Thursday, June 8, 2023

When a community writes its own history


How do you heal a community? By collecting its painful memories, by holding those memories in history, by not forgetting.

Michelle Hall Kells, a UNM faculty member, and a handful of graduate students went to the mining community of Bayard, near Silver City, in 2017 and distributed fliers, inviting people to come to the local library and bring their memories, photos and mementos of the Empire Zinc strike, an event that took place more than 70 years ago. They offered to help people write up their memories.

“There was a large and happy gathering waiting for us,” Kells told members of the Historical Society of New Mexico during its meeting in Silver City. “Stories poured in. We were not ready for the outpouring.”

On Oct. 17, 1950 the 1,400-member International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Local 890 struck the Empire Zinc Co. over dangerous working conditions and unequal treatment of Hispanic miners. The mine paid Anglos more, gave Hispanics the most dangerous jobs, and required Hispanics to use separate bathrooms, showers and pay windows. The company responded with violence and strike breakers. After an injunction prohibited workers from picketing, in June 1951, 110 women took their places and held the picket line. Police harassed them and threw them in jail. The strike lasted 15 months. On January 1952, Empire Zinc agreed to eliminate its “Mexican scale” wages, and miners won a pay increase.

The strike inspired the film “Salt of the Earth,” which has become the official story of the event. But it was a movie, not a historical account.

Regardless of your opinions on unions, we pay attention to this strike because it was a significant event in local and state history, and it planted the seed of Hispanic political activism. However, Kells believes, the violence a wound that’s treated by testimonials The object of her ongoing Salt of the Earth Recovery Project is to collect and preserve the stories of witnesses and descendents, to sift fact from fiction in the movie, and in doing that, to help the community heal.

It’s an interesting idea. I found myself wondering if something similar could help other groups – war veterans, for example, or Native Americans sent to boarding schools or victims of last year’s forest fires. When community members become their own historians, it will certainly be a different kind of history.

During the two-day conference, we heard historians speak on an array of events and developments in New Mexico history – usually gleaned from records and occasionally from first-person accounts but never woven from an entire community’s experiences. The old adage is that history is written by the winners. Collective accounts would be history written by survivors.

Even traditional history can be healing when it honors the achievements and sacrifices of the deserving. But what if history gets it wrong?

History has often gotten it wrong when it comes to Native Americans. I saw plenty of that in writing two books about the Apaches. I tried to set the record straight, and so have certain other authors. And yet some writers are still out there peddling the same untruths and stereotypes.

The presence in our sessions of members of the New Mexico-based Chiricahua Apache Nation was a step forward. In one session they explained who they are, what they value, how they’ve been hurt, what they’ve lost, and what they’re trying to regain. Then they participated in the rest of the conference, engaging the speakers in conversations and providing information.

I’ve never seen this type of public engagement, and it’s heartening that despite a divided and easily offended citizenry we can have these kinds of frank but respectful discussions.

Historians will still write about the winners, but if community testimonials expand, and formerly silenced groups speak out, historians and the reading public can adjust their perspectives.















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