"Immigrants have always had a close connection in the history of Northwest Arkansas," says Serena Barnett, director of the Rogers Historical Museum. "People from many different parts of the world have made the Arkansas Ozarks home since the early days of settlement in the 1830s.
"In fact, most people living today in Northwest Arkansas are either an immigrant themselves or are descended from someone who was. Each of these immigrants, from then to now, have contributed to the building of Northwest Arkansas into what it is today -- a growing, vibrant community of cultural diversity."
"Working America," on show at the museum through Jan. 7, features 40 photographs by Los Angeles-based artist Sam Comen of American immigrants and first-generation Americans at work in the "small, skilled trades" that are part and parcel of the American experience.
"Walking and driving every day in my native Los Angeles, I look around and see an economically thriving microcosm of a multiracial, immigrant America," Comen says via ExhibitsUSA, a national program of Mid-America Arts Alliance. "The Armenian American shoemaker, the Korean American tailor, the Mexican American machine operator working the late shift in the last zipper factory left in the country. As the great-grandson of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, I can't help but think of ... Los Angeles as a contemporary analog to my forebears' late-19th-century experience in Chicago or Boston."
"We hope that people will reflect on and find ways to connect with the stories of these immigrants," Barnett says, but also "think about our local community and how each of us have our own stories to tell, no matter where we may have come from, and that we all contribute to making our community what it is today."
As part of the exhibit, Rogers Historical Museum staff reached out to Ozark Literacy Council to ask its students to weigh in. The resulting additions feature Huong (Rose) Nguyen from Vietnam and Herbert Calvo from Colombia and his partner Clara Ramirez, along with portraits and narratives collected with the help of local bookbinder Lesha Shaver as part of a local refugee and immigrant photography and storytelling project.
"Our student, Rose, has loaned the museum two children's folklore books she wrote in the U.S. and recently published in Vietnam, along with her narrative of the significance of storytelling to her life and family," explains Lisa Waldron, community outreach manager for Ozark Literacy Council. "Our student, Herbert, from Colombia, has loaned the museum cultural items significant to him, and he has written a short narrative about his experience as a DoorDash driver -- a job he enjoys."
OLC also loaned the museum a quilt created by its Chat & Knit Club, one of several hobby-based conversation clubs that are part of the organization's mission to "welcome neighbors and international newcomers who come to us to improve their English language skills and become more integrated into Northwest Arkansas life."
"In addition to free classes and tutoring, our students participate in hobby-based conversation clubs -- Chat & Knit, Chat & Dance, Chat & Paint, Chat & Games -- receive assistance with jobs and careers, learn about and connect with local resources, and are introduced to cultural and recreation programs," Waldron says.
"The Chat & Knit Club came about because one of our tutors was knitting with her student during tutoring sessions. They became co-leaders of our knitting club, taught others to knit, and came up with the idea for the quilt," she explains. "Each member of the club learned to knit and made a quilt square representing her home country's flag. As you look at the flag, you can learn the name of the knitter and guess the country."
Ozark Literacy Council turns 60 years old in 2024, and Waldron says as it was in the beginning, it is still a "a volunteer-powered organization."
"We offer a welcoming, inclusive community where everyone can feel like they truly belong," she says. "Many students and volunteers call OLC their 'home away from home.'
"I want people to see how talented and delightful our students are, and how it's easier to make a friend with someone from another country -- whether that's an immigrant, a refugee, or an international student -- than you might think it is," Waldron concludes. "We have so many things in common as people, and our lives are richer when we move beyond our circle of friends to include someone new."
"As a history museum, we are always looking for ways to make meaningful connections between people of our past and present through our exhibits," adds Barnett. "This exhibit does this perfectly through the sharing of stories from first generation immigrants who have come to America. We appreciate the Ozark Literacy Council partnering with us to include stories of people from our corner of America. The inclusion of these local stories allows this exhibit to make an even closer connection showing the impact immigration has had in our own community."
WHEN -- Through Jan. 7; gallery hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
WHERE -- Rogers Historical Museum, 313 S. Second St. in Rogers
COST -- Free
INFO -- rogershistoricalmuseum.org or call 621-1154
'A Rogers Christmas'
Also at the Rogers Historical Museum is "A Rogers Christmas," on exhibit through Jan. 6 at the 1895 Hawkins House. Guided tours take visitors back to the holiday season at the turn of the 20th century. Admission is free.