill, and that was in the sixties. You’d think Berkeley, being a university city it’s an enlightened thing –– it’s just like any other city, though. People are frightened. If you allow a minority person to live [there], it would allow all the rest of the other minorities in. It’s really quite stupid… Yes, I was really disappointed in Berkeley.

Chinn: It was not a force of law; it was by word of mouth … no one wanted neighbors whose culture they did not understand or who could not speak to them in their own language.

Audio: (music)

Eng: When we moved to Oakland Chinatown I realized how different our family was from people I met in the church. Culturally, we were very different because we were brought up as a Christian family. We celebrated Christmas, Easter, 4th of July, all of the American holidays, also Thanksgiving. People in Chinatown did not celebrate these holidays. They celebrated the Chinese holidays, a big difference. When I joined the church, I realized this. They were all very curious about me because I was so different.

(Cantonese translation in the background, spoken by Lauren Pong): “旧金山的唐人街是 一个很好的社区。有好多山,好多缆车。又有中国餐馆、店铺、银行、医院…你需要的都有”

Young Oy Bo Lee (spoken by Miranda Jiang): San Francisco’s Chinatown was a nice community within a nice city. There were a lot of hills and cable cars. There were Chinese restaurants, shops, banks, hospitals and just about any kind of shop you would want. Also, Cantonese was the main dialect spoken so it felt comfortable. There were modern conveniences in all the houses. All of these things made the adjustment to the new country easier. Chinatown was a haven for the Chinese immigrant. 

Audio: (sounds of Chinatown, erhu playing)

(Cantonese translation in the background, spoken by Lauren Pong) : 大部分人讲广东话,所以感觉好好。现代化的房屋,先进的设备,舒适的生活环境,新移民很容易过上新的生活

Doris Shoong Lee (spoken by Lauren Pong): At this time everyone in this area spoke Cantonese because most of the people in this area came from Guangdong. That is the one province in China that speaks Cantonese. So San Francisco Chinatown was all Cantonese speaking. It’s only been in the last maybe twenty, thirty years, since there has been a large influx of Chinese from other areas of China, that Mandarin is now spoken fairly commonly. 

Chinn: My family hired some Chinese men to teach us how to write and speak Chinese, and how to read. But after spending all day in an American school, and then trying to revert back to a strange language that as children we never knew except for a few words from our parents, it was very hard. We were very poor Chinese scholars. That was one of the deciding factors for my parents––”Our children are getting too Americanized; they have no Chinese friends, they have no Chinese background. We think maybe we’d better move them back to San Francisco where they can live in Chinatown and learn more about their Chinese culture.”

Shoong Lee: I guess at that time there weren’t too many Chinese families that ventured and lived outside of Chinatown… San Francisco Chinatown has always been the very established community. But Oakland Chinatown at that time was rather small. Now it is quite different. It’s large. 

Audio: (music)

Soo: I went to Chinese school in Oakland. So we’d take the streetcar to Oakland… In Chinatown. And we’d get there and start at 5:00 and start home at 8:00. That’s a long day.

Audio: (sound of streetcar and bell ring)

Shoong Lee: My dad wanted us to learn Chinese from the time we were in school. So we had tutors all the way through high school, my sister and  I. The tutor came in five afternoons a week from four to six and Saturday mornings from ten to twelve…That’s a lot of Chinese… 

Gee: When I was young, we used to have a teacher come to our house. It was really for my brother…  to know Chinese. The girls got a little bit of Chinese…There used to be a name –– I forget what the word is, a very derogatory name for people who did not speak Chinese in the Chinese community. As I grew up, my mother was ashamed, a little bit. [laughs] Not really, though, but you know, people would always mention “Your children don’t speak Chinese.”

Ong: My mother knew English, but she always wanted to speak Cantonese, but I didn’t. I always answered in English, made her mad.

Gee: … with my generation, you didn’t want to speak Chinese, because you wanted to integrate. Didn’t want to eat with chopsticks, none of that. “Why are we having rice all the time?

Shoong Lee: I always loved my Chinese food… Sundays were always noodles at lunchtime. Those wonderful noodles. I can remember from the time I was maybe eleven, twelve, thirteen, on up, was that Sundays was when the New York Philharmonic came on the air. It was radio at that time, no television. Three o’clock in New York was lunch time in San Francisco. My sister and I would sit on the steps and have our lunch and listen to the New York Philharmonic.

Audio: (music, “Rhapsody in Blue”)

Ong: My mother cooked Chinese food and American food, but I don’t. I just eat regular American food.

Shoong Lee: We had Chinese meals for dinner but western breakfasts and lunch if we were home on the weekends. But dinner was always Chinese food. One of the things that Dad always wanted us to do was be able to name every dish that was on the table at night, and to speak Chinese at the dinner table. 

Audio: (music, “Rhapsody in Blue”)

Chinn: We want to produce the concept of a Chinese-American who is striving hard to let people know that the Chinese part of a Chinese-American is something the Chinese are proud of, but at the same time they want to be known more as Americans. 

Young Oy Bo Lee: I’m afraid the younger generation won’t understand this –– but holding on to traditions and customs is holding on to part of one’s identity. I hope that more of our young people will try to hold on to their Chinese identity and heritage.

