Castaņa Project: A History Field Laboratory Experience
Cecilia Aros Hunter and Leslie Gene Hunter
Our project, La Castaņa, demonstrates the possibilities
for teaching outside the box that emerge when an archivist and a
history professor join forces to introduce survey-level students
to historical research and the excitement of original and primary
sources. Our team--Cecilia Aros Hunter, an archivist, and Leslie
Gene Hunter, a historian--structured a laboratory experience in
which students became discoverers and detectives, joining us in
searching trunks, attics, garages, and other family storage areas
for documents that will illuminate the history and culture of the
peoples of the deep south Texas region in which our university is
Our collaboration takes place at Texas A&M University-Kingsville,
about ninety miles from the Mexican border and about fifteen miles
inland from the Gulf coast, between Brownsville and Corpus Christi,
Texas. The university is the oldest in the area, and for seventy-five
years it has served a bilingual and multicultural student body that
tends to be from small towns and agricultural communities. The students
have spent their lives on large ranches and small farms. Although
the area is inhabited primarily by people of Mexican descent who
speak Spanish, other ethnic communities exist where English is not
the primary language; thus the area is both bilingual and multicultural.
Recognizing this unique heritage, we named our venture La Castaņa,
Spanish for "the trunk." Our project has both a pedagogical
objective and a specific content goal--helping preserve local history.
The two come together when our students realize that history is
not something remote, dealing only with people in distant places
and ancient times. Rather, we seek to make history immediate and
relevant by showing students the drama of the lives of men and women
in their local area. By promoting a concept of the archives as a
laboratory, we bring students to an understanding of how history
is determined, researched, written, and preserved. Students realize
that they are making history and are the results of history.
At first we asked our students to focus on locating information
about the Mexican and Mexican American communities. We maintained
that despite the growing interest in Hispanics, who were quickly
becoming the largest minority group in the United States, not enough
documents have been collected to report the history of the group
accurately, and especially the history of Mexican immigrants into
Texas. Although there is a strong community of Tejanos (people of
Mexican descent who were in Texas before 1848, when they became
Americans as part of the spoils of war), an even larger group of
newer immigrants jealously guard their documents. They fear that
those documents may be their only link with the past or that their
history will not be highly regarded and cared for by archives that
have traditionally been Anglo establishments. In time we came to
appreciate that other communities had immigrated into the area in
the early twentieth century after the discovery of artesian water
and the development of irrigation made farming as important to the
economy as ranching had been.
We thus expanded our project to ask students to find documents
reflecting any ethnic cultural experience, rural or urban, in south
Texas. We believed that the youth and enthusiasm of our students
could inspire their relatives to seek the needed documents and perhaps
to donate them to an archives or to allow us to copy them, thus
creating collections that would enrich not only local history but
also the larger historical narrative. We do not ask students to
seek public documents in courthouses or other governmental agencies,
nor do we stress oral history. Our project asks students to locate
documents in private possession before they fade, are destroyed
or damaged, or disappear. We are careful to explain the difficulty
of preserving paper in a hostile environment. South Texas is located
near the water and is thus hot and humid, the home of many insects,
rodents, and pests who enjoy destroying old paper.
We frame our student laboratory exercise as an alternative to a
traditional term paper or book review. In preparation for the assignment,
the archivist visits the class to explain the types of materials
that are generally collected and the methods by which they are preserved
and stored. Students learn that archivists catalog and categorize
the information needed by historians, and they discover how historians,
following the protocols of archival search strategies, depend upon
archives for materials that allow them to find, analyze, interpret,
and write about historical facts.
The project requires students to:
1. Locate information about a cultural or historical resource in
their home areas or the area of the school.
2. Prepare a survey cover sheet, composed by the historian and
archivist, that is included with the assignment. The survey sheet
(a copy appears at the end of this essay) includes the name of the
potential donor, an address, a map to help locate the donor if his
or her residence is rural, and an inventory of the materials located.
We ask students to introduce the idea of donating the documents
to the South Texas Archives and Special Collections at Texas A&M
University-Kingsville, and thus the survey form asks if the owners
of documents might be interested in donating them or allowing them
to be copied for preservation and research.
3. Write a five-to-seven-page paper evaluating the documents and
explaining the significance they might have to future researchers.
The student analyzes what the documents may show scholars and the
general public about the local Anglo, black, Hispanic, or other
cultural community, culture, and way of life. The student then suggests
why the items should be included in the collection at the archives.
We do not ask students to "collect" the documents they
use, but only to locate them. We emphasize that students should
not take physical possession of any documents; they should not remove
them from their owners, even to photocopy or to bring them to class.
Removing documents, we explain, might hinder the establishment of
provenance, the critical archival procedure for determining the
creator of a document and the custodians of the document up to the
point of archival deposit. They learn that archives establish the
authenticity of documents through such procedures, and that a historian
relies on the archivist to establish validity.
We remind our students that history is not just about the rich
and famous, or infamous. It is also about the everyday happenings
of everyday people and the occurrences that explain the contributions
of Anglo, African American, Mexican American, and other communities
in their local area. In seeking materials, students are urged to
think historically about the types of information that will help
scholars describe that area. We particularly ask them to seek documents
in the following categories:
1. Personal papers and family documents, including correspondence,
diaries, and notes.
2. Business documents, including records, bills, tax receipts,
banking information, records from ranching and farming activities,
and related materials.
3. Newspapers, especially locally created foreign-language newspapers
that keep alive the written literary heritage of the culture.
4. Political activity documents, including speeches, records
of organizations, flyers, and other pertinent documents. Of special
interest would be records of the activities of local ethnic and
racial community organizations.
