Thursday, May 30, 2024

Grad student archives pandemic’s memories and West Side’s El Pueblo

Grad student archives pandemic’s memories and West Side’s El Pueblo


DECEMBER 10, 2021 — Andres Borunda will graduate this month with a master’s degree in history, but his dream job is to run a nonprofit. He aims to help other Latino students secure resources to enter higher education.

This became his goal when he took a position as a graduate assistant at the Mexico Center at UTSA, where he helped Mellon Fellows—undergrads applying to graduate programs to develop as scholars and teachers to access additional financial resources, professors and institutions.

“We want to make sure those stories don’t get buried and forgotten.”

In 2019, the Postsecondary National Policy Institute reported that Latinos earned 7.5% of doctoral degrees compared to 57.4% of white non-Hispanic students.

“It’s to help level the playing field,” Andres said. “Honestly, I didn’t think I would be interested in running an institution or a center, because there are a lot of people that don’t have experience in navigating beyond a bachelor’s.”

Andres’ own personal experience also framed this dream. He was the first in his family to enroll in college. A push from his parents and the extra nudge that was born within himself led him to study history.

“During vacations, my parents did the tourists’ tours; I gladly tagged along. I always had that extra interest in the places I visited,” he recalled.

He also claims that from a young age he was an avid collector of newspapers, pictures, coins and other items that for many would be just trinkets to be discarded.

Now, Andres has developed this particular interest into personal collections where the ordinary is the extraordinary. It’s how personal items come to have a special meaning to people. For example, shoeboxes could be treasure troves filled with forgotten documents that haven’t been reviewed through the historical research lens.

“I call relatives to see if they have anything—letters or magazines. This can give you a sense of what is personal or important,” Andres said. “What we kept, it’s a way to tell what usually doesn’t get told, what gets overlooked, the everyday stuff. I focus on what we use to make connections and how we live through these moments. This is what we do as documentarians.”

Andres’ thesis research focused on a San Antonio West Side newspaper first produced during the late 1970s known as El Pueblo. The publication’s focus was to highlight the voices of the residents on issues of expansion and inequities created by citywide policies. The citizen-run newspaper reported on overlooked stories: for example, the shift in medical services from the West to the North Side of the city. As a consequence of that business decision, about 5,000 mothers lost access to maternity care.

However, the coronavirus pandemic upended Andres’ plans. He paused his research and took a reflective excursion in one of the city’s oldest cemeteries.

As he walked among the graves, he came upon the gravestones of members of several families that perished in the 1921 flood. In one case, two unknown young siblings died. In another tragedy, a mother, daughter and son died. The lone survivor was the father who buried them all.

Andres decided to investigate the city’s records, only to discover that there was no further information. This lack of records motivated the UTSA student and his colleagues at the Mexico Center to create a digital archive and record the personal experiences of those who have passed due to COVID-19.

“We want to make sure those stories don’t get buried and forgotten,” Andres said.

The way Andres sees it, an accurate record of the individual stories from the nation, from San Antonio and even the Texas border need to be memorialized. He wants to ensure that the historical record a century from now truly reflects the impact of COVID-19 on people of color and the working poor.

To tell that story, he’s tapping his expertise in digital archiving, a technique he developed when he co-curated the inaugural exhibit for the Mexican American Civil Rights Institute’s CHISPAS: Mexican American Civil Rights Trailblazers in San Antonio.

Once Andres leaves UTSA, he will go to work with a local nonprofit. He’s also in the process of interviewing for a role with a state historical commission while he waits for word on his applications to Ph.D. programs at the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Southern California, UT Austin and Princeton University. Meanwhile, alumni who graduated from UTSA with their doctorates in history and then made their way to Princeton have already reached out to Andres to persuade him to choose the Ivy League institution if the offer is made.

“I’m excited for my next chapter,” Andres said.

Milady Nazir

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