Latina Women Speak

Using Oral Histories in the Social Studies Curriculum


Grace C. Huerta and Leslie A. Flemmer

What is an oral history? Simply put, an oral history is a record of spoken memories. Oral histories turn ordinary people, their lives and their stories, into a collection of credible, historical resources.1

We want to show how teachers can effectively integrate oral history into a social science curriculum. First, we will describe the methodology by which teachers can use oral histories in the classroom. Next, we will present our own example: narratives that we collected from Latina American women. Our focus—comparing and contrasting how these women experienced and confronted forms of ethnic, gender, and religious discrimination—serves as a model for teachers to examine complex social issues through oral history projects.


Teaching with Oral History

Teachers are constantly searching for ways to maintain student interest and motivation. Student-generated oral history research has become “a powerful antidote to students’ frequent apathy toward textbook studies of history.”2 By conducting their own projects, students become engaged in the process of creating history.

There are two means of engagement: passive and active oral history.3 Passive oral history exposes students to oral history from sources to which they have ready access. These sources include cassettes, videotapes, books, television programs, and electronic media. Students can research specific populations and analyze how the oral histories fit into a broader historical or sociological context.

When conducting active oral history, students serve as “rookie” researchers who collect data. They research a topic, interview participants, and analyze data. This interactive approach not only empowers students with research skills, but also gives them the factual elements of a specific unit of instruction (in our example, in the areas of ethnic studies, women’s history, or immigration in America).

The steps to conduct oral history projects are as follows.

Teachers should assess students’ content knowledge and research skills at intervals throughout the project. They can evaluate the final project outcome with four questions:

Latina Women: A Model

The following narratives are based on structured interviews that we conducted with women of Mexican American and Cuban descent. Parents of our students, they were selected not because they represent a particular statistical sample but because, as members+of minority groups, they exemplify a sociocultural perspective of contemporary life in the West and reveal views relevant to the education and future of their children.

We conducted the interviews in the women’s home from two to six hours. After we transcribed the tape recordings, we analyzed the transcriptions, using qualitative research methods to code and identify exemplars through a technique called theoretical sampling. Theoretical sampling is a grounded theory approach which allows for a constant comparative method of data collection, the establishment of themes, and analysis.5 Oral history data does not speak for itself; the researcher’s role is to interpret the data in meaningful ways.

We established the following themes from our data and shared these findings with our students.

The study participants defined themselves as Latina, but the term is grounded in the recognition that differences exist among women whose Latin American roots vary historically, physically, economically, politically, and spiritually. For our purposes, we defined a Latina woman as any of the following: born in the United States of Latina descent, born in Latin America and raised primarily in the United States, or Latina immigrant “naturalized” to the United States through long-term residency.6 Not all Latinas are poor, speak Spanish, live in barrios, or confront crime every day. Some intermarry.Latinas come from diverse backgrounds and may or may not identify with any Latin American culture or political identity.

Here are excerpts from their stories.



Phoenix, Arizona; East Los Angeles, California

For Gloria, 69, growing up in the 1940s and 1950s meant walking on the railroad tracks of an East Los Angeles barrio. Her cultural identity unfolded in ways determined by the times.

Although I was born in Phoenix, I grew up with my grandparents, mostly in California. That’s when my mother left me with my grandparents because of her job and the fact my dad was an alcoholic. My grandfather worked for the Southern Pacific. Before my grandfather came to East L.A., he had lived in different sections in Chicago, Barstow, and other towns. He laid railroad ties. His brother already worked for the railroad when my grandparents arrived here from Zacatecas, Mexico. Many people who came from Mexico in their youth and grew up here were not naturalized. My grandma came here when she was seventeen. In those days, people could come back and forth across the border on the trains.

In L.A., the railroad had little duplex houses, called “sections,” for the families of the workers. This housing was free. So we were called “section kids.” The sections were located on Mission Road, right near the General Hospital, about three miles from downtown Los Angeles. The houses only had cold running water. The toilets were outside. They were in a small building in the middle of the complex. We took baths in tubs in the house. We had wood-burning stoves and kerosene lamps. When I was little, they had electricity, but I guess the Southern Pacific didn’t want to put it in the sections. So we didn’t have refrigeration, and we couldn’t keep fresh meat. My grandfather used to make a lot of carne seca [beef jerky], drying huge strips behind the stove-pipe.

