The Power of the Spoken Word: East Mountain Oral History Project

by Guest on 12 June, 2012 Historical 705 Views

By Neala Schwartzberg

 Some things never go out of date. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) created the Federal Writers’ Project, sending out writers, historians, journalists, and editors to collect eyewitness oral accounts of important historical events, people, and cultures.    

This year the East Mountain Historical Society is doing something similar.

Established in 1992, the EMHS is dedicated to preserving and documenting history in the Sandia, Manzano, and Manzanita Mountain towns and villages east of Albuquerque and along portions of Route 66 and the Turquoise Trail. In June 2011 it partnered with the East Mountain Coalition of Neighborhood Associations in a project funded by the Bernalillo County Neighborhood Association Outreach Grant Program to launch “Great People; Great Stories,” an oral history pilot project to honor and preserve local history and culture as part of a 2012 community-wide centennial celebration of New Mexico’s statehood.

On June 3 an event celebrating the culmination of this project, the New Mexico Centennial, and the 20th anniversary of the East Mountain Historical Society itself, will take place from 2pm to 5pm at the Santo Niño Church and park located next to the East Mountain Library in Tijeras.

A film by Nancy Carpenter encapsulating the oral histories will be one of the highlights. “The trailer contains a still shot of each person interviewed, along with their name, village, birth date, and a quote from the interview,” says Kris Thacher, coordinator for the centennial committee.

The celebration will also premier a short film created by Jean-Pierre Larroque about the East Mountain village of San Antonio de Padua. Says Thacher, “The town was settled centuries ago, but continues the old traditions with annual church fiestas, Matachinas dancers, and a community water system—the Acequia de Madre de San Antonio—supplied by springs above the Ojito de San Antonio Open Space.”

Refreshments and traditional fiesta music by local musicians will be a part of the celebration as well.    

Projects like this resonate because times change so quickly. A community needs to know its origins if it is to understand and appreciate its present and plan for its future. Although Thacher notes that “all of the stories are precious,” there are some themes that come up time and again. For instance, it used to be that people knew their neighbors well and didn’t think twice about lending a helping hand. In today’s increasingly isolated society, where digital technology has replaced the front porch and shared fence, it’s easy to forget that these close connections were once the norm. And can you imagine a time when the only way to make the trip into Albuquerque was via horse and wagon? Back then, the trek took an entire day. Now it takes about 30 minutes.

“The richness of the area’s history is revealed in the stories of its people,” says EMHS president Denise Tessier of the project. “Combined, they bring the neighborhoods and villages of the mountains together like so many distinctive pieces of an heirloom quilt.”

The June 3rd celebration will not mark the end of this ambitious and history-preserving project. The East Mountain Historical Society plans to train a new crop of volunteers interested in learning how to conduct similar interviews. The recordings and transcripts of the current project will eventually be archived at the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico, where they will join recordings of the society’s previous oral histories.

To learn more about this program, or to nominate someone you think should be included in the Great People; Great Stories project, visit their website:

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Neala Schwartzberg

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