News | 20 April 2023

National Endowment for the Humanities honors Watsonville Is In The Heart with a prestigious $75,000 project grant

By Dan White


Meleia Simon-Reynolds, WIITH Digital Archive Co-Director, with Anastacio Asuncion, WIITH Digital Archive contributor, at Special Collections in McHenry Library. Photograph courtesy of Christina Ayson Plank.

The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded a prestigious $75,000 Public Humanities Projects: Exhibitions Planning grant to Watsonville Is In The Heart (WIITH). Housed in The Humanities Institute at UCSC, WIITH is a community-driven public history initiative to preserve and uplift stories of Filipino migration and labor in the city of Watsonville and the greater Pajaro Valley.  

Collecting oral history accounts, photos, personal records, and material culture objects, the WIITH team has created a new archive documenting the plight, struggles, vitality, and resilience of Filipino migrants–the manong generation who first settled in the Pajaro Valley in the early twentieth century and their families.  

The NEH funding will support Sowing Seeds: Filipino American Stories from the Pajaro Valley, an art and history exhibition that is set to open at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History in April 2024. Sowing Seeds will bring together original oral history interviews, archival research, and contemporary works of art that present  insightful and sometimes conflicting narratives of belonging, community formation, and memory preservation. Acclaimed artists such as Jenifer Wofford, Johanna Poethigand Binh Danh will take part in this display of visual storytelling. 

Christina Ayson Plank, PhD candidate in Visual Studies and head curator of Watsonville is in the Heart.

UCSC Humanities Dean Jasmine Alinder spoke of the importance of public humanities grants funding high-impact community-engaged research projects such as WIITH and Sowing Seeds. “Humanities research can center the histories  of people who have been marginalized and overlooked,” Alinder said. “WIITH and Sowing Seeds are projects that put stakeholders at the very center, sharing the history and voices of the Central Coast Filipino American community, offering insight into collective memory and resilience.” 

“Sowing Seeds exemplifies the type of critical public humanities work THI is dedicated to advancing,” said Irena Polić, managing director of The Humanities Institute. “The exhibition and educational resources that the WIITH team will create will share a vital part of U.S. history and provide new understandings of Asian American migration. In the face of continued anti-Asian violence in the U.S., this initiative could not be more important.”

Steve McKay, UCSC associate professor of sociology,  director of the Center for Labor and Community and co-principal investigator of the Watsonville is in the Heart Research Initiative, said the project grant will help the initiative, community members and partners preserve and share a vital history. “The labor and family history of Filipinos in the Pajaro Valley has for too long remained invisible and un-recognized and I am so proud that our collaborative project is helping bring that inspiring history to a broad, national and international audience,” he said.

WIITH’s co-principal investigator, Kathleen “Kat” Cruz Gutierrez, assistant professor of history at UCSC

WIITH’s co-principal investigator, Kathleen “Kat” Cruz Gutierrez, assistant professor of history at UCSC, spoke of the origins of Sowing Seeds and how far the project has come from its humble beginnings. 

“It’s hard to imagine that we started as a series of phone calls, emails, and Zoom conversations in 2020, only to be awarded such a prestigious honor this year,” Gutierrez said. “Our community partners have propelled this initiative from the start, and I’m so glad we can help materialize their vision. The documented history of Filipinos in the Pajaro Valley was once unacceptably slim, and our campus-community research initiative has been addressing that. This recognition is a promise for more meaningful work ahead.” 

“It is an incredible honor to have our art and history exhibition recognized,” said Christina Ayson Plank, PhD candidate in Visual Studies at UCSC and head curator of Watsonville is in the Heart. “This award validates what we as a team have known from the beginning—that community-engaged research is rigorous, dynamic, and vital. With this award, we will be able to continue collaborating with the Filipino community in the Pajaro Valley to curate traveling versions of the exhibition.”

As an emerging scholar and curator, Ayson Plank sees the award as an opportunity to further expand on WIITH’s historical and art historical research.

“With the NEH award, our team will have the privilege to continue working to fulfill our community partners’ goals to amplify Pajaro Valley Filipino American history,” said Meleia Simon-Reynolds,  co-director of the WIITH digital archive. Simon-Reynolds, a Ph.D. candidate in History researching Filipino labor, migration, and photography at UCSC, also leads WIITH’s oral history project and its work to develop educational resources on local Filipino American histories. 

“It goes to show that hard work and dedication can overcome many challenges,” said Dioscoro “Roy” Recio, founder of the Tobera Project, a grassroots organization and WITH community partner that brings together Filipino community members in Watsonville and the greater Pajaro Valley to uplift their history and culture.  

WIITH has its origins in The Tobera Project. Recio, along with other community members, mounted an exhibition entitled ‘Watsonville is in the Heart’  in early 2020 on Filipinos in the Pajaro Valley. Recio reached out to UCSC faculty and graduate students to form a partnership for extensive historical preservation. WIITH launched formally in early 2021. The Tobera Project is WIITH’s conduit to oral history narrators and archive contributors, and helps to organize and promote events. 

“I am proud that we have maintained a strong sense of community awareness and participation: with the people, by the people and for the people,” Recio said. “I think our ancestors would be very honored.”

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