Calling all grandmothers — and grandchildren: Project looks to document stories of grandmothers from western Massachusetts

  • An image from a previous version of an exhibit celebrating grandmothers from Holyoke.

  • Waleska Santiago-Centeno, an independent curator from Springfield, is curating the upcoming exhibit “Our Grandmothers.” Image courtesy Waleska Santiago-Centeno

  • Ángela Vázquez, lower right, looks at a photo of herself with her granddaughter, Myriam Quiñones, who’s standing behind her. The photo was part of a 2016 exhibit in Holyoke that celebrated grandmothers. Image courtesy Waleska Santiago-Centeno

  • A photo and text from a previous exhibit in Westfield that depicts Generoza Gonzales Cruz, a grandmother of the exhibit’s curator, Waleska Santiago-Centeno. ImageS courtesy Waleska Santiago-Centeno

Staff Writer
Monday, March 08, 2021

There are many ways to tell the stories of communities. The organizers of a new photo and text project say one of the best means to do that is through personal memories.

So now they’re calling on people from Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties to share their memories, stories and photos of their grandmothers, aiming to make those accounts the focus of a traveling exhibit this summer that, pandemic permitting, will be displayed throughout the three-country region.

“Our Grandmothers” is a joint project of Holyoke Media and The Performance Project, a Springfield organization that gets young people engaged in the arts. Independent curator Waleska Santiago-Centeno, who lives in Springfield, is spearheading the effort, which is designed to tell the stories of 50 grandmothers, past and present, from the region through the memories of their grandchildren.

Organizers have set up a website that includes an online questionnaire that anyone can fill out with information about their grandmother(s). Santiago-Centeno says the goal is to build profiles of at least 50 women, from all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds, for the exhibit. Additonal profiles may be included in an online show.

Using pictures and a variety of text to describe these women will ideally create a valuable “cultural space,” Santiago-Centeno says, by preserving first-hand stories of people and the times and communities in which they lived — information that otherwise might be lost with the passage of years.

“We want to hear how people’s grandmothers shaped their lives, about the legacy of these women,” she said. “And people are welcome to tell us about their grandmothers in any way they can choose. They can write an essay, a poem, a letter to their grandmother — there are many ways to tell these stories.”

“How did these women influence our lives, our values, our dreams and goals?” she asked. “Those of the kinds of things we want to share.”

Santiago-Centeno, who is also the librarian for Crocker Farm Elementary School in Amherst, says the coming exhibit will have an online component and is slated — hopefully — to open physically at Greenfield Community College in July. She says plans also call for showing the work at the Northampton Arts Trust building, at Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, and in downtown Springfield.

Other locations are also being considered, such as Amherst Town Hall, said Santiago-Centeno, who notes that because of the intended size of the exhibit, different parts of it would likely be shown in different locations simultaneously.

She also says “Our Grandmothers” represents the fourth and largest iteration of an exhibit that has been shown, in more abridged formats, in three other locations over the past dozen years. The first took place at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the second in Westfield, and the third at Wistariahurst, in 2016.

Previous versions of the exhibit, such as “Nuestras Abuelas de Holyoke” at Wistariahurst, were focused more on Latina grandmothers and their granddaughters and grandsons, Santiago-Centeno said, and the new project has been specifically broadened to be more inclusive.

But at its heart is the same goal — and she says the same emotions can be spurred.

“These stories can be very powerful, very emotional,” she said. “When I was editing the text [for the past exhibits], I had to keep a box of tissues with me because I kept tearing up. I’ve joked that we should have tissues in the exhibits, too.”

Case in point: One portrait from the 2016 Wistariahurst exhibit is of then-88-year-old Ángela Vázquez, who’s giving a kiss to her granddaughter Myriam Quiñones. In the accompanying text, Quiñones describes how her grandmother is struggling with Alzheimer’s disease and doesn’t necessarily recognize her “but when I hug and kiss her she responds with a smile and a kiss.”

“When she tells me stories we laugh together and I can feel the connection,” Quiñones says. “Somewhere deep inside her mind, I exist.”

Santiago-Centeno says she and other organizers hope people who want to share stories, memories, and photos of their grandmothers can do so by the end of March, although there is no hard deadline for the project. For more information on the exhibit, visit ourgrandmothers.org.