(Cantonese translation in the background, spoken by Lauren Pong): 年轻一代不理解这 一点 —

保持传统同习俗,是坚持自己身份的一部分。我希望更多的年轻人会继续保持自己华人的身份同传统。

Chinn: I think if you are born a Chinese, sooner or later you come to appreciate the background and the culture of things Chinese. I know that among our friends, all our children that are growing up do not have that much interest in Chinese culture, but as they approach middle age and thereafter, then they pick up and want to learn more about their language and background.

Audio: (music)

Jiang: Thank you so much for listening to this oral history performance. I hope that it sparks your interest in the full interviews with each individual featured in the podcast. Many of these interviews include videos in addition to a printed transcript, and you can easily access them through the Oral History Center website and in the show notes. 

Audio: (music)

Jiang: I’d like to thank our performers, Maggie Deng, Deborah Qu, Lauren Pong, and Diane Chao, for their wonderful work. I thank my mentors, Amanda Tewes and Roger Eardley-Pryor for making this episode come to fruition. Thanks so much to Shanna Farrell for being our editor and sound designer. And thank you to the people whose interviews were featured in this performance: Royce Ong, Alfred Soo, Maggie Gee, Theodore B. Lee, Dorothy Eng, Thomas W. Chinn, Young Oy Bo Lee, and Doris Shoong Lee.

Once again, don’t forget to send your reactions to this episode! I want to hear your thoughts, however long. There’s a link to a Google form in the show notes that includes a few questions about your listening experience.

Thank you for listening to “‘Rice All the Time?” I hope you enjoyed the performance and that you have a wonderful rest of your day. 

Audio: (music)

Farrell: Thanks for listening to The Berkeley Remix. We’ll catch up with you next time. And in the meantime, from all of us here at the Oral History Center, we wish you our best.


Oral History Year in Review: Lessons I’ve Learned

In my years working as an oral historian, I’ve come to learn that the most important skill I have in my professional toolbelt is humility. Even after years of study and completing interview-specific research, I know that in any given oral history, I am never the expert in the room. In recording life histories with narrators, I always walk away with new information and fresh perspectives. Oral history folks call this “sharing authority,” but I also like to think about it as an opportunity for personal growth. And part of this growth requires jumping into new subjects and interview situations that challenge me.

One project that continues to challenge and delight me is the J. Paul Getty Trust Oral History Project. I have been working on this project since I joined the Oral History Center (OHC) in 2018, interviewing employees and trustees about the organization’s important contributions to the arts. Also in 2018, the partnership between the Getty Trust and the OHC expanded in order to document the history of prominent African American artists as part of the Getty Research Institute’s (GRI) African American Art History Initiative. Between the two subject areas, the Getty Trust Project represents most of the interviews I have conducted over the last year.

I love that the Getty Trust Project has prompted me to use my background in museums and art history, sometimes forcing me to literally dust off old textbooks. Even so, these interviews have taken me outside my personal art historical comfort zone of Renaissance Italy (I once took an entire course on the works of Michelangelo!), and introduced me to fields from medieval Flemish illuminated manuscripts to twentieth-century American video and performance art. This introduction to various art history specialities has required much study, but also humility in knowing when to defer to the expert.

In the case of the GRI’s African American Art History Initiative, I have had the pleasure to work with one such expert as a co-interviewer: art historian and University of California, Irvine professor Bridget R. Cooks. Cooks has been a delightful addition to the team and a wonderful resource about the artists we interview together. Her academic work in display and criticism added crucial framing to each artist’s story, and her interest in and respect for the people we interviewed shone through every oral history, creating positive experiences for all.

However, approaching these interviews with two interviewers has challenged me as an oral historian. Typically, it is the job of one interviewer to direct an oral history and help guide narrators through the discussion. I.e. Should I ask a follow-up question here or move on? How much time should we spend on this one topic? But working with two interviewers means I am not the sole person in control of the oral history, even when working off the same interview outline. At any given time, one interviewer might want to leave a topic, while another wants to ask more questions.

In order to alleviate some of this confusion, Cooks and I have had to not only build rapport with narrators, but also with each other. And after conducting several interviews together, we have worked out our own system of how to communicate during oral histories – non verbally or with sticky notes – and in how to collaborate in preparing interview outlines. For instance, before I approached a narrator for a pre-interview conversation, Cooks and I had conversations about why the individual was chosen to participate in the project, what themes we hoped to address in the oral history, and what resources I as the non-expert should consult. After completing the pre-interview with the narrator, I used that discussion to build out the interview outline, which I shared with Cooks. We used a Google Docs file to have a back-and-forth about interview structure, language to use, and even subjects to avoid or emphasize. As we decided Cooks should take the lead in these oral histories, this early collaboration was key to their success.

While working on the GRI’s African American Art History Initiative, I have also been challenged to better center the underrepresented voices in these oral histories. In a project that in part seeks to investigate race and power in the art world, this was especially important for me to get right. After all, I’m a white woman who works for an elite university – UC Berkeley – and such institutions have sometimes silenced the contributions of African Americans. In order to combat this historical power dynamic, I privileged extensive pre-interview conversations with narrators about what they wanted to discuss, including the potential to break from the way art historians, critics, or journalists have previously interpreted their lives or work. This is a meaningful practice for any oral history, but these interviews taught me to be acutely sensitive in helping individuals narrate their life stories in the ways that they prefer. 

Navigating all these issues in interviews from both subject areas in the Getty Trust Project has challenged me to be a better and more flexible interviewer, and to appreciate the humility required along the way. I hope you enjoy learning from the interviews in this project as much as I have!

