Ph.D. Student Interns at Smithsonian Institution

Mayela Caro wins prestigious Minority Awards Program internship

Mayela Caro with museum display

Mayela Caro uses this display to discuss Latin American food, culture, and migration with visitors at the National Museum of American History in her summer internship at the Smithsonian Institution.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – When the Smithsonian Institution presents its Hispanic Heritage Month Festival in September, one of the proud observers will be Mayela Caro, a UC Riverside Ph.D. student in history who is interning at the National Museum of American History this summer.

Caro, a resident of Temecula, California, received the prestigious and highly competitive Smithsonian Minority Awards Program-Visiting Student Internship, the first UC Riverside student to do so. Among her duties during the 10-week internship is to help plan the national museum and research center’s Hispanic Heritage Month Festival that will be held Sept. 17.

The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums and galleries and the National Zoological Park. The total number of objects, works of art and specimens at the Smithsonian is estimated at nearly 138 million.

“This has so far been an amazing experience,” said Caro, a resident of Temecula, California. “I love seeing how different pieces come together to create a Smithsonian-run festival. I have a front-row seat to the inner workings of the museum. I’ve been surprised by the amount of work that needs to get done on a daily basis in order to operate a museum of this caliber and size. Because most exhibits are permanent, I was under the impression that museum work was not as fast-paced or busy, but I was wrong! There is always a project to be working on, a meeting to attend, an event to plan. I love it because I am learning a lot and the day just flies by and I am having the time of my life.”

During the internship Caro is being mentored by Magdalena Mieri, director of the Program in Latino History and Culture, as she researches museum collections pertaining to Latino history and organizes interviews with curators to create podcasts and blogs for the museum’s Latino hub.

“This internship is providing me with first-hand experience in the museum profession,” Caro said. “What better place to learn about museum studies than at the Smithsonian, our nation’s museum? The training and resources that I am receiving are not easily acquired in the classroom. It is such a privilege to collaborate and learn from some of the best in the field. This internship allows me to put into action the knowledge and skillsets that I’ve acquired throughout my studies.”

Caro earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from California State University, San Marcos, and began her doctoral studies at UCR in fall 2016. She expects to complete her Ph.D. in 2020. Her research focuses on the representations of gender and ethnicities in film, media, popular culture, print culture, and material culture.

One aspect of public history that Caro said she especially enjoys is the ability to reach out to a non-academic audience.

“Teaching is a passion of mine. I love being in the classroom and exposing my students to ideas, concepts, or points of views that they have never explored before,” she explained. “It isn’t just the actual act of teaching history that is so important, but it is teaching to appreciate the past, to understand and be aware of other peoples’ histories and cultures, and to understand a historical event through the point of view of others. This is something that I can continue to do in the museum world.  One aspect of my internship is to be out on the museum floor teaching visitors about Latin American food, culture, and migration.”

The podcasts, oral histories and website content she is creating are also teaching opportunities, she added. For example, one of the podcasts will deal with Braceros. But, rather than presenting the traditional narrative of the Bracero, her story will instead focus on their leisure activities.

“There is a common notion that the only thing Braceros did was work all day. Although this is mostly true, they also took part in America’s leisure and consumer culture of the 1930s through the 1960s,” Caro explained.

Another podcast will discuss the history of Latinos in broadcasting and will touch upon the growth of Spanish-language radio in Los Angeles.  “Both of these stories will hopefully echo the approach I take in the classroom, which is to highlight the ‘alternate’ version of history,” she said.

Caro said she likely would not have applied for the internship without encouragement from her Ph.D. advisor, Cathy Gudis, who directs the Public History Program at UCR. “She had faith in me and because of that, I believed in myself. Never in a million years did I think my application would get chosen, but it did. I hope to be an example for others to believe in themselves, reach for the stars, and follow their dreams. You never know. “

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