by Shanna Farrell
During the first few months that I was settling into life in the Bay Area after moving across the country, I often listened to WNYC, a New York City-based radio station. One morning, as I was riding my bike to work, the host of their call-in show, akin to KQED’s Forum, announced the upcoming segment.
“What was better back in the day?” the host asked. “It’s an oral history of nostalgia, starring you. Tell us about what you think was better from a previous era, why you miss it, and whether you think it’s better because of nostalgia, or because things were, empirically, better back in the day. Call us or post below.”
My heart started to race. This call out felt so personal. They had gotten it so wrong. I pulled over and dialed their number. A producer answered, unaware of their error.
“I just heard your next segment is on the oral history of nostalgia,” I said. “But that’s not oral history.”
Confused, she asked me to explain what I meant. It was October of 2013, and I was fresh off earning a Master’s Degree in Oral History. I had spent a year taking method and theory classes, learning about what defines the discipline, exploring its boundaries. I had my interviews critiqued, my questions workshopped, and had been pushed to dig deeper into my research, all in the name of preparation. This felt dismissive of the work that we oral historians put into our interviews. It devalued the time (and money) that I’d put into my degree, and the job that I had just landed at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center.
As I tried to explain what oral history is and how what they were doing in this segment wasn’t it, I realized it would be impossible to fit into a two sentence elevator pitch. There’s so much that defines oral history, that makes it unique, distinct from other methods, that I could feel myself having trouble reducing it to something easy to pitch, just as they had to listeners.
Looking back on that moment, I wish I would have said that oral history is defined by the planning, the transparency, the collaboration, the recording, intersubjectivity, the preservation, the legacy. I wish I would have said that it could take weeks to carefully research and write an interview outline, hours to build rapport, and months to complete an interview series. I wish I would have said that it takes practice to craft questions and to listen in stereo, picking up on the things that aren’t said, and to be comfortable sitting in silence.
After I hung up the phone, I thought about why they called this segment “oral history.” I’m still thinking about it. The term became popular when magazines started running vox populi style interviews weaving together soundbites from different people to create a narrative. They ran pieces about the about the making of a movie, like Jurassic Park, or a TV show, like The Simpsons. Later, it became a household term when StoryCorps partnered with NPR to bring us our Friday driveway moments, produced from a carefully edited interview excerpt. Lately, it has seeped into literature. More and more, I see “oral history” to describe a work of memoir, creative nonfiction, and even fiction. Recently, I was reading the Sunday New York Times book review section and they positioned a new memoir as “part oral history, part urban history.” I couldn’t wrap my head around what this meant. How was it oral history? Had the author done interviews? How was this different from a regular memoir? And lately, I’ve seen a few journalists refer to themselves as oral historians without seeming like they have a solid understanding of what the term means, aside from it involving interviews.
Where does this lack of understanding stem from? Why is the term “oral history” battered around so easily? When did it first get misappropriated? The origin of the Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair versions are relatively straightforward, descending from the Jean Stein-style books like Edie: American Biography, which is constructed from interviews with people who knew Edie Sedgwick after her death in 1971, or books that recounted musical eras, like We Got the Neutron Bomb by Mark Spitz and Brendan Mullen (which also served as my first introduction to oral history when I was in high school) or Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. As for where the rest of it came from – like the recent trend in literature – it’s anyone’s guess.
I’m not the only one who has been noticing this trend. In 2014, the anonymous user @notoralhistory joined Twitter. For a while, they tweeted examples of people labeling articles or projects as oral history that were, indeed, not actually oral history. They now promote examples of oral history and engage in conversations around best practices. There are practitioners who also tweet bad examples of oral history, using #notoralhistory, which are often amusing, and then maddening, and then amusing again.
The problem with these mediums is that they can’t accomplish the same things that actual oral history does. These narratives just provide soundbites, while oral history gives us much more context. They don’t include any audio (or video), so we lose the ability to connect with a human voice. They are highly edited, whereas oral history allows people to speak in their own style. They are usually layered with other voices, instead of giving someone individual space to fully narrate their own story.
The link in @notoralhistory’s bio takes you to the Oral History Association’s website, to the page where they define oral history. Here, they share a quote from Donald Ritchie’s book, Doing Oral History. He writes:
“Oral History collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews. An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format. Recordings of the interviews are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization or other form of public presentation. Recordings, transcripts, catalogs, photographs and related documentary materials can also be posted on the Internet. Oral history does not include random taping, such as President Richard Nixon’s surreptitious recording of his White House conversations, nor does it refer to recorded speeches, wiretapping, personal diaries on tape, or other sound recordings that lack the dialogue between interviewer and interviewee.”
Oral history can accomplish so much. It gives us insight into the past, hearing directly from the people who lived through various moments in history. By archiving the recordings, we can listen to how narrators tell their stories, and gain insight into why they told it this way. We can put a human face on history and learn from those who came before us. And, when oral history is done right, through careful preparation, research, and recording, we can ensure that these people are not forgotten, their stories not reduced to a soundbite.
It is with similar intention that we are devoting many of our articles this month that revolve around the boundaries of oral history. You’ll hear from us about our experience doing oral history and what makes it different from other disciplines and methods. We hope you follow along.
This season of the Berkeley Remix we’re bringing to life stories about our home — UC Berkeley — from our collection of thousands of oral histories. Please join us for our fourth season, Let There Be Light: 150 Years at UC Berkeley, inspired by the University’s motto, Fiat Lux. Our episodes this season explore issues of identity — where we’ve been, who we are now, the powerful impact Berkeley’s identity as a public institution has had on student and academic life, and the intertwined history of campus and community.
