Creating Coalitions of Solidarity via Testimonios 

Creating Coalitions of Solidarity via Testimonios 

Author(s): Valeria Guevara Fernandez

Valeria Guevara Fernandez is a third-year student at Soka University of America where she studies international relations. She is particularly interested in wealth management, investment opportunities in Latin America and Caribbean studies. Her Colombian family heritage and immigrant experience at age 7 inspired the research for this project. She is currently completing an internship with Vista Equity Partners and will be studying abroad in Puerto Rico where she will continue to expand her experience in the finance sector. 

Throughout my Advanced Communication Skills writing course, I (Valeria) have discovered my connection and relationship with oral stories from the nostalgia I felt while browsing through different digital archives. Most of my family history, tradition, and experiences have been passed down through words, not writing. I have treasured each statement that has been shared by my great-grandparents, grandparents, and mother more than any history text presented to me in school. During the course, we read and listened to many different types of people who had a story and perspective to share. I related because I know how difficult it is to preserve every sentence, every word, every syllable.  

I wanted my project not only to be focused on the voices of a silent community but about the possibilities for intervention and genuine change that extend beyond the boundaries of academia. If we are truly listening to the voices in this archive, we are thinking about how we may plan and strive toward alternative futures that are more equitable and just than the world in which we presently live in (Reyes and Curry Rodríguez). I know the power I hold as an individual with the responsibility of passing them down to those who come after me. Those who must continue to bring these stories to life or else they never existed. I wanted to be able to expand the attainability and understanding of the five testimonies I found so that future archivists won’t scroll past them due to the lack of details or language barrier keeping them from exploring the perspectives of others.  

Although I do not attend the UofL and am not part of the community, I do plan to continue working with the rest of the testimonies. I will propose to Heather Fox an internship to work closer with the collection and Latinx community leaders for a larger contribution to the oral history project they initiated. An impact I intend to make is for the Oral History Center to have a more conscious understanding of the oral testimonies they are preserving and how important they are to the Latinx community that exists in this country, not just in Louisville. I knew I wanted to base my final project on my community. I wanted to highlight the voices of a community that continues to remain silent in this country. I wanted to do my part with the responsibility of sharing stories that are not as easily preserved as documents.  

The Project of Returns  

Throughout my research, I continually emphasize that the sound recordings I worked with are more than oral history—they are testimonios from the Latinx community of Louisville, Kentucky. They are full of struggles and experiences that set side by side the Latinx identity and the American Dream. Testimonios reflect a narrative research approach based on Latin American history, against the backdrop of socioeconomic injustice that has afflicted the area since 1950 (Reyes and Curry Rodríguez). As Cindy Cruz explains, “testimonio [in the United States] is an expression of the dispossessed, the migrant, and the queer, is a response to larger discourses of nation-building that often erase and make invisible the expandable and often disposable labor and experiences of immigrants, the working class, African Americans, and others” (p. 460). The Latina Feminist Group explains in their book Telling to Live that “from our different personal, political, ethnic, and academic trajectories, we arrived at the importance of testimonio as a crucial means of bearing witness and inscribing into history those lived realities that would otherwise succumb to the alchemy of erasure” (Torrez 2015). Testimonio allows researchers to bring awareness, offer opportunities to reflect critically, and examine the connection between lived experience and systems of oppression (Delgado Bernal, Burciaga, and Flores Carmona). 

Testimonio is a methodological approach for study and a pedagogical resource for teaching in the disciplines of Chicanx/Latinx and Educational Studies. According to qualitative researchers motivated by testimonies, storytelling—particularly counter storytelling—can assist to shift unfavorable mainstream opinions of racially minoritized groups. This has resulted in academic collective forms, such as the Chicana Feminist group, who see testimonio as shaping “a narrative format as redemption—as takers of the stories, readers of the narratives, and creators of the analysis” (Reyes and Curry Rodríguez). This qualitative technique demonstrates that racially minoritized persons can and do create meaningful forms of knowledge and provide opportunities for students and professors of color to speak and document their own stories, therefore altering the epistemological ways of social science research (Mangual Figueroa and Barrales). This is illustrated, for instance, in Romeo García’s reflection of his sense of /lack of belonging in the academy: 