Here some finalized Getty Trust interviews I have conducted over the last year:

Kathleen Dardes

Kenneth Hamma

Mark Leonard

Richard Mayhew

Howardena Pindell

Yvonne Szafran

Here are some other Getty Trust interviews I have conducted that you can to look forward to in the coming months:

David Driskell

Charles Gaines

Thomas Kren

Joyce Hill Stoner

Other non-Getty interviews I’ve conducted in the past year:

Susan GriffinSLATE

Mary Hughes- Bay Area Women in Politics

Julianne MorrisSLATE

Zachary Wasserman- Law and Jurisprudence Individual Interviews

 


Chinese-American Identity and Oral History Performance: Rewriting the Script

Miranda headshot
Miranda Jiang

Miranda Jiang is an Undergraduate Research Apprentice at the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. She is a UC Berkeley history major graduating in Spring 2022.

In the fall of 2019, I joined an undergraduate research apprenticeship on oral history performance with Oral History Center interviewers Amanda Tewes and Roger Eardley-Pryor. Though I’d had some previous experiences with oral history, I wasn’t entirely sure what oral history performance was. I had my speculations: I was familiar with The Laramie Project and some other full-length plays which drew from oral histories.  But no matter what the form of the performance would be, I understood that the project would take an approach to history that prioritized and shared the voices of ordinary people.

During the first few weeks of the semester, we discussed readings that fleshed out my understanding of oral history, then introduced me to multiple forms of oral history performance. Through readings such as Lynn Abrams’s Oral History Theory and Natalie Fousekis’s “Experiencing History: A Journey from Oral History to Performance,” I learned that the process of creating an oral history involves both the interviewer and the narrator (the person being interviewed). An oral history is a conversation. Both participants contribute to the content and direction of an oral history, and thus how an experience gets told. Oral history performance presents these experiences to the public, and places the experiences of multiple narrators in conversation with each other. 

With these readings and assignments in mind, I searched through the Oral History Center’s vast archive of interviews to find sources for my own oral history performance. The only criteria I initially had in mind were that the subject I chose should be a story I knew little about, that I felt was undertold, and was centered in the Bay Area. I read interviews from the Freedom to Marry Project and the Suffragists Oral History Project, ultimately deciding on the Rosie the Riveter Project. It included interviews from people of African American, Chinese, Japanese, indigenous, and other backgrounds, and it was centered around the Bay Area. 

Chinatown
San Francisco Chinatown, c. 1920s. Courtesy of UCLA Special Collections.

I eventually decided to focus this performance on Chinese-American experiences in the Bay Area. I hoped that by focusing on this one group, I could have more time to flesh out the details of their lives.  I do not have my own living grandparents to speak to, so hearing these stories about what young Chinese-American people like me had experienced growing up in California in the 1920s to 1950s made me feel connected to people who lived nearly a century ago. Hearing them also made me realize just how varied our experiences were.

Over the next weeks, I compiled a large annotated bibliography of quotes from relevant interviews, highlighting themes which continuously reemerged. In the spring semester, Amanda, Roger, and I shared many conversations about what it means to create a cohesive script out of direct quotes from oral histories. When we chose which quotes to group together, which to place in conversation with each other, and how we ordered and extracted quotes, we were interpreting each quote’s meaning. We constantly thought about how to assemble a script that highlighted common themes in the experiences of Chinese Americans, without taking narrators’ words out of context or imposing our own interpretations onto the quotes and our audience. 

I soon found that by placing quotes of similar subjects next to each other, meaningful similarities and contrasts revealed themselves on their own. For example, many of the interviewers asked if the narrators had experienced teasing as children. Alfred Soo, Dorothy Eng, and Theodore Lee all described growing up in neighborhoods where they were among the only Chinese people there. Soo, who grew up in Berkeley in the 1920s, did not recall any teasing from other children. Lee, who grew up in the 1930s in Stockton, described not being treated any differently, emphasizing the lack of “snobbery” among working-class white people. Eng, who grew up in Emeryville in the 1920s, described being persistently mistreated by kids and teachers throughout grammar school. As a Chinese American who encountered racial insensitivity in school in the early 2000s, I expected that stories of children who grew up in the “age of exclusion” (1882-1943) would easily reinforce my own experiences. And yet, these oral histories showed a more complicated reality than I anticipated. 

Another primary goal of this performance is to point the general public towards reading the full transcripts of the interviews. In the final script, there is a quote from Royce Ong, who states that he “just [eats] regular American food.” When I first read this, I was amused and annoyed by how he discounted Chinese food as something strange, when it was his own culture. But reading more of the interview, I found that his comments revealed more about his unique creation of a Chinese-American identity. He discussed “Chinese American” and “Chinese” as very distinct identities, with different political interests. To Ong, he could be a proud Chinese American as someone who didn’t eat Chinese food and who also learned only English as a first language. 

Working on this performance made clear that no universal set of criteria comes with identifying as Chinese American. It made me aware of the vast multitude of experiences of other Chinese Americans, which are different from my own and different from each other. The format of the script brought the diversity of Chinese and American life to the forefront, and allowed each narrator to speak about their experiences as they occurred. It was up to the audience to observe and consider the contradictions between quotes.

The final script I created acknowledges that different Chinese Americans had unique experiences, while also highlighting similar struggles and activities within the ethnic group. Many anecdotes are relatable to me, today, and to other Chinese Americans in 2020. And ultimately, while some narrators leaned more towards embracing American culture, and others more towards also preserving Chinese traditions, all of them expressed the same conflicts with identity as Chinese people living in California.