The three-episode season explores how housing has been on the front lines of the battle for student welfare throughout the University’s history; how UC Berkeley created a culture of innovation that made game-changing technologies possible; and how political activism on campus was a motivator for the farm-to-table food scene in the city of Berkeley. All episodes include audio from interviews from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library.
“What Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse team did was probably the most radical gesture in restaurants and cooking in America in the last century. It’s important that it happened in Berkeley.” -Chef Christopher Lee
Episode 3, Berkeley After Dark, written and produced by interviewer Shanna Farrell, is about the connection between the history of farm-to-table eating and the campus community. Alice Waters helped pioneer the concept of eating local, seasonal, and organic food at her restaurant, Chez Panisse, located just a few blocks from campus on Shattuck Avenue. This grew out of her combined love of feeding people and political activism, evolved into a culinary revolution. And it couldn’t have happened without UC Berkeley. The intertwined history between campus and the community gave Chez Panisse an audience, and a workforce, creating a symbiotic relationship.
This episode includes audio from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library, including: Christopher Lee, Narsai David, and Dylan O’Brien. Voiceover of Marion Cunningham’s interview by Amanda Tewes and Paul Bertolli’s interview by John Fragola. Supplemental interviews with Chris Ying.
Following is a written version of the The Berkeley Remix Podcast Season 4, Episode 3
Hello and welcome to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. I’m Martin Meeker, Director of the Center. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. This season, we’re bringing to life stories about our home, UC Berkeley, from our collection of thousands of oral history interviews. Please join us for our fourth season, inspired by the University’s motto, Let There Be Light: 150 Years at UC Berkeley. The third and final episode of this season, Berkeley After Dark, was produced by Shanna Farrell.
When you think of Berkeley, you might think of revolution. From the Free Speech movement, to Apartheid divestment, to recent protests on the UC Berkeley campus — the university has a reputation for fighting the power. But the university campus isn’t the only site of revolution in Berkeley. Just a few blocks away, Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto is home to a very different type of revolution — a delicious one. Take it from food writer Chris Ying.
What Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse team did was probably the most radical gesture in restaurants and cooking in America in the last century. [17:30] It’s important that it happened in Berkeley.
Chez Panisse is a legendary California restaurant that opened in 1971. It’s located in an iconic, A-frame style craft house, just a few blocks north of the UC Berkeley campus, on Shattuck Avenue. It was founded by Paul Aratow and Alice Waters, and she’s the one who made the restaurant famous. They had an idea that was both radical and simple: they wanted to serve food that was grown locally, organically, and sustainably – using classic French cooking techniques. They believed fresh, seasonal ingredients should be the star of any dish.This concept may not seem revolutionary now, but then, it was. This was the 70s – a time when canned vegetables were everywhere and tv dinners were king.
It had such an enlightened approach…Alice’s vision…built upon French food with local ingredients. Her brilliance was to say, ‘Hey, we’re here in California and there’s all this wonderful stuff here. Use it! Cook with it!”
That was chef Christopher Lee, who recorded an interview with the Oral History Center in 2004. He worked at Chez Panisse for over ten years, learning how to cook in a way that highlighted California’s rich agricultural produce.
For Alice Waters, who founded the restaurant, eating is a political act. She’s written about this in her many cookbooks – 16, to be exact – and the memoir that she published in 2017, Coming to My Senses. Waters grew up in New Jersey, and arrived in Berkeley as a college student in the mid-1960s. She transferred from UC Santa Barbara during a moment of unrest. Again, this was Berkeley in the 1960s. Waters quickly got caught up in the Free Speech movement and started working for anti-Vietnam War politician Robert Scheer. Here’s food writer Marion Cunningham from our 2001 interview with her, as read by Amanda Tewes.
[Record voice over] I came to know Alice early on. She belonged to a group of people who were rebelling at the university, politically. They had an underground letter, a political letter. She was looking for a place, because these people had no money, and she was worried about how they were going to eat. That was the motivator.
Waters had traveled abroad to France during her junior year, where she learned about food and cooking. She’d gone to farmers’ markets and learned about the way that French culture approaches food. This experience inspired Waters when she returned to Berkeley. She wanted to bring the food she’d fallen in love with in France to her own community in the East Bay — and she wanted it to be accessible across barriers, especially financial ones. She began cooking dinners for friends, then circulating that underground political letter Marion Cunningham mentioned. Waters was looking for a place to build her vision. Chez Panisse opened in 1971, and it soon attracted other like-minded revolutionaries and chefs.
[Recorded voiceover] My nose led me there. I could smell really good stock being made. I could smell that there was something good going on – really good. It was the smell of the place that attracted me, mostly.
That was Paul Bertolli, James Beard award-winning chef and writer, from the Oral History Center’s 2004 interview with him, as read by John Fragola. Bertolli got his start in the Chez Panisse kitchen, before going on to be the executive chef at Oakland’s Oliveto. Bertolli says when Waters launched Chez Panisse in 1971, she put flavor first. She bought all her food in season, from organic farmers within 50 miles of the restaurant.
It was so radical and so different from what other people were doing, and so bold. It’s important that the legacy of radical thought and free speech that people associate with Berkeley really play a part in her being able to do that at Chez Panisse. The Bay Area is home to a lot of innovation because of that spirit.
