Fields of Dreams: Oral Historian Chronicles Migrant Civil Rights Movement

Oral Historian Chronicles Migrant Civil Rights Movement

Margo McBane conducts an interview for "Before Silicon Valley: A Migrant Path to Mexican American Civil Rights." (Robert Bain photo)

(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the fall 2011 College of Social Sciences newsletter, “Together: Exploring What Can Be,” Michael Haederle, editorial consultant. )

Margo McBane led two lives in the early 1970s, dividing her time between studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and working at the United Farm Workers of America boycott house in San José.

As she got to know some of the older migrant workers, she started interviewing them about their experience, taking care to record it all on tape. She could hardly have known she was laying the groundwork for a lifelong love affair with Chicano oral history.

McBane, now a lecturer in the College of Social Sciences at San Jose State University, earlier this year received a $40,000 planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a traveling exhibit called, “Before Silicon Valley: A Migrant Path to Mexican American Civil Rights.”

The exhibit, which focuses on the experience of migrant workers in northern California between 1920 and 1960, will include a “living history character” portraying a female cannery worker, an online component and a booklet. It has already been booked into 32 sites around the country, McBane says.

The next step will be to secure a larger implementation grant to complete the project, she says.

In her career as a public historian, McBane has taught high school history, worked in cultural resource management and produced public radio documentaries. She received grants from the California Council in the Humanities and the Kellogg Foundation to produce an award-winning two-part radio program called “Talkin’ Farmwork Blues: An Oral History of California Farm Labor.”

In 2005, when KB Homes was preparing to tear down the old Del Monte cannery in San Jose, History San Jose hired McBane to produce an online documentary called “Cannery Life,” which included interviews, photos and videos with 15 former cannery workers who shared their experiences.

McBane meanwhile was contemplating San Jose’s unique role as a cultural center for Mexican immigrant workers in northern California, as well as east side San Jose resident Cesar Chavez’s role in co-founding the United Farm Workers. In the 1950s Chavez learned the art of community organizing from Fred Ross, who had trained in Chicago with Saul Alinsky, McBane says.

One day, McBane had a brainstorm. “I called the NEH and pitched that San José was the Birmingham of Mexican American civil rights,” she says. That led to her successful exhibit application.

The grant will help pay for McBane and her students to conduct a handful of interviews of the surviving pivotal players in the Chicano farm worker rights movement. A few interviews have been completed, but she would like to complete another six to eight.

“Labor doesn’t have much written about it from the worker perspective,” McBane says. “This is the history that hasn’t been told.”