By mid-March, we had created a final draft of the script after many sessions of cutting, rearranging, and reading out loud. We initially planned to give the eight-minute performance at the April 29th Oral History Commencement in the Morrison Library, with four or five student performers of Chinese-American backgrounds. When the campus closed due to COVID-19, we switched to an online podcast format, with the same script and number of performers. 

The podcast version will be available on The Berkeley Remix this summer. I’m excited to be able to share this performance with more people using the magic of the Internet. I hope you’ll stay tuned for more!

 


Podcast Listening for Social Distancing: Wind of Change

wind of changeGerman heavy metal meets Cold War intrigue. If you are looking for a fun listen during shelter-in-place, I highly recommend the podcast Wind of Change!

Following a rumor that the German band the Scorpions’ 1990 hit song “Wind of Change” was actually written by the CIA as Cold War propaganda, investigative reporter Patrick Radden Keefe turned this long-form piece into an eight-part podcast series documenting the song’s influence on politics and popular culture, as well as its potential connection to American clandestine operations. Throughout, Keefe toys with the tension as to whether or not this kind of CIA involvement in songwriting is likely. After listening, my takeaway is that it’s just wild enough to be true.

While many Americans have not even heard of the Scorpions, this German band that sings in English has diehard fans all over Europe and Asia. Formed in 1965 in Hanover, Germany, three of the five band members have been playing together since 1978. They continue to tour internationally.

And what makes the song “Wind of Change” so fascinating is its resonance with the zeitgeist of 1990. The song was supposedly written after the band played in Moscow in 1989 and was released shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For many, the song represents the “change” happening across Europe that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But as Keefe points out, “Wind of Change” isn’t just the soundtrack to the end of the Cold War, but also a song with modern resonance. When he saw the Scorpions live in Kiev, Ukraine, alongside huge crowds, Keefe was reminded that the country was actually still at war with Russia, trying to maintain its post-Cold War independence. For Ukranians at least, “Wind of Change” is not just nostalgia, but a sort of call to arms. 

Keefe’s previous work inlcudes his 2019 book Say Nothing: The True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, which the Oral History Center chose as its inaugural book club pick. In Say Nothing, Keefe explores the challenges of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, alongside the murder of Jean McConville and the Boston College Belfast Project oral histories. In Wind of Change, Keefe encounters similar challenges working with former spies as he did with former revolutionaries in Ireland: lies and obfuscation. 

The delight of listening to this story in a podcast format is the ability to hear the song itself, the enthusiasm from live Scorpions audiences, archival and new interviews, and provide some (but not enough for their taste) anonymity for former clandestine officers. But Wind of Change offers more than just great audio, it also takes the listener on a journey into how to investigate a thirty-year-old story, following oddball leads – even to a G.I. Joe convention – and invites skepticism about what information to actually believe. Indeed, the podcast also questions the nature of storytelling around this rumor and its role in continuing the myth making around the CIA. But Keefe also wonders: how do you uncover something that (if true) was among the top CIA secrets during the Cold War? As an oral historian, I would add that these events have also been diluted by memory and time, and those who can speak to the true origins of “Wind of Change” may no longer be able to do so.

Part cultural history and part investigation into Cold War operation, Wind of Change also documents the CIA’s other attempts at cultural influence. From Louis Armstrong to Nina Simone to Doctor Zhivago, Keefe reiterates the CIA’s long history of using popular culture to convey the principles of Western democracy and undermine communism. Further, Keefe points to the very nature of rock and roll as ripe for use as propaganda: the genre was effectively banned in the USSR, so the act of listening to the music itself was a proxy for political rebellion.

The podcast Wind of Change is not just a fun listen about a campy band and Cold War CIA operations, but also a compelling story and a great distraction. Find out more about Wind of Change, or listen to all eight episodes right now on Spotify.


Storytelling at a Distance: Staying Connected while we are Apart

…we can remain physically distant without social isolation.

There is no doubt we are living through unprecedented times. The threat of COVID-19 and the necessity of social distancing has changed how we work, educate our children, and move through the world. And yet, if there is a silver lining in this public health crisis, it is the opportunity to reconnect and recalibrate our relationships with those we love.

For many of us, social distancing has also meant literal separation from those we love. This can create a profound sense of loneliness for all of us, especially older generations. But remember: in this era of user-friendly technology, we can remain physically distant without social isolation. To combat this sense of loneliness, perhaps you are already ramping up the phone calls and video chats to grandparents and others. 

California Governor Gavin Newsom has challenged all of us to “meet the moment.” For us at The Oral History Center, that means sharing our expertise as listeners and communicators with you. With our backgrounds in oral history life interviews, we want to offer tips and question prompts so you can have more engaging and meaningful conversations with the important people in your life – even at a distance. 

What we’ve learned through our experience as interviewers is that sometimes the simple act of listening can bring a great deal of comfort. Even if your questions illicit the same stories with familiar cadences, we’ve seen how just sharing the story can bring joy to the teller. And there is a possibility that you will learn something new each time! Listen for new words or framing in every telling.