That’s Chris Ying, food writer and co-founder of the late Lucky Peach magazine, as well as a Cal alum. We sat down recently to talk about Berkeley’s culinary legacy. When Chez Panisse started, people weren’t talking about where food was coming from or how it was grown. Most restaurants at the time relied on third party vendors that are typically delivered in bulk by distributors. They didn’t have direct relationships with the farmers who supplied their food. Now, Waters was trying to change all that. Waters cultivated individual relationships with some of the best producers around. Here’s Dylan O’Brien, who interned at Chez Panisse kitchen in the early 2000s while bartending next door at Cesar, a restaurant in the Chez Panisse family. He now owns of Prizefighter in Emeryville, California, a bar that’s just a short drive from Shattuck Avenue.
That was such a cool experience because it’s such a beautiful kitchen that couldn’t exist in any restaurant that was built today. The incredible ingredients and the number of purveyors they worked with was totally mind-blowing to me that you know some guy would show up with a box the size of a shoe box with like the greatest persimmons that had ever been grown. They get lettuces from some guy who lives in the Berkeley Hills who just grows the coolest lettuces.
Great food needs an audience, and the people of Berkeley were there to provide. In 1970, undergraduate enrollment hit more than 18,000, bringing lots of hungry people to Berkeley. Here’s Paul Bertolli again, talking about taking advantage of the affordable midnight dinners that Waters ran for a few months in 1974, as read by John Fragola.
I came to Cal the same year that Chez Panisse opened. I ate there frequently. I remember when the menu was $4. I went to the midnight steak and red wine feeds.
Of course, to anyone familiar with Chez Panisse, these cheap student dinners might sound incredible. A meal there today could cost a hundred dollars per person, instead. So what changed? Chez Panisse served meals to students for next-to-nothing, until the restaurant lost so much money that Waters was forced to stop. But by then, the restaurant was attracting a different clientele – Parents of students, looking for a nice place to bring their children, and professors, in need of a place to either impress or unwind. These guests gave Chez Panisse a steady stream of customers with disposable income. Narsai David, a chef who has worked in the Bay Area since the 1970s, attributes the type of professionals that Berkeley attracts to the restaurant’s success. Here he is in a 2011 interview.
Well, I think it’s a lot more than just food. I think in Berkeley, first you can’t escape the fact that you have a very, very liberal, very highly educated, very sophisticated town, with the history of the university and the Lawrence Lab up on the hill, and these businesses in West Berkeley that depended on scientists and technicians who had engineering skills and laboratory skills. There was a pretty sophisticated bunch of people around here.
Suddenly, Chez Panisse wasn’t just a restaurant with a unique approach to local ingredients. It was gathering attention as a fine dining establishment — filled with academic elites. Here’s Christopher Lee again.
There was a joke at Chez Panisse that even the dishwasher had a PhD. It was kind of funny, because there were three bussers who were PhD candidates.
While the original mission of feeding hungry college students was shifting — that didn’t mean UC Berkeley’s campus community was being left behind. Fortunately, Chez Panisse’s location on the fringe of Berkeley’s campus meant there was a steady supply of student workers. Students needed to work to pay for their education at Berkeley. In 1975, tuition was free for Californians, but by the end of the decade it was rising sharply. Today, tuition costs almost 15 thousand dollars for undergraduate in-state residents and about 43 thousand dollars for out of state residents. On top of tuition, there are books, food, and housing to pay for — in a city where the cost of living is one of the highest in the country. Since the 1970s, students like Chris Ying and Christopher Lee have been drawn to Berkeley’s restaurants jobs where tips are often paid in cash, and there is free food before the start of a shift. Ying says he was also drawn to the late hours — perfect for a college student’s schedule.
I went to school until 3 or 4 and then went straight to the restaurant and worked all night.
And here’s Dylan O’Brien again, talking about his restaurant job when he was a student around the same time as Ying in the early 2000s.
I was making $150 to $250 dollars in tips. I worked every Friday and Saturday night. My friends were out partying or going to the football game on Saturday, and I wasn’t because I’d go to work.
Narsai David also turned to restaurant work when he was a student at Cal in the 1960s.
Through my college years, I worked at Hy’s Drive-in, at Mel’s Drive. I was working, I think it was thirty hours a week. It was a substantial thing; but I didn’t have any choice. I would send money home to my mother, even when I was working up here. There was no way I could’ve made it otherwise.
Berkeley’s growing restaurant industry has become a staple of student employment. And Chez Panisse was once again at the center of this change. Christopher Lee says Waters insisted on paying her employees fairly
That was always one of Alice’s mandates; she wanted to offer people a livable wage, as a lot of places didn’t in the old days.
As a result, many student workers fell in love with the restaurant industry during their time at Cal. Again, here’s Chris Ying.
I started seeing Cal as not just a school. You start to see it as representative of something important, and how much of a role Berkeley played in food. As food became more important to me, it really gave me this deeper appreciation for where I was.
This growing appreciation for food and community helped launch the careers of other influential people in the food world around the country. Many of them opened restaurants nearby, bringing more eateries close to campus. San Francisco Chronicle journalist Herb Caen even coined a term: “Gourmet Ghetto,” in his column to describe the wave of restaurants opening on Shattuck Avenue that shared Waters’ socially conscious approach to food.
He was joking about how only in a place like Berkeley could the word ghetto apply to something like food. The gourmet ghetto, in and about the environs of Chez Panisse, Shattuck, between Cedar and Vine.
