Smithsonian Interns

Napa Valley College students Jessica De Leon, left, and Gladys Aguilar are headed to Washington, D.C. for a 10-week internship at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History to conduct research on the Bracero program in Napa Valley.

J.L. Sousa/EAGLE

With the end of the school year here, most college students are putting away the books in favor of looking for summer employment.

Napans Gladys Aguilar and Jessica De Leon have already found summer jobs – 2,500 miles away from home.

The Napa Valley College students are headed to Washington, D.C. this week for a 10-week internship at the Smithsonian Institution.

While working at the national museum, they’ll study the local history of the federal government’s Bracero Program as part of the Latinos in Napa History Project designed by Napa Valley College professor Sandra Nichols.

Aguilar said she wants to work on the project so future generations of Latinos “can look back at their roots.”

In addition, “My grandfather was a bracero,” she said. She had planned to interview him as part of the project, but he passed away in July.

“In a way, I feel like I am honoring him and his legacy through this.”

According to the National Museum of American History, the Bracero Program (1942 through 1964) allowed Mexican nationals to take temporary agricultural work in the United States. Over the program’s 22-year life, more than 4.5 million Mexican nationals were legally contracted for work in the United States (some individuals returned several times on different contracts).

Mexican peasants, desperate for cash work, were willing to take jobs at wages scorned by most Americans. The braceros’ presence had a significant effect on the business of farming and the culture of the United States. The Bracero Program fed the circular migration patterns of Mexicans into the U.S.

“We need to acknowledge the legacies, stories and the struggles that Latinos had to overcome to leave their native county and come here and work,” said De Leon. “I’m a part of this community and I’m a part of them.”

But getting to the Smithsonian was never a given for these two young women. Both are low-income students and the first in their families to go to college.

Aguilar initially attended Vintage High School but said after skipping school and affiliating with gang members she was transferred to Valley Oak High school where she graduated in 2014.

De Leon faced domestic violence and frequent moves before graduating from Vintage High School.

When she heard about the internship program, De Leon said she thought, “Could this even be possible?”

“Being able to have the opportunity to work with the world-renowned museum — it’s extraordinary and amazing,” said the 20-year-old student. “It’s something I would never imagine. Even the glimpse of the opportunity was flabbergasting.”

Aguilar, 19, said she didn’t have high hopes.

“It’s the Smithsonian Institution,” she said. “Usually the interns are already graduates,” not community college students. “I was thinking the odds of me actually getting this internship were very slim.”

To their surprise and delight, both were chosen for internships. Each will be paid a stipend of about $6,500 for the 10 weeks of work.

Aguilar and De Leon “are really inspiring,” said Nichols. Participating in such an internship “is going to make a huge difference in their lives.”

“The fact that it’s paid is critical because they don’t come from a comfortable middle class,” said Nichols. “Their parents are in no position to provide enrichment experiences. This opens up the opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

The students’ task is to find the history of land grant owners from California, the braceros who came here from Mexico to work for them, and present-day Latino entrepreneurs of Napa Valley.

They’ll intern at the National Museum of American History division of home and community life, where they will be trained in curatorial practices, collections acquisition and archival research.

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Steve Velasquez, associate curator in the museum’s Home and Community Life division, said that the project will look at Mexican and Mexican-American culture, history and the shaping of the nation through the lens of wine and agriculture.

When they return to Napa the students will help develop community events with the Napa County Historical Society and the college, solicit histories, artifacts and mementos from local residents with bracero connections, and help the college start a new college course with the help of Professor James McGowan.

Aguilar said the internship will consist of many “firsts”: Her first time visiting another state, first time leaving her family and farthest trip from home.

“That’s very intimidating but it’s going to prepare me for when I go to university.” She hopes to transfer to Stanford, Pepperdine or UC Santa Barbara to study sociology, ethnic studies and history.

De Leon said it will also be her first time traveling to any other U.S. state. It will also be the longest she’s been apart from her family.

“That’s going to be a challenge. I will miss my little sisters” in particular, she said.

Another obstacle is their housing in Washington, D.C. The stipend will help cover some costs, but not all. As of the week before they were to leave, the young women had yet to find an affordable place to live. Many apartments want thousands of dollars per month in rent and deposits, they said.

“That’s not even a possibility for us,” said De Leon.

They’ll probably end up staying in a hotel until housing can be found. In the meantime, a GoFundMe.com page has been created for anyone who’d like to support them.

Nichols said she hopes that through the internship the young women “are exposed to a broader world of others who are working and interested and concerned about Latino contributions to our country.”

She also hopes they bring back skills they can use at Napa Valley College to “help us build a collection of the story of Latinos in Napa.”

“I’m so proud for them. They are constantly amazing me. I hope they can be an inspiration to a lot of other young students like themselves.”

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Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.