But how to get the conversation started? Here are some major storytelling themes we use to frame oral history life interviews, as well as some example questions to get you started:

  • Childhood
    • Home and Place
      • Examples:
        • What was it like growing up in ______ in the 19___s?
        • What did your neighborhood look like?
    • Childhood Passions
      • Examples:
        • You trained hard to be a ballet dancer. Can you tell me what that was like?
    • Holidays and Traditions
      • Examples:
        • What did Thanksgiving dinner look like at your house?
  • Education
    • Elementary and Secondary
    • Vocational or College
      • Examples:
        • You graduated from college in 19____. What did you do next?
    • Etc.
  • Career
    • Examples:
      • What made you choose to become a _____?
      • How do you think your background as a ______ impacted your work as a _____?
  • Personal Relationships
    • Familial
      • Examples:
        • What do you remember about your grandparents?
        • What kind of values did you acquire from your parents?
    • Romantic
      • Examples:
        • How did you meet Grandpa? What did you like about him?
        • Where did you go on dates?
        • Tell me about your wedding.
    • Etc.
  • Historic Events
    • Examples:
      • What do you remember about the moonwalk?
      • I know you were at Woodstock in 1969. What was that like?

Pro tip: If you hear a new or particularly interesting story, follow up with more questions! For example: I’m not familiar with that term/event. Could you tell me more about what that is?

Pro tip: Be an active listener! Even over the phone or a video call, listen to what your family member is saying and engage with it. You may even listen for what they are not saying. Is there something you think they don’t want to talk about, or a gap in the story you can help fill with another question?

Pro tip: Try parroting their words! For example: You said you had the time of your life. Why was that?

Pro tip: Try to ask open-ended questions! You don’t want to ask a question where the only possible answer is “yes” or “no.” That doesn’t make for very stimulating conversation. Try questions like: Can you tell me about x? Tell me more about y. Can you describe z?

Pro tip: Some of the most rewarding answers follow reflective questions that ask the storyteller to make meaning of their past, sometimes in conjunction with their present. These questions usually come at the end of a discussion around a particular topic or story. For example: What did that mean to you? Or: Wow, you’ve worked so many different places! What connections do you see between these jobs?

We at The Oral History Center value the time and conversations we share with folks in our professional work, and treasure these moments in our personal lives. With these tips and question prompts, we hope you can keep connection and conversation alive in your own lives. After all, storytelling is a great antidote to isolation.

 


Podcast Listening for Social Distancing: Past Present

Looking for new podcast recommendations as you shelter in place? If you are like me, you are burning through your regular playlist at an alarming speed. To cut through the boredom, I’m sharing one of my favorite podcasts: Past Present.

past present

Past Present is a weekly podcast hosted by a panel of historians who give historical context for a variety of contemporary topics. Fittingly, the show’s motto is “Hindsight is foresight.” Historians Nicole Hemmer, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, and Neil J. Young cover topics that range from Greta Thunberg and youth climate activism to the appeal of Marie Kondo to the political power of women’s rage. Hosts bring their own academic specialties and personal interests to the discussions, which means I always walk away with different perspectives and new information.

As Past Present pulls inspiration from popular culture and the news of the day, lately the show has been covering topics such as face masks, quarantines, and just this week cabin fever. This is my third week working from home, and I’ve certainly been feeling restless in a way that even daily walks don’t solve. Past Present host Nicole Hemmer validated that indescribable feeling when she said that cabin fever may not be a disease, but it is “a measurable set of symptoms” with “restlessness, sleepiness, and irritation.” Check, check, and check.

The hosts also share that the term “cabin fever” may have started in the early twentieth century, but it was a recognizable concept in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Think ship-bound sailors or people stuck in unelectrified cabins during snowstorms. But Neil Young points out that “as isolated as we are,” the twenty-first century allows for digital connectivity that is unique from all previous eras in “human history.”

Now, I recognize that it is pretty meta that as I shelter in place at home and start to get a little stir crazy, I look to a discussion on the history of cabin fever as a cure. But I find this oddly comforting. Not only is cabin fever not a new phenomenon born in the time of COVID-19, compared to my ancestors, I am sitting pretty with Internet access and the ability to contact the outside world – even though I may not yet know when this physical isolation will end.

And then, of course, there is my favorite Past Present segment, “What’s Making History,” when hosts point to current events and popular culture as historical trends to keep an eye on. This week, come for the cabin fever conversation, stay for Neil Young’s discussion of what’s behind the new teenage trend of “Virginity Rocks” t-shirts. I had no idea, either.

I hope you love Past Present as much as I do. Treat yourself to a few minutes of listening that’s informative, entertaining, and distracting. Enjoy!

What are YOU listening to? Share with us on Twitter: @BerkeleyOHC


Howardena Pindell: Artist, Teacher, and Social Observer

Howardena Pindell is a painter and mixed media artist, as well as a professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook. She earned a BFA from Boston University in 1965 and an MFA from Yale University in 1967. Pindell worked at the Museum of Modern Art from 1967 to 1979, where she held several positions, including exhibit assistant, curatorial assistant, and associate curator. She cofounded the A.I.R. Gallery in 1972. Pindell has taught in the Department of Art at State University of New York at Stony Brook since 1979.

Pindell
Howardena Pindell, c. 2017

Pindell’s interview is the first in a series of oral histories with prominent African American artists for the Getty Research Institute’s (GRI) African American Art History Initiative. These oral histories complement the GRI’s ongoing work to collect, preserve, and interpret the art and legacies of these artists. 