As far as the influential Berkeley chefs, it’s Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower, Paul Bertolli, the people who often get credited as having started this California Cuisine movement. There’s so many players that descend from there, whether it’s Cal Petronelli, who was part of the Chez Panisse family or Steven Singer who has become a very important wine importer and a huge figure in the Berkeley world. Everything started with Chez Panisse though. Chez Panisse was the best and most important restaurant in the world that it happened to be down the street from us.
Chez Panisse’s radical impact is hard to measure. The concept of eating local, seasonal, and organic food, which grew out of Alice Water’s combined love of feeding people and political activism, evolved into a culinary revolution. Her restaurant changed the way that we think about food and how we cook at home. It launched the careers of renowned chefs like Paul Bertolli and Christopher Lee. It inspired countless chefs to model their own restaurants after farm-to-table eating, which is now cultural currency. And it couldn’t have happened without UC Berkeley. The intertwined history between campus and the community gave Chez Panisse an audience, and a workforce, creating a symbiotic relationship. This relationship continues today, evident when you walk into a restaurant near campus, after dark, long after the sun has set.
This episode was written and narrated by Shanna Farrell with assistance from Amanda Tewes, Francesca Fenzi, and Oral History Center staff. The Berkeley Remix theme music by Paul Burnett and additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to The Bancroft Library. Interviews in this episode are from the Oral History Center’s collections. To learn more about these interviews, visit our website, listed in the show notes. I’m Martin Meeker and thank you for listening to the Berkeley Remix, and please join us next time.
One of our favorite parts of the Oral History Center’s annual Advanced Summer Institute is the opportunity to hear from others who are using oral history in their work. One of our favorite guest speakers, Dr. Robert Keith Collins, will be back again to discuss how he uses oral history, and person-centered ethnography, in his work on American Indian cultural changes and African and Native American interactions in North, Central, and South America.
Q: How did you come to oral history?
Oral history has been something that I have grown up with, as the telling of family stories was a way that my family ensured I knew who my relatives were, what they were, where they were from, and what they went through. In my professional career, my exposure to oral history came through studying anthropology, Native Americans studies, and Ethnic Studies, particularly African American cultures and histories. Within these fields of study, oral history told the stories uncorroborated by the historical record. Although, eventually some were. This taught me that oral histories and written histories are two sides of the same coin. Both records are accounts of the past; however, oral history offers insight into the agency individuals exert in their lives and the observations that they make of the world around them.
Q: How do you use oral history in your work?
In my research, I take a person-centered ethnographic approach, which looks at individuals within cultures and how they remember their past through what they say, do, and embody. Respondents are interviewed at least fifteen times to show their evolving understanding of lived experiences. The oral histories that are obtained reveal how individuals understand their experiences, may say one thing and do another in certain situations for an expected outcome, and remembered pasts that have been actively – not passively – navigated and negotiated though choices. From these, my analyses attempt to be holistic by examining the relevance of what individuals say, do, and embody on how they impact the people around them and how the people around them shape their choices and experiences.
Q: Your work deals a lot with race and identity, particularly in the Choctaw Nation. How do you feel that oral history is uniquely positioned to explore questions of identity?
My work deals with race and identity among Choctaw descendants both within and outside of communities with significant populations. The reason my work has evolved this way is that I have found commonalities in Native American mixed-blood populations, both black and white, who experience daily challenges to the ancestries that they assert, while trying to maintain their sense of self as a person of Native American ancestry and/or cultural practices. Oral history, as a resource, allows me to explore the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Slave narratives for the lived experiences of enslaved individuals of blended African and Choctaw ancestry and those of unmixed ancestry that were Choctaw in cultural practices and language. Through these oral histories, I am also able to examine how they coped with slavery, especially those that were bought and sold by both Choctaw and white American slave holders and needed to adapt to the lifeways of each. It is important to remember that the WPA interviews represent a body of oral histories that center on a question rarely asked of formerly enslaved individuals: What was it like to be a slave? The person-centered ethnographic approach allows me to interview and listen to their descendants and analyze how individuals continue to cope with the inconsistencies between identification as Choctaw descendants while being racially recognized as black or white. I have found that oral history help us examine the answers to the question “Who am I?” that respondents give far better than any other medium, as there is very little that one can learn about individual lived experiences from collective or group experiences, except for common experiences, which shed more light on the social rather than experiential phenomena.
Q: You’ve discussed a person-centered ethnography as an approach to oral history. Could you describe this and share an example of how you use this in your work?
Yes. As mentioned, a person-centered ethnographic approach enables the understanding of individuals as active and not passive observers and participants in their own lived experiences. In my work with individuals of African and Native American ancestry, I will interview respondents 15-20 times to understand why they said what they said, did what they did, and represent to themselves something they did or do not represent to others within and outside of their families. Unlike the oral historian, who interviews respondents once in a setting, 15-20 interviews allow me to understand how a respondent’s understandings of my questions have changed and evolved over the course of the interview process. This time commitment also enables the respondent to reflect on the questions asked, the memories the questions evoked, and the answer(s) and stories told during interviews. These practices often lend to subsequent interviews becoming more in-depth and detailed about the respondents’ motivations and self-identification within contexts. For example, when exploring the oral histories left by Indian Freedmen, or former slaves of Choctaw slaveholders, and African-Native American children with enslaved Choctaw mothers and fathers, I noticed common themes between what they said about their family origins and the lifeways that they practiced; however, inconsistencies in identification practices that related to nineteenth century slave recognition practices were also noticed. An individual in one context would self-identify according to genealogical ancestry when describing their experiences as a slave to the WPA interviewers, and as a slave when describing interactions with former slave owners to the interviewer. This situational variance led me to believe, and support my hypothesis, that even for former slaves, the answer to the question “Who am I?” was context depended and there was much left to learn about the complex identities as children, despite illegitimacy, of enslaved and/or slave holding Choctaw individuals. This variation also enabled me to illuminate the why behind why they represented to themselves something other than chattel that they had represented to others, especially slave holders.
