March 21, 2024

The Abuelas Project: Changing the Way We Remember the Past

A new project from Latinos in Heritage Conservation is transforming research and geodata into rich and engaging StoryMaps to honor and preserve Latine histories.

Latinos in Heritage Conservation (LHC) was launched in 2014 as a national network of like-minded heritage practitioners, advocates, and scholars who recognized the need for a national organization that would focus specifically on Latine heritage preservation.

“It was born out of this idea that within the traditional field of historic preservation, our heritage isn't recognized,” said Sehila Mota Casper, LHC executive director.

The network was organized as a 501(c)(3) in 2020 and received a $750,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation in December 2021, which allowed it to bring on executive director Casper. Early grant funding from the National Trust for Historic Preservation was also vital in LHC’s early phases, providing funding to hire a consultant to help develop the organization’s first major project: The Abuelas Project.

A group of people clustered around an artifact at Cedar Creek.

photo by: Latinosin Heritage Conservation

LHC examines a grave site in the Old Cedar Creek Mexican Cemetery in Elgin, Texas.

With the goals of engaging diverse and intergenerational audiences, inviting community participation, and honoring overlooked Latine histories nationwide, LHC worked with geospatial consultant Reina Chano Murray to develop the online and geospatial information systems (GIS)-based Abuelas Project. They named it “abuelas,” meaning grandmothers in Spanish, as a nod to the intangible heritage at the heart of many Latine communities.

“We wanted to recognize the intangible heritage, like the oral storytelling from our grandmothers, their recipes, photographs, and historic sites that may no longer be there because they’ve been demolished, gentrified, or displaced,” said Casper.

When Murray came to LHC, she worked closely with the education committee to find the right technologies and GIS-based approach to honor that tangible and intangible heritage nationwide. She said that while the organization wanted to collect and catalog heritage sites using geodata, they did not want maps to be the central focus of the Abuelas Project. “We really wanted to focus on well-researched curated stories,” said Murray. “Maps are part of the story, but they're just that—part of the story.”

A closer look at some of the photographs and objects documented as part of the Abuelas Project.

photo by: Latinos in Heritage Conservation

LHC staff and a Dallas resident view old family photographs taken in Dallas, Texas

The organization decided to use Esri’s ArcGIS Online platform and accompanying applications, including StoryMaps, which allows practitioners to transform maps, GIS data, and other research into interactive content. Rather than just clicking on a pin on an online map to view details about a location, visitors to The Abuelas Project’s website will find historical photographs, snippets or oral history interviews, images of primary sources, and descriptions from LHC researchers woven together on long web pages. As one scrolls through the StoryMap, historical and contemporary maps pop on the screen, zoom, or pan to highlight relevant sites.

“In each StoryMap, you can see these rich histories, and, when we could, we pulled out stories of individual people to humanize their experience,” said Casper.

Building the Abuelas Project

To populate the Abuelas Project’s StoryMaps, LHC hired graduate student GIS fellows to contribute research and writing. Melanie Escobar, a master’s student studying Latin American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), built a pair of StoryMaps during a fellowship with LHC in 2022. The first spotlights vulnerable Mexican cemeteries across Texas, emphasizing their need for preservation. The second details the experiences and legacies of migrant farmworkers who came to the United States as part of the government-sponsored Bracero Program between 1941 and 1964.

“I got really passionate about researching the Bracero Program,” said Escobar, who tapped into a local network of scholars researching migrant farm workers at UTEP and across El Paso. She also used local archives and oral histories collected by Dr. Yolanda Chávez Leyva, a professor of history at UTEP.

Escobar’s maps went online in January 2024 when LHC launched the Abuelas Project’s Texas Pilot. Casper said the organization opted to lead with thematic content, like Escobar’s StoryMaps, to introduce users to the platform and test other functionalities, like an online questionnaire where website visitors can submit historical sites or examples of intangible heritage from their communities to be added to the Abuelas Project’s datasets and online maps. “We’re trying to create a space where historic preservation is democratized,” said Casper.

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Using user-submitted data, The Abuelas Project will eventually shift from a thematic to a regional approach, building out StoryMaps and other content across the United States-Mexico borderlands. Part of this work is already underway, thanks to a $50,000 grant from the National Trust through its program to Preserve Route 66, which Casper said will be used to “tell the untold or unknown stories of Latine communities alongside Route 66.”

Fellows for the Abuelas Project holding a camera and microphones.

photo by: Latinos in Heritage Conservation

LHC Student Fellows recording interviews in Esperanza, Texas.

LHC Fellows conducting some interviews as part of the Abuelas Project.

photo by: Latinos in Heritage Conservation

LHC Student Fellows documenting stories in Dallas, Texas.

The People’s Register

A new crop of graduate student GIS fellows are already sifting through primary sources and reaching out to Latine communities along the historic highway, searching for stories and historical sites to highlight on future StoryMaps. Escobar has returned to LHC to research sites in New Mexico and Texas, in towns that Route 66 passes through or near.

Escobar said the decision to return to LHC was an easy one because she feels personally connected to the work. Her Route 66-related research will focus on public art featuring Latine communities in Amarillo, Texas, and the Barelas neighborhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a historic Hispanic district home to the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Escobar will join other LHC researchers on a road trip this summer to visit sites along Route 66, including Amarillo and San Bernardino, and conduct oral history interviews to enrich their archival research.

Three people sitting on a couch holding some photographs as part of the Abuelas Project.

photo by: Latinos in Heritage Conservation

The Bravo family members share their stories of Little Mexico and old photographs of the barrio in Dallas, Texas.

As LHC researchers conduct interviews and collect sources and geodata to build the Abuelas Project’s interactive StoryMaps for website visitors, they are also populating datasets of many never-before-cataloged historical sites. Murray said this data will be useful to researchers and other preservation organizations and further preservation efforts. “Now, LHC has this information in their back pocket, where they can say, ‘Here are some sites that are not being protected or not being recognized that we believe are worthy of nomination,’” she explains. “It helps target their advocacy efforts.”

Because of its grassroots approach and potential to shift conversations about preservation nationwide, Casper said that at LHC, the Abuelas Project has earned the nickname “the People’s Register.” She said: “We are bringing community and practitioners together to help create solutions from a lack of representation and visibility.”

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Marianne Dhenin is a historian and journalist covering social and environmental justice and politics.

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