Pindell was born in 1943 and grew up in segregated Philadelphia. Thanks to the support of her parents and her demonstrable talent, Pindell had a great deal of exposure to art early in life. She went on to study at Boston University and Yale University, then moved to New York in the 1960s. In New York Pindell began working at the Museum of Modern Art while also continuing to paint. She recalled, “…I was working five days a week, and I was used to having natural light, and I didn’t have natural light.” As natural light is so important to  a painter, and her work schedule cut into daylight hours, Pindell started experimenting with mixed media in these years  – a practice she has continued to expand.

Perhaps Pindell’s best-known work is Free, White and 21, a video performance piece from 1980 that is a commentary on her experiences with racism and sexism. Listen to Pindell recount the logistics of creating the piece.

Free, White and 21 also relates to many of Pindell’s ongoing challenges with racism in the women’s movement and the art world at large. Though she was a cofounder of A.I.R. Gallery in 1972 – the first artist-run gallery for women in the United States – as an African American woman, she often felt marginalized in discussions about how to expand opportunities for women artists. 

Pindell also spoke at length about her work as a professor of art, and her approach to teaching. Having been academically trained, she worked with many different professors and knew what teaching styles she would and would not emulate. Further, she saw working with students as important to her practice as a working artist. Pindell explained, “I think teaching helps me a lot, just so it keeps me fresh, because I can help the younger students – and in some cases, older students – with their work with formal issues. That keeps me informed about how I should think about my work, as well.”

Pindell’s story highlights the challenges of being a working artist, the importance of teaching others, fighting racism and sexism in the art world and beyond, as well as the long-overdue recognition of African American artists.

To learn more about Howardena Pindell’s life and work, check out her oral history

 


“They Got Woken Up”: SLATE and Women’s Activism at UC Berkeley

HUAC Protest
In 1960, San Francisco police officers used fire hoses against SLATE students and civil rights activists protesting a hearing at City Hall of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The police action was front page news, including in the San Francisco Chronicle. Photo: Cindy Kamler

For students across the country, college is a time of political awakening. And perhaps no other university has earned its reputation for radical student politics quite like UC Berkeley. Indeed, mid-century political activism around civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the Free Speech Movement has shaped how students, faculty, and administrators experience life at Berkeley today.

However, one important part of Berkeley’s political history that often gets left out of the conversation is the New Left student political party SLATE. SLATE — so named because the group backed a slate of candidates who ran on a common platform for ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California) elections  — operated between 1958 and 1966, and ignited a passion for politics in the face of looming McCarthyism and what many perceived as the University of California’s encroachment on student rights to free speech. These students translated political theory they learned in the classroom to action, even when it went against University policies. Perhaps SLATE’s most important ideological contribution to Berkeley’s campus and to other social movements is the “lowest significant common denominator.” This concept allowed the group to form a big tent coalition between Marxists, liberal Democrats, and others by only choosing political positions and actions that the whole group could agree on. As a result, the group became involved with civil rights, labor organizing, and anti-war protests on campus and across California. Most notably, in May of 1960, SLATE and other student activists protested the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings at the San Francisco City Hall. In response to the peaceful sit-in, police blasted students with fire hoses and dragged them down stairs before placing them under arrest. This event was emblematic of SLATE’s commitment to activism, even when it came at personal risk.

In recent years, the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library has conducted a series of interviews with members of SLATE to keep alive memories of the group’s influence on ideology and political infrastructure at UC Berkeley.

An essential part of SLATE’s story is the contributions of its women members. SLATE operated at a time before the women’s movement, but its work became an important introduction to political organizing for a generation of women students at Berkeley. These women were dedicated members of the group, but often felt sidelined in SLATE leadership. And yet, their work helped to change political culture and campus life at Berkeley. Three of these groundbreaking Berkeley women are Cindy Lembcke Kamler, Susan Griffin, and Julianne Morris. 

Cindy Lembcke Kamler was just a freshman when she connected with SLATE in the spring of 1958, drawn in by the political ideals of the group dominated by male upperclassmen and graduate students. Susan Griffin and Julianne Morris were among the second generation of SLATE activists and joined the group around the same time in 1960 — after the famous HUAC protest.

All of these women came from politically left families who feared encroaching McCarthyism. Griffin and Morris also had connections to Judaism. These backgrounds helped ignite a political consciousness in these women that led them to SLATE.

Certainly Kamler, Griffin, and Morris’s oral histories contribute to the larger archive of SLATE history, but they also speak specifically to their experiences as women in this group. For instance, Griffin and Morris recalled instances of feeling marginalized and of being left to do what Morris called the “scut work,” like mimeographing fliers and cooking for hungry activists. This work, while essential to maintaining operations, felt to them like gendered tasks. For her part, Kamler doesn’t remember gender discrimination in SLATE. She insisted, “Oh, no, I never made coffee or any of that stuff.” And yet, Griffin recalled that several years later at a meeting of SLATE women in the 1970s, 

“We were recounting how there was this prejudice against us and we were never allowed to have leadership positions. And husbands and boyfriends and guys from SLATE showed up at this meeting and started making fun of us and broke the meeting up. They thought that was the end of the story. Little did they know, [laughs] that was just the beginning of the story.”

These tensions came to a head at a 1984 SLATE reunion in which women newly empowered by feminism expressed displeasure with the way they had been treated while working for the campus political group. Many of the men denied there had been discrimination, but others took it to heart and sincerely apologized. Morris explained, “There were a lot of women who were really angry about how it had been. I don’t know that I was angry, in the sense that I really felt it was a different time and one can’t judge one time by another. But there was no question that that’s the way it was, and that’s what kind of was accepted.” Watching these events unfold, Kamler recalled, “I was just sitting there stunned. I didn’t do any of that stuff. I ran for office, I got elected, I was chairperson.”

