Christian Kelleher

UT’s Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection is archiving more than 2,000 Latino oral histories in partnership with StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization that records interviews with Americans of all backgrounds.

The collection, part of UT Libraries, will house and maintain the files of the StoryCorps Historias initiative featuring Latino subjects, interviewed by friends or family, sharing their experiences in recordings lasting about 30 minutes.

StoryCorps has recorded more than 40,000 stories since it began in 2003 and has been featured on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” StoryCorps recorded Historias interviews on campus in the spring that are now being archived on campus.

Christian Kelleher, the assistant head librarian and archivist for the collection, said Historias will provide researchers and students on campus an in-depth archive of materials from Latinos willing to tell their stories.

“StoryCorps’ experience building the Historias collection depended on community engagement and community partnerships,” Kelleher said. “They saw a great partner in the Benson Collection, with not only the technical capability to catalog and preserve this large archive but also a tradition of engaging students, scholars, educators and activists. By working together, we are able to do more than either of us individually.”

Associate journalism professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez said UT also assisted StoryCorps by helping draft interview questions focusing on the Latino experience.

“It’s more of a conversation you would have over the kitchen table,” Rivas-Rodriguez said. “They’re not life-encompassing. They’re really looking at something that was especially significant to the person being interviewed. It’s an archive of conversations that may shed some light on the nature of relationships, revealing things they may not have revealed before. Every interview is very different.”

Assistant history professor John McKiernan-Gonzalez said oral histories allow everyday people to be heard rather than big historical moments. He said StoryCorps gives a personal view to the events that the subjects discuss.

“The StoryCorps interviews are usually two people talking about past events together, and it has a familial, friendly complexity to the collection that you wouldn’t have with an interviewer that doesn’t know the person,” McKiernan-Gonzalez said. “It allows people to talk more comfortably and intimately.”

Kelleher said part of the collection’s work will include developing policies to protect the privacy of interview subjects and creating tools to make access to the material simple for researchers. The Historias recordings will be available to the public in the spring.

Christian Kelleher, archivist for the rare book and manuscript collection, displays documents received by the University.

Photo Credit: Allen Otto | Daily Texan Staff

The University has received documents donated by the family of a Mexican-American judge who was influential in shaping Texas and U.S. law.

The documents donated by the late Judge Filemon Vela’s family would be interesting for people working with border legal issues such as immigration and drug control and are freely available for consultation after years of cataloguing, said librarian for U.S. and Latino studies at The Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, Margo Gutierrez.

The collection received documents that belonged to Vela and were donated by his widow Blanca Sanchez Vela in 2007, said Christian Kelleher, archivist for the rare book and manuscript collection.

Kelleher said the donation includes records of his personal life, his time as a student, his activity in his community, his life as a father and family man, the majority of his professional documentation and activities, as well as clippings, scripts, notes, photographs and radio broadcast recordings.

“Judge Vela was very influential, particularly in his community but also as a district justice, in really formulating law for the United States,” Kelleher said.

The collection brings together his experience as a Mexican-American legal scholar from the Rio Grande Valley, providing unique historical documentation on the region, he said.

According to biographical resources in the UT online libraries, Vela received his license to practice law in Texas in 1962 and participated in an influential 1970 case that helped establish the pursuit of due process in governmental bodies in South Texas.

Vela served as judge of the 107th Judicial District Court of Cameron and Willacy counties starting in 1974 and was later elected as federal judge of the Southern Region of Texas, Brownsville Division in 1980, according to the
online resources.

According to his biography, as a federal judge for southern Texas, Vela oversaw more than a thousand cases related to drugs and immigration, including a controversial 1989 decision to lift travel restrictions on refugees seeking asylum in the U.S.

“Many of the programs and institutions he created during his lifetime have and will continue to have an impact on the lives of current and future South Texas citizens,” according to his biography.

Throughout his professional career, Vela remained involved in his community by supporting civic organizations and activities, mentoring in youth programs and even co-hosting a radio program popular in South Texas and northern Mexico in which he answered and discussed legal questions, according to the online resources.

“We are delighted and honored that [Vela’s] family made these documents available to us and to future generations of scholars,” Gutierrez said.

Printed on Thursday, August 4, 2011 as: Influential judge's documents available at Benson Collection