Women & Family Ties in Immigration: Anna, Julian, & Paranka Debaylo

For Women’s History Month I am revisiting some of my favorite research projects I’ve undertaken and focusing on women of all walks of life, not just “great” or notable women –though I love that many are highlighting the wonderful, trailblazing, inspiring women of the past this month. 

Introduction

Today’s post is about Anna, Julian and Paranka Debaylo, 3 regular people whose lives represent major trends in immigration in the early 20th century. This research began as an assignment to write a biography of individuals buried in the St. Helena Cemetery in Pender County, North Carolina as part of the Volga to Cape Fear Project which resulted in an exhibit entitled Push and Pull: Eastern European and Russian Migration to the Cape Fear Region. 

I chose three related individuals, Anna, Julian, and Paranka Debaylo. Anna was a widow when she immigrated. Her passage was paid by her stepson, Julian. Paranka came to the U.S. to marry Julian and care for his children from his first marriage. Their interlocking stories led me to research the importance of family for immigrants, especially for women, as well as women’s experiences in immigration. I found that there were restrictions at Ellis Island that prevented women from traveling alone unless sponsored by someone already in the United States due to the fear of them becoming public charges. Also, family and community facilitated the transition to life in the United States, helping men to find jobs and older women, like Anna Debaylo, to adjust to U.S. life.

Finding Anna, Julian, and Paranka on census records, Ellis Island ship manifests, birth indexes, city directories, and transit receipts brought them to life in a way, recreating their journey to the United States and their life once they arrived. Why do people leave their homelands, travel on crowded ships, and pay good money to go to a foreign place? For a better life? Is that what they found? How were women’s experiences of immigration different from those of men?

Beginning with the End: Biography from a Gravestone

The St. Helena Cemetery, established for use by the Saints Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church, includes graves of community members regardless of church affiliation. St. Helena, a community in Pender County, North Carolina was founded as a farm colony by Wilmington businessman Hugh MacRae. One of six such colonies established between 1905 and 1912 by MacRae’s Carolina Trucking Development Company, St. Helena attracted immigrants of various ethnicities, especially Italian and later, Russian and Ukrainian (or Ruthenian). Immigrants initially came directly from Europe; however, the majority moved to St. Helena from other locations in the United States, learning of the opportunities there from members of the immigrant community or promoters. Advertised as an area fit for farming, St. Helena promotional material boasted the availability of land and a fast and easy way to own a home. The reality of St. Helena did not always live up to the assured conditions; the promised homes were not of the advertised quality and the land was not immediately ready for farming.[1] Despite the difficulties, a community of immigrants grew there and remains a part of St. Helena today.

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The St. Helena Cemetery testifies to the lives of the initial immigrants and their descendants. The headstones, relationships, and lives of three individuals, Anna, Julian, and Paranka Debaylo, all demonstrate the various gendered experiences of immigration and the importance of family connections in enabling immigration and adjustment to life in the United States. Many female immigrants fell into two categories: young women, traveling to reunite with a husband or to meet and marry a man, and older women, usually widows or divorced women, immigrating to join their adult children. Paranka and Anna are examples of these two phenomena. Also, as we will see through the exploration of Anna, Julian, and Paranka’s lives, family connections were important for both men and women, but were more essential for women’s successful immigration.

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The gravestones of Anna, Julian, and Paranka Debaylo introduce visitors to the significance of family in the lives of immigrants as well as to the positions of women in the community. Anna Debaylo (January 21, 1867 – February 11, 1960) lived to be 93 years old. Her headstone reinforces the importance of family and her role in her own family. Her headstone is simple, with few words and limited adornment. Made of granite, it is engraved with her name, birth and death dates, a Russian Orthodox cross, a simple design of grapevines across the top and the inscriptions “Our Dear Mother” and a Ukrainian phrase which translates to “Eternal Memory.” Together with the cross, both the grapevine design and the inscription’s reference to eternity are likely religious references to Christ’s sacrifice and eternal afterlife.  It is clear from the inscription and the flowers present at the grave that Anna was a loved member of her family as well as the community. The headstone also attests to the religious faith of Anna and possibly that of her children who likely commissioned this headstone in honor of their mother.

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The headstone of Julian Debaylo (May 6, 1886 – January 31, 1934) also invokes family. His gravestone is very similar in size and design to Anna’s headstone.  The granite headstone is engraved with his name, birth and death dates, the inscription “Our Father” and a simple design of leaves. However, it does not include the Russian Orthodox cross as Anna’s does. The inscription here signals Julian’s position as a loved and respected member of the Debaylo family. The lack of religious imagery may signal less involvement in the church of either Julian or his children who, again, appear to have commissioned the headstone.

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In addition to the imagery and inscriptions on the headstones, the placement of them also alludes to relationships and connections between the deceased. Paranka Debaylo (September 26, 1899 – November 29, 1960), Julian’s second wife, is buried beside Julian. Her gravestone is identical to his save the name and dates and the term mother in place of father. Her gravestone was clearly designed to accompany that of her husband’s and both stones were most likely chosen by Julian and Paranka’s children. Together with Julian’s grave, Paranka’s headstone reinforces the position of parents in the family and the connections established through marriage. The three headstones described above sparked further questions of family connections, the experience of female immigrants, and the role of family in the lives of immigrants to St. Helena as well as in the lives of immigrants to the United States more generally.

Family Ties in Immigration

The lives of Anna, Julian, and Paranka demonstrate the scenarios that women commonly faced in immigration, that of moving to be with their children or that of moving for marriage, as well as the necessity of family connections in order to enter and adjust to the United States.[2]

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Anna Debaylo (commonly spelled Dybajlo on documents) was born in 1867 in Cholojow in what was Galicia in the Austrian province of Poland and is modern Ukraine. She was the third wife of Hrehory (Gregory) Dybajlo. Gregory already had four children from his two previous marriages. His first wife was Anna Lotocka who had three children: Michael, Emilian or Julian, and Dmytro. His second wife was Teklia who had one daughter, Anastazia (Nascha). Anna Shainoha became Anna Debaylo and Gregory’s third wife. They had four children: Paulina, Ilko (Elias), Sophia, and Peter. According to her granddaughter, Anna had wanted to be a nun but was convinced by family that marrying the widowed Gregory and caring for his children would be a better way for her to serve. Gregory passed away in 1914. Anna remained a widow for the rest of her life.[3]

Anna immigrated to the United States in 1923, at the age of 56, with her son Peter (Piotr) on board the George Washington which departed from Bremen, Germany. The ship manifest listed Julian Debaylo as her son (he was her stepson), and as the party who paid for her and Peter’s travel.[4] At that time it was necessary for female immigrants, especially if traveling alone, to be sponsored by a male already in the United States who agreed to be responsible for the woman. This policy was based on ideas that women were more likely to become public charges if not cared for by a male relative or husband.[5] Likely, Julian not only paid for Anna’s ticket, but also served as her legal sponsor. Between her arrival in New York City in 1923 and when she moved to St. Helena in 1928 Anna may have lived with Julian or another one of her children already in the United States. Once she settled in St. Helena she was a member of the household of Eli Debaylo, her biological son. The household at the time of the 1930 census also included Eli’s wife and two daughters. [6] Anna lived in St. Helena until her death in 1960.