But we were all Mexicans in the section. I remember speaking mostly Spanish as a kid. I thought the Anglo people didn’t work laying ties because they didn’t live in the sections. I’m sure the railroad had other places where the white people lived, because there were a lot of white people working the trains. But in our section, we were isolated from them.

Living in the emerging city sprawl of Los Angeles, Gloria remembered the segregation of her childhood environment. She recognized such cultural markers as the immigration of her grandparents from Mexico, bilingualism, and the existing class distinctions between Latinos and Euro-Americans. Also influencing Gloria’s identity were the social expectations guided by gender and religion that were set forth by her grandmother.

When I grew up, I never knew what a white community was. We always lived among Mexicans. We had Mexican stores. I had my fun years then. We had a lot of activities—movies, dances—that were free; most were sponsored by the Catholic church. At a Catholic-sponsored “settlement house,” we used to have girls’ club meetings, banquets. There was something going on all of the time.

I went to Lincoln High School in East L.A. David [later, Gloria’s husband] and I went out during those years. I met David when I was fifteen. He was seventeen. My grandmother didn’t like me to go to parties and dances. She didn’t want me to date at all. It was ironic because David came from a religious background and he didn’t even dance or drink.

The East Los Angeles public schools did not offer much promise for Gloria. Nevertheless, she pursued education informally.

They didn’t teach me anything at school. The teachers didn’t care, and besides, we were more interested in having fun. We never had homework, which I think is bad. We did embroidery. But I loved to read. I used to walk to the Ben Franklin Library in East L.A., which was a few miles away, to check out books. I enjoyed reading history. Girls weren’t really encouraged to go to college, though; in fact, I only knew two or three students who went to college. In my senior year, David was drafted into the Army and went to Korea. We were already engaged, as many girls were during high school.

With cultural and gender expectations leading toward marriage, life in East L.A. proceeded smoothly, at least on the surface.

In May 1952, David returned, and we got married in La Placita [a Catholic church next to Olvera Street, one of the first Mexican settlements in Los Angeles]. When David was on leave, we decided to look for a house in another L.A. neighborhood. A white landlady I met said to me through the screen door, “We don’t rent to people like you. I thought all Mexicans knew their place.” It was the first time in my life I encountered prejudice. I was so stunned! I just bowed my head and walked away. Before David returned to duty, we moved in with his brother.

So I never really encountered racism until after I was married. Nobody ever told me, you can’t go here, or you can’t sit there, or you can’t rent here. After we were turned away. . . I was even more conscious of being dark-skinned, with dark curly hair. And I’m not even that dark! That lady made me feel that way. She made me be aware. After that, I didn’t want to be among white people.

Following that interaction, Gloria’s response to the environment changed dramatically. David found community service work exclusively in Latino neighborhoods. Now with four children, Gloria was not interested in leaving the Latino community. She became wary of the social structure, which seemed to promote inequitable opportunity and discrimination.

I didn’t want my kids going to the L.A. schools, although we couldn’t afford to do otherwise. But I didn’t get anything out of it. The teachers didn’t care about minority kids. You know, there was a program I watched on Sunday morning last week, where a psychologist, a Ph.D., was interviewing some gang member who dropped out of school. You know what the kid said? “Why go to school? What for? No one gives a damn there. The teachers don’t care.” . . . I actually agreed with him. . . . It was happening [40 years ago], and this kid was saying the same thing. So in terms of my kids’ schooling, I attended meetings and made sure I knew what was going on.

Gloria felt that she could better monitor educators, as well as her children, by staying at home. She would not remain a homemaker for long, however.

David left home for a year. One day, he came home from work and said he was leaving. I asked him why, but he did not answer. I assumed the worst. He must have been having an affair. I cried and cried and cried. So I was forced to go back to work.

