You'd think former state historian Estevan Rael-Gálvez would be a little more braggy about his credentials and work, but the scholar/thinker/writer/punk rock academic is really more interested in serving communities throughout New Mexico and keeping history alive through old-timey info and contemporary data gathering. The Project Director for New Mexico Highland University's Manitos Community Memory Project, which has been in process for nearly three years now, I caught up with Gálvez to learn about a new $970,000 grant from Pennsylvania's Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and what's next for the fledgling digital archive.
SFR: Tell us about the core ethos of the project. How long have you been at it, etc.?
Gálvez: One of the major things the Mellon Foundation is interested in…they sent out this call about working with rural communities and…they decided they wanted to work with smaller universities versus what they'd been used to working with—like Yale or Stanford. At that point, Highlands reached out to me. I came in and talked about the WPA project from the 1930s, particularly the [Farm Security Administration] photos. We had these photographers come into New Mexico and capture these amazing photographs of individuals, buildings, of towns, but there was a politics to that process where unless you were white, your name was not included in those photos. I went in to talk about this project, and I said there's an opportunity with people from Trampas and Questa and Taos, these small villages full of people's ancestors, and we can use their [photos, relics and artifacts] to develop a memory project. This point was about two-and-a-half years ago, they invited us to submit a proposal, so we did.What we're calling Phase 1 was building our capacity: identifying what the problem is, grappling with the idea of what a community archive is, how we define that; developing relationships in small villages. We finished that part, and it's on to Phase 2.
How does one even go about finding stuff for such an archive?
It's not necessarily old-timey photos, old interviews, but it's engaging youth in recording not just their grandparents, but each other. In Phase 2, we'll pay individuals a stipend for their work in communities. We're going to start what we're calling Memory Labs. We're trying to find ways to work within these smaller communities by placing equipment, like scanners, for example, so they can gather [items]. We're also going to be working with Littleglobe, who are committed to intergenerational youth going into communities to gather oral histories—with organizations that already have infrastructure like that built-in.
What sorts of things have been collected and are on the website already?
People might see letters that were shared amongst people, photos, documents about a community. Eventually, in time, we'll see some oral histories. Our intention is to gather people's memories right now. And I'm not just interested in elders, that's certainly part of it, but I'm interested in contemporary reflections no matter the age of the respondent.
Have you found or learned anything surprising?
I've been at this for quite a while, so very little surprises me, but what it does is excite me, like when I come across a thing or hear a story I hadn't heard before. There are individuals who tell us more about who we are—like the mayordomos, the water caretakers in a village who embody tradition; or curanderos, healers, maybe that nurse in your family who started out in a place like Trampas but is now living in Albuqerque and helping people through COVID. One of the things we're trying to take advantage of and leverage is with tech, and at this point, a lot of people hold tech in their hand that can be used to record someone or take a photo of someone, some thing. I now have this iPhone 12. In Phase 1, we were trying to bring in new types of tech to create 3D models of artifacts or buildings, and I actually think I have that tech now on my phone.
Do you think the rise of tech and our obsession with documenting everything has made doing such things feel mundane to most people?
What may seem mundane now may be of interest to some future historian. My dad was a farmer/rancher in Costilla, and he always had a little notebook in his shirt pocket. Recently I showed up at his house and I said "Dad, do you have any of those notebooks?" A huge smile came over his face as if he'd been waiting for me to ask him. Some were from even before I was born. Him just noting: "20 lambs in the field today, irrigated six acres in alfalfa." Little notes that tell us something.
Let’s talk about the term “Manitos,” as this term may not be familiar to everyone. Who are the Manitos?
We were drawn to this word because it's how a lot of individuals refer to themselves. These are people from villages like Trampas or Abiquiu, whose ancestry is pretty complex, who can trace back to 1598, but to Indigenous ancestors, African ancestors, too. Part of the project is talking about that complexity. It's maybe meant as a diminutive, but a positive, and I think the idea is it was a diminutive greeting to them as "My little brother." Like "hermano." To this day when people see each other, refer to each other like "Mano Estevan, how have you been?" It's using a word to pull them in and embrace them. It's revealing the uniqueness of these cultures, including their neighbors.