This fall, Yamila Transtenvot, an instructor in Spanish at Cornell College, has been working with IWA, The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Council 10, and the Davenport Community School District (DCSD) to bring primary sources about Latino/a/x history to Iowa schools. I sat down with Transtenvot this Latinx Heritage Month to discuss this exciting collaboration.
Transtenvot, originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, has a background in education. She trained as a high school literature teacher and spent time working for the government of Argentina in an after-school program aimed at getting disadvantaged youth excited about reading and writing. Eventually, the University of Iowa’s Master of Fine Arts in Spanish Creative Writing pulled her to the United States. While completing her MFA, she taught Spanish at UIowa. When members of LULAC Council 10 approached her about writing lesson plans with IWA’s Latina collections, it seemed like a natural fit.
Davenport schools introduce migration as a topic to students in elementary school, but the current curriculum lacks stories about Mexican migration, which began in the 19th century and accelerated in the 1910s during the Mexican Revolution. DCSD and LULAC Council 10 wanted to introduce new stories and more primary sources into migration lessons. IWA houses dozens of collections and over one hundred oral histories documenting the lives of Latinas in Iowa. Transtenvot used Migration is Beautiful, a website about these collections, and advice from IWA’s staff to choose just a few items and oral histories to highlight.
Transtenvot concentrated on the stories of young people. In one the three lessons that she’s created, students will use the memoir of Martina Morado, who immigrated to Iowa as a teenager in the 1910s to learn about migration. In another, a childhood photograph of Otilia “Tilly” Gomez in Cook’s Point, a Mexican settlement in Davenport, Iowa, will help students think about cultural heritage and what life was like for immigrants in Iowa during the first half of the 20th century. The way Transtenvot has planned the lessons offers several ways to engage with the topic including class discussion, a Kahoot quiz, and a migratory Monarch butterfly for them to color.
Her biggest challenge, Trantenvot said, was trying to keep her own ideas and biases from filling the page. Above all, she wants students to learn how to reflect on primary sources and form their own thoughts about them. The lessons are filled with questions that allow students to think and wonder. For example, after seeing a photograph of Angela and Martina Morado from 1913, classes will be invited to speculate in writing on the relationship between the women, how old the photograph is, and whether it reminds them of any old photographs they’ve seen of their own families. Transtenvot has also striven to center the voices of Latinas by using excerpts from oral histories by Rosa Mendoza and Otilia Gomez, and a memoir by Martina Morado. She says that the charm of primary sources is that they give a glimpse of people’s personal experiences. By making space for these voices and for reflection on what they say, Transtenvot hopes her lessons will help students build empathy.
The lessons will debut in Davenport, but Transtenvot sees this as a starting point. She’d like to see the project spread to other districts in Iowa and perhaps go further, resulting in lessons about other underrepresented groups in the state. Finally, she intends to have her lesson plans put on the Migration is Beautiful website, where they will become resources and inspiration for teachers across the country.
After the pandemic postponed her research trip, Yazmin Gomez, the 2020 Linda and Richard Kerber Travel Grant recipient, finally made it to IWA! Linda Kerber, May Brodbeck Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of History Emerita, and her husband Richard founded this grant to help researchers, especially graduate students, travel to the Iowa Women’s Archives. Thanks to the Kerbers, IWA can award $1000 every year to a promising researcher like Gomez, whose work would benefit from travelling to Iowa and using IWA’s collections for an extended period.
Gomez, graduate student from Rutgers University is focusing her dissertation research on the labor and educational activism of Latinas in the Midwest. Her work has been years in the making. As an undergraduate at Marquette University, she enrolled in the Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program, aimed at helping first generation students and students from underrepresented groups prepare for graduate school. It was her first taste of independent research and archival work. By the time she’d finished her senior thesis, “Viva La Raza, Viva Las Latinas: Late 20th Century Female Activism in Milwaukee’s Latinx Community” she knew she wanted to keep studying Latina activism at Rutgers.