This event had a tremendous effect on Gloria. She had to enter the work force. She found a clerical position at a public immunization clinic, where she encountered Latina women and their children, many of whom were gaining access to health care for the first time. Through this work, as well as a renewed interest in spirituality as a Baptist, Gloria discovered the inner strength to endure on her own.

David and I reconciled, that’s all I can I say. He came back right at the time when I was about to purchase the house. This was actually good timing because I needed his signature for the loan. Through faith, prayer, and seeing other women struggle at the clinic and survive, I knew I could survive too. Of course, I was happy that David returned, but I knew that if it ever happened again, I could take care of myself and the kids would help. So I continued to work. I wanted to model to my children that despite trials, whether they come from society or ourselves, we must remember when we had less, and those who have less, and what we must do to help each other.



Havana, Cuba; Trenton, New Jersey; Salt Lake City, Utah

For Elena, a 45-year-old Cuban immigrant, maintaining cultural identity posed challenges that both united and divided her family. She recalled the persistent roles that her mother and aunt played in keeping the family together during immigration.

My mom made all of the arrangements for our immigration from Cuba. We stood in long lines for applications for passports because my dad was working. She convinced him we had to leave Cuba. My dad was reluctant because it’s hard to go to another country and start all over again. He couldn’t see how we would survive in the U.S. But my mom struggled for six months to get the visas to leave Cuba.

I remember several times going to the immigration office with my mother to find out why the paper work was taking so long, why we weren’t scheduled to leave the country. My mother made her life preparing the paperwork. Then my aunt helped us and paid for the airline tickets. . . . On July 26, 1965, we went to Spain. My father stayed behind to work. After six months, my mother, three sisters, and I went to New York. We stuck it out. There were other immigrants who were leaving for the U.S. and had to start their lives from scratch.

Despite the alienation that many Cubans experienced, Elena’s mother reacted to the political upheaval in a way that was not immediately shared by her father. As the women left Cuba without him, their decision emphasized the inner strength and focus that the women possessed to stay together.

This is not to say that maintaining cultural identity was easy in 1960 New York City. Language united Elena’s family, but the urban environment did not accept the next wave of immigrants.

At the time, I spoke no English. There were not many Latinos in Manhattan. I was going through a cultural shock. There were about 22 Cubans in the high school I first attended. The school was about 90 percent black, 5 percent Asian, and the rest Cuban and Latino. I don’t remember any whites. My aunt took me to school the first day. She asked the teacher if there was anyone in class who knew Spanish and English so she could help me. I had only been [in the United States] a week. The teacher asked this one girl. But she helped me for about five minutes and that was it.

Then I would come home and start fixing dinner because my mother was usually running around trying to find a job. If she got a job, she would stay there. I remember for months she would come home crying. . . because she didn’t have the English. . . . She was so frustrated. We all wanted to go back to Spain.

 Nevertheless, Elena and her family eventually reestablished connections with relatives living in New Jersey.

At that time, I didn’t know enough English, but it wasn’t an issue in New Jersey. People weren’t having as much difficulty because there were a lot of immigrants in Jersey. Cubans in New Jersey worked in businesses, from shoe stores to clothing to everything—hardware, restaurants. . . . People owned their own businesses. Everybody was talking with everyone. Everybody just got along; I never experienced prejudice there—never. My mom got a job finally and her salary was more. Her boss was Italian, and she could understand a little bit more English. He was more human, and he could understand Spanish.

Living in a community that reflected her native culture helped ease the transition to life in the United States. Maintaining identity required finding those settings and individuals who helped the families feel accepted and supported. Once settled in New Jersey, Elena continued her education.

After high school, my mom didn’t have to worry about me . . . . I had a data processing job, but I knew I didn’t want to do that forever. So I planned on going back to school. My mom didn’t push me much at all. Between grants, loans, and work study, I managed to go to college all by myself. I had a full-time job while going to college. I went to St. Augusta College in Jersey. I was a Catholic at that time. Not too much later, I was baptized into the Mormon Church.

On completing her studies at St. Augusta, Elena decided to get married to a Euro-American naval officer. Although her mother did not approve of Elena’s religious conversion, she did support the decision to marry.

