Most people think of history as something that is always there: an established record from the past.
If it happened, it happened, people think, and if it mattered, then history shaped us, and the marks will always be there, like the tell-tale rings in the trunks of those thousand-year old redwoods in California.
But remember Bishop Berkeley and his famous philosophical question: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, is there a sound?” If no one examines the record of the rings inside a redwood tree, is there a history to learn?
The value of human history, like the sound of that tree falling in the forest, requires the validation of an ear, an eye, human consciousness and contact.
“People need to see history, they need to touch it, they need to feel it, they need to experience it,” said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a journalism professor at the University of Texas. “When something is preserved, it’s a daily reminder of our history.” And when it’s not…
10 years ago, I did a series of reports for PBS’ short-lived newsmagazine World Focus looking at the history of four former Soviet states since their respective revolutions against their Russian oppressors.
In Poland and Ukraine, the results of the Solidarity and Orange Revolutions were still widely debated. In Hungary, all politics was still stuck on 1956, with the right-wing party of Viktor Orban using a winning formula against his left-of-center opponents – We were the ones who fought the Russians in ’56; they were the Communist collaborators.
This mentality was reinforced with brand-new street graffiti that could have been 50 years old and with a museum of terror downtown in Budapest, in the building that had been the headquarters of the Communist secret police. This was history always made available to see, feel, touch, experience, right down to a recreation of a police torture chamber.
In the Czech Republic, although Wenceslas Square is still the heart of Prague, there are no museums commemorating the Velvet Revolution, and little mention of 1968 in most public school curricula, or in public debate.
This history has been buried, not preserved, and the reason I was told, over and over again, was shame. Too many people, in too many families and too many neighborhoods, cities and towns had co-operated with the Communists, had spied on their co-workers or neighbors. Facing up to this, Czech society seemed to have decided, was too painful. Better let history disappear.
Shame plays a big role in the disappearing of the history of Latin-Americans from our national record. For example, in Presidio County, Texas, local officials have resisted the creation of a monument to the 1918 Porvenir Massacre in which 15 Mexican-American villagers were killed by Texas Rangers and U.S. Calvalrymen.
White residents don’t want to remember a crime against humanity committed in their names. And, truthfully, some Mexican-Americans are shamed at their victimization and don’t want it officially recognized.
Whoever feels abashed, the real shame here is the eradication of history, a wiping of the slate before the facts can be properly understood.
Russell Contreras is a law enforcement and immigration reporter/photographer/videographer at The Associated Press in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Before moving back to New Mexico, Contreras worked for the Associated Press in Boston where he helped with coverage of the death of U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and wrote about DREAMers and Iraqi refugees. Contreras teaches composition at the University of New Mexico-Valencia. He has worked at the Boston Globe and the Albuquerque Journal, and he has been an active member of the Native America Journalists Association.