At IWA, Gomez is seeking to broaden the scope of the research she did on Latina activism in Wisconsin to include a larger picture of the Midwest. She believes that the region, though it has a smaller Latinx population than other areas of the US, has greater internal diversity within its Latinx communities that has created a unique situation for activism. She’s particularly interested in the intersection of gender and race among the Latinas she has studied. “They weren’t exactly Gloria Steinem, women’s liberation feminists, their activism was community-based,” Gomez said. They were focused on things like unionizing and expanding the role of women in established organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
She’s also finding connections to other civil rights activists and battles. The oral history of Mary Campos, whose work on behalf of Latinx people in Iowa earned her a place in the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame, introduced her to a wider web of activism. Campos worked for a Dr. Griffin, the husband of civil rights activist Edna Griffin, known for her fight to desegregate Katz Drug Store in Des Moines. Reading Griffin’s FBI file, Gomez found a familiar story in how female activists of the mid 20th century were underrated. Even the government agents assigned to trail Griffin didn’t understand why they were following “just a housewife.”
Aside from the connections to her own research, Yazmin Gomez has enjoyed finding personal items in the collections she’s seen mixed in with community activism. While learning about Cesar Chavez’s visit to Iowa, she might see a graduation cap and tassel, photographs of a first communion, or her favorite, a newspaper clipping about a local man who grew a potato that looked kind of like an elephant. By encountering items like these in the Archives, Gomez has been able to spend the last two weeks in IWA immersing herself in the lives and community networks of Latinas over 50 years ago. She’s excited to take what she’s learned back to Rutgers as she moves closer to a PhD.
Are you interested in applying for the Linda and Richard Kerber Fund for Research in the Iowa Women’s Archives? We will be accepting applications again next spring. You can keep tabs on the deadline and learn more on our website.
This post by IWA Graduate Research Assistant Heather Cooper is the ninth installment in our series highlighting African American history in the collections of the Iowa Women’s Archives. The series ran weekly during Black History Month, and will continue monthly for the remainder of 2020.
In honor of Latinx Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15), this post draws attention to an individual and family history that sheds light on the intersection of Black and Latinx experience and activism in Iowa.
In recognition of his lifelong activism for the causes of labor, education, and civil and human rights, Ernest Rodriguez was inducted into the second Iowa Latino Hall of Fame in 2018. Beginning in the 1950s, Rodriguez helped to organize the Davenport council of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). In the 1960s and 70s, he served on the Davenport Human Relations Commission, served as director of the Area Board for Migrants, and as coordinator of the Spanish Speaking Peoples Commission. As a union organizer and advocate for workers’ rights, he co-chaired the Quad City Grape Boycott Committee to support the nationwide boycott of California table grapes led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Although Rodriguez identifies strongly with his Chicano heritage, his own experience growing up in an interracial family undoubtedly informs his broader commitment to fighting against the racism, discrimination, and inequality shared by Latinos, African Americans, and other minorities in Iowa and the U.S.
The Ernest Rodriguez papers are part of a rich set of collections in the Iowa Women’s Archives (IWA) that include letters, speeches, diaries, photographs, and over eighty oral histories documenting the experience of Latina women and their families and communities in Iowa. A large selection of that material is available in the Iowa Digital Library. These collections also inform the IWA website, Migration is Beautiful, a digital humanities project that “highlights the journeys Latinas and Latinos made to Iowa and situates the contributions of Latino communities within a broader understanding of Iowa’s history of migration and civil rights.” IWA also holds the papers of Ernest Rodriguez’s older sister, Estefania Joyce Rodriguez, who was also a member of the Davenport LULAC council and a great chronicler of her family’s history through the preservation of photographs.
Ernest Rodriguez was born in 1928 in the predominately Mexican settlement known as “Holy City” in Bettendorf, Iowa. His father, Norberto Rodriguez, was raised on a small ranch in the State of Jalisco, Mexico; his mother, Muggie Belva Adams Rodriguez, was an African American woman born in Balls Play, Alabama. Both migrated north and, eventually, to Iowa in pursuit of new opportunities in the 1910s. Following the death of her first husband, Muggie Adams ran a boardinghouse in the predominately African American town of Buxton, Iowa, catering primarily to “miners and Mexican laborers who worked as section hands on the railroad.” It was there that she met Norberto Rodriguez, who she married in 1920. The couple and their growing family settled in Bettendorf, Iowa in 1923.
