Archive a treasure trove of Valley history

By Aaron Nelsen

Oral and written histories of families from the Rio Grande Valley are included in the Border Studies Archive at the University of Texas Pan American's library.

When Margaret Dorsey glimpsed the border folklore materials for the first time, it was from the inside of a closet.

With more than 100,000 files, appraised at $1 million, the Rio Grande Valley Folk Life Collection, as it was known at the time, was unquestionably valuable, and yet it had scarcely been used.

Dorsey had been hired in 2009 by the University of Texas Pan American to pull the files out of obscurity and develop them into a functional archive. She carved out a space in the library and rebranded the collection the Border Studies Archive.

Over the ensuing years, six collections have taken shape — there will soon be seven — each offering a unique lens on a particular aspect of border life.

Dorsey built the archive; now her task is to ensure that people come.

“People don’t know about us yet. We’re still pretty new, so we’re trying to get the word out,” Dorsey said.

In the 1980s, UT-Pan Am anthropologist Mark Glazer and his students began gathering the proverbs, folk beliefs, recipes and remedies, and stories and riddles of the Mexican-American communities along the border. These would become the original Border Studies Archive materials.

Among the files are dozens of stories, horror films, commercials and songs of “La Llorona” or “The Weeping Woman.”

“The basic story is you go out at night and hear the howls of a women crying, in pain and anguish, usually near water, and she’s often wearing white,” Dorsey said. “From there, you hear 101 different versions.”

Another addition to the archive has been the more than 80 recipes for capirotada, a dish similar to bread pudding, soaked in brown sugar and syrup, topped with walnuts and raisins, and commonly eaten during Lent.

Dorsey organized a competition around the popular dish, inviting celebrity chefs from the Valley to offer up recipes and separately recording an intimate portrait of each as they recalled childhood memories of capirotada.

She also has added oral histories from conjunto artists, organic farmers and the attorney who represented the students protesting discrimination during the Ed Couch-Elsa walkout of 1968.

“Everything we do is bilingual,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey, who is also an assistant professor of anthropology at UT-Pan Am, is no stranger to the border. Her book, “Pachangas: Borderlands Music, U.S. Politics and Transnational Marketing,” focuses on how national marketers and political parties use Tex-Mex culture in their marketing strategies.

Under her stewardship, the archive has grown into the Border Music, Latinas and Politics, Spanish Land Grants, Traditional Mexican-American Folklore and Visual Border Studies collections. But none carry her thumbprint or capture the turbulent recent history of the region quite like the Border Wall and Border Security collection.

Forged in the contentious struggle over construction of the border fence, this collection offers a snapshot of communities here at a significant turning point.

In Hidalgo, for example, a town of more than 11,000, the levee that borders the community was a popular spot for an evening stroll and for training for the high school track team, but not any longer. After the fence was erected, the Border Patrol moved in and people went elsewhere.

“When these people were growing up, these were actually binational communities,” Dorsey said. “But the border wall and border security have really changed the patterns and movements of communities.”

Even the concept of community has begun to change, as an “us” and “them” mentality has crept into daily conversation, according to Dorsey. Within a few years, the generation born behind the fence will barely know communities on the other side.

“In 20 years, when people have forgotten what it was like here before the border wall, I see the Border Wall and Border Security collection as an incredibly important resource,” Dorsey said.

this article  originally appeared on San Antoni News Empress on 12/29/13

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