Conducting Oral Histories Amid the COVID Pandemic in Louisiana

This post appears in the SHA Grad Council's new series about research, teaching, and living under the shadow of the pandemic.

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It was almost midnight on March 15 when I saw the New Orleans Police Department vans crawling down Bourbon Street, ordering spring breakers and other revelers to disperse in order to halt the spread of the virus. Earlier in the day, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards ordered a ban on events of over 250 people in response to a dramatic uptick in cases. Many in the tourist-heavy area simply wanted to let the good times roll. “F*ck coronavirus!” exclaimed an intoxicated man who approached me on the street, imploring me to give him a high-five. When the police arrived at midnight, partiers’ reactions ranged from shock, to anger, to ambivalence. Some shook their heads and went back into the bars as the NOPD trudged down Bourbon.

It was time to go. I left New Orleans the following Monday, cutting my planned research trip short by a week. With archives and libraries largely shut down, there was little left for me to do in the city. The primary purpose of my trip was to conduct oral histories, a project that I had already had to scale back as the threat of the coronavirus pandemic had become clear. As I began to question the ethics of conducting oral history interviews during a growing pandemic, I developed a new perspective on what it means to do oral historical research, as well as how the process of historical research and writing is being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

I had come to New Orleans to do oral history interviews for my dissertation on Filipino communities in Louisiana. In the mid-nineteenth century, sailors from the Philippines began to desert their posts on Western merchant ships and form settlements deep in the Louisiana bayou. They lived at places like St. Maló, in St. Bernard Parish, and Manila Village in Jefferson Parish, making a living through a combination of fishing, shrimping, trapping, and working occasionally on local sugar plantations. By the early 20th century, many Filipino families had settled in the Faubourg Marigny of New Orleans, forming community organizations such as the Caballeros de Dimas Alang, which organized Filipino-themed floats in the Elks Krewe Mardi Gras Parade in the 1930s and 1940s. I wanted to talk to older folks from the community who might be able to talk to me about their memories of these parades, and to further understand how the organization and presentation of these floats reflected contemporary debates about Filipino Americans’ right to become American citizens. I wanted to talk particularly to women who witnessed or participated in the “queen contests” that were part of the Mardi Gras celebrations, to understand how they felt about having their appearance and temperament publicly judged by the community in a deeply gendered ritual. I was also hoping to talk to anyone who might remember life on the shrimp-drying platforms of Manila Village, which had declined after the 1940s before being destroyed by Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

I arrived in New Orleans on March 1 and began interviewing people that I had met at community events and on the “Filipino- Americans in Louisiana” Facebook group. We met in coffee shops, or I visited them in their homes. Many shared memories from parents and grandparents, as well as photographs and documents. Rhonda Richoux named every face in a picture taken of her ancestors in the late nineteenth century, including the family patriarch, Felipe Madriaga, a Filipino sailor who came to New Orleans in the 1840s. Lorne Peralta showed me a rare copy of a memoir written by Bernard Docusen, a Filipino-American boxer from Violet, Louisiana who fought and won matches across the country in the 1940s, but was banned from fighting whites in New Orleans because his birth certificate listed him as “colored.” Ernest Rojas told me that on hot summer days in his childhood, he’d buy red ice pops from Ping and Wing, the two Chinese men who ran the Manila Village store long after it had ceased to be a shrimp drying platform. They also suggested older people that I might be able to interview: neighbors, friends and relatives who had lived at Manila Village or grown up in the Filipino community in the Faubourg Marigny. They promised to get in touch on my behalf, or gave me their contact information directly. That’s when I was presented with a dilemma.

By March 8, my second week in New Orleans, coronavirus cases were already spiking in New York, where I live and go to school. Many of my friends and colleagues had already been told to work from home, and I got constant, alarming updates about the spread of the virus in Europe and China. Interviewees and their family members did not seem too concerned, at least not initially. One man that I met on Facebook encouraged me to get in touch with his grandmother, a 96-year-old woman who had grown up around Manila Village and married a Filipino-American shrimper. When I asked if I could have her phone number to set up an appointment, he told me to “just pull in” to her house in Lafitte. “She gets visitors all the time,” he assured me, adding, “she’ll talk all day long.” Oral historians frequently discuss the protocols for conducting oral histories in an ethical manner, asking, for example, how to obtain permission from subjects to publish interviews or how to avoid re-traumatizing subjects who have been through painful experiences. I had never read anything about the ethics of potentially exposing interviewees to a deadly virus.

I thought about the precautions I’d need to take if I were to conduct the oral interviews I had planned. Perhaps I could keep my distance, sit on the other side of the room, use sanitizer, and politely decline to shake hands. My thoughts ultimately drifted toward a worst-case scenario. How much blame would I place on myself if I inadvertently infected an interviewee? I shuddered just thinking about the possibility. I decided to cancel all my interviews, dedicating what remained of my trip to revisiting archives and libraries. My interviewees agreed that it was the right decision.

Now that I’m safely back in New York, many have asked me the obvious question: “can’t you do some of these oral history interviews over Zoom?” Experienced oral historians are already preparing to conduct interviews remotely, but I am not. It’s partially because I think it’s difficult to build trust and rapport with interview subjects over electronic communications. Some interviewees, particularly the elderly, may not have access to video conferencing technology in the first place. I’m also not sure if folks are comfortable speaking at a time when many may have sick relatives or may be experiencing financial hardship. I hope to eventually return to Louisiana to conduct more interviews, and I may yet attempt to contact folks over the phone or video chat. I am comforted by the fact that some scholars, such as Shelbey Leco at the University of New Orleans, have already done tremendous work in preserving and recording the stories of Manila Village and other historic Filipino communities in Louisiana. I’m also fortunate that oral histories are not the foundation of my dissertation, which is largely based on archival sources. Many graduate students are losing crucial time for field research during the pandemic, which has led many student leaders to call for a universal extension of funding.

Disasters have a way of shaping not only the course of history, but also the contours of the historical archive itself. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, rising floodwaters destroyed the private collections of Marina Espina, a librarian and author who had been researching Louisiana Filipino communities for decades. As we mourn the passing of over 100,000 Americans, disproportionately elderly, poor, and black, we should also consider the incalculable loss of their stories. America’s rising death count represents a mass destruction of an oral archive filled with stories of migration, social movements, war, family struggles, and community life. While we continue to think about the ways that COVID-19 will affect our future, we should also consider the ways it is creating silences in our collective past.

[Michael Salgarolo is a PhD Candidate at New York University.]

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