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Bakersfield College harvesting oral histories of Delano area farmworkers thanks to grant

Driving along Highway 99, one may zoom past moments of the daily life of farmworkers, who dot the agricultural fields, harvesting crops that feed the nation.

For Delano, there are many untold experiences of these workers who toil in the fields each day to support themselves and their families.

Now, thanks to a recent national grant, Bakersfield College is leading a project to chronicle those narratives and “harvest those local histories,” said Dr. Oliver Rosales, a BC history professor and coordinator of the campus’ Social Justice Institute.

This information harvest is through the grant project Digital Delano: Preserving an International Community’s History, which seeks to interview local families in and around Delano and rural Kern areas, document their narratives and build a digital archive of rare history to be shared by all. The hope is to record and store such diverse histories and shed light on the migrant and transnational histories of Kern County residents in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Delano and other Central Valley towns and cities "are not particularly well-documented in terms of community archives,” said Rosales, who is co-director of the Digital Delano project with Elizabeth Sunby, a reference librarian at the BC Delano campus library. “Larger cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento have greater access to community-based archives."  

“We see this as part of a larger effort to provide students and community members with archival material that can be used by students and researchers to examine untold stories and histories of Delano and rural California, particularly among its diverse migrant communities. This project therefore is geared toward promoting institutional equity in terms of access to archival materials for rural students.”

He added that Digital Delano is a partnership between BC’s Delano campus library and the Social Justice Institute, which focuses in part on developing place-based curriculum and pedagogy.

In addition to building such needed community archives, the grant “has allowed for the purchase of digitization equipment to be housed in the BC Delano Campus Library,” Rosales said. 

“I am very proud that Bakersfield College is a leading community college, state and nationwide, and is competitive in terms of accessing state and federal grants in the humanities,” Rosales said.

“What we are doing is in alignment with efforts taking place at the CSU and UC system to create interdisciplinary studies programs and resources focused on the Central Valley.” 


In fact, the BC Digital Delano project was selected from a competitive pool of national applicants as part the National Endowment for the Humanities Heritage grant in a process that generally funds between 10 percent to 15 percent of all applicants.

Rosales said the grant is a recent initiative by the National Endowment for the Humanities to highlight the "common human experiences across America’s diverse cultures, regions and people."

“The emphasis in this particular grant program is for public humanities programs geared at ‘harvesting local histories,’ often the kinds of community stories that don’t necessarily get preserved in institutional archives or narrated by historians and documentary film projects, but are buried in people’s memories, garages and homes.”

As part of the grant, other activities have been planned to collect such histories.

On Oct. 25, at 6 p.m. at the Robert Kennedy High School Lecture Hall in Delano, a reading and panel discussion will be held with award-winning journalist Gabriel Thompson on his new book "Chasing the Harvest: Migrant Workers in California Agriculture," published by Voice of Witness in 2016. In the book, Thompson interviews farmworkers, community workers, a labor leader, a grower, youth and more. Some BC students have been begun reading the book in advance to Thompson’s visit.

Rosales said the discussion is significant for the Delano community because it features a nationally respected author and journalist who writes about the San Joaquin Valley actually presenting his work in a place where his writing is focused.

“Oftentimes writers and academics write about the San Joaquin Valley and talk about the region in big cities, but not actually in Central California,” Rosales said.

Organizers added the Oct. 25 date is fitting, given it is on Larry Itliong Day, which honors the co-founder of the United Farm Workers.  

Prior to Thompson’s talk, however, a digital humanities booth will be set up in the lobby between 5 to 6 p.m. where “families can digitize their family history artifacts, including photographs, letters, or other mementos or historical ephemera,” Rosales said.  

He added that a digital copy will be provided to participants in the grant project via a USB drive. He noted that future events are being planned this year and next as part of the project.

“The grant is important because it shows that Bakersfield College is a leading institution nationally among community colleges in terms of grant writing and humanities initiatives,” Rosales said. “It also provides wonderful opportunities for collaboration with CSU Bakersfield and the University of California — both of which are committed to advancing the creation of Central Valley archives and humanities projects.”

With the project, Rosales hopes that the community will take a “greater interest in public discourse about our diverse histories here in Kern County and to become more civic-minded by participating in public humanities projects, be it through Bakersfield College or any of our community and educational partners.”

For more information, call the BC Delano Campus library at 720-2015.

Olivia Garcia is an assistant professor of history at Bakersfield College.

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