Steve Velasquez

Associate Curator in the Division of Home and Community Life, National Museum of American History

Taking an oral history

What is your specific area of study?

I deal mainly with Latino history, the history of the Spanish in the Americas to any contemporary issue of Latino experience in the United States.

How did you become interested in this particular area?

I have an archeology degree and have worked in South America and Mexico. From early on, I was interested in how people survive daily—what allowed them to create a sense of house and home and identity—so I’ve always been interested in the history of community and places. 

My parents are from Ecuador. I started doing archeology there, and then got more interested in the Spanish, and then pre-Columbian to Spanish contact, and to what happens with those next generations.

You’re a member of the team for the Consortia-sponsored project Exiles in America.  Can you provide an overview of this project?

Exiles in America is looking at one specific community during a single slice of time—the Cuban Exiles that came to America in the 1960s, and again in the 1980s and 90s.  It is part of a larger project on immigration to the United States, and it’s also part of a project to collect objects, stories and information for Latino collections at the Smithsonian. 

We want to see how the experience of exiles and refugees compares to other migrations to the United States. I’m also interested in how individuals in our community make space for themselves here in the United States. For this we consider the home environment, the traditions that are maintained, what new traditions get created, and how those traditions change once they get to the United States. 

During the Cuban Revolution, there was a program called Operation Pedro Pan (Peter Pan), in which parents sent their children to the United States. There were 14,000 unaccompanied minors from Cuba that were placed with families, boarding houses, orphanages, and foster care homes. Some were reunited with their family quickly, but for others it took several years. We want to learn how that experience changed the landscape of America, and how it changed these people and their communities.

How did the project come to be?

This is another step in collecting stories of the Latino experience. Several years ago, we did a project on Mexican guest workers, during which we went to the community and asked people to share their stories and objects. In 2013, we went into the Dominican community in New York and asked them to share stories about music and music in the community. For the Cuban project, we’re asking the Cuban community in Miami to share their experiences as a part of Operation Peter Pan.

Latinos’ histories and experiences vary regionally, with generational differences and class differences, so we’re trying to gather a wide range of Latino collections here at American History and in the Smithsonian. Each project is a little step in creating a more complete picture of the Latino experience in the United States. 

What outcomes are you expecting?

Several. Initially, we’ll bring in collections that represent the Peter Pan experience and the Cuban exile experience, since we have nothing now that relates to those waves of migrations. We plan to incorporate these stories and items into exhibits or a website to share with the public.

But we also want to show visitors to the Museum that the Latino experience is extremely varied—that histories of migrations vary enormously—and also show the impact that Latinos have had in their own communities and the nation. And we will be enlarging the Latino participation in the Museum as we bring in Latino audiences and Latino funders.

What has been done on project so far?

We’re gearing up to do the public collecting portion. We’ve had initial discussions with groups of former Peter Pan, and several people have also contacted us. So we’re now making plans to go out and talk to them and see their materials. I look forward to seeing what response we’ll get once we really move forward and have a bigger public component. And we’ll team up with History Miami and another group to help record some of these stories. 

For the Dominican project, we had a public component in which 75 to 100 people showed up on a Friday evening. Everybody was engaged, and you could tell it tapped into something in the Latino community and that they want to share their stories. They’re aware that their history contributes to the overall American experience, and it’s important for them. That’s heartening to see.

Most of the Consortia projects are multidisciplinary, pan-institutional.  How does Exiles in America reach across institutions?

For Exiles, we’re teaming up with a broader Our American Journey Consortium project, which is about migration, and that’s pan-institutional with the Center for Folklife, Latino Center and Asian Pacific American Center, among others. We’re also working with the Latino Center, and we’ll probably coordinate a few events with them later in this project. Within American History we have many different collaborators, and we’re working with groups outside the Smithsonian, like HistoryMiami.

Why is the Smithsonian well suited to this type of project?

The topic, Cubans in America, is not just a regional story; it’s a national story. The Smithsonian and the National Museum of American History are uniquely suited to tackle this project because we deal with national events, national changes. We have a lot of resources to draw from, a unique set of tools, and a unique lens to be able to look at this subject. And it’s just one of many stories that we need to tell about Latinos.

How has the support from the Consortia made a difference in your research?

Oh, it would not have happened otherwise. The project would have been on a much smaller scale, more along the lines of maybe talking to one or two people. Now we have the ability to talk to whole communities, and we have the ability to make a lot more information available to the public.

The Consortia’s support has been very important to get these projects off the ground. We’ve been able to cement relationships with our outside collaborators and with the community, and we just would not have been able to do it without them.