Josefa Serna’s Spiritual Collection

Nicole Ucedo
January 6, 2023

The Chicano Studies Research Center (CSRC) received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 2020 to support “Religion, Spirituality, and Faith in Mexican American Social History, 1940s–Present,” a project for the reprocessing, rehousing, and digitization of nine of the CSRC’s collections. Each of these collections contains a significant component of materials related to religious or spiritual belief that were collected by a person or an organization with a long history in Los Angeles and a deep commitment to religion and/or spirituality.

As a research and archive assistant at CSRC, I was appointed to work on one of these nine collections, The Josefa L. Serna Papers. Serna was a Mexican immigrant, a devout Catholic, and a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother who spent most of her life in the community of East Los Angeles. This collection is composed predominantly of photographs, postcards and greeting cards, and religious artifacts. Letters, family documents, other ephemera, and monographs complete the collection. The Serna collection was donated to the CSRC by Josefa’s granddaughter Laura Isabel Serna, professor of history and cinema and media studies at the University of Southern California (USC). The contents of the Serna collection will be rehoused, and the photographs it contains, some sixteen hundred, will be digitally preserved. The digital images will then be described with Laura’s help. This information will be included in the new finding aid for the collection, which will be uploaded to the Online Archive of California (OAC). As the contents are processed, religious and spiritual themes will be highlighted in the finding aid, allowing researchers to easily locate the documents and objects in the collection that are related to religion and spirituality.

Josefa Serna in Ensenada, Baja California Norte, Mexico, in 1957. Josefa L. Serna Papers, box 2, folder 2.

The Josefa L. Serna Papers, a small collection of approximately twenty linear feet, was previously housed at USC. The CSRC’s goal for the collection is to scan all photographs not previously scanned and upload them to an accessible online server, add descriptions for each item in the new finding aid, and, finally, to rehouse the contents in permanent archival housing. The first thing I did was to familiarize myself with the collection and the strategies taken by the USC archivists. I also read through the existing finding aid, which included a brief biography of Josefa Serna. The collection was originally organized into nine series: Correspondence, Family Documents, Business Documents, Photographs, Ephemera, Publications, Textiles, Artifacts, and Audiovisual Materials. To simplify the organization, I grouped the collection into five series: Correspondence, Documents, Ephemera, General, and Monographs, with subseries within most of the series. As I reorganized the collection into these more condensed series, I went through and jotted down brief titles for each document, or folder of documents, and object. The rough draft of the revised finding aid contains brief descriptions for every item in the thirty-one boxes that now make up the collection.

I like to go through a collection two or three times to get a sense of where to permanently house each item before I start to reorganize. This is an intimate process that allows me to gain an understanding of the collection’s contents, and it’s something I truly value. I’ve sorted through the Serna collection twice, and I’m starting to feel like I’m getting to know Josefa. Basic facts about her life were conveyed by Laura Serna. Josefa “Pepa” Serna was one of six siblings born to Delfina Reyes García and Francisco Luna in Torreón, Coahuila. She settled in Los Angeles with her family in 1922. She later met Teodoro “Lolo” Serna, a fellow Mexican immigrant from Zacatecas. They married in 1929 and had five children that they raised in East Los Angeles. They also brought up one grandchild and one great-grandchild. Serna balanced her life at home with attending church and, later in life, working as a sales clerk at The Sunny Shop, a women’s clothing store on East First Street in East Los Angeles.1 In 1961 she became a naturalized US citizen. In 1982 Lolo passed away, and in 2007 Josefa passed away at the age of ninety-six.

Josefa and Teodor Serna as newlyweds, 1929. Josefa L. Serna Papers, box 12, folder 5.

The collection reflects Serna’s connection to her religion, a connection documented by church documents, photographs, and devotional objects. Serna attended Our Lady of Solitude—or, as it is known by its congregants, La Soledad—on Brooklyn Avenue (now Cesar Chavez Avenue) in East Los Angeles. She and Lolo were married in this church, and she continued to regularly attend it throughout her life. The collection includes documents commemorating family baptisms at La Soledad as well as those for confirmations and baptisms at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, a nearby church in East Los Angeles.