5. Church and religious items and documents, including the records
of auxiliary church organizations.
6. Items related to law enforcement.
7. Military documents and items related to military service.
8. Written works that record oral literature, folklore, songs
(corridos), and traditional medicine.
9. Works of art, including paintings, sculpture, and ceramics.
10. Documents relating to athletics and recreational pursuits.
11. Photographs of activities, dwellings, events, and community
12. Documents and other items related to educational activities,
including certificates, diplomas, grade cards, reports, significant
assignments, and items showing the levels of education of the
community or reflecting the work of teachers.
13. Immigration documents and items about the immigrant experience.
14. Climatic information that might indicate changes in history
due to such events as the huge hurricanes that have destroyed
the area or droughts that have devastated the agricultural communities.
15. Documentation of professional activities, especially concerning
law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, and other professions.
Our students have made remarkable finds since we began our project
in 1993. One located eighteen love letters written in Spanish in
the local community during the 1930s. At that time south Texas took
in many immigrants fleeing the turmoil resulting from the Mexican
Revolution of 1910, some of whom were young men still actively involved
in revolutionary groups. The authors were an activist young man
and the young woman that he was eager to marry. The letters reveal
the traditional culture in which they lived: Although the young
woman was eager to marry her suitor, she met resistance from her
family, which adamantly opposed the marriage for two reasons. Family
members were upset by the man's sympathy with the policies and ideas
of the Mexican Revolution. They were even more opposed to the marriage
because he was not a Roman Catholic. Because she could not gain
her parents' approval, the young lady did not feel she could marry
the young man. He sent the customary intermediary to try to persuade
the parents, but the marriage seemed almost impossible. The woman
was hesitantly willing to leave her parents, siblings, and the other
members of her extended family. Ultimately, approval was given and
the couple married, but the family disowned the young woman. This
rich correspondence vividly illustrates the persistence of the area's
traditional culture, which bound even these lovers to its standards
and mores. Through the letters, this student explored how a major
event, the Mexican Revolution of 1910, affected an ordinary person
in a seemingly very distant era. The student was profoundly moved
because her forebears wrote the love letters.
Another student found hidden away a bound volume of the local high
school's student newspaper, including issues published one week
before and the month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Following the U.S. entry into World War II, the school newspaper
reported the chagrin of students whose fathers, brothers, and friends
were being sent to fight in a distant land. The newspaper reported
how students prepared to do their part for the war effort. Students
were involved in a great historical event. In reporting local reaction,
the school newspaper is an illuminating primary source.
When one student asked if her family had anything she could use
for the project, her mother looked at her with confusion. When she
fully explained the purpose of the project, her mother gave her
a pile of photographs and other family items. The student later
reported with wonder "the multitude of things that can really
be learned from South Texas in such a small chunk of history."
She found framed photographs of great-grandparents, showing their
activities, their style of dress, and the changes in the appearance
of their surroundings. Yet another student found over two hundred
letters long forgotten in an old cedar chest given to her grandmother
when she graduated from high school. The letters, from her grandfather
to her grandmother, began in 1938 and continued through World War
II. Tied with old silk ribbons, they had not been touched for over
fifty years. The student learned about affection, fear, turmoil,
and the uncertainty with which they faced the war. She had not previously
even known about her family's involvement in World War II.
Another student thrilled to the "great treasure" discovered
in her family's trunk--her great-grandmother's journals, begun in
1918 when she was only eight years old. Written in Spanish, they
described the hardships the family had to endure because of the
Mexican Revolution, which led the family to move to south Texas.
The documentation for most of the projects does not come to the
archives immediately, nor do the possessors generally allow them
to be copied, but they are located and appreciated by the students,
who learn about their own proud and rich history. Some of the documents
arrive at the archives years later when the student who did the
original paper inherits them.
On one level, this project results in the use of higher-order thinking
skills, including analysis, synthesis, and evaluation; it requires
students to examine documents and to determine if they are historically
significant by considering the circumstances surrounding their production
and by drawing on an understanding of the era. On another level,
students who handle documents from the past come to relate to history
as "real." They come away with a better understanding
of their own history and the history of the area in which they live.
Admittedly, this project posed some challenges for students who
did not hail from the local area and thus were too far from their
homes easily to ask grandparents or other older relatives for the
information they sought. We urged these students to talk to people
in senior citizens' establishments, both live-in facilities and
those that simply serve the elderly. Social services administrators,
ministers, priests, and social workers also helped direct us to
elderly people who might have treasure troves of documents. Thus,
we believe that our project, La Castaņa, can be undertaken in any
community, preserving history, connecting students to history, and
facilitating the collaboration of archivists and historians.
Appendix: Survey Sheet
A Survey of Historical and Cultural Resources of South Texas
1. Name of potential donor
If the address is in a rural area please include a map showing
how to get there.
3. Inventory of items. Include dates; amounts//numbers; conditions.
(Attach additional sheets if needed.)
4. If items can not be donated, can they be copied and the copies
stored by the South Texas Archives? If so, what restrictions would
be placed on them?
5. What restrictions would be placed on any of the items if they
6. Is the owner of the documents/items willing to donate them to
the South Texas Archives?
If yes, when
7. Student's name
Cecilia Aros Hunter is university archivist at Texas
A&M University-Kingsville. She has been a public and private
school teacher and administrator and serves on the Texas State Historical
Records Advisory Board. Leslie Gene Hunter is a Regents Professor
in the Department of History at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.
In 1997 he was named one of ten Minnie Stevens Piper Outstanding
Teachers for the state of Texas.
Readers may contact Cecilia Aros Hunter at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
and Leslie Gene Hunter at <email@example.com>.