Labor of love: Holyoke library preserving tapes of ‘90s TV show ‘Vecinos/Neighbors’

  • Sylvia Galván and husband Gary O’Connor, left, produced “Vecinos/Neighbors” for several years during the 1990s. Below is the logo from the public-access show. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gary O’Connor and Sylvia Galván talk at the Holyoke Public Library about their time producing the bilingual “Vecinos/Neighbors” community-access TV show. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gary O’Connor and Sylvia Galván talk about their time as producers of “Vecinos/Neighbors” at the Holyoke Public Library. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sylvia Galván conducts an interview in the early 1990s for an episode of “Vecinos/Neighbors.” HOLYOKE HISTORY ROOM

  • A still of the logo for the early 1990s TV show “Vecinos/Neighbors.” HOLYOKE HISTORY ROOM

Staff Writer
Published: 12/6/2019 2:24:50 PM

HOLYOKE — When Sylvia Galván and Gary O’Connor got a call from the Holyoke Public Library this year, they were shocked. Archivist Eileen Crosby informed the couple, who are married, that she had received a historical treasure trove: hours and hours of footage that they had spent years producing.

“We were like, ‘What?! Really? Yay!” Galván recalled with a smile. “It’s history.”

What Crosby had received were the only known remaining VHS tapes of the bilingual community-access television program “Vecinos/Neighbors,” which chronicled the Latino communities of Holyoke during the early 1990s. Together with Carlos Vega — a legendary figure in the city who helped found the community organization Nueva Esperanza — Galván and O’Connor created the television program to counter negative portrayals of Hispanic residents that they saw in the region’s media.

“If you were looking at the newspapers of the day or on TV, it was pretty much an invisible community,” O’Connor said. More visible in the local press, added Galván, were news reports of crimes and tragedies.

The tapes of “Vecinos/Neighbors” were nearing the typical 30-year life span of VHS cassettes, but now the bulk of the collection will be saved thanks to a $14,644 “Recordings at Risk” grant the library’s Holyoke History Room won from the national nonprofit Council on Library and Information Resources, or CLIR. Among the 173 tapes are also videos of cultural and community events filmed by the organization La Familia Hispana.

“The expansion of Puerto Rican and Latino migration to the region in a period of economic decline contributed to debates, in Holyoke and beyond, about poverty, racism, education, the distribution of scarce resources, and more,” the CLIR said upon awarding the grant this spring. “Once it is preserved and made publicly accessible, this collection will provide sought-after primary source material for students and scholars seeking to understand the political and cultural dynamics of urban life in the 1990s.”

For Crosby, the archivist who applied for the grant, the collection has clear value in today’s political climate, too.

“Some of these battles are still being fought,” she said.

Tackling tough issues

“Vecinos/Neighbors” began when Galván and O’Connor were both working in the Holyoke school system. He was a guidance counselor at William R. Peck Middle School and she was a district bilingual resource teacher. Galván saw a small ad in the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram announcing that the local public-access TV station was willing to train people to make their own programs. Galván and some others began working on a show called “Town by Town,” about life in the region.

“It gave everybody a little experience with cameras, in the editing room, etc.,” O’Connor said.

Eventually, the group was asked to take over the program. And from there, “Vecinos/Neighbors” was born. The crew produced an hourly show every week, meaning they would leave work and head straight into the field or editing studio. It was painstaking work, said Galván and O’Connor, whose two children were already grown.

“We enjoyed it,” Galván said. And soon, parents, students and teachers began to approach the team to talk about episodes. “We began to realize that the community was watching it.”

The focus of the program was on positive stories from the schools and community and included interviews with prominent national figures who were visiting the area: the labor activist Cesar Chavez, for example, as well as writers including Sandra Cisneros and Eduardo Galeano.

Local community leaders also served as guest hosts and interviewees: Diosdado Lopez, the first Hispanic city resident elected to the City Council; Betty Medina Lichtenstein, executive director of Enlace de Familias and the first Puerto Rican woman elected to public office in the state; and Springfield author Magdalena Gómez, to name a few.

Over the years, the show tackled difficult social issues. 

Galván said the producers got significant pushback from City Hall when they interviewed the plaintiffs in the lawsuit Vecinos De Barrio Uno v. City of Holyoke, in which a group of Hispanic residents sued the city over the at-large components of its City Council and School Committee elections. And after covering a teachers strike in the city — which Galván and O’Connor participated in — they said they received further opposition from the district.

“It was just coverage that wasn’t out there, at least from the teachers’ side,” O’Connor said. “I think that’s when they banned us from the schools after that.”

Medina said the program and its bilingualism was groundbreaking. In a phone interview Thursday, she said “Vecinos/Neighbors” helped inform residents about everything from mental health and education to housing and arson.

“It was things that were important to highlight, that were happening in this community,” she said. The preservation of “Vecinos/Neighbors” will provide much-needed historical context for today’s struggles, some of which are the same as in the past, she said. “For me, I always find it to be beneficial to look at where we’ve been and compare it to where we are now.”

Reclaiming history

After a run of around five years, the program came to an end. The company that ran the show — Continental Cablevision — was sold, and the mayor’s office moved the city’s public-access television channel into City Hall, Galván said.

“On the one hand, we were exhausted,” Galván said, adding that balancing their day jobs with the show left the producers with “no life” during the years it was on the air. But the team was also dedicated to their work, and they really believed in the program. “Nobody was doing anything after that … so it was kind of sad,” O’Connor said.

Vega, however, continued to film all around Holyoke, both as a community activist and as part of his work with La Familia Hispana. The couple said he kept a video camera in his car to capture news and cultural events for posterity.

Vega’s recordings, as well as tapes of the program, were stored in large plastic bins. And after Vega’s death in 2012, those bins found their way to Diosdado Lopez, who donated them to the library in 2018.

“We both knew they were really vulnerable material,” Crosby said. 

The donation was made possible conversations between Lopez and Manuel Frau Ramos, a board member at the library and a driving force behind the Puerto Rican Cultural Project, which works to help the library relate better to the diverse communities in Holyoke, particularly the Puerto Rican community.

The other “Recordings at Risk” projects that the CLIR funded this spring are a testament to the competitiveness of the grant. Among those projects are audiovisual responses to the Kent State University shootings in 1970; tapes of the nationally syndicated radio program “In Black America”; and recordings of the radio program “Seeing Red,” which chronicles the rise of the American Indian Movement from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s.

Crosby said that she hopes news of the restoration of the “Vecinos/Neighbors” tapes will spark interest from others in Holyoke to bring their own historical materials from the era to the library for possible archiving.

“Collecting the history of the recent past is really difficult,” she said. “There’s so much that people don’t know what to save.”

She also noted that Holyoke Media was created in 2014 after the city signed a new contract with Comcast. Holyoke Media has plans to construct a production facility and performance space on Suffolk Street, where community members will have access to media equipment and training to produce their own programs. 

Holyoke Media is also working with the library to preserve the “Vecinos/Neighbors” tapes, sto  ring large files on its se  rver. Crosby expects the contents of the tapes to be available online sometime next year.

“The whole project has come full circle in that sense,” Crosby said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@ gazettenet.com.


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