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Anna’s life after immigration is an example of the experience of many other widowed, divorced, or separated women who immigrated in order to be with their adult children who had already established a life in the United States. Anna being an aging widow likely made her economically vulnerable and immigration an appealing option. Anna seems to have been part of an increasing number of widowed women who immigrated after 1915 in order to rejoin children. Prior to that time, few older women immigrated.[7] When they did, older women, as well as older men who immigrated, depended on their children and ethnic and religious communities in order to adjust to life in the United States.[8]

Julian Debaylo, whose birthdate is disputed between May 6, 1886, the date on his headstone, and July 1, 1886, the date on his first marriage certificate, immigrated to New York in 1908, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1913. Julian likely came to the United States in search of a better economic situation. In Galicia, economic conditions deteriorated after 1848 when the government ended serfdom. The peasants remained on the land, but partible inheritance was enforced rather than primogeniture. Landholdings became smaller over time, eventually leading to the inability to support a family on one parcel. Adding to the reasons for immigration were high taxes, potato blight, and epidemics.[9] Julian may have had additional reasons for immigrating, but economics were likely a great factor.

In 1916, at the age of 29, Julian married Anna Mikariya Spivak, or Annie as she is identified on the 1920 census, and they had two children, Nick and Helen, born around 1917 and 1918 respectively. At the taking of the 1920 census the Debaylo household was living in the borough of Manhattan in New York City. Also included are the birthplaces of each member of the family. Annie and Julian were both born in Galicia while both of their children were born in New Jersey. The census also gives insight on how Julian and Annie perceived themselves ethnically; a notation appears to replace Russian with “Ruth” (perhaps an abbreviation of Ruthenian) as their mother language and might indicate their ethnic affiliation. The ethnicity of immigrants from Eastern Europe was often unclear. Immigrants entering the United States were sometimes misidentified by officials. Also, the region of Eastern Europe underwent many geo-political changes during its history. Ruthenian was used by those individuals from Galicia or Carpatho-Ukraine, differentiating them from other Ukrainians as well as from Russians.[10] Finally, the census listed Julian’s occupation as a tailor in a clothing factory.[11] No occupation was listed for Annie who most likely stayed home to take care of the children.[12]

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Annie Debaylo passed away sometime between 1920 and 1923. Julian wrote home to his family for a second wife to care for his children after the death of their mother. Paranka, or Frances, Shainoha, a relative of Julian’s stepmother, was sent to be his wife. According to family stories, Paranka did not wish to marry Julian after she saw him due to his “hunchback.” Julian broke his back in a childhood accident in which he fell from a woodpile on a wagon. Paranka ultimately chose to marry him; the other option being to return home.[13] Julian and Paranka had two children, Anna, born in 1923, and Julian Frances Debaylo, born eight months after his father’s death in 1934.[14] Julian and Paranka lived in New Jersey for several years following their marriage. Julian seems to have moved sometime between December 6, 1923, the date of his stepmother’s arrival in New York City, at which time Julian’s address was listed as 515 E 16th St, New York, NY, and the release of the 1924 city directory in Passaic, New Jersey in which Julian is listed as a tailor at 136 Columbia Avenue. Julian continued to be listed in the city directories of Passaic, including the Clifton area, through 1930. The address of his tailor shop changed at least once. Paranka (as Frances) was listed as his spouse in the 1929 directory.[15] Julian, Paranka, and their children moved to St. Helena between 1930 and January 1934, when Julian died at the age of 47 from pneumonia in Burgaw, North Carolina.[16] Paranka gave birth to Julian Francis Debaylo in September, 1934.[17]

Paranka went on to marry Walker Augustine and her, Julian Francis, and Freddie Augustine are listed as members of the Augustine household in the 1940 census. Still living in Pender County, Paranka was listed as a farmer while her new husband Walker was listed as a farm manager.[18] After 1940, Paranka had another son, Walker Don Augustine. All four of her children dedicated a page in the St. Helena History to her memory.[19] Paranka’s motivations for immigrating were likely a combination of economic and personal and possibly included pressure from her family. It was common at the time for Eastern European women to prefer an Americanized husband and many would take the chance of moving to marry a stranger; however, it was also common for parents and other family members to make decisions about immigration for young women as well as to arrange marriages.[20] It is unclear whether Paranka and Julian knew each other before marrying, but she was related to Julian’s stepmother and it was her family who likely made the arrangements for the marriage and Paranka’s passage to the United States.

Once in the United States, the reasons that Anna, Julian, and Paranka moved to St. Helena specifically are not completely known. Julian’s position as a tailor was one of the best in the garment manufacturing industry, but was still low paid.[21] Also, having likely been landless peasants back home, most immigrants saw in the United States the opportunity to own land.[22] It is likely that Julian, as well as his brothers, moved to St. Helena in order to own land and try to prosper as farmers. Other motives likely included the desire to be with family already in St. Helena. For Anna who came to live with her son Elias, it is more evident that family was a major factor. As far as Paranka, it is difficult to determine from the sources if she had much of a choice in moving to St. Helena; however she moved there with her husband and remained there after his death.

From the lives of these three members of the Debaylo family, the importance of family connections in aiding immigration and settlement in the United States is evident. For women especially, these connections legally and economically enabled immigration and assimilation. Julian’s sponsorship of Anna and marriage to Paranka facilitated both women’s entry into the United States, where they likely hoped to encounter better economic circumstances. Women’s experience of immigration often followed the same paths: immigrating for marriage, to follow a husband, or to be with children or other relatives. However, while especially important for women, family connections were important for men as well. Julian Debaylo not only sponsored his step-mother’s immigration, but also at least two of his half-brothers, Peter, who immigrated with Anna, and Elias Debaylo. Julian filed the necessary paperwork to bring Elias and his sister Sophia to the United States while another brother, Michael Debaylo paid for the tickets. Michael was also instrumental in finding work for Elias.[23] The benefits of having relatives already in the United States eased the transition.

[1] W. Frank Ainsley, “’Own a Home in North Carolina’: Image and Reality in Ethnic European Colonies,” in Journal of Cultural History, Vol 5:2, 1985, 61-69.
[2] Maxine Schwartz Seller, ed., Immigrant Women, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 1981, 20-21.
[3] Ann Mizerak, “Debaylo Family Genealogy,” 2012, Private Collection of Ann Mizerak, Burgaw, North Carolina; and Personal Communication with Ann Mizerak, Burgaw, North Carolina, September 6, 2013.
[4] Ship Manifest, Ellis Island Foundation, “The American Family Immigration History Center’s Ellis Island Archive,” Ellis Island, (Online:  The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., 2009), <http://www.ellisislandrecords.org/&gt;, accessed September 4, 2013.
[5] Seller, 18-19, 34-35.
[6] Mizerak, “Debaylo Family Genealogy”; and 1930 U.S. Census, Burgaw, Pender, North Carolina; Roll: 1712; Page: 2B; Enumeration District: 2; Image: 569.0; FHL microfilm: 2341446, Digital image, Ancestry.com. 1930 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2002. Original data: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. T626, 2,667 rolls.
[7] Seller, 21.
[8] Seller, 65-66.
[9] Paul Spickard, Almost All Aliens: Immigration, Race, and Colonialism in American History and Identity, (New York: Routledge), 2007, 193.
[10] Myron B. Kuropas, The Ukrainian Americans: Roots and Aspirations, 1884-1954, (Toronto: Toronto University Press), 1991, 5-7.
[11] Copy of Marriage Certificate, Emilian (Julian) Debaylo and Anna Spivak, January 10, 1916, in Mizerak, “Debaylo Family Genealogy”; and 1920 U.S. Census, Manhattan, New York, New York, Accessed via HeritageQuest, ProQuest LLC, 2013, Original data: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1920, accessed via Heritage Quest, accessed on September 4, 2013.
[12] Seller, 66.
[13] Personal communication with Ann Mizerak, Burgaw, North Carolina, September 6, 2013.
[14] Mizerak, “Debaylo Family Genealogy”; and Birth Certificate of Julian Francis Debaylo, Ancestry.com. North Carolina, Birth Indexes, 1800-2000 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005. Original data: Register of Deeds. North Carolina Birth Indexes. Raleigh, North Carolina: North Carolina State Archives. Microfilm.
[15] Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Original data: Passaic, New Jersey, City Directory, 1924, 1925, 1929, 1930.
[16] Death Certificate of Julian Debaylo, Ancestry.com. North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1975 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007. Original data: North Carolina State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. North Carolina Death Certificates. Microfilm S.123. Rolls 19-242, 280, 313-682, 1040-1297. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
[17] Birth Certificate of Julian Francis Debaylo.
[18] 1940 U.S. Census, Rocky Point Township, Pender County, North Carolina, accessed via Heritage Quest, ProQuest LLC, 2013, accessed on September 4, 2013. Original data: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1940.
[19] “History of St. Helena”, Community Publication, Private Collection of Ann Mizerak, Burgaw, North Carolina.
[20] Seller, 20, 117.
[21] Doris Weatherford, Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America, 1840-1930, (New York: Schocken Books), 1986, 108-113.
[22] Timothy Walch, ed., Immigrant America: European Ethnicity in the United States, (New York: Garland Publishers, Inc.), 1994, 64.
[23] Baltic American Line Receipt, Mizerak, “Debaylo Family Genealogy”, 2012, Private Collection of Ann Mizerak, Burgaw, North Carolina.

