Latinos are driving a demographic transformation in Ohio; nearly every county across the state has seen their numbers increase in the last decade. Yet many Ohioans know little about their neighbors who identify as Latino or Hispanic, despite their notable presence.
Kenyon College Professor of Spanish Clara Román-Odio is determined to change this. After a community member in Knox County expressed interest in getting to know Latinos in the community more, Román-Odio was compelled to learn more about the journeys local Latinos have undertaken and help make their contributions more visible.
In 2015, Román-Odio and students Amelia Dunnell ’17 and Patricia Mota ’16, with help from students enrolled in Román-Odio’s “Introduction to Chicano/a Cultural Studies” course, launched Latinos in Rural America (LiRA), a public humanities project designed to broaden knowledge, engagement and understanding of the Latino/a experience in rural Ohio. More than 2,000 people have now seen the work as it has been selected for exhibition at multiple venues.
Most recently, portions of the project were included in the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street exhibition “Crossroads: Change in Rural America.” The exhibition, which will tour the country through 2025, focuses on the characteristics of rural America and changes to its culture over the past 100 years. Designed for small-town museums, libraries and cultural organizations, the exhibit serves as a meeting place for conversations in the community. LiRA was chosen for the exhibit because it focused on the oral history of Latino communities in rural areas.
“Together, my students and I discovered the rich and diverse journeys Latinos have undertaken to be here; the many meaningful contributions they make to daily life in Knox County; and how we Latinos are about doing the work and do it well,” said Román-Odio, whose classes often emphasize such community-engaged learning projects.
Mota reflected on the importance of interacting with the community and how this project helped her connect with those around her. “I think using conversations and real-life stories can help shed light on the immigrant trajectory in a more tangible way than what we read on the news. Human stories, as opposed to sterile statistics, can help foster better relationships among minorities and the communities that they live in,” she said.
“In order to better understand the immigrant experience, we have to read and expose ourselves to more of these traveling narratives. As a bilingual teacher serving in an underserved community in Dallas, I often reflect on the promise replicating this oral history project in other areas of the country has for increased intercultural contact and understanding within the United States,” Mota added.
The full LiRA exhibit, available online, includes a series of 10 bilingual panels that provide snapshots into the lives of Latino families in Knox County, a video in which Latinos talk about their personal experiences and a reflection piece that gives the audience a chance to provide feedback about the exhibit.
In addition to the “Crossroads: Change in Rural America” exhibition, LiRA has been displayed at venues including Kent State University, Miami University, The Ohio State University, The Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County and the Fulton County Historical Society Museum.
The project was created with support from a highly competitive $17,000 grant from the nonprofit organization Ohio Humanities and additional grants from the Community Foundation of Mount Vernon and Knox County and the Ohio Five Digital Scholarship.
— Betül Aydin ’21