Research News

Oral history project tells a new immigrant story

by Michele Coffill

Faculty and student researchers at Grand Valley launched a unique oral history project dedicated to documenting the history of the displacement of Puerto Ricans, Latinos and others from Chicagos Lincoln Park neighborhood in the 1960s.


From left are José Jiménez, Melanie Shell-Weiss and Max Eckard. Materials from the Young Lords in Lincoln Park history project are on the table.

The Young Lords in Lincoln Park project tells the story of a neighborhoods struggle with Chicago officials for fair housing, self-determination and human rights. Student José Cha-Cha Jiménez said he wanted to capture the history before the people who lived it are gone. This is an immigrant story that hasnt been told yet, he said. This history isnt recorded anywhere in Chicago.

Like other oral historians, Jiménez lets his subjects tell the story. He could have easily told it himself  he established the Young Lords in September 1968.

In the late 60s, then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and other city officials recognized Lincoln Park as a real estate jewel and began a gentrification project that displaced Puerto Rican and Latino families and neighborhoods. Hoping to stop Daleys plan, Jiménez led thousands of people who protested urban renewal through marches and occupations.

Jiménez said the Young Lords formed an alliance with the Black Panther Party, joined the Rainbow Coalition and published a newspaper to call attention to substandard housing, police brutality and political corruption in Chicago.

Forty-five years later, Jiménez serves as archivist of the Young Lords and co-directs the history project with Melanie Shell-Weiss, assistant professor of liberal studies. Much of his Young Lords project work was done while Jiménez was a Student Summer Scholar, a program that provides funding for a student to work with a faculty mentor on a 12-week research project. Jiménez moved to Michigan in the 1980s and began working toward a bachelors degree several years ago.

The oral history projects core partners are Grand Valleys Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarship, and University Libraries Special Collections and University Archives.


Jose Jiménez, center, Chicago, circa 1970s.

Shell-Weiss said the projects goal is recording, preserving and making these memories accessible to teachers, researchers and the public. The project includes videotaped oral histories, photographs and a growing collection of related material; it can be found at www.gvsu.edu/younglords.

She called Jiménez, who is majoring in liberal studies, a civil rights leader and said listening to him talk about Chicago and the Young Lords is fascinating. The Young Lords were fighting for Puerto Rican nationalism. They were challenging forced displacement, Shell-Weiss said.

The collection of more than 100 videotaped oral histories will be online by the end of this year. A subset of these oral histories, photos and biographies are currently available. To help manage the technical aspects of the project, University Libraries hired Max Eckard, a metadata and digital curation librarian. Eventually, all oral histories will be available in both English and Spanish.

Additional materials that will soon be online through the digital collections include photographs and papers that document the origins of the Young Lords Movement. The papers include Jiménezs unpublished manuscripts from his campaign for Chicago alderman, as well as photos and documents donated by people who have been interviewed for the project.

Student scholars

Undergraduate research and community engagement are at the core of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarship, which provides funding for Young Lords in Lincoln Park and other key projects.

Susan Mendoza, director of OURS, said the office supports nearly 300 students and their research projects. More than 2,000 students participate in OURS programs such as Student Summer Scholars, Student Scholars Day and the Undergraduate Research Fair.

Mendoza said OURS is working with University Development to establish endowed undergraduate fellowships. An example is the Stephen C. Rowe Student Summer Scholars Fellowships, which was established by faculty members to provide student opportunities in religious studies, liberal studies and philosophy.

More information about creating endowed fellowships for student scholarship and OURS programs is online at www.gvsu.edu/ours.