#WomensHistoryMonth: Marie Curie — Guest Post by a Budding Historian

In Women’s History Month, I am writing about women from the past including inspiring women, controversial women, unheard of women, and everyday women. I am also taking the opportunity to support and lift up today and tomorrow’s women.

The following post was written by my 10-year-old niece, Tori, for her 4th grade class project about biographies. When she found out she was doing a biography project at school, she called me for ideas about who she should write about. She wanted to choose someone from history rather than a current figure, and she wanted to write about a woman. Granted, she knows I’m a historian and I’ve been pushing children’s books about women’s history on her since she before she could talk, so she probably said what she thought I wanted to hear.

But at any rate, I was thrilled. I went through several women and girls I thought she would find interesting and she settled on Marie Curie, the Nobel-prize winning scientist. As they worked on the project at school, she called me with updates. It was so much fun to hear how excited she was about what she was learning. Below, rendered just as she wrote it, is her paper. She got a 100 on it. I’m a very proud aunt. Hope you enjoy learning a bit more about the inspiring Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to win two. 3242_001

Full text below for ease of reading. 

Maria Salomea Sklodowska also known as Marie Curie was born on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. Her parents Wtadystaw Sktodowski and Bronislaw Sklodowski were both teachers. She had four siblings three sisters and one brother. Marie was the top student high school which people called secondary school. She earned her Master’s Degree in physics in 1893. The following year she got another degree in mathematics. When Marie was ten years old her mother died of Tuberculosis, a disease that makes you cough up blood. To make matters worse her sister died in 1876.

Marie Curie accomplished many things! ln 1895, she married Pierre Curie. A couple of years later in 1897, she gave birth to her first of two children, Irene! Five years passed and in 1902 she starts to work with radium, a chemical element. A year later in 1903, she and her husband win a Nobel Prize with radioactivity and physics! Three years later, in 1906, a sad thing happened to Pierre Curie, he was in a traffic collision. He died on April 19, 1906. He was buried in Pantheon, Paris, France. Marie took his place in teaching. Later in 1911, she won another Nobel Prize, but this time for chemistry. ln 1922, she became a member of the French Academy. Ten years later, in 1932, Marie joins the fight for cancer. Marie Curie was a pioneer in the study of radiation!

Marie Curie discovered many things! Sadly, Marie Curie died on July 4, 1934 from aplastic anemia, a disease that mostly has to do with large amounts of radiation. She died of 66 years of age. She was buried in Pantheon, Paris, France. She is remembered for her discoveries that help us out every day. She discovered Radium and Polonium. Her discoveries helped change the world!

La Malinche: Traitor, Victim & Survivor, or Mother of Mestizos?

La Malinche, whose given name was most likely Malinalli, was an indigenous woman in what is now Mexico in the early 1500s. She has also been known as Malintzin and Doña Marina (as the Spanish called her.) Most well known as the indigenous woman who helped the Spanish conquer the Aztecs by serving as translator, La Malinche could be considered, and is by many Mexicans, a traitor to her people. However, others consider her a victim or a survivor who made the most of the position she found herself in. Still others see her as the mother of mestizos and modern Mexicans. So which is true or can it be all of them?

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Hernán Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519. Facsimile (c. 1890) of Lienzo de Tlaxcala [History of Tlaxcala]. Image in the public domain: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Malinche#/media/File:Cortez_&_La_Malinche.jpg

Malinalli was born sometime between 1496 and 1501.  She was born between the Aztec empire in central Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula where the- Maya lived. As a child, her father was a cacique (what the Spanish called indigenous leaders); however, he died and her mother remarried another cacique and had a son. Malinalli’s family then sold her to Mayan slavers.

Those slavers then sold her to the Mexicas (Aztecs) where she learned their language, Nahuatl. War between Mayas and Mexicas resulted in Malinalli being given as tribute (possibly a sex slave) to the cacique of Tabasco (Mayan) where she learned the Maya-yucateca language.

It was Malinalli’s language skills that made her role in the conquest possible as she could speak at least two major native languages. It was in Tabasco where Malinalli met Hernán Cortés, a relationship that altered her world and that of Mexico. The Spaniards arrived in Tabasco and defeated the indigenous people. After the battle, the Tabascan people “brought a present of gold, consisting of four diadems, some ornaments in the form of lizards, two shaped like little dogs and five little ducks, also some earrings…,” as well as twenty indigenous women, including a “most excellent person who when she became a Christian took the name of Doña Marina.” (Yes, these enslaved women were given as peace tokens together with inanimate objects.)

Doña Marina was described as “the prettiest, the most active and lively of the number” and as having an appearance that attested to her status as “a truly great princess, the daughter of Caciques.” Doña Marina was originally given to conquistador Puertocarrero, but upon his return to Spain, she “lived with Cortés, to whom she bore a son named Don Martin Cortés.”

So this summarizes Malinalli’s life up until meeting Cortés. Her story and that of the conquest is complicated and unfortunately her own viewpoint, goals, and intentions are lost to history as she did not write her own story. Her life is documented purely through the lenses of others, both Spanish and indigenous.

The Spanish considered her a great asset and regularly described her as a princess–beautiful, regal, great, and “most excellent.” Several conquistadors claimed that without her they would not have been able to conquer the Aztecs, or at least not as quickly and they would not have been able to communicate with [and ally with some of] the indigenous people they encountered along the way.

One of the most detailed accounts of the Spanish conquest of Mexico is that of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a soldier under the leadership of Hernán Cortés. He described Doña Marina in a positive light in every mention of her in his memoirs of the conquest of New Spain.

Diaz relates the story of when Marina was reunited with her mother and brother. Upon seeing Marina, they felt guilty and anxious, but she “comforted them” and “freely forgave the past.” Bernal Diaz saw this incident as proof that “God…turned her away from the errors of heathenism and converted her to Christianity.” He even compared Doña Marina’s story to that of Joseph and his brothers in the Bible, in which Joseph forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery because it ultimately led him to a place of power.

Indigenous people also depicted Malinalli in codices relating the events of the conquest. The Aztec codices always show Malinalli next to Cortés, demonstrating how closely she worked with him, helping him to negotiate with Aztec leaders. The Tlaxcala, an indigenous group that allied with Cortés to defeat the Aztecs, also depicted Malinalli (who they called Malintzin). In fact they so closely associated Malinalli with Cortés that they called them both by the same name — Malintzin, identifying him as being with her. (The -tzin suffix is an honorific or formality much like sir or lady.)

