USC Dornsife historian records the Latinx voices missing from the COVID conversation
USC Dornsife’s Laura Isabel Serna documents Latinx experiences and perspectives from the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Courtesy of Laura Serna.)

USC Dornsife historian records the Latinx voices missing from the COVID conversation

Laura Isabel Serna of history and Latin American Iberian Cultures at USC Dornsife is committed to making sure that Latinx stories become part of the pandemic’s historical record. [3¼ min read]
ByJenesse Miller

Story highlights:

  • USC Dornsife historian Laura Isabel Serna documents experiences of the Latinx community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The “Voces of a Pandemic” project aims to capture a diverse range of voices for posterity.
  • USC students are invited to contribute to the project.

Laura Isabel Serna is a cultural historian whose work has focused on media culture in Mexican immigrant communities within the United States and in Mexico, as well as their intersection with consumer culture and gender.

Serna is an associate professor of history, cinema arts and Latin American and Iberian cultures at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the USC School of Cinematic Arts and the author of Making Cinelandia: American Films and Mexican Film Culture Before the Golden Age.

She recently spoke about her current focus: an oral history project about the experiences of Latinx communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Talk about your new project documenting the lived Latinx experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This project is a labor of love.

It’s called “Voces of a Pandemic” and it’s a collaboration with the Voces Oral History Center at the University of Texas at Austin and other institutions across the United States and in Puerto Rico. They’re collecting oral histories of different communities and recording their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why do histories of working-class people have special significance for you?

My family has a collection that is archived at the Chicano research library at UCLA. It’s a collection of thousands of photographs that belonged to my grandmother, a working-class immigrant from Torreón, Coahuila, Mexico, who died in 2007. There are photographs from as far back as the 1890s and a lot of religious ephemera, objects, textiles and decorative items.

The reason the pandemic oral history project is important is because of the way the news is covering it. Latinx people are part of the COVID-19 statistics, but generally you don’t hear their voices. … When people go back to write the history of this moment, it will be so important to have a rich description of both the challenges and resilience and of how the pandemic unfolded for people, the majority of whom didn’t get to work from home.

Can you describe some of the oral histories you’ve collected so far?

One of my first interviews was with a pastor who works with Spanish-speaking communities. He described helping people navigate death and grieving in a radically changed atmosphere.

Another interview was with a USC graduate student who lost her grandfather. It shed a lot of light on the experiences of first-gen students in higher education. Her father also had COVID and was in a rehab hospital for a long time. It was very difficult for her to balance the demands of her program and what was happening in her own family and her community. It was really moving to talk to her.

What are some things that you hope that historians will write about this moment when it comes to Latinx communities and the different COVID-19 challenges?

This may be a repeated lesson in the long arc of history, but there’s definitely this idea that certain people deserve to be sheltered and cared for, and then other people are there to serve them.

It offers lessons about what happens when people are not allowed to be full participants in civic life. Some populations — like those my colleague Juan De Lara, [associate professor of American studies and ethnicity and director of the USC Dornsife Center for Latinx and Latin American Studies], works with, including warehouse workers — are seen as expendable and somehow less deserving of care than other populations. I’m not interviewing farmworkers, but they are another category of people who continued to work without a lot of protections … so that we can eat.

There’s an intersection of racialization, socioeconomic status and notions of citizenship and who belongs that I believe will be highlighted.

I don’t mean to minimize certain experiences. But it’s also a very different experience from people who are still working in warehouses, in retail establishments and in the fields.

See USC News for the full Q&A >>

USC students who would like to add their stories to Serna’s collection can email her for more information.