Santa Ana Library seeks veterans for oral history project


SANTA ANA – History is now a tad more vocal at Santa Ana Public Library. It is also YouTube friendly, volunteer-powered and focused on local heroes.

The library calls that oral history.

“With oral histories, the person listening can really see the emotions,” said Kevin Cabrera, library assistant. “That’s very powerful. You can hear someone cry on a tape recorder, but when you actually see those tears, it makes it more real.”

Throughout the past three years, the library has restored its oral history project, which video records interviews with Santa Ana leaders and ordinary citizens for archives, after an original cassette-inspired attempt died in the 1990s. Now, the Santa Ana History Room is seeking local military veterans to profile in its interviews.

Cabrera and Santa Ana History Room archivist Manny Escamilla have trained about 21 high school and college volunteers to interview the profile subjects. After situating the interviewees in the history room, and straightening the books in the shelves behind them, Escamilla and Cabrera use city media equipment, such as high-definition cameras to film the interviews.

In an attempt to preserve authenticity, they don’t edit the videos before saving them in external hard drives and posting them online. It’s an alternative to transcribing the videos in a history book, which can cost around $3,000 per interview, Cabrera said.

When time allows, typically during the summer, the library can do as many as three oral histories a week.

Although the history room staff has compiled a list of people it would like to profile, veterans are an urgent category, Escamilla said.

“We definitely want to go for some of the older individuals,” he said. “World War II veterans are dying at a very, very alarming rate. That’s really the thing with oral histories, is you have to get people while they’re still alive.”

Korean War veterans are also a priority, although the history room also is seeking veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Past oral histories have included business owners, neighborhood leaders and immigrants. The staff would also like to eventually profile members of Santa Ana’s Vietnamese population and other ethnic minorities, Cabrera said.

“When you look at how history is written, it’s always kind of from the top down,” Cabrera said. “Oral history brings in that component of an average citizen. Even though they’re not someone prominent in the city, they’ve worked and done things in the community that have shaped the community.”

Of the history room’s 120 oral histories, one-third have been conducted in Spanish, Escamilla said.

Santa Ana College student Isabel Marin is one of the project volunteers, and has interviewed local muralists and artists. But first, Escamilla, Cabrera and a “Voice of OC” guest trained her.

“At first, I was focusing so much on what I was going to say next, that I wasn’t paying attention,” Marin said. “It wasn’t until after my first interview that I realized it’s not about coming up with questions, it’s about listening to what they’re saying and responding naturally. But I was nervous.”

Marin said working on the oral histories with about 15 other students encouraged her to add international business to her linguistics studies.

“I was really shy, but I came out of my shell because it’s an interview and you have to keep talking,” Marin said. “That’s why I added business. You just learn how to act professional.”

If she could pick anyone to profile, it would be Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido or Drake Bell, an actor and singer born in Santa Ana, Marin said.

The oral histories can also be helpful for students wanting to build their resumes, Cabrera said.

“We’re allowing them to grow intellectually and to gain working skills,” he said. “Even if they might not want to go into history, being able to put ‘I interviewed this person that made this contribution’ shows that they’re dedicated.”

About five veterans already expressed interest in the project when Escamilla and Cabrera visited a Communication Linkage Forum meeting last month.

“We want to document the experience of what it was like to come back home during those post-war years,” Escamilla said. “It’s not just focusing on that mission, but also how being a soldier affects you for the rest of your life.”

The oral histories may also feature families affected by war, Cabrera said.

“You’ve got to also recognize that when a veteran comes home, he’s not coming home to himself,” Cabrera said. “It may be a really good component if veterans have wives and children, to interview them and see how that process is. It can be a very traumatic experience.”

Those interested in participating in the project can contact the Santa Ana Public Library History Room at 714.647.5280.