Sarah Hollingsworth was lucky to land a good person to interview.
As part of an ongoing oral history project CSU Monterey Bay is conducting in the Salinas Chinatown, Hollingsworth was assigned to talk to Dorothy Wallace, a 91-year-old resident of Italian and Swiss heritage.
Wallace is a feisty, sharp woman with great recollections about Salinas and was eager to talk, said Hollingsworth, a 20-year-old junior at CSUMB. The interview changed not only Hollingsworth's notion about senior citizens, but her view of Salinas and the Monterey Bay region.
"She remembered all the addresses where she's lived. She could just draw a map of old Salinas, that was really incredible," Hollingsworth said. "I really enjoyed her. I realized I wasn't focusing on the class but on my relationship with her. It wasn't about a grade anymore. I got so into it and it helped me to learn beyond the classroom."
Hollingsworth's interview with Wallace is one of about 27 that will be featured in an upcoming screening at the National Steinbeck Center, a preview to a larger event in the spring.
Since 2008, Rina Benmayor of the New Humanities for Social Justice Department at CSUMB has led an oral history project in Chinatown. Each of her classes has about 25 students and over the years, they've gathered more than 100 interviews with people of Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese ancestry. Together, they're weaving together the multicultural history of a fabled area near downtown Salinas.
What has impressed Benmayor most about the project is how much members of different ethnic communities interacted with one another; and how important the Old Republic Café was.
"Everybody has a memory of eating at the Republic Café," Benmayor said. "People would go there for wedding banquets, fathers would go gambling while mothers and children would be in the restaurant. People have incredible memories of that restaurant."
The "Chop Suey" sign was restored in 2009, and community members continue to raise funds to renovate the building.
CSUMB has been involved in efforts to revitalize Chinatown since 2005. The university led the creation of its community garden, community center; and hundreds of student volunteers have completed their "service learning" requirement serving meals for its homeless population or otherwise helping the more than 200 people who gather there.
This year, the oral history project is focusing on two segments of the community not previously looked at. The first is downtown dwellers between World War I and II. The second is Latinos who lived near Chinatown, and Latino elected officials.
Guadalupe Casco, a senior with a social and behavioral sciences major, interviewed Monterey County Supervisor Simon Salinas. Besides learning about the politician's life, Casco strengthened the interviewing skills that will serve her well doing anthropological research and oral history.
"It was very inspiring because (Salinas) talked a lot about what it means to be a Chicano," she said, referring to the term coined for Mexican-Americans in the 1960s.
Many Anglo residents of Old Downtown — including Wallace — were interviewed to bring a balance to a diverse pool of interviewees.
Hollingsworth feels fortunate it was Wallace who she had to interview. The energetic 91-year-old was happy to share her story, but not all the interviewees were as eager.
"A lot of students had problems," she said.
Still, assignments were completed, and excerpts of the interviews will be shown next week at the National Steinbeck Center.
Like most teachers involved in the Chinatown, Benmayor hopes a museum will eventually be built in the area. When that happens, the interviews will be part of the exhibits.
Before that, she will try to get funding to create a documentary with the stories gathered.
"I anticipate this project going on for at least the next two years, maybe more," she said.
Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 753-6755 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
·What: Preview of an oral history project produced by CSUMB
·When: 12:30 p.m., Dec. 13
·Where: National Steinbeck Center, One Main St., Salinas
If you go