Recording the California Farmworker Story Through

Oral History Interviews




History is not just dates and facts found in dusty old books, it’s part of a living, changing record of the past of which we are all a part.  Many stories are fairly recent or have yet to be recorded by scholars. In addition, evolving ideas and circumstances in the present cause people to see past events from new perspectives.  It is up to everyone to help record the stories of their communities, families, and friends because, when the historical record is incomplete, understanding is flawed.  Plans of action for social change based on those flawed understandings may lead people in the wrong direction. The National Endowment for Humanities has recently published a how-to guide on recording family history entitled My History is America’s History.  This book, available online at, provides a process for recording family and community stories, interpreting photos and artifacts and much more. 


Another term for recording family and community stories is “oral history.” Oral History is a method by which historians not only record the personal stories and perspectives of people, but by which they discover the impact of events, laws, and ideas on the people of a particular period of history, usually a time in the recent past. By its nature, oral history is messy and emotional. When drawing conclusions from it, the historian must place the experience of the single individual into the larger context.  Was this person’s experience typical or unique?  Did the individual cause negative events to occur or were they the result of the larger social, political or economic context or happenings?  The process of making this determination is part of the schools' educational mission for all students.  In California’s History-Social Science Content Standards, published in 2000, there are embedded a set of “Historical and Social Sciences Analysis Skills.” These skills include the ability to compare past and present, distinguish valid and invalid arguments; collect, evaluate and employ information from a variety of primary and secondary sources; and to interpret past events and issues within an historical context are skills expected of all students. Oral history projects are a wonderful tool for teaching these skills.


Step by Step Oral Interview Process

Determining and Evaluating What Is Known

The first step in creating an oral history project is for students to become knowledgeable about the historical record and to evaluate it for completeness and bias.  The following questions will guide this inquiry.


1.     What is known about the time, place and people under study?


2.     Are there any holes in the information? 

¨     Whose story is not told?

¨     Is there a region, an age group, a perspective that is missing or less developed in the data?

¨     Were the people who created the historical record as knowledgeable as needed?

¨     Were the sources used by the historian representative of all of the perspectives, regions, age groups, etc.?


3.     What type of information is still needed?

¨     Specific data about an event?

¨     Story of an event’s impact?

¨     Other things that were happening at the same time?


Selecting the Subject

The type of people interviewed is determined by the kind of information sought.  If the historian or social scientist wants to know why a leader made a specific decision, it is important to find out from that leader, or others directly involved in the decision.  The subject must have knowledge of the details and understandings of the event at the time. This specific type of interview process is used by reporters, biographers, and analysts of such events as Kennedy’s response in the Cuban Missile Crisis or Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb.


But the task of oral history can be much broader if understanding the effect of an event on people is the goal. Taken as an aggregate, oral interviews help researchers find out what a time or place was really like for the people who lived it.   What were the hopes, fears, needs, and accomplishments of these people?  How did the time, conditions, or place influence their perception of leaders, political policy, and events?  How did the passage of a law or the actions of some people impact the lives of others?


The best way for students to select a subject is through other people whom they know and trust.  It is important that the interviewers verify the subject's real connection to the event or time when they set up the interview appointment.


¨     Was the person directly involved or did he/she learn about the event from others?

¨     Does the person have artifacts or records to support his/her memory?

¨     Does the person remember enough of the details?

¨     Is emotion related to the event still very strong?  Might it cloud memory? Was there trauma related to the incident that will make the interview experience painful for the subject?


In addition, the subject of the interview must believe that his/her story is important to the topic that it needs to be told.  This passion for the issue will generate an energy will make the job of maintaining accuracy and balance difficult for the interviewers but the readers or viewers of the finished product will be drawn into, even captivated by the project. 


Writing the Questions

In advance of the interview, the researchers need to write 8-10 questions on 5 x 8 cards or on paper with spaces to record answers.  Share them with others to make certain they are clear.  Questions need to engage the interviewee in dialogue but not lead them to specific responses.  Care must also be taken to avoid questions that might result in a simple yes or no without elaboration.  Some suggested questions are included with this César Chávez  and the Farmworker story activity. 