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La Malinche and Hernán Cortés in the city of Xaltelolco, in a drawing from the late 16th-century codex History of Tlaxcala.  Image in the public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Malinche_Tlaxcala.jpg

Some indigenous codices and other evidence have caused some historians to speculate that Malinalli had power beyond her role as translator–that she influenced diplomacy and decisions during the conquest. One story exists that she warned Cortés about a planned trap and attack by indigenous people. This story, along with her overall role in helping Cortés to be successful in his defeat of the Aztecs, has caused her to be known as a traitor-traiconera. However, not all indigenous groups in the area were allied with the Aztecs and some suffered from the empire’s requirement for tribute, making some historians argue that she saved her people from the Aztecs.

Outside of her role as translator, Doña Marina’s life was not all that different from the lives of many other indigenous women who the Spanish encountered. She was given as a peace offering to the Spanish, baptized and renamed as a Christian, and then given to one Spaniard after another.

She, and the other nineteen captive women given at the same time, had no choice in their placement with the Spaniards, but Doña Marina’s actions while with the Spaniards demonstrate that she saw in her new position an opportunity to survive and maybe even improve her station in life. Her ability to translate for Cortés elevated her status in the party and granted her certain protections.

Less is known about her later life, but it seems she lived outside of what is now Mexico City, married Juan Jaramillo and had a daughter. Her son with Cortés, commonly thought of as the first mestizo or first Mexican, was taken to Spain and raised by his father’s family. Malinalli died either in 1529 or 1551 as is disputed by historians.

Her role in the conquest remains contested & debated by Mexicans as well. The word malinchista means a disloyal citizen who prefers foreign influence and is used as an insult in Mexico. But many feminists have defended her, pointing to her lack of choice as an enslaved woman and the difficult situation she was placed in.

Traitor, survivor, victim, mother of modern Mexicans? All of the above? What do you think? 

Quotes are from: Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, Trans. J.M. Cohen, (London: Penguin Books, 1963).

You can read more about the mythology and legacy of La Malinche in the below interesting article which compares her life and legacy to that of Pocahontas. 

https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/11/25/457256340/despite-similarities-pocahontas-gets-love-malinche-gets-hate-why

Some of this blog post was inspired by and adapted from an academic paper I wrote during undergrad about how the Spanish conquistadors used indigenous women to help accomplish the goals of conquest: God, gold, and glory. In it I argue that Doña Marina’s life demonstrates two major themes present in the Spanish conquest of Mexico: the use of conversion to Christianity and interracial relationships in order to promote assimilation and loyalty. Both of these tactics were used to achieve the goals of conquest. Spanish conquerors sought to claim territory, convert and assimilate natives, and find wealth. Through the writings of Cortés and Diaz, it becomes evident that the conversion of indigenous women to Catholicism, and Spanish men’s relationships with them, were not secondary aspects of colonization.  Rather, this paper argues that it was through their relationships with indigenous women that Spanish men achieved their goals of conquest. You can read the full paper here

Truth in Fiction: The Tattooist of Auschwitz & the Problem with Novels “Based on a True Story”

I recently finished the novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. It was a Christmas gift from my wonderful sister-in-law who knows I love history. She actually tricked me into telling her I wanted it. I had seen the book on lists of books for history lovers, best seller sections of stores, and online from bookstagrammers I follow. I hadn’t looked much into it other than the basic premise and so I was intrigued and wanted to read it. It is the first book I’ve read in its entirety in a while (still suffering from on and off spells of post-grad school reading issues). It was a relatively quick read, a light, paperback love story in most ways. Except of course its setting–Auschwitz. Nazi-occupied Poland. World War II. The Holocaust.

Potentially an important book–a tale from the perspective of a Jewish prisoner, but not just any Jewish prisoner–one selected to work as the Tatowierer — the prisoner assigned to tattoo his fellow prisoners upon arrival. A prisoner, that because of this position, was given special treatment, better conditions relative to the other prisoners, and some small modicum of relative freedom.

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However, because of the way this book was written, it missed the opportunity to fully explore that viewpoint and what it could have told us about the Holocaust. Instead, the book focuses on the love story at hand. And it is an incredible, love-affirming, heartwarming story of how two people met under the worst of circumstances, survived, found each other again, and lived happily ever after. And that is an unbelievable love story. However, the tale of Lali Sokolov could have been that and so much more.

The book is a novel, but its cover attests that it is “Based on the Powerful True Story of Love and Survival.” Author Heather Morris spent the last 3 years of the real Lali Sokolov’s life listening to his story for the purposes of turning it into a screenplay. She later decided to rework the screenplay into her first novel.

As a historian, I think historical fiction can be a wonderful way to engage non professionals (and even professionals alike) with the past, encourage interest in history, and spark desire for more knowledge. However, when done without a certain level of accuracy, it can create myths, misunderstandings, and confusion with audiences who may not know which parts of the book are history and which are fiction, especially when the marketing for the novel attests that it is based on a true story. This declaration will make many believe more of the novel is indeed true than might be the case.

I am no Holocaust expert but I did study it in a semester long seminar and I found a few aspects of the novel to be unbelievable, literally. The amount of freedom of movement that Lali had in the camp seemed to me to be unrealistic and overstated. This feeling brought me to look into the accuracy of the novel and I found that the leading experts on Auschwitz, those at the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum, found the novel to be virtually useless as a text for understanding life at Auschwitz. Writing in the November 2018 edition of the site’s magazine Memoria, Wanda Witek-Malicka from the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center provided a number of examples of inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and blatant mistakes in the novel. Malicka’s conclusion was that “given the number of factual errors, therefore, this book cannot be recommended as a valuable title for persons who want to explore and understand the history of KL Auschwitz.”

You can read Malicka’s full fact-checking article here: https://view.joomag.com/memoria-en-no-14-11-2018/0766192001543510530/p6?short

Perhaps the most stunning mistake was the number tattooed on Gita’s arm. Such a pivotal moment and important symbol in the book, and a relatively easy fact to verify, and it was simply wrong. Lali’s name was misspelled throughout the novel as Lale. These small details may not impact the overall story, but if no care was taken to verify the small, easy details, how much was taken to accurately recreate Lali’s story?

Larger issues are also brought up in Malicka’s fact check including the extreme unlikeliness that prisoners had the freedom of movement within the camp that this novel purports. It was this inaccuracy that most concerned me as the novel at times made the concentration camp experience seem much less atrocious than most other sources make it out to be. The utter terror of what happened there is missing from this novel not only in the way facts are misrepresented but also in the style of writing. There is not enough description, build up to climactic or important moments, and little reflection on such moments. Most likely, this is because of the original intention of this story to manifest on screen where the impact of moments could be achieved through visual and auditory ways; however, even the dialogue of the novel is severely lacking.

I feel that Lali Sokolov’s life story would have been better served if written as non-fiction–a memoir, a biography, or similar, or even as a novel but with context given and verified with documentation by a historian. Not only would nonfiction have provided valuable context and better understanding of Lali’s unique situation, it also would have presented his story in a more dignified way. Morris’ work, while an interesting topic and readable, was not especially well-written. Dialogue falls flat; the plot feels disjointed. Important moments happen with no build up or examination. Character development lacks depth. And the plot itself seems improbable at times, leading me to wonder which aspects of the story are truth and which are fiction.

Morris writes in her acknowledgements a thank you to two persons “for their brilliant investigative skills in researching the “facts” to ensure history and memory waltzed perfectly in step.” However, that the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum was not consulted and the records they possess not sought to corroborate details makes me feel that the proper amount of effort needed in order to achieve Morris’ self stated goal of making history and memory waltz in step was not carried out.

