Voices of OCLAA

By Dick Anderson Photos courtesy Andrea Cova-Bernal ’08 and Mariška Bolyanatz Brown

Realizing a long-standing goal of Occidental’s Latino Alumni Association, two dozen alumni share their stories with students for an oral history project

As a college access counselor and podcaster (The College Match Podcast and Inspired Conversations With Changemakers in Higher Education), “Storytelling truly is in my blood,” says Andrea Cova-Bernal ’08, who recently completed a term as president of the Occidental College Latino Alumni Association (OCLAA). “I love sharing powerful stories, and to do it in collaboration with one of my favorite Oxy professors was truly an honor.”

Alexandra Puerto, Andrea Cova-Bernal ’08, Mariška Bolyanatz Brown, OCLAA oral history
From left, Alexandra Puerto, associate professor of history; OCLAA president Andrea Cova-Bernal ’08; and Mariška Bolyanatz Brown, assistant professor of Spanish and linguistics.

Cova-Bernal is talking about Associate Professor of History Alexandra Puerto, with whom she served on a community-wide diversity committee organized by David Carreon Bradley, Oxy’s then-vice president for equity and justice. “The topic of storytelling came up,” Puerto recalls, “and Andrea said that she was really interested in working on storytelling projects in association with OCLAA. So I chimed in and said, ‘If you ever want to discuss this further, let’s meet.’”

At a faculty retreat in May 2023 attended by instructors to discuss the fall semester of offerings in the Humanities for Just Communities (HJC) program for first-years, “We started planting the seeds for the kinds of social justice projects that our courses would have,” Puerto continues. “When I was mulling over possibilities for my course (Eating Culture: Food, Race, and Migration), I had two in mind—one of them being an oral history project with OCLAA.”

During a roundtable discussion, Mariška Bolyanatz Brown, assistant professor of Spanish and linguistics, expressed an interest in participating through her class (Linguistic Resilience in Los Angeles) as well. “Mariška is a pro with interviews—it’s so much a part of her research and teaching,” Puerto says. “So we decided then and there that we were going to start this project.”

With an enrollment of 12 students in each class, there were 24 oral histories to coordinate. With Cova-Bernal as lead liaison, she and the rest of the OCLAA board put out multiple calls for alumni participants. “Members could identify which project they’d like to participate in,” Bolyanatz Brown says. “We then decided which narrators belonged best to each group. I tried to match students with narrators based on a multitude of factors.”

OCLAA narrator Michelle Saldana ’03
OCLAA narrator Michelle Saldana ’03 talks Salvadoran holiday food traditions in her family. Scan the QR code (inset) to hear an excerpt. 

One student with an interest in social and immigrant justice organizations got to interview Angélica Salas ’93, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA). “That was so impactful for her,” Bolyanatz Brown says. Another pre-health student interviewed Lupe Zambrano Bykowski ’05 about her work as a nurse practitioner. Where possible, the professors tried to match at least one point of intersection between interviewer and narrator to foster additional connections beyond just the course content.

The oral history training for the students was rigorous. “In developing their questionnaires, students learned how to do preliminary research on their own,” Puerto says. “Then they had a 15-minute engagement, either by phone or Zoom, with the narrator. The narrator also filled out an information sheet to give to the student so that they could hone their questions a little bit more after that preliminary interview—and we reviewed every questionnaire, of course. But we made sure that all of the questionnaires were in good shape before they actually reached the interviewing stage.” Per OCLAA’s request, each interview included a cluster of Oxy-specific questions, but otherwise the topics varied greatly depending on the narrator.

The process was an education not only for the students but for the alumni participants, too. “Many of the narrators were unclear on why they couldn’t just tell their life history,” Puerto says. “These were not just biographies; we were doing thematic oral histories. People oftentimes think of oral history as collecting biographical information, and that’s not what it is. Seeing both student interviewers and narrators try to come to terms with the purpose of these oral histories helps us figure out how to keep pushing those learning goals.”

OCLAA oral history project reception attendees
From left, Reception attendees Roxana Castro ’09, Jonathan Santos, Gisselle Cornejo ’08 M’09, OCLAA vice president Virginia Vasquez ’10, and social media chair Karen Oliva ’17.

The resulting project—unveiled at the Academic Commons in February, accompanied by a reception sponsored by the HJC program—captured two dozen alumni voices “that have not been necessarily featured in the history books,” Bolyanatz Brown says. “Helping students see the value of an oral history as an opportunity for someone to tell their own story—that in and of itself as a social justice aim. And I think it was pretty powerful for the students and for us as well.”

“This project was the perfect marriage of our group and the first-year students in these Core programs learning how to connect with the resources that Oxy has,” Cova-Bernal says. “The professionalism that I’ve been hearing from OCLAA members across the board that the students brought to these interviews is a testament to both professors and the work that they did with them.”

Plans are in motion to create a permanent display dedicated to the project, which will also live online. “Maybe next time it could be the Black Alumni Organization, or the Asian Pacific Islander group,” Cova-Bernal suggests. “It would be everyone’s dream who worked on it to continue it if we can.” 

Top photo: Student interviewers displayed and discussed their work on the OCLAA oral history project in the Academic Commons February 9.