The Evolving Landscape of the Archives Profession

Examining a Memory-Archive of the Puerto Rican Diaspora in Holyoke, MA

Since the 1990s, archivists have increasingly studied the relationship between archives and collective memory, defined by Barbara Misztal (2003) as “a group’s representation of its past, both the past that is commonly shared and the past that is collectively commemorated, that enacts and gives substance to that group’s identity, its present conditions and its vision of the future” (p. 158). Research includes studies of how communities create and use archives to construct their collective memories. As a Puerto Rican and a scholar, I have been studying the roles of archives in the construction and dissemination of the history and memories of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States.

Discussions about the history of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States tend to focus on Puerto Ricans in New York. However, the significant migration of Puerto Ricans to the United States during the mid 20th century included the establishment of Puerto Rican communities in Chicago, Hartford, and Boston. I also learned that a significant settlement of Puerto Ricans in Holyoke, Massachusetts began in the mid-1960s. Puerto Ricans are the largest Latino group in the city. During the Spring 2014 semester, I began researching the history of Puerto Ricans in Holyoke, and at the same time looked at how the history and memories of Puerto Ricans in Holyoke have been documented. I began my journey in the archives.

The Carlos Vega Collection of Latino History in Holyoke is housed at the Wistariahurst Museum. Carlos Vega (1950 – 2012), who was Ecuadorian, was a social worker and became actively involved with the Puerto Rican community, especially their struggles for improved living conditions, work opportunities, and challenging discrimination.

Immerse yourself into the 44 boxes of the collection and you will encounter a microcosm of the struggles and celebrations of Puerto Ricans in Holyoke, Mass. Newspaper clippings show the difficult early 1980s, when a number of arsons caused significant damages to homes and the loss of lives in South Holyoke. Legal documents and correspondence show discrimination and voting rights struggles. Study the folders about La Familia Hispana Inc. and you will learn about the planning of the annual Festival de la Familia Hispana, which celebrates its 28th anniversary in 2014, and the Puerto Rican Parade of Western Massachusetts, celebrated every year since 1994. The Festival programs serve as a memory touchtone to remember the accomplishments of Holyoke Puerto Ricans the 1995 Grand Marshall, Betty Medina Lichtensen, the first Puerto Rican woman elected to public office in the state of Massachusetts, and the Mariscal Felipe N. Pantoja, the first Latino hired by the city’s public school systems.

While this collection is an invaluable resource for the study of the Puerto Rican diaspora in Holyoke, like all archival collections, this is just one part of a rich history of Puerto Ricans in the city. Furthermore, in the context of memory-making and identity, it is essential to examine how these collections are used for this purpose. In other words, it is significant to acquire and preserve resources such as the Carlos Vega Collection, but perhaps more important is who accesses them and why. Puerto Ricans in Holyoke are still dealing with issues such as discrimination, poverty and segregation. Beyond its value to interpret history, the collection can serve current generations to understand the community’s past in terms of social struggles. It can also serve as a resource for the continuous recognition of Puerto Rican identity. Events such as the Festival de la Familia Hispana and the Western Massachusetts Puerto Rican Parade have played a significant role in the preservation and dissemination of Puerto Rican heritage. These events, along with archival collections, serve as a memory-archive of the Puerto Rican diaspora in Holyoke.

This broader view of archives has been one of the emergent topics examined by archivists today. Furthermore, it has generated a different way of looking at archives and at the work of archivists, although it can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s. In 2013, Canadian archivist Terry Cook wrote about a new paradigm in the archival profession, called community archiving. It underscores the active role of the archivist in the documentation of society’s experiences, a role that involves the archivist to become a facilitator and mentor to communities. And this role has reached the digital landscape. One excellent example is the South Asian American Digital Archive, an organization that implements a participatory approach in which South Asian Americans document and disseminate their history.

While this kind of initiative has not taken place in Holyoke, it gives a guideline for the future, not only in terms of the use of digital technologies, but even more important, in regards to a participatory approach to archives. This participatory approach is not a simple task. It primarily involves the building of trust between archivists and communities. But it open doors for a closer connection between communities and their records.

By Assistant Professor Joel Blanco-Rivera

Misztal, B. (2003). Theories of social remembering. McGraw-Hill International.