The Matheson History Museum is hosting a unique exhibition called “We Are Here: Stories from Multilingual Speakers in North Central Florida” that aims to educate visitors on the lack of language access in north central Florida.
Salutations in Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese and other languages welcome visitors to the Mary Ann Cofrin Exhibit Hall, where the exhibit is on display. “We Are Here” traces the history of language in north central Florida, beginning with the language of the Timucua, the principal Native American population in north Florida, and culminating in the arrival of English.
Interactive displays of interviews with people in their native languages are supplemented by translations in English via pullout tabs. Upon these displays, visual collages present aspects of the interviewees’ culture such as traditional clothing and symbols.
In the back corner of the exhibition, visitors can listen to audio interviews of multilingual speakers sharing their personal experiences and difficulties in finding accessibility in their native tongue.
“Here at the Matheson, our mission is to preserve and interpret the history of Gainesville and Alachua County,” said the Matheson History Museum´s executive director, Kaitlyn Hof-Mahoney. “So even though this is recent history because it is something that is currently happening, it is something we still feel fits within our mission…to really share the stories of everyone in our community.”
The Matheson History Museum constructed the exhibition in partnership with the Rural Women’s Health Project, Language Access Florida and the Gainesville Immigrant Neighbor Inclusion Initiative. Language Access Florida translated the audio and text from several languages into English, while the Rural Women’s Health Project and GINI conducted the interviews.
The Rural Women’s Health Project is a health justice nonprofit based in Gainesville serving mostly Latino immigrant community members in north central Florida. Language Access Florida is a consultation business that offers translation and interpretation services to those who need assistance in Florida.
Gainesville Immigrant Neighbor Inclusion Initiative (GINI) is an undertaking by the Rural Women’s Health Project. “(GINI) goes beyond just the Latino community and works to advocate for all immigrants in Alachua County to have access to a safer and more inclusive community,” said Ethan Maia de Needell, immigrant program manager of Rural Women’s Health Project and board member of GINI.
According to the Rural Women’s Health Project, immigrants represent about 14% of spending power in Alachua County and contribute $57 million to state and local taxes.
The Rural Women’s Health Project argues that the immigrant community still faces obstacles in daily life.
“The focus on language access is incredibly important. We have seen through GINI’s surveys of the immigrant population in our community that language access is the greatest barrier they have to getting a job and just feeling overall welcomed in our community,” de Needell said.
Exhibitions, like “We Are Here: Stories from Multilingual Speakers in North Central Florida,” further welcome immigrants in Alachua County and bring attention to the issue of language access.
“It’s nice to see a museum take on topics that are a bit more challenging and less widely accepted in society,” said Willett Hancock, a visitor engagement assistant at the Matheson History Museum. “It’s nice to see underrepresented voices getting a say, not so much a say, but getting a show in the museum.”
In conjunction with the exhibition and Hispanic Heritage Month, the museum hosted “Early Cuban Exiles: Memories of Loss, Struggle, and Rebirth” on Wednesday. This event was a talk between Mario Cartaya, author of “Journey Back into the Vault: In Search of My Faded Cuban Childhood Footprints” and David Powell, author of “Ninety Miles and a Lifetime Away: Memories of Cuban Early Exiles.”
Both authors engaged with the reality of Cuban immigrants to the United States in the mid-1900s, weaving their own experiences and research into the lives of present-day immigrants in North Central Florida.
The museum is also hosting an upcoming event titled “Stories of Immigration: Sharing, Learning, and Supporting Our Immigrant Neighbors,” which will be hosted on Oct. 14 at 4 p.m.
The event offers an opportunity for local immigrants and community members to have an open discussion and share their experiences and struggles they may have encountered.
The collaboration between Rural Women’s Health Project, Language Access Florida and GINI highlights the need for language access in North Florida, an idea these organizations believe to be part of the liberties granted by the United States.
As de Needell said, “When we fight for things like language access, which is a legal right, it is not something that is just being handed to this (immigrant) community, it is something that has been earned through the many different contributions that they provide for our community to make it a richer and more vibrant place to live.”
“We Are Here: Stories from Multilingual Speakers in North Central Florida” will be on exhibit until the end of the year. The Matheson History Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged.