Professor Chon Noriega Receives Major Humanities Grant for Preservation and Access Project

By Noela Hueso

When he’s not teaching archival research strategies to Cinema and Media Studies students, Professor Chon Noriega is busy at work as the director of UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center (CSRC). In April, Noriega received a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a three-year archival preservation project at the CSRC. As envisioned by Noriega, "Religion, Spirituality and Faith in Mexican American Social History, 1940-Present," will increase access to recently acquired and legacy collections at the CSRC. The grant, nearly $350,000, is the maximum award available and the largest NEH grant CSRC has ever received. Noriega will oversee the new effort with CSRC librarian and archivist Xaviera Flores, which is slated to begin July 1.

How did this project come about?

We've previously received NEH grants in 2012 and 2015 for large-scale projects focused on the papers of Chicano civic leaders since the 1940s. For the new project, I thought, "What have we missed that can be found across our collections? It’s there in the boxes, and it’s a crucial part of our history, but we have not made it possible to search for that subject, so it remains hidden." That is a reality facing all major archives. There’s simply too much material to describe in great detail. We have nearly 6,000 linear feet of papers and over 400,000 digital objects. NEH support makes it possible for archives to deepen their description in order to make material more accessible. In thinking about what we could propose, it struck me that we tend to think of the CSRC collections in social and cultural terms: community-based organizations, newspapers, historical events and figures, and materials related to cultural heritage. But not religion. The more that Xaviera and I talked about this paradox — of a highly religious community that has been archived primarily around social and cultural frameworks — the more we realized we were onto an important re-framing of the archive itself.

What will be included?

It’s pretty heavy in photographs but there’s also extensive correspondence, diaries, documents, audio recordings and ephemera. We found that we had three categories of collections. Those were faith-based organizations (Church of the Epiphany, Católicos Por la Raza); religious leaders such as Father Gregory Boyle, Father Richard Estrada and Sister Karen Boccalero, who created community-based institutions; and individuals who were active in their community or in civic life. We have an astounding collection donated by the granddaughter of a woman named Josefa Serna who was born in 1911. The collection includes photographs covering five generations of a working-class family since the late 19th century as well as correspondence, family papers, textiles and religious objects. Her granddaughter, who is a historian at USC, described these materials as “the things of everyday life,” and that is exactly what makes this collection so important. In the U.S., there aren’t many archival holdings that look at the day-to-day life of ordinary people of Mexican decent. This collection opens a window to a ground-up view of U.S. social history.

Who will be putting this together?

What's really exciting is that we’ll be able to hire a newly graduated archivist for a two-year period. This person will work with graduate and undergraduate students we’ll also be able to bring on board. This allows us to give detailed, hands-on training in diversifying archival practice to the next generation. They’ll have a chance to work with materials that are from their own communities, that have been moved into an archival setting and are now becoming a historical resource.

What’s the process of putting the collection together?

Collections come to us organized in a way that reflects how the donors used these materials. We respect that original order. We rehouse everything in acid-free folders and boxes for preservation purposes; then we go through and begin describing things at a box level and then at a folder level. When we feel that it’s absolutely crucial, we will do it at an item level, too, so people have an even better sense of what’s inside the collection and where to find it. The next step is making the material more broadly accessible, both for in-person research and, as much as possible, online. We will be digitizing 12,000 items. In terms of the physical collections, we pride ourselves on making them available to anybody who is interested in seeing the materials. All you have to do is schedule ahead of time and get to UCLA. We will have them ready for you.

How do they know what’s in the boxes?

It’ll be posted online. We put our finding aids on the Online Archive of California (OAC). If people have further questions, they can contact the CSRC Library:

Why is it a three-year project?

It’s a very labor-intensive process. A lot of places use a more streamlined approach now; they don’t describe in great detail and that allows them to move through more material, but this grant is precisely to give us more depth in the descriptions.

Once it’s all put together, where will it live?

The CSRC has its own allocations in the Southern Regional Library Facility — the vaults under campus that house the archival collections.

What else is down there?

We’ve brought in numerous collections that are core to the history of Southern California, but also have national significance. About five years ago, for example, I worked with Monica Lozano to bring in the La Opinion photograph collection. At the time she was a UC Regent, but she was also publisher of the family newspaper, one of the first and largest Spanish-language newspapers in the U.S. She had a massive collection of microfilm, negatives, prints and teletype from news feeds.

Who will benefit from this project?

We get people from around the world who come in to spend time using the CSRC collections; they range from graduate students to scholars to museum curators to folks who come in from the community to do research on community history or personal interests. My sense is that this will help with the next generation of books, dissertations, scholarly articles and classroom assignments. The CSRC Library actively works with teachers to let them know about how they can use collections. Students discover that there’s nothing like encountering and engaging with traces of the past as part of the learning process. To reach even more people, this project will become an important resource for museum and library exhibitions. In just the last six years, for example, CSRC archival materials have been shown in about 50 exhibitions reaching nearly 900,000 people in the Americas and Europe.

What media collections have you done?

Even before I became CSRC director, I recovered the first three Chicano-directed feature films made in the 1970s, and then worked with the UCLA Film and Television Archive (FATA) to do needed conservation work on them. In 2014, one of these films was added to the National Film Registry! All three films are now under the stewardship of the CSRC, in partnership with FATA, along with two other Chicano-directed films from the 1970s, features from later decades, documentaries, a television series and roughly 100 experimental films and videos made since the 1950s. At CSRC, I even developed a DVD series to make some of the restored works available for wider use.

You’ll be stepping down as director this year after 18 years. What’s next?

Yes. I never expected to be director for more than five or 10 years, which is the usual time for this kind of appointment. It’s been quite a journey, and I’m honored to be able to see the CSRC through its 50th anniversary. I’m excited that a new director will take up the helm to lead the CSRC into its next 50 years at UCLA. They will have an incredibly skilled, dedicated and hardworking staff, a wide array of stakeholders, and a half-century track record to build upon. My advice will be the same advice I got when I started: “¡Dale gas!” (step on the gas). As for me, I look forward to being able to focus more on teaching and on my own research, neither of which really slowed down while I was director, but it was certainly a challenge [laughs]. Beyond that I’d like to continue my relationship with the CSRC, now as a rank-and-file faculty member who in some way contributes to its research mission. In addition to the NEH project, I would like to put more energies to securing funds for further conservation of CSRC media archival holdings, especially 8mm and 16mm films from the late 1950s through early 1970s that significantly expand the history of film art in the U.S. I feel that I owe that to the filmmakers that entrusted their work to UCLA. These works are at risk of being lost to the ravages of time, and with that our understanding of Latina/o contributions to world cinema and media art would be greatly diminished. But I’m hopeful others share these concerns and that together we can preserve these works before it is too late.

Posted: May 6, 2020