Indeed, while there may have been invisible barriers for many of the women involved in SLATE, there were still opportunities to grow as individuals and leaders. Kamler ran for second vice president in the spring of 1958 and lost, but ran again for representative-at-large in spring of 1959 and won. She also served as the chair of SLATE for some time, helping to shape the group’s platform and activist agenda. Even Griffin and Morris were encouraged to run for ASUC office in the early 1960s, and had to learn how to campaign and feel confident in public speaking. Morris especially found running for office to be a formative experience. She remembered,

“And that was, for me, a big experience, because as I said, I was shy in terms of speaking out and I didn’t think that I could do it. And Mike Miller kept urging me to do it and saying, ‘You can do this. I’ll help you if you want, but you can do this! You’re going to be able to go to all of these fraternities and talk to them about ROTC. I just know you can do it.’ So I did it, and I really was very frightened about doing it, and I actually did fine. So that was, for me, kind of a breakthrough, that I was able to do something like that, because it wasn’t easy for me at the time.”

But as their lives became less centered around the UC Berkeley campus, these women drifted away from SLATE. Kamler married and left the group after the spring of 1960. Griffin and Morris had decreased their participation in SLATE or left campus entirely by 1964. And yet, as their oral histories reveal, the experiences these women had as Berkeley undergraduates in this student political party shaped their perspectives about politics and activism for years to come. For both Griffin and Morris, this activism took shape as involvement in the women’s movement. Griffin explained, “The guys may not have known it, but they were training feminist activists in all that period.” 

Thinking about the longer arc of SLATE’s impact on the lives of its dedicated members, Morris recalled of a reunion in the 1990s: 

“One of the things that we did was that we went around as a group and talked about what our lives were like now. And no one in that whole group went into business. Everybody was an organizer, a teacher, a social worker, a psychologist. It was so interesting that this group of people kind of, in some ways, stayed true to what we all went through in college. It really formed our lives.”

But most importantly, what these women learned from their time with SLATE was the importance of building and sustaining community in activist groups. For Morris, joining SLATE helped her find a place where she belonged. Griffin pointed to organizations of politically like-minded individuals as ways to create belonging and “joy” through an almost spiritual experience of protest.

And yet, the political work of Cindy Lembcke Kamler, Susan Griffin, and Julianne Morris wasn’t just personally fulfilling. For these individuals and generations of other women students, their political activism at UC Berkeley left an indelible mark on the campus. In thinking of this legacy, Morris reflected, “…it was one of the first…of the Left student movements. And I think it influenced a lot of people in that regard…I’m not at all sure that the Free Speech Movement would have happened without SLATE.” She concluded, “I think we were very successful in those years. We got a lot of people elected to the campus political organization, and I think people started thinking, at Cal, a little differently. They got woken up in a way that perhaps they would not have been.” 

To learn more about these activist women at Berkeley and the history of this early student political party, check out the Oral History Center’s SLATE Oral History Project.


Kathleen Dardes and the Global Impact of the Getty Conservation Institute

The Getty Oral History Project includes interviews with individuals across the spectrum of the Getty Trust, including the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), which does international work to advance the field of art conservation. Of the four programs in the Getty Trust, the GCI stands out both for its scientific collaboration with other Getty entities, and its dedication to sharing conservation information worldwide. Kathleen Dardes’ lengthy career working in various GCI training programs is emblematic of this mission.

Kathleen Dardes is the head of Collections at the Getty Conservation Institute. She studied art history and classics at Temple University in the 1970s, and then went on to study art conservation at the Courtauld Institute of Art in the 1980s, specializing in textile conservation. Dardes then worked as a conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She joined the GCI in 1988 as the senior coordinator for the Training Program.

Kathleen Dardes
Kathleen Dardes

When Dardes joined the GCI in 1988, this Getty program was only three years old and trying to establish itself in the field. Dardes recalls working to build credibility as an international art conservation organization, and struggling against “skepticism” about this new Getty entity:

“I think part of it had to do with the fact that we were so darn rich, and we could buy pretty much anything we wanted and could do anything we wanted, and we weren’t beholden to anyone except our trustees. That gave us a certain freedom, which I think was sometimes resented in the broader field. So we had to prove ourselves.”

Part of the way the GCI proved itself was investing heavily in the international training programs Dardes helped create to share conservation best practices worldwide. These included the idea of preventive conservation, or delaying the deterioration of objects through procedures like managing collections environments. Dardes explained the need for this training, saying, 

“In the field, you’d hear these funny stories about people making all sorts of elaborate measures to control environments in a gallery space or storage area, but the roof was leaking [laughs] or there was a pest issue or something. So we were looking at the small details, and not the larger system that the museum is.” 