Have you read The Tattooist of Auschwitz? What did you think? How much does accuracy matter in a novel set in a time period like the Holocaust?


I recommend reading the complete fact checking article from the Auschwitz Memorial and Research Center: https://view.joomag.com/memoria-en-no-14-11-2018/0766192001543510530/p6?short

You can also read summaries of the inaccuracies and the author’s response in various news articles such as here : https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/dec/07/the-tattooist-of-auschwitz-attacked-as-inauthentic-by-camp-memorial-centre

https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/veracity-of-tattooist-of-auschwitz-challenged-by-auschwitz-museum-in-poland/

If you are interested in reading more about the Holocaust, particularly about survivors, and wanting books that read more like novels and are more accessible than dense academic history texts I’ve recommended a few below.

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman – a graphic novel about a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story.

Escape from Sobibor by Richard Rashke – nonfiction about the revolt and escape of Jewish prisoners from the Nazi death camp at Sobibor.

Into the Tunnel: The Brief Life of Marion Samuel, 1931-1943 by Gotz Aly- “A generous feat of biographical sleuthing by an acclaimed historian rescues one child victim of the Holocaust from oblivion”

The Heart has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage by Mark Klempner – Collection of interviews with 10 Dutch rescuers of Jewish children

#MusicMonday: The Campaign for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday in 3 Songs

Having grown up in an era when Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was already established as a national holiday, it can seem as if the holiday was a no-brainer, a day to celebrate this important man’s contributions to civil rights, equality, and our nation. However, the holiday was, and still is by some, debated and contested by those who didn’t feel Dr. King’s contributions were important enough and by white supremacists.

The campaign to create the federal holiday began in the 1970s, shortly after King’s death (1968). The idea did not come up for a vote though until 1979, when it was introduced by a bipartisan partnership, but the bill fell 5 votes short of passing. Arguments against the holiday included cost (it would cost too much to have an additional paid federal holiday), and tradition (holidays for private citizens as opposed to public officials were not tradition). However, by this time, Columbus Day was already a federal holiday (1934).

The King Center then began campaigning for the national holiday by directly gathering support from the public. Music factored into the campaign to make Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday, with musicians stepping up to sway public opinion through song. Artists also used song to celebrate Dr. King and the federal recognition of a day to honor him. Later musicians used their platform to push back against states that tried to remove the holiday. Below are three songs that help to tell the story of this campaign, the success of having the day named a federal holiday, and the continued struggle to have all 50 states recognize the holiday.

  1. “Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder (1980)
“You know it doesn’t make much sense
There ought to be a law against
Anyone who takes offense
At a day in your celebration cause we all know in our minds
That there ought to be a time
That we can set aside
To show just how much we love you”
“I just never understood
How a man who died for good
Could not have a day that would
Be set aside for his recognition
Because it should never be
Just because some cannot see
The dream as clear as he
That they should make it become an illusion
And we all know everything
That he stood for time will bring
For in peace our hearts will sing
Thanks to Martin Luther King”

To support the campaign for Dr. King’s national holiday, Stevie Wonder released the song “Happy Birthday” in 1980. He also hosted the Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981. These efforts helped lead to the collecting of 6 million signatures to pass the law. After extensive debates in Congress and an attempted filibuster, the law was finally passed in 1983 with a veto-proof margin and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on November 2, 1983. The holiday would be observed for the first time on January 20, 1986.

 

2. “King Holiday” by King Dream Chorus and Holiday Crew, which was a Supergroup [King Dream Chorus: El DeBarge, Whitney Houston, Stacy Lattisaw, Lisa Lisa with Full Force, Teena Marie, Menudo: Charlie Masso, Roy Rossello, Robi Rosa, Ray Acevedo, Ricky Martin, Stephanie Mills, New Edition, James “J.T.” Taylor; Holiday Crew: Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Run–D.M.C., and Whodini

“Once a year we celebrate
Washington and Lincoln on their birth dates
And now a third name is added to the list
A man of peace, (Drum Major for Justice)
Now, now, now every January on the third Monday
We pay homage to the man who paved the way
For freedom, justice and equality
To make the world a better place for you and me
It’s a holiday, it’s a gathering
For the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King
Dr. King tried to love somebody
(Do you wanna love somebody)
For his sake put your hate away, take a day
(Take a day to love somebody)
Don’t play on the Holiday, work to find a better way
(Everybody love somebody now)

He had a dream now it’s up to you
He had a dream now it’s up to you
To see it through, to make it come true
Now do it”

This song was released on January 13, 1986 to commemorate the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. All proceeds from the song were donated to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The project to record the song was led by Dr. King’s son, Dexter Scott King. The original video was low budget, but there is better audio of the song available via Apple Music and probably other streaming services as well. The song defines what the holiday is all about and suggests what you might do on the day- “work to find a better way.”

3. “By The Time I Get to Arizona” by Public Enemy (1991)

“He try to keep it yesteryear
The good ol’ days
The same ol’ ways
That kept us dyin’
Yes, you me myself and Indeed
What he need is a nosebleed
Read between the lines
Then you see the lie
Politically planned
But understand that’s all she wrote
When we see the real side
That hide behind the vote
They can’t understand why he the man
I’m singin’ ’bout a king
They don’t like it
When I decide to mike it
Wait I’m waitin’ for the date
For the man who demands respect
‘Cause he was great c’mon
I’m on the one mission
To get a politician
To honor or he’s a goner
By the time I get to Arizona”

While the federal law went into effect in 1986, many states resisted passing state level laws to make the day a holiday for state employees. Some states combined the holiday with others, named the day something other than Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, or did not make the day a paid state holiday.

Utah became the last state to name a holiday after King when “Human Rights Day” was officially changed to “Martin Luther King Jr. Day” in 2000. South Carolina was the last state to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid state holiday, also in 2000. Prior to then, state employees could choose between celebrating MLK day and celebrating one of three Confederate holidays.

Controversy erupted in Arizona when the governor, Evan Mecham, undid his predecessors executive order which had made MLK day a paid state holiday in 1986. Instead, Mecham declared the 3rd Sunday as the state holiday, naming it Martin Luther King, Jr. Day/Civil Rights Day, of course, making it unpaid. In 1990 citizens were asked to vote on giving state employees a paid holiday for the day, but the two options to vote on both included doing away with another paid holiday to make room for MLK day and neither passed. This result caused the National Football League to move the Super Bowl from Arizona to California, which they had threatened to do if the MLK day was not passed. Finally in 1992 a referendum passed making Martin Luther King, Jr Day a paid state holiday in Arizona.

Many saw Mecham’s opposition to making MLK Day a paid state holiday as racist, or disrespectful to Dr. King’s legacy. In response to the controversy in Arizona in 1990, Public Enemy recorded this song in 1991. However, the accompanying music video was criticized as being violent and running counter to Dr. King’s nonviolent message.

The struggle over Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day meant to honor, remember, and uphold the legacy of a man who practiced and preached non violent means in order to bring about racial equality continued well into the 2000s with various states combining MLK Day with days to celebrate Robert E. Lee and renaming the day. This struggle highlights the continued need for education about the history of civil rights, racial (in)equality, and the systems of oppression that have historically undermined people of color in the United States.

“Born in the USA” and 4 other songs you didn’t know were about the Vietnam War

Ok, so you may know that a few of these are about the Vietnam War (1955-1975), but some are a bit more obscure or surprising. The Vietnam War is one of the least understood, most contested and divisive wars in American history. The war was so hotly opposed by the American public that returning veterans did not receive the hero’s welcome that previous generations of soldiers had. Within the military itself, morale was low owing to the inconclusive end of the war, the draft, and the length and brutality of the war.

