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Capturing Your Family History

Filming siblings’ oral histories requires a game plan, but for this writer, the experience proved enriching

Our family's rancho home burned down long before I was born. I heard little about it as I grew up, but I remember Dad's eyes flooding with tears in his later years when he talked about the tragedy he couldn't forget. Not until my older sisters shared their recollections of the fire, however, did I understand its profound significance in all our lives.

It's too late to ask my parents about the fire. I regret not recording their life stories—on tape or paper—while they were alive. So, as the youngest of five, I recently took on the challenge to learn about my family by turning to my siblings to document their life stories on videotape for ourselves and future generations. The result is a treasury of family lore on DVDs and, most important for me, a deeper understanding of my own roots.

I'm now a true believer in the power of oral history—it's a memorable journey. Producing an oral history DVD, however, requires a solid game plan. Through trial and error, I learned some techniques that might prove helpful to others undertaking this process for the first time.

As I departed Los Angeles for Tucson, Arizona, to see my siblings, I had no clue how the process would unfold. How would my siblings feel about recording details of their lives? The initial meetings with them—to lay out the taping procedures—were crucial. I'm a journalist and have taped home movies before, so my siblings seemed to have some confidence in me. I assured them I'd make the process easy by being both interviewer for the oral history and producer of the final DVDs.

I tried to involve each sibling in planning her or his "film." We looked for taping locations that were both quiet and provided flattering lighting. For some interviews, I sat next to a tripod-secured camera, allowing me to concentrate on the Q and A. Both of my sisters, Dora and Alice, displayed photos as they recalled key moments of their lives. My brother-in-law, Bill Sutherland, walked around the house describing the artwork he had produced. I sensed that my brother Ramon might get a little nervous with the taping, so I sat next to him and, with the camera rolling, we had a brotherly chat.

A Clearer Perspective

I was fascinated by the stories I heard, and the history I learned.

It was 1934, and my sisters Dora and Alice were 5 and 3 years old, respectively, when the fire took place. They remember our father, Florencio E. Sotomayor, supporting his young family by growing vegetables on a farm northwest of Tucson, and that his sugar cane and bell peppers won ribbons at the Arizona State Fair. Dora also recalls in detail the Sunday morning they climbed aboard the family truck, along with our parents and brother Ramon, then a baby. They attended Mass at Holy Family Catholic Church and visited relatives in town. Later that day, returning home on a deserted dirt road surrounded by giant saguaros and mesquite trees, they were all startled by smoke rising from a pile of smoldering ashes. Then, reality hit: their home had burned to the ground

"Mom and Dad and everybody started crying," Dora recalled. "My mom cried out: ‘Mi casa. ¡No hay casa!'" Their home, clothes, furniture, and family heirlooms were lost. Particularly painful for Mom, then about 24, was the loss of her beautiful wedding dress. My parents never learned what had ignited the fire that also burned a hole in their hearts.

The young family moved in with my paternal grandmother, Maria Antonia Encinas, whose home—also on the family property—wasn't affected by the fire. Mom, it seems, kept the fire's emotional trauma to herself and rarely talked of it. Dad resumed farming, and used scrap materials to add to his mother's house. Our second brother, Ernesto, was born in 1936.

Through the videotaping and Alice's genealogy work, I also learned that our dad's father migrated to Tucson from Sonora, Mexico, in the 1880s, when Arizona was a U.S. territory. He became a U.S. citizen, married, and acquired property under the federal Homestead Act, which awarded unoccupied public land to settlers.

In 1938, still hurting from the Great Depression, Grandma and Dad sold the homestead at a bargain price and moved into town. Dad became a gardener at a resort hotel and, from mud and straw, built an adobe home in a Mexican American barrio. I grew up in a loving bilingual and bicultural home on Erie Street in Tucson's Barrio Hollywood in which Trío los Panchos and Frank Sinatra got equal billing.

Forging a Closer Bond

As I videotaped my sister Alice Sutherland, now 76, she recalled learning photography from an exceptional high school teacher and being accepted for college before realizing that the family couldn't afford it. Oldest sister Dora LaCome, now 78, spoke about meeting her husband-to-be—a World War II veteran—starting their family, and buying their first home.

Ramon, 74, reminisced about the old days on Erie Street and how our brother Ernie would go door to door on All Souls' Day selling one-gallon cans of Dad's expertly grown zinnias to neighbors headed to the cemetery. Like many Hispanics of his generation, Ramon in 1953 volunteered for the Army after high school graduation. Ordered to South Korea just after the Korean War had ended, he recalled enduring 12-hour guard duty in frigid temperatures near the demilitarized zone. "When they brought food out to us on a tray," he said, "we had to eat it very quickly before it froze."

At times I felt my videotaping imposed on my siblings, but they insist that wasn't the case. For me, now 65, the process provided a clearer perspective on my family's histories. Now I can truly appreciate the physical loss and emotional pain caused by the fire and the hardships endured. I believe that from that trauma came a determination and a strong work ethic that has characterized our family as we each went on to make a contribution to society. Dora raised a family and became a nurse; Alice worked as a photo-retouching technician before starting her family; Ramon became a father and was an Air Force civilian employee; and Ernie served in the Navy and became a U.S. Postal Service official—he passed away in 1992; I married fellow journalist Meri, and we have two children. I've served the public as a journalist at the Los Angeles Times and now the University of Southern California Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism.

Soon, it will be my turn to sit in front of the camera and complete the Sotomayor family histories.

The DVDs might not be professionally made, but to us they're priceless. In addition, the process of creating them has forged an even closer bond of understanding with my siblings. Our experience underscores that by better knowing our family's past, we can better understand each other.

Tips for Better Results:

•  Hiring a professional? If you're not comfortable using a video camera, consider having a friend do the taping or hire a professional. Search the telephone book or Internet under "video production services." In any case, you're best suited to conduct the oral history interview because of your knowledge of the family.

•  Asking questions: Remember, you're not an investigative reporter digging for damaging information. Your questions should be easy to answer. Phrase them so they can't be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." Use natural follow-up questions, such as, "How did you feel about that?" as you guide your subjects chronologically through their lives. If they can't remember dates, work them into your comments, like this: "You were born on September 1, 1935. What are some of your earliest memories?"

•  Camcorders: Today's digital camcorders are exceptional and can run from $250 to $500 and more. I used a MiniDV tape camcorder, but MiniDVD, flash memory, and internal hard disc drive systems also are available. Research online, then go to a camera department and tell the sales person what you want to accomplish; request an explanation of the pros and cons of each format. See which camera feels most comfortable in your hands. Once you get your camcorder, the instruction manual might seem intimidating, as it did for me. I called the camera manufacturer's customer service number for step-by-step instructions.

•  Equipment: Make a checklist of other equipment you'll need: tapes, charged batteries, AC power cord, and tripod. Put everything together in a camera bag.

•  Preparing to tape: Use a tripod unless you are following someone around the house. Minimize noise; turn off the air conditioning. Check the lighting.

•  Converting tapes to DVDs: If you are using the MiniDVD format, the discs go right into your DVD player. You can take a MiniDV tape to a photo department to convert it to a DVD. Or you can convert it yourself on your recordable DVD player, as I did, or on your computer, using either software provided with your camcorder or a fancier commercial product. Other camcorder formats offer other options. Note that there are different types of recordable DVDs; try using the DVD-R format, which can be played back on almost all DVD players.

•  The last word: Don't procrastinate. Do it!

Frank O. Sotomayor, a writer living in Los Angeles, was co-editor of a Los Angeles Times series on southern California Latinos that won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.