As I think about the academic spaces I now occupy, I ponder what it would mean to re-center listening through storytelling and memory beyond the stories white folks tell in the academy. Community listening invites us to create presence from absence and sound from silence. How then might we embrace this, within a discipline that is overdetermined by a history that is both colonial and hierarchal, in ways that allow us to listen to, provide room for, and speak and haunt back with the heterogeneity of specters? How might we enact community listening, within a field that will re-write itself as colonial, both to be answerable to (to respond and answer to) a call to responsibility, however ungraspable it might be, and a setting-to-work? (Garcia, “Creating Presence from Absence”) 

No single definition of testimonio can contain the numerous and multiple uses of the term. However, it is possible to say that one of its central aspects is being a narrative of denunciation that implies an urgency to narrate. In addition, testimonio entails an intertextual narrative, since it always supposes a different version of the same event. Although testimonio is not just a specialty of women, women have offered some of the most powerful voices in testimonio, speaking out forcefully against injustices experienced by their communities. This, maybe more than anything else, emphasizes how testimonio differs from traditional oral history/life history interviews, as well as genres such as autobiography, which are generally organized through the individual’s linear progressive development. Testimonio refuses differences between the individual speaking and the collective from which they speak and is generally motivated by the immediate action-inspiring power of storytelling rather than peaceful or historically-‘informative’ objectives in and of themselves. 

Careful Reckonings and the Project of Being-with Others Otherwise 

Testimonios remain an essential component of the Latinx community’s attempts to question prevailing narratives and campaign for social justice today. Testimonios have allowed older generations to transmit their life experiences and social struggles to younger generations for them to learn more about their history and continue the fight. This is difficult to do with the current broad descriptions and lack of attention dedicated to the “Latin American-United States” category in the UofL Oral History Center. Providing greater access to these oral testimonios contributes to research on Latin American diaspora through different time periods and journeys. It also contributes to the possibilities of new stories, new perspectives, and new voices within our communities throughout the country. Latinx individuals can reclaim and share their own stories through testimonios, encouraging a deeper knowledge of their experiences and driving greater social change, specifically in the community of Louisville. 

I (Valeria) immigrated to the United States from Colombia at the age of 8. I have been in this country for 11 years now, but I have never abandoned my roots and culture no matter how hard this country tries to erase them. This has not been an easy thing to do. Leaving your country, your people, and your environment results in an emptiness that I know many of us have felt. Coming to the United States to pursue a better life and opportunity has meant digesting a completely different culture and community–one that has not always accepted us. Therefore, I have decided that each event, experience, and emotion in each testimony must be written down. Though this meant I had to work harder and for a longer period, it would be contradictory for me to pick and choose what part of each journey is valid or important. Though I connected with each person through similar concepts and circumstances, each of our stories is unique and significant.  

There was Mari Mujica, a research anthropologist at the time of the interview (2017). She left Peru with her husband as newlyweds over 30 years ago. Their first stop in the United States was Iowa, then they were in Massachusetts for 15 years and ended up in Louisville because her husband took a job with the University of Louisville. There was a point in her life where she ended up going to Peru with her son and doing research there, staying with her mother. While she was away, she was apart from her husband for months at a time so she could complete her PhD. But then she decided to not continue her research in Peru because she wanted to do research where she lived; so that instead of just researching people, she was collaborating at some level. When job opportunities opened in Louisville, it was a great opportunity for her family to move. They lived in Louisville for 9 years and then moved to a farm in Shelbyville. In this interview, Mari discusses how her family came to Louisville, the story of why she came to the United States, how her family felt about just her and her new husband leaving Peru, how they felt about her decision of moving countries for a job, the disconnection and privilege that comes with her journey, her family life and influences, and growing up financially stable in Peru. Her interview cuts off as she’s discussing her childhood experiences and mentions a nanny who is referred to as “mama”. 