Q: When you teach oral history methods at San Francisco State, what are some of the key things you want your students to take away from your classes?
When I teach oral history at San Francisco State, I want my gators, especially the American Indian studies majors and minors, to learn the importance of being a good listener and take away the notion that there is much history in the oral narratives that people leave behind and are told to individuals, communities, and/or subsequent generations. It is a practice that predates written histories, still in use by over 90% of the world’s population, and offer us insight into human experiences, particularly with racism and identity. Within these remembered and spoken histories is evidence of what human experiences, especially with race and identity, are like from first-person perspectives. They require our attention and respect as much as the peer-reviewed written histories to which they were exposed.
Robert Keith Collins, PhD, a four-field trained anthropologist, is Associate Professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University. He holds a BA in Anthropology and a BA in Native American Studies from the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Collins also holds an MA and PhD in Anthropology from UCLA. Using a person-centered ethnographic approach, his research explores American Indian cultural changes and African and Native American interactions in North, Central, and South America. His recent academic efforts include being a co-curator on the Smithsonian’s traveling banner exhibit “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas,” an edited volume with Cognella Press (2017) on “African and Native American Contact in the U.S.: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives”, an edited volume for the American Indian Culture and Research Journal at UCLA (2013) on “Reducing Barriers to Native American Student Success”, a forthcoming edited volume under contract with Routledge on “Studying African-Native Americans: Problems, Perspectives, and Prospects,” a forthcoming edited volume under contract with Cognella Press (2019) on “Native American Populations and Colonial Diseases.”
Here at Berkeley it feels a lot like we skipped spring this year entirely, moving quickly from a cold and wet winter to gloriously warm and sunny days. Unlike much of the campus, the Oral History Center doesn’t exactly shut down during the summer, but we do switch gears a bit.
In recent years we’ve come to rely increasingly on the workplace contributions of our amazing student employees. In fact, over the past year, we’ve benefited from the hard work of eighteen Berkeley students. They’ve worked on a variety of projects and tasks, from creating metadata for oral history video now streaming online to drafting tables of contents for our transcripts, plus a whole lot more. With this particular change of seasons, we sadly say goodbye to a number of excellent students — while also congratulating them on graduating! — including Maggie Deng, Cindy Jin, Carla Palassian, and Marisa Uribe.
Summer also typically means travel for those working at the university. Travel, as it turns out, has become a regular feature of life year-round at the Oral History Center in recent years. Our Getty Trust oral history project has had several interviewers traveling to New York and Los Angeles to do their work, the Chicano/a Studies project has sent us to various in the West and Southwest, and our oral history with former California Governor Jerry Brown means regular overnight trips to his ranch outside of Williams, California, for some pretty intense interview sessions. Oral history at Berkeley is no longer just a local or, even regional, affair. We follow our research to where the good, important, and impactful stories are located, no matter what the season.
Thinking about the change of seasons also reminds me of that moving passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes, brought into popular culture in the 1960s by the Byrds in their song “Turn Turn Turn”: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” I think of this now, a day after the passing Herb Sandler, a narrator I worked with very closely over the past three years on his lengthy life history interview, and a broader project that resulted in another 18 interviews. Herb was a giant in whatever work he pursued. He was always deeply involved, passionately motivated, prophet-like in his indignations, compassionate beyond reason, and never ever considered retirement as an option. I join the chorus of those who express sadness at seeing him leave us, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with him to document his life’s work.
Compared to many institutions, the university remains closely tied to the seasons. And while the staff of the Oral History Center doesn’t follow the academic calendar as would an academic department, we are deeply affected by the seasons and by the cycles of life — by the arrival and departure of our student employees, by the beginning of an oral history and by the passing of a respected narrator. As I type this, looking over me from 20 stories up are Carson and Cade, two peregrine falcon chicks whose lives, up until this week, were lived on a precipice of Sather Tower. Now, they are in flight, beginning to explore the world around them.
-Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director, Oral History Center, UC Berkeley
Mondragón is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles working on a project that looks at the sport of boxing and the ways in which black and brown boxers politically and culturally express themselves via the famous ring entrance. Academically, Mondragón has written reviews of the boxing documentary “Champs” for the Journal of Sports History and Louis Moore’s I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915, for the International Review for the Sociology of Sport. He has also written on boxing for Remezcla, We Are Mitú, and L.A. Taco and has been quoted in CNN and Bleacher Report articles and interviewed by ESPN Deportes-Seattle. More recently, he contributed an article and photographs of professional boxers José Carlos Ramírez and Carlos “The Solution” Morales for The Streets Magazine. Mondragón is the recipient of the prestigious University of California Cota Robles Fellowship, NCAA Ethnic Minority Enhancement Postgraduate Award, and Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports-Scholar Award. In the summer of 2017, Mondragón was a Fellow of the Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies Program in Washington DC where he conducted interviews for the Latinos and Baseball Project.
