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Everyone Makes History in the Fruitvale

Posted on Wednesday, January 18th, 2012.

If there’s one thing I’ve witnessed time and time again while working at StoryCorps, it’s the power of storytelling and sharing to bring families, friends, and communities together. Stories also create the histories of the spaces we inhabit together, especially the neighborhoods and cities in which we live. I was reminded of this when StoryCorps San Francisco returned to Oakland’s Peralta Hacienda Historical Park to record interviews at this unique museum and community cultural center located in the city’s Fruitvale District.

Originally a prominent, Spanish colonial hacienda of 1800’s California, Peralta House is now a fully restored and preserved historical site. The center is, in a sense, a “living museum.” Through interactive multimedia exhibits and an array of community programs, the center brings to life the site’s past and celebrates the stories of the Fruitvale District today. In a city already known for its diversity, residents of the neighborhood trace their roots to all corners of the country and the globe, including recent immigrants from Latin America and Southeast Asia, as well as African-American, Latino, and Caucasian families that go back several generations. Their stories are the center of the museum’s exhibits and certainly celebrated in their motto, “Every human being makes history at Peralta Hacienda Historical Park.”

In the house’s original kitchen, visitors can listen to local residents tell stories about food and share family recipes from Laos, Guatemala, or the American South. Another room houses a newly installed exhibition, called Rhythm of a Refugee, about the Cambodian refugee community of Fruitvale. The show celebrates several harrowing stories of escape from the Khmer Rouge genocide and their revival of once persecuted cultural traditions. Rhythm of a Refugee also features partial transcripts from previous StoryCorps recordings done with the Peralta House, including Phannara Khun (pictured in the slideshow), who describes her touching reunion with a cousin in a refugee camp after losing most of her family, and Maria San, a spoken word artist who is the daughter of refugees, reflecting on the importance of healing their community’s trauma through storytelling.

Holly Alonso, director of the Peralta House, arranged the recording day specifically for residents of the surrounding neighborhood who would soon become community tour guides. Her hope was to have them record their stories with StoryCorps and continue the museum’s tradition of telling their own stories of living in the neighborhood. Like many African-American residents of the Fruitvale, Mat&#233o Fowler, shown in a photo above with Holly, grew up in the area. He shared some of his favorite childhood memories and continued appreciation for the neighborhood amid the many changes and demographic shifts he’s seen throughout his time there.

New arrivals to the neighborhood, like Shannon Burdick, also told their stories. Shannon recently joined the family home of her fianc&#233e, who is Mien, an ethnic group from China and Southeast Asia. Every week, Shannon’s future mother-in-law, a Mien woman, works in one of the community garden plots on the grounds of the Peralta House, using her culture’s traditional growing methods. She shares the garden with other local residents from Cambodia and Southern M&#233xico. Together, they add life to a space shared by many stories, all woven together to continue making the history of the Fruitvale.

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