Ernest Rodriguez was part of an extended interracial family that included his mother and father, eight siblings, relatives in Mexico, and the families of his maternal aunt and uncle, Monroe Milton Adams, Jr. and Adaline Adams (known as “Aunt Tiny”). Rodriguez described his mother as being “of a very light complexion with mixed African American, White, and Native American Indian bloods.” Growing up in Iowa, Rodriguez recalled the way his mother’s cooking blended all of these cultures. She made Mexican rice and fideo, cornbread and cobblers, chitterlings, posole, and “fried Indian bread.” This she fed to her family, as well as to the needy men and women that came their way during the Great Depression. Both Ernest and Estefania Rodriguez recalled their mother’s generosity and the fact that “She never looked down on anybody.” Witnessing her struggles with poverty and racism, they both saw her as a model of independence, determination, and perseverance.
The Holy City barrio where Ernest Rodriguez was born was a working-class, mostly Mexican community which offered sparse accommodations to workers in the Bettendorf Company’s foundries. Although most of Holy City’s residents were Mexican immigrants by the 1920s, a few Greeks and African Americans also lived there. Latinos and African Americans shared many experiences in Iowa, including racial stereotyping; limited employment opportunities that often relegated men to the most dangerous, low-paying work and women to domestic service; housing discrimination; and segregation in churches, movie theaters, barbershops, and schools. When the Rodriguez family moved to Davenport, Iowa in the late 1930s, they immediately faced a petition campaign organized by white residents who wanted to drive them out of the neighborhood. Rodriguez recalled,
I remember that it was then I began to really know what prejudice and discrimination meant, because I felt it all around me. The kids in the neighborhood were all white and when they got mad at you, they [hurled racial insults]. As I grew older I found out that there were certain places you couldn’t get a job because of employment discrimination. Certain taverns and restaurants you avoided for the same reason. You were more likely to be stopped for questioning by the police. It seemed that a disproportionate number of minorities were arrested and convicted for crimes than whites. This is true today.
Although much of Ernest Rodriguez’s activism has focused on issues that impact Chicano communities in particular, he has also operated from an understanding of the shared oppression faced by all minorities living under systemic racism. Rodriguez was a Chairman and leading member of the Minority Coalition, which he described as “a banding together of organizations such as NAACP and LULAC whose aims are to work for the betterment of the black and Chicano (Mexican-American) Communities.” He challenged the racism and classism that undergirded the education system, not only for ESL students, but for all “Children of minority groups [who] are victims of discriminatory middle-class thinking.” As a leader in LULAC Council 10, he nurtured a strong relationship with Davenport’s League for Social Justice and the Catholic Interracial Council as they worked to combat racism and demand equal access to housing and employment. And as a member of the Davenport Human Relations Commission he worked to address “race discrimination in housing, employment, and education” and developed a police-community relations program meant to challenge the racist treatment of Chicano and African American citizens by police in the Quad Cities. Rodriguez was also an early feminist, noting in a 1970s radio broadcast that Chicano women, like African American women, faced “the double discrimination of race and gender.”
Even after he retired from his position as Equal Employment Manager at the Rock Island Arsenal in the 1990s, Ernest Rodriguez remained active in the Davenport LULAC council and regularly wrote opinion pieces published in local newspapers about racial justice. He stands as an example of the power of community activism and the impact of local leaders who relentlessly work to promote social justice at the local, state, and national level. Ernest Rodriguez’s life and activism also illuminate the longstanding presence and contributions of Latinos and African Americans to the Hawkeye state, as well as our long history of racism.
Latinx history is Iowa history.
Black history is Iowa history.
The ongoing fight for racial justice is Iowa history.
Omar Valerio-Jimenez, “Racializing Mexican Immigrants in Iowa’s Early Mexican Communities,” Annals of Iowa, vol. 75, no. 1 (Winter 2016): 1-46.
Janet Weaver, “From Barrio to ¡Boicoteo!: The Emergence of Mexican American Activism in Davenport, 1917-1970,” Annals of Iowa, vol. 68, no. 3 (Summer 2009): 215-254.
