Meleia Simon-Reynolds: Documenting the local Filipino-American experience

As a child, Meleia Simon-Reynolds spent much of her time at her Filipino grandmother’s house, but she never heard much about her life. 

It wasn’t until much later when the UC Santa Cruz history doctoral student was assigned to interview an immigrant for a class that she heard her grandmother’s experiences for the first time. 

“I learned so much about my family that I didn’t know,” said Simon-Reynolds, who identifies as mixed race of white and Filipino. 

Now she and other students are helping preserve local Filipino-American history by creating an oral history digital archive for the community organization Watsonville is in the Heart. 

The work is funded by UC Santa Cruz’s The Humanities Institute. She and others are contacting Filipinos in the Watsonville area and asking about their family migration stories. The goal is to make the information available for the wider public, particularly teachers who are being asked to include ethnic studies in their classrooms. 

“We hope local teachers can use it to teach in their communities about the Filipino-American experience,” she said. 

In her interview with her grandmother, Simon-Reynolds learned that her family had a long history of people going to the United States for their university education and then coming home. Simon-Reynolds’s grandmother came to the U.S. in the 1950s to attend college but then ended up staying. Her grandmother showed her photo albums and scrapbooks that documented her experiences. 

“I never saw those before,” Simon-Reynolds said. 

She is similarly seeing a lot of photo albums and scrapbooks from people involved with the Watsonville in the Heart Project. She said the community really appreciates having people show an interest in their stories. 

“People are super excited to talk to us and really excited to have us digitize their family documents and photographs,” said Simon-Reynolds, who is managing a team of undergrad students to work on the archive. 

The project covers a diverse array of topics: male laborers and race riots; women and children; mixed-race families; and community celebrations. Everything is driven by the community. 

Born in Santa Cruz, Simon-Reynolds lived in the area until she was about 6 or 7. She and her family then moved to Orange County, where her grandmother lived, and they would return from time to time to visit Santa Cruz. 

Simon-Reynolds earned her bachelor’s degree in history from UC Irvine before heading to UC Santa Cruz to pursue her master’s degree. 

She said she wanted to come to Santa Cruz because she likes the area and because of professors like Alice Yang, who uses oral history to study the experiences of immigrants from Asia and the Pacific islands. 

Simon-Reynolds’s dissertation is about Filipinx migration to the Pajaro Valley area and Hawaii from the 1920s to the present. 

She is grateful for the financial support she has received, including a UC Regents Fellowship and assistance from the Social Sciences Research Center Dissertation Proposal Development program. 

Simon-Reynolds also received a fellowship at UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning to learn about equitable and inclusive teaching strategies. Among the things she learned were to incorporate more small group activities than lectures and to give students more agency over their learning experience. 

Simon-Reynolds said she is happy for the chance to give back to the larger community through her work on the digital archive for Watsonville is in the Heart. One of the best parts is that members of the local Filipino community are driving the project, she said. 

“The university is giving its expertise and support to make their dreams and wishes come true,” Simon-Reynolds said.