Older Women, Family, and Oral History by Alecia Caballero

Older women hold a special place in personal histories. How many family stories have passed from a grandmother to her grandchild? These stories are often the first experience we have with family history, and are taken at face value. My grandmother is the keeper of her family history, literally – she has the only copy of the genealogy book in our immediate family. She is the person who taught my sister and I about the family history outside of New Jersey. Her retellings of the stories in the Hill book, while not always accurate, created a narrative for us of Irish Catholics who made their way to Maryland and up in the world. According to her histories, we have a family bourbon that her father sold for American Distillers after Prohibition. While it’s possible that’s true, as her father did work for American Distillers and the supposed bourbon was originally distilled by Irish Catholics in the area of Kentucky her father was from, we have little idea if it’s actually true. Whether it’s true or not, the idea of the story is that our family has a long history in America, and came from very little in Ireland to (supposedly) creating a bourbon that’s still distilled and sold today.

Devra Anne Weber’s article on the women in the 1933 cotton strike in California addresses the function of memory in the greater historical narrative. Weber’s analysis of Rosaura Valdez’s oral history of the strike accounts for both the inherent bias in oral histories and the merits of the bias they exhibit. In Mrs. Valdez’s case, her memory of the strike centered around the other women in the camp and the struggles of feeding their families, while the men were cowardly strikebreakers. While the facts may be a bit off in how gains were achieved, Mrs. Valdez’s account of the strike portrays the hunger and frustration that there were men willing to betray them. Her positioning of women in the center creates an identity for herself, her fellow strikers, and her family: they occupied an important place in labor history. Their gains, whether she and the other women contributed directly to them or not, had a lasting effect on workers. That small victory was an enormous win compared to the losses she had faced as a girl during the Mexican Revolution. This was her victory over hunger and fear, and her remembrance of herself as an active, militant striker reflects how that event shaped her personal identity.

How we remember events says as much about us as it does about what happened. Personal memory presented as history represents an interesting intersection of identity and fact that may not always be accurate, but paints an important portrait of how someone wants to be seen. We create our own legacy through oral history.

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