Below is a reflection from Micaela Terronez, Olson Graduate Assistant, on a recent talk about her interest in the Mexican barrios of the Quad Cities at a local community gathering in Davenport, Iowa. She will be giving a version of this talk at “Workers’ Dream for an America that ‘Yet Must Be’ Struggles for Freedom and Dignity, Past and Present” March 30th 9:00 – 3:30 in Rm 101 Kollros Auditorium Biology Building East.
Despite my family’s history in the barrios, this was my first time attending the Cook’s Point/Holy City Reunion. The reunion took place at the League of United Latin Americans (LULAC) Council #10 hall in Davenport, Iowa. It began with a brief introduction of the night followed by a prayer from a local Catholic priest. Afterwards, the lights were dimmed for a candle lighting honoring past residents of the barrios. As names were called, families and descendants placed a candle in front of a decorated alter in remembrance of their loved ones. I was amazed by the number of individuals in the room, walking up as each name was called. In all, there were over 200 individuals in attendance! Then, it was my turn to take the podium.
My talk discussed my early interest in the barrios, as well as my findings in the Iowa Women’s Archives. I reflected on the Mujeres Latinas materials at the University, as well as the current use of the collections in classroom instruction. I argued that these stories are still relevant to students today as they explore their own pasts. I recalled one of my favorite classroom experiences instructing a group of 20 Latino/a/x students from Upward Bound, a program that brings first-generation students from the state to experience life as a college student for six weeks. The students gravitated toward stories of migration in the Iowa’s Women Archives, and I saw firsthand how archival materials can resonate with students and the potential impact on self-identity. Several students read aloud the speeches and writings of Ernest Rodriguez in Spanish, while others pointed to where their families migrated from on a reproduced map of Mexico and the United States. As marginalized communities continue to face challenges of social economics, racism, and violence, students and others can find comfort in these stories and see themselves as history makers, resilient in the face of adversities. My talk ended with a bilingual poem by Luis Valdez to acknowledge the recent migrants and refugees escaping environments of violence and fear in their homelands. Their stories may be lost, purposely destroyed, or criticized. For many, a culture and history cannot be easily suitcased for safekeeping. Thus, I asked the room to continue sharing stories vastly and to actively support today’s migrants and refugees by speaking out about their stories, as well. The more we do so, the more that we are actively acknowledging and reproducing migrant experiences.
Like my own family gatherings, there was a lot of food and music throughout the evening, as well as discussions and laughter amongst families and friends. In all, I was overwhelmed at the extent of togetherness within the room despite years of separation and unknown faces. Additionally, the night highlighted a performance by the Quad Cities Ballet Folklorico, a Mexican folk dance troupe of students with many also descendants of the barrios. Despite the many great moments at the reunion, my favorite moment of the evening occurred at the end of the event as one of my nieces asked me, “What are we doing here? What is Cook’s Point?” I smiled, quickly got up, and showed her the numerous photographs that scattered the room of past relatives and descendants of the barrios. I realized then that the reunion served as an additional way to engage and learn more about the rich histories of this area. From here on out, I plan to continue attending the reunion and connecting the barrio histories to my family and others.
Tú eres mi otroyo. You are my other me. Si tehagodaño a ti, If I do harm to you, Me hagodaño a mi mismo. I do harm to myself. Si teamo y respeto, If I love and respect you, Me amo y respetoyo. I love and respect myself.
July 12th was the kickoff for the 2016 National LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) convention. Janet, assistant curator here at the IWA, attended the conference to promote “Migration is Beautiful,” a new website featuring vignettes, oral history interview clips, memoirs, letters, and photographs from the IWA’s Mujeres Latinas Project.
The new website highlights the experiences and contributions Latinas and Latinos have made to the state of Iowa. It also hosts an interactive map that shows the migration of Latinos through Iowa during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Recently, Hola Iowa, a news outlet focusing on Latinos in the Midwest, featured a vignette and photos from the Migration is Beautiful website.
We are very proud of Janet, and can’t wait to hear more about the convention when she returns!