By Kelcey Norris
A collection of oral history called “Latino Voices of the Valley,” showcases diversity within the Mahoning Valley and celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month. Students and professors in the Spanish department at Youngstown State University conducted 20 interviews with Latinos in the region. The department partnered with the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor.
The project’s leader, Diana Palardy, is a professor in the foreign languages and literature department. She has taught Spanish at YSU since 2008.
“The purpose of the project is to preserve the cultural heritage of Latinos living in the Mahoning Valley,” Palardy said. “In this first phase of the project, the focus has been on conducting oral history interviews with Latinos in Spanish so that they can express themselves freely in their native tongues.”
In order to share the project with non-Spanish speakers, Palardy said the interviews were also translated into English.
“We tried to find some individuals to interview from the baby boomer generation and older, in order to ensure that we can hear their stories while their memories are still fresh,” she said.
Palardy said she wanted to showcase the diversity of the Mahoning Valley, particularly within the Latino communities, who are “part of the bedrock of this region.”
“A lot of the interviewees come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and cultural traditions,” she said. “When you see interviewees who are lawyers, doctors, steel workers, counselors and educators, you understand how integrated Latinos are into the fabric of the Mahoning Valley.”
Palardy said it is difficult to pick a favorite interviewee. She particularly enjoyed an account from Maria Class. She recounted a dance troupe she used to teach that performed salsa and merengue dances at YSU’s Summer Festival of Arts.
“I hope [the audience] will enjoy learning more about the interviewees, understand the challenges they have faced in their lives, admire their strength in facing those challenges and appreciate the value of their contributions to the Mahoning Valley,” Palardy said.
Brea Tinsley, a senior biochemistry major, conducted 15 of the 20 interviews for Latino Voices of the Valley. She double minors in Spanish and mathematics.
“I interviewed them about their experiences either growing up in the United States or their immigration experience,” Tinsley said. “We also talked about cultural differences and general stuff, such as work, family and their opinions about certain topics.”
Tinsley said she first learned the language from her Spanish-speaking friends in high school when she was 15 years old. She took Spanish classes during school and later studied abroad in Costa Rica.
“I was already proficient in the language upon arriving in Costa Rica,” Tinsley said. “But I would say I pushed myself over into fluency when I studied abroad there. Day-to-day interactions I had to use Spanish and all my classes were in Spanish.”
Although she’s been honing her skills in the language for years, Tinsley admitted she was nervous.
“Quite honestly I was nervous before every interview just because I was talking to a complete stranger and I was being recorded,” she said. “When I’m just speaking Spanish in my free time, I feel completely fluent but then when I’m on camera I’m nervous.”
Tinsley said this project opened her eyes to the diverse cultures not only in the Mahoning Valley, but also throughout Latin American countries, giving her a “better insight into the Latin American world.”
“One of the things I found interesting was Peruvian gastronomy,” she said. “I interviewed four or five people from Peru. Every Peruvian that I talked to I would ask about the food and they would always have something different to tell me.”
Tinsley said this project would have been impossible without help from organizations and individuals around campus.
“First I’d like to start off by thanking Ohio Humanities and YSU for providing funding for this project,” she said. “I’d like to thank Dr. Palardy for being such a wonderful supervisor, and all of the interviewees who contributed to this project.”
Tinsley met with the interviewees at the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor. Marcelle Wilson, manager at the museum, explained this project is part of a larger vision called Steel Valley Voices.
“We worked with Dr. Palardy…I got in contact with her because I realized that the population of our area contains a large number of Hispanics, especially those migrating from Puerto Rico and speaking English as a second language,” she said.
Wilson said members of the Latino community in the Mahoning Valley have firsthand experience in the steel industry.
“Our mission is to facilitate people’s understanding of labor and history in our area,” Wilson said. “A good portion of the labor and industry were Puerto Ricans who migrated here in the 1950s and ’60s to work in our local steel mills.”
Wilson knew from the beginning she wanted to involve YSU students in the project.
“Not only could they improve their language skills, they would also develop more of an appreciation for who came to this area, how it was created and how it expanded,” she said.
All the interviews and translations are available online at http://steelvalleyvoices.ysu.edu/latino-voices-of-the-valley/