I graduated from college in April 1976. But everything I had worked for I gave up for marriage. I thought I was doing the right thing at the time. I was 22. He was in the Navy. He had a wonderful job. He told me he was going to continue to work in the Navy. And he said that was going to be his career. So after graduating from college, I ended up doing all kinds of menial jobs. Then we moved to Utah to be closer to my husband’s family. But in 1979, my husband decided he didn’t want to be married anymore. We had two small children. At first, I believed that basically everyone does their best. It was hard for me to realize, “No, they don’t.” And my mother was having a hard time me being Mormon.

In response to her pending divorce, Elena secured a full-time accounting position, purchased a home, and began raising her children on her own. She continued to participate in church activities. Little did she know that, as a Latina single mother in Salt Lake City, she would confront an even greater challenge to her young family: discrimination.

When I first moved to Utah, I was being snubbed because I spoke Spanish. I didn’t try to offend anybody; it is the way people think here. The fact that I spoke Spanish meant that maybe I was Mexican. I didn’t have thick black hair, and I didn’t even look like a Mexican, that didn’t matter. If I was a Mexican, I had to be completely ignorant, I had to be uneducated, and willing to be their maid or a telemarketer. The [community] pocket where we lived is very, very uneducated and narrow-minded.

But I had no other venues for meeting people, only through church. A lot of women have never left this stupid valley, and they think that the world ends in the Rocky Mountains. . . . Bigots they are. They hear my accent and they say, “What country are you from?” Thinking I’m from Germany or some other place. So I tell them Cuba, and their face changes. . . . Their comment is “You don’t even look Cuban.” I say, “What is a Cuban supposed to look like?” . . . . People here would have social events, parties and have good times, but because I was different, we weren’t invited. My kids were treated so cold. People are surprised that my kids don’t have an accent. Sometimes they even apologize to my kids, “You don’t have an accent!”

 Finding a support system proved difficult. Unlike in New Jersey, she could not develop, let alone maintain, the cultural ties needed to feel accepted. Elena’s relationships with her church community became increasingly strained. Yet Elena coped by maintaining her faith, her focus on family, and a commitment to understanding diverse ways of viewing the world.

To be narrow-minded means someone refuses to accept somebody else’s views or someone else with a different experience. It’s not like you’re not human if you are different. The world is full of people and everybody doesn’t think the same way. Right now, I am dedicating my life to the kids, because they are my family. I expect them to be able to grow up to be well adjusted so that they can make their families happy.




Santa Fe, New Mexico; Lark, Utah; Salt Lake City, Utah

For 40-year-old Theresa, the mining town of Lark was a positive place to enjoy her youth. Theresa’s family moved from New Mexico to Utah to work in the mines.

There are six kids in our familia, three girls and three boys. I had a real good upbringing. Dad was the provider. Mom stayed home until we got older. Lark is no longer there. It is a small canyon, near Coppertown, which is where I went to high school. You can still see the pit. If my mom worked during the school year, she worked at the elementary school which was in our area. But for the majority of my life growing up with her, she was home. She would have buttered tortillas when we’d get home from school.

For me, it was wonderful . . . We loved the mountains and were secluded. It was a time when we could climb the mountains and walk the streets and mom and dad didn’t have a worry.

Having a stable home environment provided Theresa with a sense of security, even without wealth. She also recognized that her mother adhered to the fairly traditional gender roles. The development of cultural identity was an integral part of family life, instilled by her parents.

There were very few Mexicans where I grew up. When I was 18, I took a trip to Los Angeles and I saw so many more Latinos. I was like a minority. I was surrounded by that many colors. We’re more of an Anglo environment in Utah. My parents and grandparents spoke Spanish at home. The girls were expected to help cook and clean. Well, of course, the other side of that was I was Catholic and this is a Mormon community. Mom and Dad never brought me up to be prejudiced against any religion.

Theresa recalled the ethnic and religious differences in her community. And yet she was also aware of those traditional features that embodied her cultural identity, such as language, gender roles, and a work ethic, which her parents impressed on their children. Theresa’s mom was not entirely happy with the traditional expectations that many Latina women lived with. Her mother struggled to find ways to establish her own identity outside of the family. Because neither of her parents had the opportunity to attend college, Theresa was encouraged to become self sufficient.

