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The Immigrant Archive Project collects the stories of coming to call the U.S. home

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Thousands of stories of immigrants to the U.S. collected over the past 14 years will now be found in the Library of Congress. From farmworkers to priests to artists, the Immigrant Archive Project is a trove of first-person accounts of how immigrants came to this country. They describe journeys through love, struggle and resilience to make the U.S. home. Tony Hernandez is the founder of the Immigrant Archive Project and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

TONY HERNANDEZ: Thank you so much, Debbie. A pleasure to join you.

ELLIOTT: So first, tell us a little bit about your project and what inspired it.

HERNANDEZ: Well, the project was created in 2008. And inspiration for the creation of the Immigrant Archive Project sort of came from a couple of different areas. One, from my own life experience - my family and I emigrated from Cuba in 1967. I was 5 years old at the time. And then later on in life, I had the chance to see some work that Steven Spielberg had done with survivors of the Shoah, which is just an absolutely spectacular oral history project on survivors of the Holocaust. And I realized that no one had really documented these immigrant stories. So perhaps a little naively, I took it upon myself to start interviewing friends and family, and that became sort of an obsession that I've been at nonstop now for the past 14 years.

ELLIOTT: Is there a common theme that you found as you've listened to these stories over the years?

HERNANDEZ: I'd say the most common thread throughout is just a tremendous amount of optimism and belief that you can, in fact, create a better life for yourself in the United States. In a great majority of the cases, I don't think their lives would be better necessarily, but the hopes (ph) is that they can do something so that their children would have a better sort of shot at a future.

ELLIOTT: I gather stories in my profession as well, right? And I find it to be such a gift when somebody is willing to open up and share their very personal story with you. I'm wondering if there are one or two that stand out for you that have really moved you.

HERNANDEZ: I interviewed a gentleman by the name of Tony Kanaan. Tony's a professional racecar driver, and he was born in Brazil and came to the U.S. after, you know, noting that he had a real talent for auto racing since he was very, very young. And Tony's dad, sadly enough...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TONY KANAAN: When I was...

HERNANDEZ: ...Was diagnosed with cancer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KANAAN: During the years that he was ill, he actually started to kind of - without me realizing - but preparing me for life. So we had nice talks as father and son. You know...

HERNANDEZ: And prior to passing away, he made Tony promise him two things, that he would always take care of his mom and his sister and that he would never stop racing. And I'll tell you, Tony really took that ask to heart. He was the first professional IndyCar Series driver to finish every single lap in a season, and he won the Indy 500 and literally became a fan favorite within Indy. So just a beautiful, beautiful story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KANAAN: You know, when you win a race or when you win something, people actually celebrate with your fist up. I'm always pointing up. And that - and I didn't realize that, really. Somebody, the other day - I was like, that's true. Every time, I would just go, I'm doing it, keeping my promise. So yeah.

ELLIOTT: Did you notice changes in the types of stories that you were hearing from immigrants from when you started 14 years ago to recent years when there's been such a huge debate over immigration in the United States?

HERNANDEZ: I wouldn't say that I've noticed a difference in the narratives. What I have noticed is far less willingness to come forward and share your story. And what's even more disturbing is I've heard from quite a few folks who shared their stories beforehand and have asked us to kindly take their stories down because they feel that they could possibly be threatened or could be deported or could face certain - a sort of circumstances tied to their immigration status. And that's really a shame because you're - although I want to respect their right and I want to protect them and the last thing I would want is for them sharing a story to create trouble, I also see the fact that we're erasing history here. You know, what we're collecting, at the end of the day, are quintessentially American stories. You know, you cannot tell the story of the United States without mentioning the story of immigrants.

ELLIOTT: And you're being recognized now and that the Library of Congress will archive the Immigrant Archive Project. And they're going to put it in a collection that's designed to preserve historical and culturally significant websites. You've said that when you got this news, you got a bit of a lump in your throat. Why is this so important to you?

HERNANDEZ: You know, when you take on a project like this, you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders in that these stories are, in fact, used to make a difference. And while we can put them together on a website, it's not the same thing as having it live in perpetuity at our nation's leading library. And just knowing that these stories will outlive all of us, it's just sort of mission accomplished for us and just a moment of tremendous, tremendous pride for all of us that have worked on this project.

ELLIOTT: Tony Hernandez is the founder of the Immigrant Archive Project. Thank you so much for being with us.

HERNANDEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "SOMEDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.