Using the Right Equipment

So that no material is lost, it may be valuable to audio and /or video tape the interview.  Before the interview, select, test and practice using the equipment. It is sometimes helpful to use a small interview team.  One person takes notes, one asks the questions and one manages the recording equipment.  The downside to the team approach is that it may intimidate the subject to have so many people in the room.  A still camera to take a picture of the subject is appropriate even if no other recording equipment is used.


Set Up the Interview Date and Place

The interviewer needs to make an appointment with the subject.  The setting for the interview needs to be quiet, stress free and appropriate for the equipment you are using (e.g. video requires good lighting). Confirm the time and place of the interview in writing or by phone.  Send a copy of the questions in advance so the subject has time to think about them and prepare answers. 


Doing the Interview

When you are conducting an interview, it is important to be impartial and to put your subject at ease.  Sometimes it is difficult to do both. Begin by introducing yourself and the others on the team, giving your subject some background about what your purpose is and how the information will be used.  Reassure them that nothing will be posted on the Internet unless they give express permission.  Ask if it is OK to record the interview on video or audio tape,  but always take notes at the same time as a back up and to keep you focused.  Dress professionally and arrive punctually for the interview. Clarify how the interview will be conducted.  Set up your equipment and test it.  Put your subject at ease and make him/her as comfortable as possible. Decide whether both the subject and the interviewee will be on camera or just the subject.  Stick to the time you arranged for in the appointment.  Thank the subject when you leave and offer to send a copy of the finished product.


Send a thank you note when you are finished.


Transcribing the Interview

After the interview you will have notes, and either video and/or audio tapes.  These will need to be transcribed.  Organize your transcription, question by question.  Young students will probably need help with the transcription spelling and punctuation.


Class Discussion and Debriefing

Each interview team should present their project to the larger class.  Discuss the similarities and differences among the experiences of the subject.   What would account for this?  What common experiences need to be included in the study of the time (that the class did in step one)? 



Recording the Farmworker Story Through Oral History Interviews Project


Teachers, it works best to take the high school or middle school students through the Using Oral History Project developed by the Library of Congress.  Through this project students learn how to use and interpret oral history resources gathered by historians during the last quarter century.  They will then be ready to develop a project of their own.  Doing an oral history project is a great way to learn historical research methods but also to make the study of the past come alive for students and teachers.  


The Recording the Farmworker Story Through Oral History Interviews project is designed to learn about and increase the historical record of the life of migrant farm workers in the last thirty years and the impact of César Chávez ’ work on those lives.  The interviews are intended to be conducted, recorded and transcribed by students. The subjects of the interviews may be family members, community members, or even other students.  These subjects should be people who have worked as migrant farm laborers, been members of the family of farm workers, lived in communities where they were in frequent direct contact with migrant workers, or who ran farms, ranches or businesses who hired these workers.  The interviews may be conducted in any language.  The goal is to post a few of these on the Internet in order to build understanding of the migrant worker experience and the life of César Chávez among teachers and students in California  


Students at Pasco High School in Washington conducted interviews of themselves and family members Have students read and discuss these interviews. Students should develop four or five simple questions and practice interviewing one another in class until they feel they can manage an interview in the field. 

There are so many details involved with recording, taking notes, that it may take several rounds of in-class practice.  If a team approach is preferred have students rotate their roles so they get practice in all of them


Students may develop their own interview questions or use the enclosed list of questions.  The interviews may be conducted in either English or Spanish but need to be transcribed into English.  Teachers are encouraged to submit completed projects to the SCORE History-Social Science Project so that they may be posted for other students to see.  Gradually the historical record will grow as each year students "publish" their work in this manner.   Submission may be done by sending a paper copy and a floppy disk of the transcription and an audio or video tape of the interview to Peg Hill, Director SCORE H/SS, San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools, 601 North E Street, San Bernardino, CA 92410-3093.