A Word from Mondragón on His Project:
My research advances conversations in the fields of critical sports studies, Chicana/o/x studies, cultural studies, and American studies. I explore the sport of boxing and the ways in which professional fighters deploy expressive culture (music, style, fashion, and entourages) in their ring entrances. I conceptualize the ring entrance as a political site of struggle where boxers communicate new forms of subjectivities and identities, and at times, both overtly and covertly perform dissent and resistance to dominant ideologies and structures of power. Given that boxers navigate a hyper-capitalist and neoliberal sporting industry that is unregulated, I argue that boxers are vulnerable pawns that navigate a shifting sports market as well as the effects of dominant ideologies of race, gender, sexuality, and poverty. For me, the ring entrance has spatial dimensions of infinite possibilities that allows fighters to subtly and creatively reimagine an alternative world and liberation.
All photos by Rudy Mondragón
We recently caught up with Mondragón to ask him about his background, how he became interested in boxing, and who he plans to interview this summer.
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where do you go to school and what are you studying?
I am in the fifth year of my doctoral studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. I am working on my PhD in Chicana and Chicano Studies. When I first started my studies, I was planning on conducting a 16th century cultural history on indigenous communities in Central Mexico to interrogate race and religious hegemony. That didn’t really work out [chuckle]. I have always been passionate about boxing. A couple of weeks into my first quarter of graduate school, I realized that I had not watched a single boxing match in over a month. Something clicked in my mind and heart. I mentally checked out of the seminar and started writing down my ideas about how boxing could be an area of study that would allow me to interrogate race, history, stories, culture, and athletic-activism. I was excited but also worried that my ideas would not be accepted. That’s when I decided to talk with Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson. I trust her greatly, so we scheduled a Skype meeting, so I could share my new research vision. I’ll never forget what happened during our talk. As I shared my ideas, Dr. Johnson reached over the table and grabbed a book. She put the book in front of her laptop camera, so I could see the cover. The book was about women and boxing! It was the sign I needed to pursue this area of study. Dr. Johnson is now the chair of my committee.
Q: How did you become interested in researching professional boxing?
My parents got me into watching professional boxing. I was 7 years old in the summer of 1992. This was the year that the Fight of the Century was to take place between Julio Cesar Chavez and Hector “Macho” Camacho. The fight was being advertised everywhere. My mother would always have a Spanish print of the local television listings. I remember the September issue of that print featured both boxers on the front cover. It was my mom who indirectly put me on to boxing. On the night of September 12, 1992, my father took me to my uncle Felipe’s house for the big fight. As a working-class family, the reason we went to his house for the fight was because he had a black box, which was a device designed to gain illegal access to all cable television channels. This meant that pay-per-view events, like this fight in particular, would not cost my uncle a single dime. I remember rooting for Chavez because his Mexican nationality was similar to my father’s. I wanted Chavez to win, but as I watched some of the behind the scenes footage from Camacho’s dressing room, I began to gravitate towards the Puerto Rican fighter. He was flamboyant, flashy, loud, and full of energy. He had a boxing outfit that resembled a Captain America suit. The only difference was that on the back of the red, white, and blue outfit was a huge “M” for Macho. His suit was representative of Captain Puerto Rico or Captain Macho. It was really awesome because it was a proud statement about who he was. As Camacho made his way out his dressing room and towards the tunnel to start his ring walk, the sounds of McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” blasted inside the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. I remember seeing Puerto Rican flags in the stands, fans were dancing, and Camacho’s mom had her hands raised in the air as her son danced his way to the ring. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the moment where my research on professional boxing got started. Since then, I’ve never stopped watching, studying, discussing, and now, writing about and photographing the world of boxing.
Q: You’re planning to interview Fernando “El Feroz” Vargas, a two-time light middleweight world champion who boxed from 1997 – 2007. How did you choose him and what topics and themes are you hoping to explore with him in your interview?
I was 17 years old when I first watched Fernando Vargas (AKA El Feroz and The Aztec Warrior). This was in 2002, a year after the September 11 attacks in New York. This match was one of Fernando’s biggest career fights. He was going up against Oscar De La Hoya, a fighter that I was a huge fan of. Seventeen-year-old me was thrilled to watch De La Hoya fight against Vargas. Part of my fandom for De La Hoya was due to my alignment with De La Hoya’s identity performance. Oscar was the definition of the American Dream for some Mexican Americans. He is what the boxing world considers a corporate fighter, which in his case, meant he cultivated his career as a clean-cut corporate friendly fighter who performed a respectability that made him consumable by Mexican American middle-class and usable by corporate brands. It wasn’t until I got older and began to take Chicana and Chicano Studies courses that I realized why Fernando Vargas’s performance of identities was so important. Vargas’s fight with De La Hoya took place in the post-9/11 moment. This was a moment in which Michael Silk describes as a time in history where “dissent was silenced, a time in which it was not possible to fully articulate a sense of being American outside that which was normalized.” It was also a time when US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency was formed and the number of noncitizens detained in detention centers skyrocketed. Rather than assimilate to the political moment, Vargas entered the ring for his fight against De La Hoya in an unapologetic, courageous, and creative manner. He walked to the ring to live Mexican ranchero music, wore the colors of the Mexican flag, and was sponsored by DADA, a brand that was popular among hip hop communities. The media and fans often described him as a thug because of the way he dressed, his bald head, and his masculine bravado. This unapologetic performance in the post-9/11 moment is why Vargas matters as he can teach us a great deal about the ways in which subtle resistance can be performed within a sports and political context through the deployment of expressive culture. In his case, music and fashion.
