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Latinos are Houston's largest population group. Why is their history still buried in old boxes?

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 10/13/2020 By Olivia P. Tallet, Staff writer

The heart of 13-year-old Addison Marie Curry stood still, and full of pride, when she saw a photograph of her great grandfather during her virtual history class, where her teacher highlighted the oldest nationwide Hispanic civil rights organization and the Texas Latinos who fought for it.

The 8th grade class at Goodson Middle School in northwest Houston was marking the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month in mid-September by showcasing the League of United Latin American Citizens and its Texas roots.

Addison remembers her great grandfather, the late Ernest Eguia, as “always being a jokester with me and teasing me in a good way,” she said. But she also knew from family history that “Papa” was a veteran of the World War II invasion of Normandy who joined LULAC after returning and confronting rampant discrimination toward Mexican Americans in Houston. “I am very proud of all my Papa’s accomplishments.”

Outside of the classroom celebration marking the month, some of the history of Mexican Americans and Latinos in the region can be found in the Houston Public Library, buried in boxes under its Hispanic Collections. With the help of a $14,000 grant from the city, the library plans to make some of those records more accessible to the public, by processing and digitizing part of an extensive backlog accumulated for decades. While Hispanic community leaders are excited about the work, they also point to what they say is a lack of resources dedicated to the largest population group in Houston and the need for Latinos to have their own library and cultural center.

“This is a significant milestone to record, preserve and share our rich local Latino history with our communities,” said David Contreras, a LULAC member. He has dedicated his retirement to independently document and preserve the history of that organization.

The library began organizing a Mexican American collection in the 1970s. It went unstaffed for years, until 2013 when the city hired Mikaela Selley to revamp the effort and renamed it as the Hispanic Collections. The archives include 650 boxes holding 121 collections, some small ones about distinguished Hispanics and others much larger about the history of organizations and events in Houston.

However, only about 10% of the Hispanic Collections are organized and available online, said Selley.

The city funds will pay for two contract employees through the end of December to help document some of the remaining 90%..

“It all comes down to manpower; having staff to do it,” the archivist said.

A proper house

The Hispanic Collections are currently under the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, one of the Houston Public Library’s three major special collections, located in the Julia Ideson Building downtown and dedicated to documenting the city’s history. The other two special collections are The African American Library at the Gregory School, in Fourth Ward,with a dedicated contemporary facility, and The Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research hosted in four buildings in the Museum District.

To access the Hispanic Collections, people must know what they are looking for. On the library website, the available records can be found after several clicks, even if the customer knows that they are under the Houston Metropolitan Research Center.

“It’s time that those Latino and Hispanic records be collected and digitized, and placed in an appropriate site in Houston,” said Dorothy Caram, a retired University of Houston educator and board member of several organizations.

She imagines an “elegant” building to showcase the history and culture of Mexican American people and those “from Spanish speaking countries of the world that have immigrated and used their talent and skills for the betterment of Houston and Harris County.”

Contreras, who is a member of the Harris County Hispanic Cultural and Heritage Commission , said Latinos, whose population represents over 40% of the Houston area, should have a standalone American Latino cultural and archival center, similar to to The African American Library at the Gregory School.

Discussions about such a center have been boiling among Latino leaders and local authorities for the last couple of years. The Houston Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs allocated funds last year to revive a Mexican American cultural center called Talento Bilingüe de Houston, in the East End. But the troubled institution is more a neighborhood center than the kind of cultural institution that Latinos of all origins would like to see in Houston, just as they are found in other Texas cities such as Dallas and Austin with smaller Hispanic populations.

Local leaders also point to San Antonio, where the recently created National Institute of Mexican American History of Civil Rights received $250,000 startup funds from the city, with a similar amount pledged for 2021. Its main purpose is to research and digitize records of that history and make them publicly available.

In preparing for that lesson in her history class at Goodson Middle School, teacher Aidé Azereth Alanis knew where to look.

Azereth, who graduated from Texas A&M University with a minor in Latino and Mexican American Studies, sought meaningful information with a local angle. But the task can be daunting for many other educators, and frustrating for researchers looking to document and write about these communities, when so much of it is not publicly accessible or even known.

Education experts and some studies have indicated that students who see their communities reflected in their coursework become more engaged and tend to achieve better grades. State educators have approved some books for Mexican American curriculums, but the publishing industry is only recently recognizing an increasing demand for school texts and publications of Latino authors and researchers who need access to documentation.

“I am a Mexican American myself, and I barely had opportunities to see myself in my school teachers or courses when I was (a child),” said Azereth. She noted that more millennials like her are becoming teachers.

“I saw the connection that happened with Addie as a beautiful teaching moment,” she said.

Rebecca Eguia, Addison’s grandmother and Eguia’s daughter, remembers with joy what she heard when the girl called her after the history class.

“You are not going to believe this: They thought us about LULAC today!” Addie told her grandma, following with, “And guess what! I saw my Papa!”

olivia.tallet@chron.com

Twitter: @oliviaptallet

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