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Neighbors: Oral History from Madera, Calif., Vol. 2


There are all sorts of history books. Some are based upon numbers from old records, others discuss ideas and some review “facts.”

History is not about old buildings and statues. They come and go. It’s about We the People. This book is based upon testimony. Called oral history, it begins with an interview which is then transcribed. My experience with taped interviews has been that the subjects will often digress. They remember something and backtrack to correct themselves. An exact transcription is as frustrating as trying to listen to a buddy tell a good story while his wife is vacuuming under your chair. Huh? What’d he say? For this reason, this book contains edited interviews set down as a monologue, without the questions and without hesitations like “hmmm” to form a personal story.

In other words, the interview was cut up into pieces and reassembled, like remixing a recorded song in a studio. All subjects had the opportunity to edit factual errors and/or omissions. Numbers can offer insights. For instance, Madera has been a Hispanic town for decades. According to the 2015 U.S. Census estimate, more than three quarters of the inhabitants were Hispanic (79.8 percent). Nearly one third (32.2 percent) were born in another country and of these, the vast majority were born in Latin America. At time of this printing, more than half of the population speaks Spanish or, Spanish and English. Only about one-third speak English only. The population is younger, less educated and much poorer than the California average.

But numbers have limits. Although Madera has been Hispanic for years, until recently representative government was selected at large. At one time, three of the city councilmen all lived within blocks of one another in a tiny rich enclave about a quarter-mile from my house. The city council only included pink faces. The school board was much the same until the California courts deemed this voting practice unfair. Within two years, the school board, city council, city mayor and county supervisors were elected by district. Today, there are electoral districts and the faces of our city government look much different, resembling the townsfolk. For this volume, we have included a list of all elected mayors and a partial list of council members.

Sometimes, numbers are meaningless. How do you measure bravery, loyalty, patience, persistence? How do you measure what boxers call heart — the sheer will to get back up? For this reason, you will find very few numbers in these interviews.

This book is not scientific. My intent was never to measure but just to listen and share. Likewise, choosing the subjects had nothing to do with the scientific method. This is not a random sample survey to be used for a poll. These are true stories from our neighbors.

Listening to peoples’ stories and writing them down is not new. Ancient Greek writers Herodotus and Thucydides traveled extensively doing just that more than 2,400 years ago. Here, in the United States of America, oral history has been popular since the advent of sound recording machines to aid such work. A famous example was funded by the U.S. Congress in 1935. Under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Works Projects Administration), the Federal Writers’ Project sent writers to seventeen states to interview and record former slaves’ testimony. Between 1936 and 1939 they recorded 2,300 first person accounts which were saved and later selectively published in book form and sound recordings. Beginning in the 1970’s, writer, actor and radio personality Studs Terkel made oral history popular with the publication of a number of best-selling books about the Great Depression, the Second World War and even jobs.

This is a description of life in Madera, California during the later portion of the Twentieth Century and the first wisps of the Twenty-first. The participants, representing all rungs of the economic ladder, describe how they grew up and survived. Everyone is an expert about their own lives. Each person has carefully stitched their own unique panel into our American patchwork quilt. Just as Madera has changed from a small railway community exporting wood, animal products and grain in the first half of the Twentieth Century to a town with manufacturing to support mega-agriculture, so it will change in the future. Buildings will come down and be replaced. People will move away and others will arrive with a truck-load of belongings.

• • •

To be continued.

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