The anti-war movement in the U.S. spawned a number of songs. Here are 5 songs about the Vietnam War era, including the protests against it, the heightened political tension of the time period, and the long-term effects.

“Some folk are born made to wave the flag, whoo they’re red, white, and blue and when the band plays hail to the chief, they point the cannon at you. Lord, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son.”

“Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969

“Fortunate Son” addresses class differences when it comes to war. The songwriter himself, John Fogerty, is a veteran, having served in the Army Reserve during the Vietnam War. He was inspired to write the song by hearing about wealthy, privileged people’s son’s receiving deferments for military service or given choice positions in the military. While the song doesn’t specifically address the Vietnam War it was inspired by that era with the draft going on and the anger that many felt about being drafted to fight in a war whose cause was ill defined. Many did not know what they were fighting for and felt they were fighting for rich leaders’ interests. Fogerty was also inspired to write the song because of the broader idea that wars were instigated by the wealthy leaders but actually fought by the poor soldiers. The song was released at the height of anti-war sentiment as the Vietnam War continued to escalate after promises that the U.S. would soon pull back. It quickly became an anti-war anthem and hit.

“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, We’re finally on our own, This summer I hear the drumming, Four dead in Ohio.”

“Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1970

“Ohio” was a direct reaction to the deaths of four students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio on May 4, 1970. Students had been gathering to protest the recently announced Cambodian campaign which escalated and expanded the Vietnam War. National Guardsman had been called in prior to the incident because of general campus unrest, riots, and destruction of property in the area. The National Guardsman were dispersing a large group of students and had nearly cleared the area when they shot into a crowd, killing 4 and wounding 9 others. The exact reasoning for why the Guardsman decided to open fire is still unknown. Two of the students killed were not even participants in the protest but had simply been walking between classes. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded the song after seeing images of the incident in Life Magazine. The song was banned on some radio stations because of its challenge to the Nixon administration, but it quickly became a popular song with counterculture anti-war protesters.

“War, huh, good god, What is it good for, Absolutely nothing, listen to me
Oh, war, I despise, ‘Cause it means destruction of innocent lives
War means tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes
When their sons go to fight, And lose their lives.”

“War” by Edwin Starr, 1970

Originally recorded by the Temptations, “War” was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Motown label. The label ultimately decided to withhold the version recorded by the Temptations because of concerns of upsetting the group’s conservative fans. Instead, it was re-recorded by Edwin Starr. The song became a number one hit and is one of the most popular protest songs ever recorded. It was released in 1970, after the My Lai Massacre had been made public and as the Vietnam War escalated into Cambodia, both events causing anti-war sentiment to grow in the U.S. As such it resonated with the growing negative public opinion of the war. The song has gone on to be featured in a number of movies and television shows. Bruce Springsteen added the song to his live sets in the the 1980s. The lyrics speak a broad anti-war message rather than specifically targeting the Vietnam War, giving the song a long life and making it applicable to all wartime peace efforts.

“Father, father, We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer, For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way, To bring some loving here today

Picket lines and picket signs, Don’t punish me with brutality, Talk to me, so you can see, Oh, what’s going on.”

“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, 1971

The original version of this song was inspired by Renaldo “Obie” Benson, a member of the Motown group the Four Tops. He witnessed police brutality towards anti-war protesters in Berkeley, California and shared the experience with a songwriter friend of his, Al Cleveland. The result was passed over by the Four Tops who felt it was too risky to record a protest song. Thus, Benson gave it to Marvin Gaye. Gaye, who was and remains more well known for love songs such as “Let’s Get it On,” added his own touches, influenced by his brother, a Vietnam War veteran, and his own take on what he saw going on in the U.S. Gaye explained his inspiration by saying, “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” The song captures the dissatisfaction of many with the Vietnam War and the overall political atmosphere of the country at the time.

“Got in a little hometown jam, So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land, To go and kill the yellow man

Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A…

Come back home to refinery, Hiring man said “son if it was up to me”

Went down to see my V.A. man, He said “son, don’t you understand”

I had a brother at Khe Sahn, Fighting off the Viet Cong, They’re still there, he’s all gone.

“Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen, 1984

This song, released almost 10 years after the Vietnam War ended, speaks to the aftermath of war and the effects on returning veterans. Commonly used as simply a patriotic song because of its “Born in the U.S.A” refrain, its meaning is a bit more complicated.  Like CCR’s “Fortunate Son” it speaks to the class differences in the experience of war, but more generally it addresses the way Vietnam veterans were treated after the war. The veteran in the song was drafted and sent to war for an unclear cause and then returned and, despite being a veteran, struggles to find work and a place in society, haunted by those he lost in Vietnam. The song uses the chorus to highlight the hypocrisy of the treatment of veterans.

All of the songs on this list, while against the Vietnam War, were not necessarily against the soldiers themselves. They were against the decisions of the government and these songs actually lamented the loss of soldiers’ lives, the unfairness of the draft, and, like Fortunate Son and Born in the USA, lamented the treatment of soldiers, especially poor ones, as pawns and the treatment of veterans after the war. However, the Vietnam War remains an unpopular war and that public opinion has affected veterans, with many returning home to a public that saw them as part of an unsuccessful, unnecessary, and meaningless war. Two of the songs, Ohio and What’s Going On, focus on the treatment of anti-war protesters, arguing against police brutality and defending their right to protest.

The impact the war and the draft had on the military has led the military to be volunteer only since then, owing to large scale disciplinary problems, low morale, and other issues. The impacts of the war also continue to affect Vietnam.

To read more about the Vietnam War, the My Lai Massacre, and protest music, see the links below:

https://ap.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/sixties/essays/vietnam-war-and-my-lai-massacre

https://www.cfr.org/blog/twenty-best-vietnam-protest-songs

https://www.stripes.com/news/special-reports/vietnam-stories/1966/vietnam-the-first-rock-and-roll-war-1.438304

Día de Muertos: Nuestra Celebración

Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead is actually a 3 day celebration in honor and in memory of the deceased. Despite the association with death and skulls, the tradition is all about remembering deceased relatives and honoring their memory. It is a colorful and bright celebration of their lives.

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The modern holiday combines elements of indigenous cultures and traditions with Catholic/Christian practices of Allhallowtide. Dia de Muertos has origins in pre-Colombian traditions, most especially the Aztec festival in honor of the goddess Mictēcacihuātl, the Lady of the Dead, and in memory of deceased ancestors. This festival originally took place in the summer and lasted a month. It gradually shifted to coincide with Christian observance of Allhallowtide (All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.)

The traditions to honor the dead include setting up an ofrenda. An ofrenda is an altar or offering to the deceased meant to help guide the souls back home to visit with their families. The ofrenda includes a picture of the deceased; flowers, usually Aztec marigolds; food and drink, particularly favorites of the deceased; pan de muerto (bread), sugar skulls; brightly colored paper crafts (papel picado); candles; and sometimes possessions of the deceased.

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My husband and I observe the holiday a bit. We made sugar skull cookies and decorated our ofrenda which includes family photos of his grandfather and aunt who we honored, a candle, bright orange flowers, a decorative skull and muerto figurines, 3 bronze horse figurines (which are always on this shelf but we leave because his abuelo was a rancher), and two sugar skull cookies on papel picado.

Traditional ofrendas are usually larger and include more food including pan de muerto, real sugar skulls, which are made of sugar molded into the shape of skulls (I tried making these last year but they crumbled but I will try again in the future), and other foods that their relative enjoyed.

The three day celebration begins on October 31st as families prepare their ofrendas. November 1 is usually considered Día de los Angelitos or Día de los Inocentes and is meant to honor children who have died. November 2 is the day for adults and is simply called Día de Muertos or Día de los Difuntos. In Mexico and in some places in the US The night of November 2nd is when families visit and decorate the graves of their family members.

