Urban Borderlands

Undergrads construct history of Cambridge's Latino community

José Ortiz came to Cambridge in 1962 from Puerto Rico. He worked for $1.25 an hour at a ladder factory, worshipped at St. Mary's Church, played beisbol with his friends. Eventually, he married, made a little more money, bought a house.

As part of the first wave of Latino immigrants to Cambridge, Ortiz's story is not unusual. But, until recently, it had not been recorded. In fact, there was little written history that recounted the Latino experience in the area during the past half-century.

deborah pacini hernandez

Deborah Pacini Hernandez talks with students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School as Tufts undergraduates working on the Urban Borderlands project, Lyndsey Parman, left, and Meredith Gruen, listen in. © Mark Morelli

A Tufts anthropologist and her students are working to capture that history. Through extensive interviews with members of Cambridge's Latino community, the students are creating reports and exhibits that will become historical artifacts. Their work, they hope, will preserve the stories of the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Salvadorans and others who chose to make their home near Boston.

In addition, the students are honing their research skills and forging bonds with the community.

"I'm just thrilled," said Deborah Pacini Hernandez, associate professor of anthropology. "Many very useful things have been produced to give back to the community. This has been beneficial for everyone."

The research is being conducted through a course Pacini Hernandez teaches called "Urban Borderlands: The Cambridge Latino Oral History Project." A companion course, "Digital Storytelling in Community Research," teaches students the skills needed for compiling short digital narratives that can be streamed on the web, using material they have gathered during their interviews.

"Students can learn from books, but there's no substitute for primary research," Pacini Hernandez said. "For example, they talked to Salvadorans who grew up during the war [in El Salvador], fled the war and came as refugees to the United States, had immigration problems…they could actually meet the people who had undergone these experiences. This is something useful [the students] can take to their professional lives," she said. "And, they leave behind something useful and help forge strong links with the surrounding community."

Public anthropology
This semester is the second time Pacini Hernandez has taught "Urban Borderlands." A Latin Americanist whose research has concentrated on popular art and music, Pacini Hernandez expanded her interests about eight years ago to include the study of Latinos living in the United States.

"Urban Borderlands" is based on a course Pacini Hernandez taught previously at Brown University. That class was basically a reading course, but the students also interviewed Dominicans and Colombians living in Providence, R.I., she said.

When she began teaching at Tufts, Pacini Hernandez realized she would have to change the course a little. "The situation was different here," she said. "There are Latino neighborhoods, but they are not close by [Tufts], in Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, Dorchester, East Boston…it was too difficult for undergraduates to get there."

Then, she learned about Concilio Hispano, the oldest multi-service agency in Cambridge and discovered that although there has been a Latino community in Cambridge since the 1950s, there were few, if any, written records about it.

With assistance from Concilio Hispano, the idea for "Urban Borderlands" took shape. Students from AHORA, Concilio Hispano's after-school youth program located at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, teamed with Tufts students to conduct the interviews. In many cases, the first interviews the student teams did were with members of the high school students' families. The interviews were done in either English or Spanish.

"The course changed radically from what it was in Rhode Island," Pacini Hernandez said. The course now has a greater emphasis on learning methodology and culturally appropriate techniques for working in the community and interviewing primary sources.

"The class is much more focused on getting students out into the community," she said. The research, she said, is an example of "public anthropology"—an approach to the discipline that encourages active citizenship and contributions to communities beyond the academic world.

"I wanted to have students do research that would not just gather dust on a shelf," Pacini Hernandez said. "I wanted to have the work produced be of value…to work in partnership, to leave behind something of value to the community."

A changing history
The history of Latinos in Cambridge, for the most part, goes back to the 1950s, when the first Puerto Ricans, particularly from the towns of Coamo and Jayuya, arrived in Cambridge. Some of these were migrant workers who came for farm work in nearby towns like Lexington and Concord.

Soon, new arrivals were finding other types of work, mostly low-paying jobs in the many factories located in Cambridge, Waltham and other area towns at that time—including José Ortiz, who was interviewed by Pacini Hernandez's students in spring 2002.

Another of the oral histories collected by the students is that of Roberto Santiago, who came to Cambridge in 1966 from Coamo, Puerto Rico, and became a leader in the Latino community. In 1970, Santiago and his friends began organizing to improve their lives. First he organized the tenants of the Columbia Terrace housing project, where he lived. Then he played a leadership role in establishing the Spanish Council, Cambridge's first Latino community organization and the predecessor of Concilio Hispano. He helped organize an annual Hispanic Festival and a baseball league that still bears his name.

Over time, immigrants arrived from the Dominican Republic, and, in the 1980s, Cambridge saw an influx from El Salvador and other Central American nations as people fled civil wars and oppression there. In fact, Cambridge became a "Sanctuary City" in 1985, meaning municipal workers were prohibited from inquiring about the immigration status of anyone in the city and from denying services or protection to refugees.

In 2000, according to the city planning board, there were 7,455 Hispanics living in Cambridge out of a total population of 101,000. While there has never been a distinct barrio in Cambridge, many Latinos have settled in the neighborhood known as Area Four, near Central Square. In his oral history, Ortiz says one part of that area, Columbia Street, used to be known as el pueblo puertorrique ("the Puerto Rican town").

The Hispanic community in Cambridge has evolved over the years, much as it has throughout the rest of the country. The story of this particular ethnic community has both hardships, particularly the prejudice that most immigrants and first-generation Latinos faced, and successes, such as the establishment of Concilio Hispano and the many services it has to offer.

'Collaborative learning'
The material students have collected during their research will be presented during Noche Latina (Latin Night) on May 2 at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School and at a reception at Concilio Hispano on May 7.

"It would be my hope that once the collection gets started, other students will think to put material in there," Pacini Hernandez said. "And we're very fortunate to be so well supported by Tufts. This couldn't have been done without good support, which I've received from the Provost's Office, the Diversity Fund, the University College for Citizenship and Public Service and my department."

In general, the community members were glad to share their experiences, Pacini Hernandez said. "It was a mixed experience; in a few cases, people did not want to talk because they did not understand what the questions would be about, but in most cases, they agreed to talk, and were very generous with their lives."

Students became involved with the Latino community to varying degrees, with some attending services on Sunday at St. Mary of the Annunciation Church, a traditional base for Cambridge's Latinos.

"The students were very eager about working in the community, about learning in a different way," Pacini Hernandez said. "This is really collaborative learning…It's why the field is so exciting."