ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — With New Mexico approaching its 100th birthday, historian Rose Diaz is busy working on a gift to its people: stories of women, told in their own voices, preserved for future generations.
The State Centennial Women's Oral History Project is a labor of love aimed at celebrating the lives of everyday New Mexicans.
"History is really made by everyday people," says Diaz, a research and oral historian who is retired from the University of New Mexico General Library.
"They put one foot in front of the other and, regardless of their challenges or barriers, they're going to make life better," she says.
And their stories aren't often found in history books.
So Diaz has set about recording them, an ambitious undertaking to chronicle the experiences of all sorts of women throughout New Mexico.
The materials produced from each woman's interviews — transcripts of about 80 pages and videos of an hour or longer — will go into local libraries or other repositories and into the state Records Center and Archives, which will permanently house the collection and catalog it for public use.
Diaz says it's a way for women's community- and family-focused work — often performed without pay or recognition — to become part of documented history.
And the centennial offers a great opportunity to examine " 'Who is a New Mexican?' . and to tell that story through a wider prism than we've seen in the past," Diaz says.
For example, that could mean interviewing newcomers who will help shape New Mexico in the future, as well as old-timers.
"I think a lot about who isn't in the picture, and how do we get them there," Diaz says.
And it means recognizing the contributions of dozens of ethnic groups, pushing beyond the notion of New Mexico as "tricultural": Hispanic, Anglo and Native American.
"While the tricultural thing is good boosterism, I think it's bad history," says Diaz, who held numerous administrative and archival positions at the UNM library over 25 years and got her doctorate in history from Arizona State University.
Diaz has been planning for years to do the oral histories and originally envisioned interviewing 100 women as part of a project she hoped would be underwritten by the state's centennial arm.
That support never materialized, but Diaz forged ahead with a pilot project, interviewing women of her choosing and bearing much of the cost herself. She has completed seven interviews and is accepting nominations for the next round of interviews.
Sandra Jaramillo, former director of the state Records Center and Archives, says the project's interviews will help plug a big gap in women's history, citing the lack of documents written by or about women — especially before they were part of the paid workforce.
"Sometimes, oral histories are all we have to document the human experience, or an historical event that has occurred," Jaramillo says.
Rose Diaz started the State Centennial Women's Oral History Project last year with a handful of women, including one who turned 100 before New Mexico did: the late Exerlona Clayton Bramlett of Albuquerque, who died last month.
Born in 1910, Bramlett was one of 10 children of prominent members of the city's African-American community. Her father was a barber and her mother a seamstress who was active in church and civic and social organizations.
A widow when she died, she was married to Henry Bramlett — the grandson of a Buffalo Soldier — for 63 years and raised three children. She worked for nearly six decades as a caterer and was a member of Mount Olive Baptist Church and other organizations for more than 75 years.
Among her memories: her mother and other women raising a fuss after Exerlona and other black graduates of Albuquerque High School were segregated at their graduation ceremony.
The "incredible amount of continuity" women like Bramlett bring to their communities should be recognized and honored, Diaz says.
"They don't do it out of, 'Who's going to look at me?' . They do it because they see a need and they step in," Diaz adds.
Diaz says Bramlett illustrates the "family, faith and fortitude" that has emerged as a theme in interview after interview.
"Don't let anything stop you from doing what you want to do. That's the common thread through all of these," she says.
Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com