I highly recommend the movie Coco for more insight into the meaning of Día de Muertos—it’s beautifully made and really gets to the heart of the meaning–remembering those who have passed.

Public Historian on Vacation: From San Antonio to New Iberia, Louisiana & NOLA

Finally coming to the end of my Public Historian on Vacation series. I spent so much time writing about San Antonio even though we were only there for 2 days because we packed a lot into 2 days, it was our first time visiting, and it was so beautiful and interesting. After we visited the Missions we also checked out the San Antonio Japanese Tea Garden, went back to the River Walk and ate at Casa Rio, the oldest restaurant on the River (1946)–(another example of commercialization of history, drawing on the past to create a certain atmosphere, and to substantiate the quality of the restaurant. Which was pretty yummy Mexican.)

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After San Antonio, we drove back towards the East and stopped over in New Iberia, Louisiana, an adorable small town and home to my wonderful friend and graduate school support person, Jayd. It is also home to the historic site Jayd works at, the Shadows-on-the-Teche, a historic house museum owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We visited Jayd at the Shadows and took a tour from one of the regular guides.

Built along the Bayou Teche, the Shadows was constructed in 1834 for sugarcane planter David Weeks and his wife Mary Conrad Weeks. To be honest, house museums are not my favorite kind of museum as their tours are often formulaic, focused a great deal more on architectural and design history than social history (my personal interest) and I often have a difficult time keeping the various generations of the family and all of the family names organized in my mind as we go through the house. But this house and this tour are interesting for the various ways that the house’s origins and its more recent history are alongside one another.

The house stayed in the same family for a very long time, from its construction through 1958, creating the opportunity to trace one family over several generations. The house has mostly been restored to the antebellum time period in which it was built, but one section of the house interprets more the life and times of the house’s last private owner, William Weeks Hall. His life stood out to me as the most interesting. He was an accomplished artist and knew many other artists and visionaries of his time, including Walt Disney, Henry Miller, Emily Post and more. Visitors to the Shadows during William Weeks Hall’s time were asked to sign an old door that remains on display.

Like most plantation homes today, the interpretation included something about the enslaved people who lived and worked both in the home and in the fields and other properties owned by the Weeks family, though like most historic house museums today that interpretation could use a little something more. We were told that the family depended on and supported slavery, secession, and the South in the Civil War, but less is known about the enslaved people and as such less is shared about them than the white plantation family. But I know more research is being done with the intentions of adding more about the enslaved African Americans at the site. And more information about slavery at the Shadows is available on their website. Overall, well worth a visit and they do some really interesting educational and special programming as well. I may be biased, but Jayd is a passionate public historian and educator who is doing some great work there.

After our tour we went to dinner with Jayd and Graig for some local Cajun food at Pelicans on the Bayou. We had poboys and Crawfish Kickers (a fried crawfish appetizer, kind of like a hushpuppy). And awesome Magic Dust (Cajun seasoning) french fries. And then we set off with Jayd to New Orleans for the rest of the weekend.

We went to New Orleans last year as well and we love NOLA. This year’s foray was with a native Louisianan but unfortunately it was also during a monsoon. I’m exaggerating only a little. Rain, wind, clouds, and thunder made Saturday rather gloomy. Before it really started pouring we went to Cafe du Monde, the iconic cafe known for their beignets and cafe au lait. Cafe du Monde has been in operation since 1862 and is one of few things I find totally worth the line, which, thanks to the staff’s efficiency, moves pretty fast. Delicious beignets, wonderful coffee, and the simplicity of it–that’s quite literally all that’s on the menu–all combine into a warm, fuzzy experience. Cafe du Monde is another example of a restaurant successfully capitalizing on its history and longevity. So much so that it doesn’t have to offer anything else. But even after becoming a must see for any New Orleans tourist, the quality of the food and the experience remain. Because, trust me, there are plenty of other places to get beignets in the French Quarter without the line, but there isn’t a line for a reason–they simply aren’t as good.

After pumping ourselves full of caffeine and sugar we set off without a plan into the French Quarter to find something to do. We considered the Cabildo, but it was closed for an exhibit installation. The weather began to get worse and worse so we stopped off at the 1850 House Museum located in the Lower Pontalba Building on Jackson Square. This was a unique house museum in that it was more of an apartment building that had had many different residents over the years. It interprets upper-middle-class life of antebellum New Orleans. Most interesting to me is that the building and its mate, the Upper Pontalba Building across Jackson Square, were designed and financed by a woman, Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba. Both buildings were intended to be combinations of residential and retail spaces. The 1850 House is small and it’s a quick tour of the three floors, including going through the back staircase to the slave and servant quarters and working spaces. (Picture on left above shows one of the Pontalba buildings, but on Sunday when the sun came out.)

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When the weather continued to get worse it drove us from the French Quarter to what we thought would be a safer, drier, and more enjoyable visit to the National World War II Museum.  Well, every other tourist in New Orleans, which was also holding the rained out French Quarter Festival that weekend, had the same idea and we waited in line to get tickets, then to see exhibits, then to eat, only to arrive at the extra experience we had paid for (Final Mission: USS Tang) to find that it was down due to technical difficulties (we were reimbursed, but had walked to that separate building in the rain just for it). Overall, it was a pretty disappointing and frustrating day. It called into mind issues on the visitor experience side of museums. All three of us had been to the WWII Museum before and we knew that it was an impressive, well-done Museum with interactive exhibits, special features, and more. But what if that rainy day had been our first visit? We may have left with a very negative view of the Museum or at least not feeling like it was worth it. Visitor experience and basic qualities of comfort such as benches, crowding, accessibility, etc. really affect visitors’ ability to learn and get the most out of the museum.

It was difficult to focus on what was presented in the exhibits and hard not to feel like you were in someone else’s way. I was pleased to find they had added an immersive exhibit about the home front, often an excellent opportunity to discuss women’s roles during the war, with home interiors set up in 1940s style with places to sit, listen, and read; however, it was also full to the brim and we felt rushed through the space.

Some busy Museums use timed tickets to help control the number of visitors. Independence National Historical Park does so for visitors to Independence Hall, an effort which keeps the small structure from being overcrowded, a preservation necessity that also aids in creating a more positive visitor experience. Visitor caps might also help, keeping the number of visitors allowed in at any one time to a number that allows visitors access to exhibits without too much crowding. Museums have to weigh access, i.e. allowing as many visitors as possible to view the exhibits, with visitor experience, and often with financial concerns as well. Small museums need all of the admission fees they can get to help finance their collection, programs, and often simply operating expenses. However, the World War II Museum likely turns a profit and has been able to invest greatly in new buildings, high quality exhibits, etc. The tickets to the World War II Museum aren’t cheap ($28 for adults), which does give you access to a huge array of exhibits in several buildings, but when your experience is muddled by crowds and ultimately cut short by the exhaustion of dealing with them, you begin to question the value. This coming from two museum professionals (and a good sport of a husband).

Of course, the last time we visited the World War II Museum last year, it was busy without being overly crowded and perhaps we simply caught the unlucky rain-induced visitor onslaught. However, if the Museum finds itself having more and more of those days it may want to institute some sort of control over the number of visitors on forecasted busy days.

After leaving the National World War II Museum wet, tired, and a bit grumpy we went back to our AirBnb, took our host’s suggestion for dinner at the delicious Sassafras, drank the wine left graciously by our host, played cards, and called it a night. The weather cleared and the morning was sunny and breezy. We revisited Cafe du Monde, took a glorious walk around the French Quarter and said our goodbyes.