In recent years, the GCI has undertaken a project called MEPPI or Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative. Dardes explained that the GCI and several partners worked hard to establish much-needed photograph preservation courses throughout the Middle East to help institutions protect these collections. This project included many challenges, not the least of which is political instability. In her interview Dardes shared the inspirational story of one MEPPI participant’s dedication to conservation, even in the midst of the Syrian Civil War:

“When we arranged a follow-up course in Lebanon, which was open to people from throughout the region, one of the participants in Syria, at great personal risk, got on a bus with her father, who was there to protect her, and took a bus from Syria to Beirut. Took her two days to do that, a trip that normally takes half a day. Couldn’t fly because it was too difficult to go to the airport, too risky, but came to Beirut to be with her old colleagues and take a course—which we all found absolutely stunning. But that’s how committed she was, not only to the course itself, to the collections she was in charge of, but also to the network that was forming. She wanted to see her old colleagues and be involved in this thing called MEPPI. So it sounds very pollyannaish, but it was a wonderful thing. People who don’t often have the opportunity to be involved in projects like this don’t take them for granted. It was something that we all thought was remarkable.”

Though she has not explicitly used her skills as a textile conservator while at the GCI, Dardes has found opportunities to engage with the larger implications of cultural heritage around the world. Indeed, being a part of the Getty Trust has opened global opportunities for her—and the GCI—to share and teach conservation best practices on an incredible scale. 

To learn more about her work with the Getty Conservation Institute, check out Kathleen Dardes’ oral history!


From the Archives: Irvin Shiosee

By Miranda Jiang

Miranda Jiang is an Undergraduate Research Apprentice at the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. She is a UC Berkeley history major graduating in Spring 2022.

Miranda image
Miranda Jiang

“I just can’t go out there with my Indian costume, because when I do that they might think, you know, oh, here comes a savage Indian.” — Irvin Shiosee

In 1942, Irvin Shiosee, a member of the Laguna Pueblo of the Southwest, moved with his family to Richmond’s boxcar village. Along with many members of the Acoma Pueblo, members of the Laguna Pueblo moved to this village (often referred to both as the Santa Fe Indian Village and the Richmond Indian Village) beginning in the 1920s. This migration followed a verbal agreement with the Santa Fe Railroad in California, which promised them employment in railroad maintenance and construction.  

As part of the “Rosie the Riveter” project, the Oral History Center has conducted over 250 interviews with individuals who lived in the Bay Area during World War II, including people who lived in Richmond’s boxcar village. In his 2005 interview, Shiosee recalls his childhood there: he describes rows of around sixty boxcars placed along the railway, each housing one or more families. The children’s playground was a small “swamp” where they would take makeshift rafts and search for tadpoles. Among other anecdotes, Shiosee describes how his father built his family an oven to make sure they didn’t “lose any of [their] traditional food,” such as sweet “Indian pudding” made in the oven overnight.

Shiosee image
Irvin Shiosee during his oral history interview.

Shiosee’s life within the village often seemed like a separate world from life outside and public school. Whereas day school at his old reservation was with other members of his tribe, at Peres Elementary School, there were Richmond-area children of many ethnicities. He had to learn English through Dick and Jane, and indigenous students were only allowed to speak English. He describes how students would “squeal on [them]” if they heard Shiosee or other Pueblo kids speaking Keresan. Subsequent punishments included standing against the wall or completing chores such as wood-chopping and cleaning the bathroom. 

Shiosee also encountered stereotypical perceptions of indigenous people through his interactions with other children. On the first day of school, the teacher couldn’t pronounce his last name while introducing him to the class. He could see the surprise on his classmates’ faces upon hearing that he was an “American Indian boy.” The media only represented people like him in stories of “cowboys versus Indians,” so to these American children, indigenous people were the enemy. 

“So that’s how they saw me,” he says, “as a savage Indian, I guess.” 

Neither did the administration show much support. Children viewed him as a figure from fables and histories, and they would come up to pat him. When he whacked their hands away, teachers would send Shiosee to the principal’s office where he would be disciplined for fighting.

As Shiosee grew older, he became more and more aware of two separate realms. In his life outside the village, he knew he would face hostility if he showed his Pueblo identity. He describes walking to junior high school in the morning: 

“I had to take off my Indian costume and hang it on this fence that I had to go through, and then put on my street clothes… ” 

Yet despite going to school in an English-speaking environment and being pressured to assimilate, Shiosee remained closely connected with his culture and language. At the end of the interview, Shiosee describes his relationship with English and Keresan:

“English language to me is like I’m copying somebody. It’s not my natural language. The language that I speak comes from my heart on to you, you know. But to imitate somebody is not really from the heart. It’s coming from the mouth.”

In 1982, the Santa Fe Railroad shut off the power to the village. Although Richmond’s boxcar village was populated for around 60 years, it is now a relatively little known piece of Bay Area history. It has been documented in a number of writings, including essays by emeritus Oregon State University professor Kurt Peters (see “Boxcar Babies: The Santa Fe Railroad Village at Richmond, California, 1940-1945”). An event at Richmond’s Native Wellness Center in 2009 included three former inhabitants of the village as speakers, two of whom have interviews with the Oral History Center. 

The boxcar village no longer exists physically, nor does it seem present in the Bay Area’s public consciousness. Although the inhabitants of the village attended local schools and events, and were spatially near other Bay Area neighborhoods, the Pueblo people preserved their culture and ways of life within the Richmond boxcar village. Ensuring knowledge of the Pueblo’s long history in the Bay Area is an important step towards recognizing what Shiosee already states in his interview: that rather than being faraway relics of history, he and his people are part of the present.

As a first step to learning more about the lives of Laguna and Acoma Pueblo people at this remarkable settlement, I encourage you to view the Rosie project’s compilation of interview segments related to the village. I further recommend reading and watching the full interviews, such as Irvin Shiosee’s interview.