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Oral history project documents Latinx history in Southeast Texas

The BMT Latina/o Oral History Project hosted “Live In Conversation,” April 8. The event featured two Southeast Texas Latinx speakers, Roberto Flores Sr., a Beaumont native, and Luis Lopez, who immigrated to Southeast Texas from Mexico in the mid 1990s. The event was held in the Reaud Executive Event Center.


Beaumont’s Hispanic community tends to be underrepresented, Brendan Gillis, assistant professor in Lamar’s history department, said.


“There have been a couple of oral histories done, but Dr. (Miguel) Chavez wanted to call attention to the Latino experience in this region, because there have been Latino residents here for centuries,” Gillis said. “Certainly, the way in which local histories are taught, there’s been more attention made to African-American communities and Anglo communities that turned into Beaumont.”


Chavez, assistant professor of history, said the project’s goal is to record conversations with prominent community leaders, residents and, especially, people with connections to Lamar University.


Live In Conversation served as a kick off for the project.


Flores, who is now in his 80s, worked in radio and television for 60 years in Southeast Texas after completing radio and television broadcasting degrees at LIT. He co-founded Hispanic Committee for Progress, an ethnic Mexican civil rights organization, in 1986 and a neighborhood organization for cleaning up The Avenues neighborhood.


Flores’ mother was born into a Mexican community in Beaumont in 1905, but his father immigrated from Mexico through Brownsville before coming to Southeast Texas. Flores’ father died when he was about five-years old from tuberculosis at a Jefferson County hospital.


When Flores was a young boy, he said he remembered men with torches coming down Laurel Street, around the Beaumont race riots in the 1940s. His mother turned off all the lights out in the house. They heard boots on the porch, but a voice outside said, “Don’t torch that house, the Mexicans live there.”


When Flores and his mother woke the next morning, the house next to theirs had been burned to the ground, he said.


Lopez arrived in Beaumont from Mexico in the ’90s when he was in elementary school. During his childhood, Lopez’s father traveled back and forth into the United States for work. Later, his entire family immigrated secretly to Beaumont, separately, and settled in a house on Old Voth Road. His father made arrangements for Lopez to sneak across the border with someone he had never met before. When he was 15, his brother was deported after it was discovered that he was working as an undocumented migrant.


Lopez graduated from Central Medical Magnet High School and later went to Lamar University. Since he spoke English well, his classmates did not know his history and origin, he said.


“They had no clue that I was smuggled into the country or that my brother was deported,” he said.


Lopez said he wants to share his story with students so they understand the experience of being an undocumented migrant in the U.S. On campus, as a student, he worked with several organizations, including a fraternity and activist groups, to raise awareness.


“We only talk to people who share our political and religious views, and we’ve got to start communicating with each other,” he said.


Chavez said he wants to build bridges between Lamar University and the Spanish-speaking communities in the area.


“The goal (of the oral history project) is to begin to professionally document Beaumont’s Mexican past, which has been marginalized by the mainstream narratives of the community,” Chavez said. “We need more Latino students represented on campus, and the university is committed to that.”


But political representation is also important, Chavez said.


“There’s a local election coming up, and there’s no Latinos on those tickets, and we have to ask why,” he said. “Latinos are one of the fastest growing population in Beaumont. Why is it that they are not represented?”


Chavez said he thinks the changing population dynamics will be revealed in the 2020 census.


Current political discourse influences the project, Gillis said, with the possibility of closing the border with Mexico, and the politicization of immigration and immigrants.


“Dr. Chavez wants to call attention to the fact that Latino people have been in our region a very long time, and their history is very much our history as members of our community,” he said. “There’s a tendency to focus on immigration as a problem, and we lose sight of the stories, of the people.


“I think he wants to have a richer, deeper conversion about members of this community.”


The event was hosted by the Center for History and Culture for Southeast Texas and the Upper Gulf Coast, a research center that started at Lamar University three years ago. The center’s mission is to support scholarship that promotes understanding of the history and culture for this region.

Category: News