Serna’s religious artifacts, which are housed in three small boxes, are in perfect condition. She collected rosaries, medallions, and scapulars. Her family has described her as “firm in her religious convictions,” a statement borne out by the collection.2 About a quarter of the photographs in the collection are inscribed on the back, often to make note of a religious event. A studio portrait taken on March 7, 1947, commemorates a confirmation: “Como un recuerdo para mis compadres Pepa y Lolo, del gran día en que fue confirmada[,] mi querida ahijada Carmen. Quien los estima, Herlinda.” (As a souvenir for my godparents Pepa and Lolo, of the big day on which was confirmed my dear goddaughter Carmen. [From] who looks up to you, Herlinda.)

A brown scapular. Josefa L. Serna Papers, box 23.
An inscription to Serna on the back of a photograph taken in 1947 to commemorate a confirmation ceremony. Josefa L. Serna Papers, box 2, folder 3.

I’m especially struck by the inscriptions because they indicate a practice that has faded away in our digital era. Many of the notes written on the photographs start with “Como un recuerdo para”—as a souvenir or memory for—suggesting that the inscribed photographs, along with letters, were an important way of staying in touch with relatives. These direct messages to family members and friends stand out to me because today it is common for families to catch up via social media, often with comments on publicly posted images. I read the directness in the messages on the photos as intimate or intentional. Serna kept the letters and photographs in the collection in pristine condition, offering a clue to their importance. The messages and reminders of birthdays, anniversaries, baptisms, and confirmations that I’ve read describe a life devoted to family and faith.

As a native Angeleno, I’ve enjoyed recognizing the local architecture and flora that appear in snapshots and the addresses of photo studios that are stamped on the back of portraits. Many of the snapshots have palm trees and California bungalows in the background. The photographs offer a record of what day-to-day life was like in Serna’s neighborhood.

Ignacio “Nacho” Serna, Josefa and Teodoro’s son, early 1930s. Josefa L. Serna Papers, box 12, folder 14.

This stamp on the back of a studio portrait identifies the studio as Cantu Peña Photo Studio in East Los Angeles. Several of the photographs in the collection are from this studio.

Josefa L. Serna Papers, box 15, folder 1

The textiles in the collection tell part of Serna’s story without the aid of words. Doilies and table runners beautifully embroidered with flowers and fruit or in geometric patterns suggest that Serna took pride in her home and enjoyed adorning it with handiwork. A child’s sweater, elaborately crocheted in pink yarn, has me wondering whether it was created for one of her twenty grandchildren (or many great-grandchildren). We can’t be certain that Serna made this sweater or any of the other pieces, but the sewing patterns in the collection (box 27) indicate that she may have. This is supported by the USC finding aid, which states that Serna “was a very good seamstress and loved to embroider and crochet. She made blankets, sweaters, and booties for the family’s many new babies, and she created many of the fashionable dresses that she, always impeccably dressed, wore.”3 The textiles have been incredibly well preserved all these years. The style of the embroidery in the collection is very traditional. The cross-stitched rose shown below is at the corner of the table topper, a square of fabric that may have been used as a centerpiece.

A pink crocheted sweater. Josefa L. Serna Papers, box 10, item 003.
Cross-stitching on a table topper. Josefa L. Serna Papers, box 17, item 014.

The objects in the Serna collection provide not only a deeply personal portrayal of one woman’s life but also insights into the lives of many Chicanxs living in Eastside neighborhoods in the 1930s through the turn of the century. These memories in tactile form are a meaningful and useful contribution to the CSRC archive, especially because few archival collections focus on the everyday lives of Chicanxs in Los Angeles. Through the generous support of the NEH, the CSRC will make Josefa Serna’s collection available to all interested researchers in early 2022.

Nicole Ucedo is a research and archive assistant at CSRC and a research and curatorial assistant at the Film and Television Archive at UCLA. She holds a MA in cinema and media studies from UCLA and a BA in film production from Bard College. She lives in and is originally from Los Angeles.

1 Isabel Laura Serna, “Material Culture and the Affective Dimensions of Chicana/o History: A Research Note,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 45, no. 2 (2020): 131–49.

2 From the biographical note in finding aid prepared for the Josefa Serna collection when it was housed at USC. The finding aid was prepared by Jacqueline Morin and Rohan Panikar and is dated October 22, 2012. The finding aid is in my possession; it is not available online.

3 From the biographical note in finding aid prepared at USC.