Our whole trip was full of wonderful times with family and friends, beautiful places, interesting history, and good times. Can’t wait to go back and see family again in Galveston, explore more of San Antonio, visit Jayd and explore more of New Iberia and Southeast Louisiana, and as always, eat more beignets in New Orleans. And of course looking forward to the next trip to anywhere–I always find the history.

Public Historian on Vacation: The Missions of San Antonio

This is part four of my Public Historian on Vacation series, which was originally intended to be a three part series. However, I realized I had more to say about various stops along the way. However, this will be the third and final post about our time in San Antonio before moving on to our stops in Louisiana.

To recap the series so far, this trip took place in April and included stops in Galveston, Texas; San Antonio, Texas; New Iberia, Louisiana; and New Orleans, Louisiana. I’ve already described our time in Galveston visiting family and enjoying The Strand Historic District and the Seawall, dipping a little into the commercialization of the past. I have also now written two posts about San Antonio, one about our visit to the Alamo, and one about our visit to Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum. This final post about San Antonio will be about our day in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

The park consists of four different missions, from north to south: Mission Concepcion, Mission San José, Mission San Juan Capistrano, and Mission Espada. Each mission is about 2.5 miles from the next mission and can be reached by following Mission Road.

The Mission system was devised by the Spanish as they colonized North America and staked their claim on territory. Missions served many different purposes for the Spanish colonizers. They were miniature towns inside stone fortifications, a combination of church, military outpost, school, and living quarters. The work of the Missions was to convert indigenous people not only religiously, but culturally, to make the native people Spanish citizens. These newly converted citizens helped the small number of Spanish priests, soldiers and others to grow in number and be able to maintain and hold their territory.

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The mission system in San Antonio is summarized on the park’s website: “After 10,000 years, the people of South Texas found their cultures, their very lives under attack. In the early 1700s Apache raided from the north, deadly diseases traveled from Mexico, and drought lingered. Survival lay in the missions. By entering a mission, they foreswore their traditional life to become Spanish, accepting a new religion and pledging fealty to a distant and unseen king.”

This short introduction to the Missions on the National Park Service website for the park begins to get into why indigenous people would enter a mission–the push and pull reasons. Dangerous conditions pushing and promised food and safety pulling them in. However, within the Missions there was forced conversion and also forced labor, with indigenous people being the very ones who built the stone walls of each of the 4 Missions.

I am fascinated with Latin American history, the history of Latinos in what is now the United States, immigration history, and the colonial era, so I knew as soon as we started planning our trip to San Antonio that I wanted to see the Missions. My poor husband was just along for the ride, but I think he ended up getting more out of our whirlwind tour then he expected.

Having grown up in North Carolina, I was taught much more about the 13 original British colonies than I was about Spanish colonization of territories that would become the U.S. and so the word colonial usually conjures different imagery.  To see these 300-year-old Spanish Missions and think about how their presence helped shape the region was a new and eye opening experience.

I was somewhat familiar with the history of Spanish colonization in general, having written my undergraduate seminar paper on the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the ways in which women were used by conquistadors to expand Spanish control. I also took a survey course on the history of Latin America which covered the colonial period including the main goals of Spanish conquest, the 3 G’s: God, glory, and gold. Conversion and spread of Christianity, exploration and territorial claims in the name of Spain, and accumulation of wealth were the three main motivators and goals of Spanish conquest.

Armed with this background knowledge, my husband and I set out first thing in the morning in an effort to beat the San Antonio heat, already reaching over 80 degrees in April. We went in geographic order, beginning with Mission Concepcion.

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Mission Concepcion was dedicated in 1755 and is the oldest unrestored stone church in America. Like all of the San Antonio Missions (except the Alamo) it is still in use for church services, including English, Spanish, and bilingual services. Also some of the original frescos, murals, and other art is still visible on the walls and ceilings, showing that this grey stone church would have once been colorful and bright.

Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo was up next, the largest and most restored Mission in San Antonio. It was largely restored as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Founded in 1720, it was a model for other later missions and was a social and cultural center of colonial Texas. According to the Park’s website, at the height of the San Jose Mission 350 indigenous converts lived within its walls, worked in its fields, and tended cattle. The restored site includes the church, the granary, the convento, and the walls into which was built rooms for the indigenous people who lived at the Mission. More about San Jose, since it was the largest, is available and in more detail on the website. It was definitely the most complete stop on the tour owing to its restored exterior buildings which give a better idea of the more complete life of the inhabitants, not just their religious life. The site also includes a 1794 grist mill, fueled by the acequia and used to process wheat, the preferred grain of the Spanish, that began to replace the indigenous corn.

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The last two missions, Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission Espada were less restored than San Juan and at Mission San Juan we could not go inside the church. However, these buildings were the most architecturally beautiful to me. More about each of these are in the links. An interesting tidbit about Mission San Juan though is the incomplete larger church. The project halted as the population declined. Near Mission Espada is the Espada aqueduct used to irrigate the farmlands surrounding the Missions.

These four historic sites were among some of the most interesting, most powerful sites I’ve visited. There was this conflicting feeling between the beauty of the architecture, the romanticized beauty of colonial ruins, and the sacred feeling of religious spaces and the ideas of forced conversion, forced labor, disease, war, fighting, and the upheaval of culture that took place in the walls of each of these missions. Each of these sites left me feeling that conflict and wanting to look deeper into these sites. I’ve done some of that in the process of writing this post, reading more in depth about each site on the park’s website and looking beyond for other resources. I do think the sites themselves could delve deeper into these conflicting narratives and experiences of the Missions and it does seem since we visited that Mission Concepcion has put up a new exhibit, Four Voices, aimed at sharing the divergent points of view at the Missions.

Overall, these sites are so important for understanding the history of San Antonio, Texas, the Southwest and ultimately the United States. As in many other places in time, several cultures converged. Owning up to what that convergence meant for many indigenous people is important for how we move forward.

#ThrowbackThursday, #FarmingFriday & Social Media Consulting

I currently work as the archivist for a private company. In that position I get to manage a collection, do research for reference requests, manage loans, etc. However, I do not get to do research beyond the company really so I miss researching about more varied historical topics. For that reason I have begun doing consulting work for museums.

My first client has been the Tobacco Farm Life Museum where I used to work. I plan social media content for the Museum, especially Throwback Thursday posts and I started a new series for the Museum’s 35th anniversary this year called #farmingFriday. This series draws on the Museum’s Honors and Memorials program, content that already existed online on the museum’s website. Each week someone who was either involved in the Museum or the community is profiled.

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Tobacco Farm Life Museum’s Instagram feed. Follow along @tobaccofarmlifemuseum.

Throwback Thursday posts include historical pictures of farming or rural life and I research how that particular activity fit into farm life and what importance it had in the lives of farmers or community members. Posts are themed to the time of year and to what is currently happening in the farming world. For example a recent post was about topping and suckering tobacco which is going on now in modern farming as well.

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Theses posts have increased engagement on social media and in person. The museum’s director reports hearing positive comments and feedback from community members, board members, and others. Social media comments are usually people remembering their own experience working on a farm. Followers offer up stories, memories, and commentary on life on the farm in their time.

The Museum primarily used Facebook in the past but I have now expanded to include Instagram as well which opens the Museum up to another audience.

My role as consultant also includes research and general support. The Museum held its 35th anniversary event recently and invited all previous board members and employees. I was able to attend and help with set up and clean up and enjoy hearing the people who were involved in the Museum’s founding discuss the ups and downs of getting a local history museum off the ground. The local community was devoted to telling it’s own history.

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I’ll be continuing to assist with managing the social media while also brainstorming other ideas for the Museum’s future, researching grants, and other tasks; however, I’m also open to consulting on similar types of projects with other institutions. Please let me know if you or your organization have a project that could use an outside public historian’s input.