As such, some of the themes I hope to explore are Fernando’s autobiography, particularly his childhood when he lived in the agricultural city of Oxnard, California and how he found the sport of boxing. Often, boxing is a sport that recruits people from low-income and poverty. For a select few, boxing serves as a vehicle out of poverty. I also want to explore his relationship with his former trainer, The Big G, who has had a huge impact on Fernando’s life both in and out of the ring. Fernando was also known for his ring entrances that featured the song “No Me Se Rajar” (I do not quit), Aztec pyramid stones that he would punch through to get to the boxing ring, and the use of Mexican and Aztec symbols for his ring attire. By exploring Fernando’s ring entrances, I will be able to explore Fernando’s multiple identities and how those informed the curation of his ring entrances. And finally, I want to center his experience as a boxer who fought in the pre-and post-9/11 moment. In particular, I want to learn more about his claims to dignity and cultural pride during this historical period.
Q: What are you most excited to get out of your fellowship with the OHC?
The timing of being awarded this fellowship was terrific. I just defended my dissertation proposal, making me a doctoral candidate. As I am on the eve of conducting interviews with professional boxers for my dissertation project, this fellowship will allow me to gain necessary guidance from Shanna Farrell. It will also give me a hands-on experience in conducting the longest oral history to date in my career. I am excited about this because I will have experts from the Oral History Center providing me with direction, feedback, and critique that will help refine my current skill set and strengths when it comes to conducting interviews and oral histories. I’m also excited to contribute the first oral history with a professional fighter to be archived at a prestigious research library.
Documenting the history of the University of California is an endeavor that we take very seriously at the Oral History Center. As a result of our work over the past sixty-five years, we have conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews in which some key facet, influential individual, or impactful event of the university is narrated and explained. Hundreds more interviews (1,995 according to our search tool) at least mention the university in passing, providing anecdotes that further expand the archive of first-personal testimony about the university. The University of California’s history is among the best documented in the world because these numerous and diverse voices were recorded by the Oral History Center and archived at the Bancroft Library.
All the more remarkable is that we have done this work with very little dedicated university support. Certainly we have received occasional funding from the UC Office of the President, this or that college or department, or a benefactor who wants to underwrite a specific interview. These type donations, in fact, are responsible for the vast majority of University of California oral histories that we’ve done, and we are grateful for the continued support of those who recognize a need for an interview and work with us to make it happen.
This works well enough, except in those instances in which we identify a key individual who needs to be interviewed but for whom there is no clear benefactor, or for documenting groups of people who have been left out of the mainstream historical narrative. In order to capture these oral histories, we have devoted the funds of one of our endowments to support an annual oral history in university history. The “Class of 1931” annual interview about university history is selected through a nomination process. Nominees are selected based on willingness of the nominee to participate, OHC interviewer expertise, uniqueness and rarity of the nominee’s story and level of contribution to campus life, and the generation of the nominee. Since we began this initiative, we have interviewed Laura Nader, Susan Ervin-Tripp, and others.
If you know of an individual who has made an important contribution to the campus (as a staff, faculty, or administrator) and has not been adequately recognized for their work, please consider nominating that person for the “Class of 1931” annual interview in university history. Nominations are due by May 1, 2019.
Charles B. Faulhaber Director
Oral History Center
It is with great sadness that we share the news that Willie C. Gordon, lawyer, noir writer, and library supporter, passed away on March 17, 2019. We conducted an oral history interview with him in 2017 and 2018.
Gordon was born and raised in Los Angeles, California and attended college at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his law degree at the University of California, Hastings College of Law. He worked as a lawyer in San Francisco for many years before becoming a mystery writer. He was the author of six books, including The Chinese Jars, King of the Bottom, and The Halls of Power, among others. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of libraries, and has made significant contributions to the Whittier High Library and to The Bancroft Library for their burgeoning California Detective Fiction Collection. OHC Interviewer Shanna Farrell interviewed Gordon about his early life growing up in Los Angeles, his affinity for libraries, education and career in the Bay Area, and becoming a writer in his retirement.
We are excited to announce that nominations for our Class of ’31 interviews are now open. These interviews are intended to document the life and contributions of a person who has participated in and contributed to UC Berkeley’s campus life.
Selection criteria for nominees include: willingness of the nominee to participate, OHC interviewer expertise, uniqueness and rarity of the nominee’s story and level of contribution to campus life, and the generation of the nominee. Past nominees have included Patricia Pelfrey and Susan Ervin-Tripp.
Nominations are due by May 1, 2019 for the annual “Class of 1931” interviewee; the 2019 interviewee will be announced in mid-May 2019. Direct any questions to Martin Meeker, Oral History Center director: firstname.lastname@example.org
by Martin Meeker; @MartinDMeeker
How do thoughtful, articulate, quiet people who have something to say get heard? In this day and age in which the loudest voices, the most outlandish ideas, and the most shocking stories get the greatest attention, is there even room for the longform, deep-dive oral histories that the Oral History Center produces? We certainly think that there is — actually, we’re pretty sure that not only is there a place for these interviews, but there is a real need for them. This leaves us with the question: how do we spread word of the remarkable interviews that we conduct? What’s the best way for people who could benefit from our work to learn about it and thus use it?
