The following story is what I personally remember of my research and production processes and the insights I gained pursuing the main mission of the Ancestors in the Americas project:
"Finding our history
and telling it"
By Loni Ding
Local historian William Coates is guiding our visit to the remains of the once-substantial 1870s Chinese community in Madera, California, when we ask to see some pictures of Chinese workers from the period. As he himself points out it was Chinese workers who built the large wooden flumes on which cut lumber was floated 53 miles from the mountain forest (an industry mainstay of the local economy at the time) establishing Madera as a lumber town. It was the Chinese who created the miles of hand-stacked rocks, once used to mark off the boundaries of ranches, and still snaking through the terrain to this day.
In search of the images of these Chinese workers, our guide takes us to the town historical society, where the walls are lined with pictures showing workmen from the 1860s and '70s era. But he is startled and dismayed to find not one Chinese or Mexican face among them, in fact they are all white. He feels compelled to comment on camera, "Its gotta be by design, huh?" He has offered us an explanation and we follow up by filming the census records of the time, with their long listing of the names of the many Chinese who were living at the time in Madera. This then allows us to later layer Chinese names with Anglo-Euro faces.
And beyond this discovery of deliberate omissions of reality, the ANCESTORS IN THE AMERICAS Asian Every man Narrator expresses his personal opinion of the startling omission: "I do not like these pictures, where I do not see the faces of my countrymen. What is history when the reporter does not record and the camera does not see? Find our history, and tell it." Uncovering this hidden history, piecing it together from the fragments that remain, is the mission of the series.
We were first drawn to the story of the Chinese in Madera by the pioneering research done, surprisingly, by a group of fifth grade students in this small Central Valley town. Three social studies classes - 90 students total - under the guidance of their three teachers who employ a "hands-on" method of learning about history, set out trying to solve a small mystery in their town. What are those six old Chinese tombstones doing by the side of the highway, inches from wheels of the tractor-trailer trucks barreling down the road?