How the Smithsonian Is Documenting the Work of Immigrant Rights Activists

A new collecting initiative will tell the stories of the undocumented and their political organizing movements

Protesters, San Francisco rally, 2017
“New Paths to Change: Undocumented Immigrant Activism, 2000 to the Present” is an curatorial effort to collect the stories community organizers across the nation (above: a 2017 immigration rally in San Francisco). Pax Ahimsa Gethen, Wikimedia Commons

On November 12, 2019, curators from the National Museum of American History assembled at the U.S. Supreme Court as observers, and collectors, of history. That day, the justices heard three cases pertaining to the status of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Positioned both inside the courtroom and outside on the steps, the museum team witnessed the proceedings and protests, and considered how best to capture the moment in material, objects and oral histories, or recordings, that would then be housed in the Smithsonian collections.

Among the observers were Nancy Bercaw, curator of political history, curatorial assistant Patricia Arteaga and José Centeno-Meléndez, an oral historian. The three are spearheading the new initiative “New Paths to Change: Undocumented Immigrant Activism, 2000 to the Present,” which is funded in partnership with the Smithsonian Latino Center and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC). The collection project is an effort to document the stories of undocumented persons, who are participating as community organizers across the nation.

The 2012 implementation of DACA, through an executive branch memorandum, was the culmination of years of activism by undocumented youth. The order allows certain undocumented individuals, who came to the United States as juveniles and meet various criteria, to apply for temporary permission to stay in the U.S. The activists brought attention to the issue, largely through direct action, including occupying President Barack Obama’s campaign office in Denver and interrupting his speech at the National Council of La Raza Conference.

“People have always spoken for themselves. But there are only a few times when people speak for themselves that it actually changes government policy,” says Bercaw. “And really, DACA was a demonstration of that, where you actually saw a president sign a memo because of the actions of people who are pressing these issues forward.”

Having begun her Smithsonian career at the National Museum of African American History and Culture where she headed up the curatorial team of the museum’s inaugural exhibition, “Slavery and Freedom,” Bercaw sees parallels to the African American freedom struggles in the 19th century, when grassroots efforts resulted in the 14th and 15th Amendments. “You can see how people, by using their bodies and putting themselves on the front lines of change, were able to actually transform the nation,” she says. Even when the change is temporary, Bercaw underscores, “it’s really remarkable that it is truly a democratic practice and it’s one that has impact on the nation as a whole.”

But DACA, which affects around 670,000 immigrants and is expected to be ruled on in June of this year, reflects just one part of a broader experience. An estimated 10.5 to 12 million undocumented people live in the United States. Bercaw, Arteaga and Centeno-Meléndez are committed to looking beyond the stories that make national news and focusing on documenting grassroots efforts around the country. They also want to bring attention to undocumented Southeast Asians, undocumented black immigrants and those who are transitioning to being undocumented after their visas expire, as well as the ways the various groups have worked together in cross-community solidarity.

The curatorial team has settled on six different locations to conduct their collecting: Washington, D.C., Southern California (Orange County and Los Angeles), Chicago, Nebraska, North Carolina in the U.S. and Mexico City in Mexico. Each city corresponds to a pattern in immigration and organizing identified in their research. For example, Mexico City is where many who have been deported from the U.S. currently live in large numbers and are organizing to bring awareness to their situation. Traveling to Nebraska will allow the team to highlight the challenges of organizing in a rural state.

Monarch Butterfly Wings Made of Poster Board Material
One object already collected is a pair of painted monarch butterfly wings made of poster board material, that was worn by “a young DACA recipient from Nebraska who came to demonstrate in Washington, D.C. on March 5, 2018. Smithsonian National Museum of American History

This spring and summer, Bercaw, Arteaga and Centeno-Meléndez will travel to the selected sites to work with local organizers to begin collecting objects and oral histories. Arteaga, who is building relationships with organizers across the country, says she’s encountered both excitement and caution from the people she’s working with. “Many early narratives around undocumented youth organizing have been around the idea of the exceptional DREAMer, but they are expanding notions of representing themselves beyond that, that touch upon the wholeness and complexities of their humanity,” Arteaga explains.

The key to cultivating trust in the museum and the initiative with the organizers, Arteaga says, is “being transparent of the project’s core: the importance of these contemporary histories within the national scope. These stories are already being documented in one way or another by communities, but as stewards of the National Museum of American History collection, it is our responsibility to document them.” Eduardo Díaz, director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, sees the initiative as part of a larger effort “to transform the Smithsonian into one that better serves the Latino experience and the Latino community.”

Centeno-Meléndez, a Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies Program fellow, who is leading the oral history effort to record interviews, emphasizes to the organizers that he’s there “to learn and to listen” during the hours-long interviews. He explains: “My main prerogative is to make sure that it’s not just their voices that are preserved, [but] that the voices being heard in the audio clip are sharing what they want to share.”

North Carolina, the site the team has visited the most so far, was chosen because it has some of the strictest immigration laws in the nation. The state does not have in-state tuition, nor does it issue driver licenses, for undocumented people. Bercaw, Arteaga and Centeno-Meléndez have traveled around North Carolina, learning about what issues are most important to local communities and the different tactics and strategies organizers are using to confront those issues.

Mayra Stefania Arteaga (no relation to Patricia) of Charlotte, North Carolina, spoke with Centeno-Meléndez for nearly four hours, touching on what brought her family to the United States from El Salvador, her experience as a Temporary Protected Status holder and how she became a community organizer. Her oral history documents the campaign against the re-election of Sheriff Irwin Carmichael in Mecklenburg County. Carmichael’s department participated in a program run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that deported almost 300 immigrants in 2017. Immigrant activists including Mayra Stefania Arteaga worked to frame the 2018 sheriff’s election as a referendum on the policy. Working in solidarity with other organizations, like the Southeast Asian Coalition and Charlotte Uprising, attending steering committee meetings, putting pressure on Carmichael through social media, among other tactics, made their campaign successful. Carmichael's loss demonstrated the persuasion of activists who lacked the power to vote.

Bercaw underscores the ingenious organizing skills that led “people who were undocumented [to organize] others to swing an election. They did that through participatory democracy. In other words, if you show up at all of these community meetings, you can get your voice and your issues on the table.” This story covers just one policy and office in one county in one state. As the team travels to the other sites, they’ll collect different examples of grassroots organizing techniques, challenges, success stories and setbacks—and emerge with a fuller picture of what undocumented political organizing looks like today.

While the initiative is just starting, one object that’s already been added to the collection is a pair of painted monarch butterfly wings made of poster board material, worn by “a young DACA recipient from Nebraska who came to demonstrate in Washington, D.C. on March 5, 2018,” explains Arteaga. “This was the deadline date that President Trump imposed on Congress to pass a DREAM Act after his administration rescinded DACA six months prior (on September 5, 2017).” Congress failed to pass the act. When the Supreme Court denied hearing lower court cases in 2018, it allowed DACA recipients to renew their status, but prevented new applications from being accepted. The monarch butterfly, which migrates annually from the United States to Mexico, is a popular symbol among immigrant rights activists, who see it as representing freedom of movement.

“I think that oftentimes we assume that the Smithsonian is only interested in distant histories,” says Lisa Sasaki, director of the APAC. “History is being made right now and this particular collecting initiative allows the Smithsonian to have relevant information even as it’s developing, with a population that many misunderstand and that many would typically not think of preserving their stories.”

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