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0000017c-60f7-de77-ad7e-f3f739cf0000Arts & More airs Fridays at 7:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.Theme music: "Like A Beginner Again" by Dan Barry of Seas of Jupiter

"Documented" Captures the Stories of Holland's Growing Latino Community

Robbie Feinberg

It’s no surprise that the city of Holland is full of Dutch traditions. Just look at the name. Holland. Then, the windmills. And the tulips. But Connie Locker, the education and outreach manager at the Holland Museum, says that’s not always a good thing. She says the Dutch culture can sometimes overwhelm others, like the area's growing Latino population. That's part of the reason behind the museum's new exhibit, "Documented: The Stories of Latin@s in Holland."

“Well, it's interesting because the Holland Museum actually started out as the Netherlands Museum," Locker says. "So most of our collection, unfortunately, is Dutch heavy. Holland is a very diverse community in other ways, as well. But that diversity isn't represented in that collection, or our archives.”

When the museum’s new director, Christopher Shires, took over three years ago, he saw all that Dutch stuff and said, "You know what? We need a change." Locker explains.

"The museum, or all museums, really, kind of have a reputation as being kind of stale and focus on the past," Locker says. "And yeah, we have a strong past here. But we also have things going on here right now that are important, and we want to make that connection to our community today."

The first step towards establishing that connection started with the museum’s Youth Leadership Advisory Council. They’re a group of teenagers that helps to decide what direction the museum should take in the future. Member Nabil Gutierrez says the group wanted to look at something that was happening right now in the community.

In Holland, Latinos have grown to 22 percent of the population, according to the latest census numbers. The group decided to hear, and show, their stories.

"We met with local family members or local business owners," Gutierrez says. 

Credit Robbie Feinberg
Quotes from the Holland Museum's "Documented" exhibit.

  In a few excerpts from the recordings, you can hear the residents' stories. They're personal. They talk about racism, discrimination. You can hear it from the voices of Holland resident Jose Reyes, who owns a Mexican restaurant:

"Cinco De Mayo, over here they don’t know what Cinco De Mayo means," Reyes says in the recordings. "Over here they just think it’s drinking and partying!”

For Ottawa teacher Gabriela Croese, just getting those around her to learn her background is difficult.

“I would say that they accept me, but they’re not that interested in learning about my culture," she says in the recordings. "But they’re very accepting and friendly. It’s just that I don’t have the feeling that they really want to know much about my history or my culture.”  

Their stories are now on the walls of the museum’s gallery, in a new oral history exhibit called “Documented: The Stories of Latin@s in Holland.” Locker, from the museum, says she hopes the exhibit can shine a new light on who these people are.

"I hope this really counters the stereotypes and highlights that everyone has the same human experience," Locker says. "We're all humans. We all have the same kinds of feelings and thoughts and a lot of the interactions in the exhibit point to that. It's a way for them to feel this human connection.

The new exhibit isn’t the only step towards adding new voices to the museum, though. If you keep walking through the museum's atrium, you’ll find pieces of paper taped to the walls. These are small oral histories, written by students in Promesa, a college readiness program from Ferris State University for high schoolers, mostly Latino.

As part of the program, the students rummaged through the museum’s mostly Dutch archives and hunted for items that they could relate to their own life. One wrote about some bricks that reminded her of her grandparents’ house in Mexico. Another, about how a suitcase reminded her of the day she entered the United States. 

Credit Robbie Feinberg
A Latino student's personal essay, related to a Holland Museum artifact.

Jessica Cruz, the executive director of Latino and Latina studies at Ferris State, says there’s still a lot of work to do to connect her culture to the larger community. But these exhibits are a good start.

"But now we're being very intentional about including other stories, as well," Cruz says. "Stories from diverse communities. If that could happen, imagine if that was possible in K-12 curriculum and higher education! Then I think you'd have the same effect throughout. That would be incredible."

While the museum has already collected a number of stories, it still wants more. That’s why it’s billing “Documented” as an ongoing oral history project. It’s inviting other members of the Latino community to come forward and share their stories. They may just end up on the museum's walls some day soon.

You can see “Documented” at the Holland Museum through October 17th.

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