Collecting and Re-presenting US History: Digital Storytelling as Archives

Woman standing in front of a powerpoint screen

By Sarah Rafael García

As an adjunct professor teaching Ethnofiction Through Contemporary Narratives at Chapman University, every semester I tell the following story on the first day of class:

In late 2019, I arrived to meet with Dr. Gabriela Baeza Ventura after procrastinating for months and while carrying a backpack full of books and snacks. I procrastinated to meet with her and loaded my backpack with too many things because I thought I would spend six to eight hours beating my head against my laptop. You laugh, but you should all know that I went to undergrad before the internet existed. As you can imagine, I’m not tech friendly at all. But what I learned in a couple of hours, besides how to create a virtual timeline, was that the digital humanities are also abbreviated as DH and not about elaborate techy skills. DH is about the passion to share knowledge — to provide information without the barriers of financial constraints and paywalls. Dr. Baeza Ventura became a relevant role-model — not because we are from the same generation — but because she’s a Latina passing on knowledge in order for all of us to be able to collect, preserve and re-present our own history in the US. And now I’m passing on those skills to you, I can’t wait to see what you teach others.

After a year of navigating through a pandemic and witnessing an invasion of the US Capitol by white supremacists, I find myself lacking motivation to continue creating. But as a Chicana born at la frontera and first generation everything, I also know more than ever that Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities need to continue to evolve and rise through our various platforms. I started to incorporate digital humanities into literary projects in 2016. As a MFA graduate and writer who was struggling to sustain myself through employment and obtain acknowledgement as a scholar, I brainstormed on how I could fortify my work while still remaining creative, critical and countering the national headlines.

I felt it was imperative to be strategic on how I passed on research and information to my audience. I didn’t want to develop a textbook or seminar or false news. I also prioritized accessibility through the use of diverse languages (regional dialects, Spanish and non-academic) and the visual arts. This led to my first collaborative multimedia project SanTana’s Fairy Tales, which included storytelling through music, visual arts and digital archives produced via powerpoint and presented on electronic devices in a live exhibition and accessible via a website.

As a result of that experience and the impact it made in Mexican-American Studies classrooms, I couldn’t imagine completing another publication without support from documented resources or archives. It was through the University of Houston Katherine G. McGovern College for the Arts and Project Row Houses Fellowship in 2019 that I got to visit and learn from Arte Público Press’ Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage Program (Recovery) and US Latino Digital Humanities Program (USLDH).

With the help of Recovery/USLDH, I created my first virtual timeline for my living archival project, Reality Check 3rd Ward. It was the first fellowship program that allowed me to establish research methods to collect and preserve BIPOC history and culture while drawing parallels from regional BIPOC social justice movements to national politics. The combined mentorship also led me to design an undergraduate course. Ethnofiction Through Contemporary Narratives is a research and writing workshop using digital humanities and creative writing to trace BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and feminist history from the 1960s to present time. The course is open to students studying history, anthropology, creative writing, ethnic studies, women and gender studies, and humanities in order to pilot how they each will interpret US history while also learning to enhance and document their research through the arts and digital humanities. Students are expected to complete a historical virtual timeline, multimedia project in one semester. Over the last two semesters, I have witnessed a new generation of students accomplish more in three months than what I accomplished in a one-year fellowship.

Modesta Avila Obstructing Development Since 1889 (#MAOD)

Artistic rendition of Modesta Avila.
(Image credit: Carla y Patricia Zárate Suárez)

Through each past experience, I continued to research Modesta Avila. She served as muse for one of my stories in SanTana’s Fairy Tales and learning about her then taught me how to dig deeper for more unsung heroes while conducting research for Third Ward Houston. She became my research topic for the USLDH Mellon-Funded Grant: Modesta Avila Obstructing Development Since 1889 (#MAOD).

To me, Modesta Avila has become even more relevant these last few weeks. As a Mexican American who obstructed development of the railroad system in Southern California in the late 1800s, her place in history has been perpetuated as a criminal. She is the first felon out of Orange County who was initially convicted in Santa Ana and became the first woman admitted into the San Quentin State Prison. Her mugshot has become as iconic as the Australian 19 Crimes wine labels showcasing British prisoners through augmented reality. She’s known by some but none have actually heard her story without her mugshot establishing their point of view.

The majority of the publications available before 1920 are newspaper clippings and court documents, all of which cover the points of view of city officials and court proceedings in Santa Ana. Most recently, like in the last 15-20 years, there seems to be a fascination about Modesta currently existing as an urban legend near the San Juan Capistrano train station and to many in Santa Ana she has provided inspiration as a late 1800’s youth activist fighting against development. However, the majority of her history has only been published under white scholars and some even go as far as minimizing her purpose to merely a nuisance.

Follow the #MAOD Twitter account at @ModestaAvilaOD

#MAOD is a bilingual platform for collecting and sharing relevant history with a specific focus on Latinx, women and regional narratives in English and Spanish. #MAOD builds movement culture by preserving and re-presenting history from a people of color point of view. Combined, the archives and published creative work will also present a bilingual open-source book through APP Digital that engages a broader audience through diverse language, scholarly work and the digital humanities. With the collaborative research produced alongside undergraduate student and photographer Cecilia Lopez, we will transpose Modesta Avila’s image from criminal to digital storyteller. The digital enhancement is supported in part by multi-media artist Carla Zarate Suarez and transmedia artist Reema, jointly they will create the graphic illustrations and augmented reality for digital storytelling. Most recently, Modesta Avila has resurfaced in Twitter– collectively we have reconstituted her image to demonstrate a story from an alternative perspective. Her narrative includes black and white photos as regional documentation. #MAOD is the first multi-media scholarly publication of Modesta Avila that is collected, preserved and re-presented by two Chicanas from SanTana: Sarah Rafael García and Cecilia Lopez.

And yet over the last few weeks media headlines share how white supremacists rioted and vandalized the White House. Their actions have not been held accountable as a criminal act; they continue to gain attention and live their lives. This, again, leads me back to Modesta Avila– who was convicted and sent to San Quentin State Prison for hanging up a clothesline across railroad tracks. As a woman of color and Mexican American myself, born in the US, I have experienced firsthand how I too have become a nuisance to the white hierarchical models of this nation. Tracing Modesta’s history is affirming and also provides a method to continue to teach the next BIPOC generation to tell their own history– the digital humanities is the platform that has the potential to set the record straight and elevate our work and US history virtually and globally.


Sarah Rafael García is a writer, community educator, and performance ethnographer. She’s the author of Las Niñas and SanTana’s Fairy Tales, co-editor of pariahs writing from outside the margins and the forthcoming sci-fi anthology Speculative Fiction for Dreamers as well as founder of Barrio Writers and LibroMobile. Currently, she splits her time between shipping books out to loyal readers across the nation, teaching Ethnofiction Through Contemporary Narratives, and developing an archival ethnofiction project for the life of Modesta Avila as a 2020 USLDH Mellon-Funded Grantee. Follow her on Twitter: @SarahRafaGarcia.

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