Story I

Story I

Stories matter. Stories teach us how to live.

Muertos Altar - Michelle OteroI am from people who would never call themselves storytellers, much less artists, from people who do not consciously set aside time each day to express themselves creatively. And yet, creative expression and story are in us. Where I am from, stories were shared, always over beans and thick yet supple, perfectly round flour tortillas with melted butter, over chile colorado and coffee at Grandma China’s or Grandma Rosie’s kitchen table, supplementing the 8-page Deming Headlight with memory and commentary. Sometimes it was just my grandparents and my parents. Sometimes it was with friends who dropped in, Angie the white-haired clerk at City Drug, who was a constant fixture at my grandparents’ table at wedding dances and family functions. Leonor, my Grandma Rosie’s good friend from church, who wore black shoes with laces and thick soles and who patted my head each time she saw me, so I knew she was kind, even though I could not understand the Spanish she spoke. Sometimes with tíos and tías or distant cousins visiting from Silver City or Bayard or El Paso, or if we were lucky, California.

There were stories of my Grandpa Tino’s father, Crecencio, who married four times, though he rarely spoke and by most accounts was a difficult man. He was born in San Luís Potosí to an Irish father and a Huasteca woman whose names are lost to us. They died of smallpox when my great grandpa was a boy, and he was sent to Laredo, Texas to be raised by relatives. Great Grandma Jesus "Susie" - Michelle OteroThere were stories of my Grandma China’s mother, a woman I never met who died in a car accident before I was born. Her name was Jesús, but everyone called her Susie, and though she never reached old age, her face wore the wrinkles of an elderly woman. She raised eight children alone, worked hard during the week, and spent her weekends dancing at the Ranch Bar and Silver Dollar.

There were stories of stories. My dad’s maternal grandfather, Amado, was a schoolteacher for over forty years in Las Palomas and Monticello, New Mexico. People came to him to read and write letters and to resolve disputes. They came to hear his cuentos, told in self-contained chapters, always to be continued the next time they gathered on his porch.

And then there were stories told in hushed tones, raised to full voice only later when enough time had passed to see that the subjects had turned out okay despite his or her missteps or the pain life had caused them. Girls who “got themselves into trouble.” The tío who drank everything in my aunt’s liquor cabinet and refilled the bottles with tea and water.

My Grandpa Tino, who lost years of his life to depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, when the only words we had for what war does to a soul were “shell shock” and “Grandpa’s sick.” They all turned out okay.

This was not a way of preserving culture, but of living it. Not a way of framing stories so they might hang on our walls like images of long-dead relatives, but a cosecha, harvesting the best of us so that we might use it in seasons to come.


Now Latinos in New Mexico have an opportunity to tell their stories. The StoryCorps MobileBooth—an Airstream trailer equipped with a recording studio—will be parked at the National Hispanic Cultural Center for six weeks in May and June. StoryCorps Historias is an initiative to record the diverse stories and life experiences of Latinos in the United States to ensure that the voices of Latinos will be preserved and remembered for generations to come. This is not History with capital H, but a recorded plática between two people who know each other well – best friends, spouses, siblings, mother/daughter, father/son, grandparent/grandchild. (My daddy and I are recording on June 7!) With the help of trained StoryCorps staff, participants record 40-minute interviews in the booth. At the end of the session they take home a free broadcast-quality CD to share with friends and family. A second copy is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress for future generations to hear.

In Albuquerque, StoryCorps Historias is partnering with KUNM, the National Hispanic Cultural Center, and Connecting Community Voices (the non-profit I co-founded with my compañero, Henry – look for CCV’s story in my next post) to ensure that a wide range of Latino voices are recorded and archived. Reservations open to the general public at 10:00 AM this Thursday, May 6. Reserve your spot by calling 1-800-850-4406 or by visiting

Published in: on May 4, 2010 at 10:26 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. OH I hope you are going to Story Corps. I did it with my sister, and it was an incredible experience. We talked about things (we talked about my mom) that we hadn’t talked about. And we really talked. And listened. And now our story is part of the National Archives. It is so important that we know each other’s stories… that is the only way to encourage connection instead of polarization of communities.

    And I love your blog Michelle…

    I’ll see you at Taos! but maybe we can do lunch before that… or you can come to a DimeStories and read one of your pieces (if you can make it fit into 3 minutes!)

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