Since you’re reading this newsletter, you’re already in the loop and engaged with what we do (and we thank you for paying attention!). But we are also constantly examining the ways in which we attempt to connect and considering potential new avenues for outreach. Like most every organization today, we have a pretty robust social media presence. We use our feeds (twitter, facebook, instagram, youtube, and soundcloud) to announce the completion of new oral histories, to pay tribute to narrators who’ve achieved something or sadly passed away, or just to share things reasonably related to oral history which might interest our community. Have you engaged with us on social media? Are you interested in what we have to say? Do you think we might use it better? We want to know.
We try to extend our reach by hosting educational seminars and institutes, by speaking to classes and community groups, and by simply answering our emails (but we get a lot, so apologies in advance if I take a few days to get back to you!). We recognize that a 300-page oral history transcript is sometimes a difficult nut to crack, so we produce brief clips introducing folks to some main themes or interesting moments drawn from the interviews, and share these as widely as possible. We have begun producing podcasts and, soon, longer format videos to show ways in which the original recordings of our interviews can be used to create engaging and informative analytic pieces — and thus encouraging others to use our oral histories in similar ways. And, of course our transcripts continue to provide extraordinarily valuable, irreplaceable evidentiary bases to mountains of books, articles, and theses. What are other options that we might use to spread word of the remarkable interviews? How might the transcripts and recordings be used in novel and enlightening ways?
The big questions posed above are now being addressed head-on by our newly refurbished and expanded production/operations/communications team at the Oral History Center. As a result of a recent search to fulfill our “Communications Specialist III” vacancy, we hired two immensely qualified individuals. David Dunham, who has been on our staff for many years in other capacities, has assumed the new role of Operations Manager; Jill Schlessinger, who came to us from UCB Student Affairs, has joined us as Communications Manager. In addition to working as a team to make sure we continue our successful production of dozens of oral histories every year, Jill and David are tackling these very thorny questions focused on how to raise our collective voice so that the voices of narrators are heard and the content of their oral histories is widely known. Expect to hear more from us in the coming months as all of this comes to fruition. As always, we welcome your input and we’re happy to listen — you might say that’s something we do rather well!
Charles B. Faulhaber Director
The Oral History Center is pleased to announce our newest staff member, Jill Schlessigner. She joins our team as Communications Manager. We caught up with her recently to chat about her background in history, interest in oral history, and the projects that she’s most excited to embark on with the OHC.
Q: When did you first encounter oral history?
Schlessinger: As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I chose a senior thesis research course that was about oral history. I studied the field of oral history interviewing and research methodology and wrote an oral history thesis. I studied female college students’ attitudes towards abortion from the 1950s to 1980s. Interviewing people from different backgrounds and perspectives taught me a lot about the importance of solid preparation, not making assumptions, and keeping an open mind.
Q: You recently joined our team as a Communications Manager. What were you doing before the OHC?
Schlessinger: Before joining the Oral History Center, I was a content strategist in Student Affairs Communications at UC Berkeley. I’ve had the opportunity to work in a number of fields in my career — higher education, health care, human resources, technology — and I find working in education to be especially fulfilling.
Q: You have a PhD from UCB in History. What did you study?
Schlessinger: I studied US History at the turn of the century, with a focus on social history and women’s history. My dissertation, “Such Inhuman Treatment”: Family Violence in the Chicago Middle Class, 1871–1920, was an analysis of changing power dynamics and community intervention in middle-class families. Something interesting I learned was that many Chicago residents, without anywhere else to turn, pressured the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to address cases of child cruelty, and the Society ultimately changed its mission and name. The Illinois Humane Society became a pioneering child-saving organization. This is something that happened in cities across the country, and numerous animal protection agencies also expanded to protect children and other vulnerable people from physical cruelty.
Q: Which of the OHC interviews do you feel the most connection to, either because of your PhD or current interests?
Schlessinger: It’s challenging to choose just one project because the Oral History Center’s interviews touch on so many of our society’s most pressing issues. However, I would say I feel a connection to the interviews from the Rosie the Riveter World War II American Home Front collection. The Rosies are an important part of women’s history, the history of World War II, and our local history here in the East Bay, and I’ve always found their stories inspiring. On a fun note, I helped break the Guinness world record for the most people dressed as Rosie the Riveter in one place! It’s wonderful that the Oral History Center is instrumental in preserving these voices.
Q: What projects are most excited to be working on?
Schlessinger: The team at the Oral History Center produces an enormous amount of important work. There are the oral history interviews, of course, which delve into the thinking of some of California’s — and the world’s — greatest pioneers and influencers. And the podcasts based on these interviews bring to life the experiences of our narrators and the causes they championed. The Center also conducts a number of educational programs, which reach beyond academics to support journalists, public historians, independent scholars, and others to deepen their interviewing and research skills. We also employ a small army of students who help us with video and transcript production, research, communications, and more. Without them, our historians wouldn’t be able to conduct so many interviews, and it’s wonderful that in turn we are also able to give our students meaningful research and work opportunities. I’m excited to develop a communications plan that helps the Oral History Center share all of this marvelous work, so that people are able to take advantage of everything we have to offer.
Q: How do we get in touch with you?
Schlessinger: You can reach me at email@example.com. I’d love to hear from anyone who is interested in helping us share the stories of our narrators and the Center.