As we got older, after high school, my mom always told me, “Don’t expect us to take care of you.” Because Dad took care of her to this day. She had no contro#151;Dad had control of everything. But now she sees her daughters are doing their own thing. I think she wishes she would have done some more things. She never ever learned how to drive. Dad drove her. If they paid a bill, Dad drove her or they paid cash. They were from the old school.

Theresa’s childhood experiences were not all positive. She felt that minority students didn’t always receive the kind of support that her Euro-American peers received. In addition, she recalled how her parents, with a limited educational background themselves, were uncertain how to assist their children with schoolwork.

I was always a pretty good student but I realize now that I could have done a lot more. . . . My parents couldn’t always help me. But I think if I had someone to help motivate me, I could have gone further. . . . We need more counselors to say, “Hey, where are you going, what do you plan on doing after this? This is what you need to do to get here, to get scholarships and make it happen.”

Despite these challenges, she did finish college and secured employment in the telecommunications industry. This job afforded her the opportunity to raise her two children and purchase a home following a divorce. Not until she applied for new positions in the company did she feel that she was bypassed and wondered whether discrimination played a part.

 I’m not sure if I was overlooked for jobs at AT&T because I was a woman or a Latina. It’s hard not to look at the CEOs and high-level administrators and not see one minority or one female. You have to wonder. I don’t want to think that it’s because of discrimination. But I go to minority conferences. I see that my generation is getting more involved in the community. We raise scholarship money. We have a speakers bureau. That is making a difference. I think that is important for the kids to know. I would love to have more children know that Latinos do make a difference.

But I think that kids today have more roadblocks than we do. Because of all the things that are going on because of gangs and such and drugs. You have to watch them more than ever. They just don’t want to come home after school, eat dinner, worry about their studies and that’s it. We have to help them set goals in life. We all need to be more involved in our community. All I can say about my kids is I want them to get their degrees and continue their education and make a difference.



The lives of second and third generation Latinas are punctuated by struggle, small triumphs, and resilience. The impact of oppression, assimilation, and economic hard times forged new responsibilities for these women, who, in turn, bravely took on twentieth century urban life. Their experiences reshape the expectations and promise of today’s third and fourth generation Latina students.

Teachers can share and discuss these women’s stories with students and show that Latinas cannot be seen solely as people of color, but as women, because they are affected by the expectations set forth by both identities.7 Although the women have not overtly challenged issues of race, class, and gender, their narratives reveal that they want to, according to Blea, “participate in the on-going social structure, not destroy it and replace it with a new structure” and, at the same time, empower themselves and their children.8



1. James Hoopes, Oral History: An Introduction for Students (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 2.

2. Timothy Sitton, Oral History: A Guide for Teachers (Austin: The University of Texas, 1983).

3. Barry Lanman, The Oral History Experience (Discovery Learning Community, 1996).

4. John Neuenschwander, Oral History as a Teaching Approach (Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, 1976), 13.

5. Barnard Glaser and Anselm Strauss, The Discovery of Grounded Theory (London:Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967), 7.

6. Irene Blea, Researching Chicano Communities (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995), 13.

7. Sylvia Lizarraga, Ties of Challenge: Chicanos and Chicanas in American Society (Houston: University of Houston Press, 1988).

8. Blea, Researching Chicano Communities, 14.


Grace C. Huerta is an assistant professor, Department of Secondary Education, College of Education, Utah State University, Logan, Utah. Her e-mail address is Leslie A. Flemmer is a doctoral student at the University of Utah and a history/social studies teacher at Bennion Jr. High School, Salt Lake City, Utah. Leslie may be reached at



Teaching Tips


1. Ask students to read the Latina narratives as a class, in small groups, or individually. Have them address such questions and activities as:



2. Have students conduct their own oral history project, either individually or in small groups. Walk students through the steps listed in the first section of the article. Consider such points as what themes students will focus on, who they will interview, how they will record the interview, in what form their final project will take, and how they will present the information to an audience. Use the Latina narratives as a model.