Oral History and Migrant Wage Labor: Sources of Narrative Distortion

By Anderson, Warren D. | The Oral History Review, Summer-Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Oral History and Migrant Wage Labor: Sources of Narrative Distortion


Anderson, Warren D., The Oral History Review


Introduction

The collecting of oral histories as a method for enhancing our understanding of the past has often suffered from accusations of distortion and faulty memory on the part of narrators. Although not new, such criticisms nevertheless continue to provide the discipline of oral history with an ongoing challenge both to its methodological underpinnings and to the ways it interprets its own raw material. One healthy interpretive approach is to look seriously at the kind of credibility that oral narratives offer the researcher. As Alessandro Portelli notes, "The importance of oral testimony may lie not in its adherence to fact, but rather in its departure from it, as imagination, symbolism, and desire emerge." (1) For the historian, distortions of chronological, geographic, and social fact are indeed revelatory of narrators' creative and symbolic imaginations regarding the meanings of past life events. For the ethnographer they may also disclose important features of present social phenomena as well. In the essay which follows, possible sources of historical narrative distortions are analyzed with a view not so much to their sources in memory loss or restructuring as to their basis in the present-day circumstances in which narrators find themselves and the influences those circumstances may have on the production of historical testimony.

The following comments are based on an emerging oral history study with roots in an ethnographic investigation of migration and ethnicity which has spanned nearly two decades. A brief description of that ethnographic study will serve as the context for the observations, questions, and comments more specifically trained on oral history.

Context

Since the mid 1960s (corresponding loosely with the termination of the Bracero Program between the United States and the Republic of Mexico), deep Southern Illinois has played host to an ever-increasing influx of Mexican wage labor migrants who arrive with seasonal regularity to work the peach and apple orchards of the area. The counties of Southern Illinois are rural and largely devoid of industrial development. They are the poorest and least-populated counties of the state, but the quality and quantity of the fruit and vegetable production in the area is matched by few other regions in the state. Much of the region north of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers is rugged, hilly terrain, covered with the Shawnee National Forest and a patchwork of small farming operations. Apple and peach horticulture has flourished in these hills since the Civil War era, always dependent upon seasonal migrant labor. Only in the last three decades has that labor come mainly from Mexico. Before that time a migrant labor force of southern whites and blacks augmented the local resident labor for intensive harvest times.

The ethnographic study referred to above began in the late 1970s and has been focused primarily on a group of migrant workers from the Mexican state of Michoacan, specifically, from the region of the state inhabited since before the Spanish Conquest by the P'urepecha Indians. (2) Language, farming practices, dress, artistry, cuisine, mythology, herbal medicine, and many other social practices still show traces of pre-Conquest forms. Many migrants over thirty-five years of age still speak the P'urepecha language, which is the vernacular of an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people in the many isolated villages dotting the volcanic highland landscape of central and northwest Michoacan. (3) One such town, Cheran, has been the principle source of Southern Illinois migrants for nearly three decades. At the initiation of the ethnographic study Cheran and its environs accounted for eighty to ninety percent of the Southern Illinois migrant population from Mexico although these demographics are changing rapidly now. Cheran, while not inaccessible, is not on "the beaten path," and has been rather slow to adopt mestizo ways. …

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