Liliana Montalvo, a graduating senior at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), was selected for a 2012-13 U.S. Student Fulbright award, which is funding a year of research in Mexico City where she isstudy never-before-seen documents relating to the 1940s-1960s Bracero Project.
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is the largest U.S. exchange program offering opportunities for students and young professionals to undertake international graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and primary and secondary school teaching worldwide.
“I was really excited to receive the Fulbright award,” said Montalvo, who grew up in South Los Angeles and is a 2007 graduate of Fremont High School. “I feel humbled by such an award. I know this is a prestigious prize. I feel happy, proud and even ecstatic. It is a great opportunity I never thought I’d have.”
She never expected to win a Fulbright when she first enrolled at CSULB. “Yet it would not have happened if I had not enrolled here,” she noted. “I’m glad I came here for the support I have received. The department has backed every research idea I have had for the last four years.”
Her professors believe Montalvo is truly deserving of the Fulbright. “In winning this award, Liliana has demonstrated the skills that she has learned as a history major,” said Jane Dabel, associate professor of history. “In particular, this award illustrates her strong research capabilities and her extensive experience in conducting oral history interviews.
“Liliana is fluent in Spanish and already has first-hand knowledge of Mexican culture and history as demonstrated by her McNair Scholar research project as well as her work on the Bracero Oral History project,” Dabel continued. “Her volunteer work with former braceros provides evidence of her outgoing nature and her curiosity about other cultures.”
History Professor Ali Igmen agreed. “Liliana was one of the most engaged undergraduate students who easily kept up with the pace and the requirements of this `hands-on’ methods course. She was always enthusiastic about the readings and discussions,” he said. “Liliana’s views on the oral history materials were on the whole encouraging and fascinating due to her interest in Chicano/a history. Her eagerness to absorb this material showed that she would, someday, be an influential oral historian.”
One highlight of Montalvo’s CSULB career was her organization with fellow student Aniela Lopez of 15 history students to initiate the Braceros Oral History Project, which was designed to interview surviving braceros and their family members in California and Mexico. Igmen helped the project earn IRA (instructional research activities) funding.
At first, Montalvo had not heard about the bracero program (named for the Spanish term bracero or “strong-arm”), which was a series of laws and diplomatic agreements initiated by a 1942 exchange of diplomatic notes between the United States and Mexico for the importation of temporary contract laborers from Mexico to the United States.
It wasn’t until she watched a documentary titled “Harvest of Loneliness: The Bracero Program” that she became aware of the program’s notorious abuses.
“I was shocked by what I saw,” Montalvo recalled. “Along with classmate Aniela Lopez and the History Student Association, we began a ‘penny drive’ among the other students to raise awareness of the bracero program. Then we began to interact with the bracero program participants and hearing their stories.
“It wasn’t until I began to research the bracero program that I discovered by talking to my mother that my grandfather was a bracero working in Riverside,” she added. “It really created a personal connection to the project. Even though my grandfather passed away when I was a child, I felt like I learn a piece of his story whenever I interview another bracero.”
Montalvo left for her Fulbright experience in Mexico City in August and is slated to return in spring 2013. While there, she has access to Mexican government documents about the bracero program that recently have been digitized and made available to scholars.
“These are documents pertaining to the 1940s through the 1960s,” Montalvo explained. “These records trace more than 500,000 Mexican citizens who left their country. This access enables me to write a history of the bracero program with documents never used before.”
Montalvo has learned that recording oral histories is much different than reading documents. “This program has allowed me to inquire into the lives of the braceros in a way that documents won’t let you,” she said. “People let me into their lives. I was a total stranger yet they let me in to ask personal, intimate questions. To be able to do that and have them reciprocate is an amazing experience.”
Dabel believes in Montalvo’s Fulbright success. “I am quite proud to have Lili represent us as a ‘citizen ambassador’ to the citizens of Mexico,” she said. “I feel confident that she will engage in meaningful ways with the community where she is working. We plan to keep in touch with Liliana through Facebook posts while she is Mexico.”
Established in 1946 under legislation introduced by the late Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, the Fulbright Program was created to build mutual understanding between the people of the United States and countries participating in the program through educational and cultural exchanges. The U.S. Student Fulbright Program currently awards approximately 1,800 grants annually in all fields of study, and operates in more than 155 countries worldwide.
Montalvo thanked the History Department for their support. “I feel lucky to belong to such an amazing department,” she said. “It is as if I had found a second family. They supported me all the way. Dr. Igmen especially went out of his way to gain passage of the IRA grant. The department’s support has been invaluable. I really feel that I own much of whatever success I achieve through this Fulbright to the support I received from CSULB’s Department of History.”