Sarah Nuñez was born in Bogota, Colombia in 1978. Her father is Colombian and her mother is from Florida. They met in North Carolina in the late 1960’s. Sarah was born in Bogota because in 1977, her parents moved to Colombia to take care of her dad’s father while he was sick. She did not grow up with much Colombian culture since she was only there during the very early parts of her life. Spanish was rarely spoken in her house since her dad would only use it to speak to family back home. Sarah grew up searching for a part of herself that was missing and found that piece when she went back to Colombia. At the time of the interview, she was working with the University of Louisville Cultural Center through projects such as the Latino Education Outreach. In this interview, she explains how her father came to the United States, her community as a child, her school environment and peers, her career process and obstacles, opportunities and struggles based on her race/ethnicity/gender, the influence of her past work on what she does today, how Donald Trump was affecting the community at the time of elections, and how she self-identifies with Latino culture as an adult. 

Dr. Braulio Mesa was an ESL instructor at the time of the interview (2018) who was born in Santiago de Cuba in 1961. After finishing high school in Cuba in 1979, he was offered a scholarship to study in Russia. He was in Russia from 1980 to 1985 where he got a bachelor’s degree in physics and Math and also a degree in Russian language. After completion, he returned to Cuba where he worked as a math and astronomy teacher in a high school. In 1998, he won the Visa Lottery for Cuba which allowed him, his wife, and three kids to move to the United States. He picked Louisville, Kentucky because after doing research on other states, he decided it was the best fit in terms of weather and job opportunities. His family had been living in Louisville for approximately 20 years at the time of the interview (2018). In his time in Louisville, he had worked three jobs–the first two in factories and then as an ESL teacher. In this interview, Professor Mesa discusses his upbringing and educational career, his memories of Cuba, Cuba’s political unrest and issues, the people who raised him, his heritage, his journey and how it led him to Louisville, the differences between education in Cuba, Russia, and the United States, the progress and future of ESL programs within education systems, and his experience and growth regarding the English language.  

Reflection on the Project of Being with Others Otherwise. 

Every word, emotion and experience matters. My relationship with the Latino immigrant community is personal and intimate to my identity. Throughout my educational career, I’ve never seen any investment or efforts to make me feel seen through interdisciplinary spaces. Not even when we’re the second-largest ethnic group in the country. Not even at a college that preaches global citizenship. Not even in spaces where I’m a minority. My commitment to this project is to ensure that each testimony is acknowledged and appreciated by the UofL Oral History Center and any audience that could potentially use their experiences for research or comfort. These testimonies provide more than a story–they provide insight and unrecognized points of view that should be taken into consideration within a country populated by people from all over the world.  As a Colombian immigrant myself, I often feel my Latinx identity disappearing in the country I have been forced to assimilate into because of systematic racism, especially now that I’m in higher education. Accessing this archive has allowed me to feel unity and reflect on my community. I feel less alone and more empowered knowing that more journeys exist. I know that I’m not the only immigrant in this country, but it can get so lonely climbing up the systematic ladder. There’s so much emotion and peace that comes with hearing others’ emotions and struggles that you can relate to.  

Testimonios are sacred coming from any person due to them challenging the narratives that have only been told by the oppressors. I want to thank Mari Mujica for emphasizing the distance from our loved ones and the hard reality that comes with living our lives in this country as our families live theirs in another. I want to thank Sarah Nuñez who was born and then separated from the country I am also from. It was so comforting to hear her experience and identity formation when she visited my beautiful country. [I am so happy you found the part that was missing in our land]. ​​I want to thank Braulio Mesa for dedicating so much of his life to education and working so hard to help the ESL community progress. I was once an ESL student and would’ve given the world to have a teacher who motivated me and encouraged me as much as he does. 

We are all one. Immigration is a concept that usually has a negative connotation, but to me it is so beautiful. I am so thankful and proud to be an immigrant. I’ve seen and felt so much. The experience of leaving your community for a better life at the expense of not fitting into another is terrifying. I am thankful for the Latinx diaspora that exists today. I am thankful that we are all connected one way or the other. Que poderoso es representar todos los hermosos paises de Latino America de nuestra propia manera.  [End of Hyberlink section for Valeria]