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Nestor Gomez will always remember the night he stopped by Green Mill’s 2014 poetry slam: For the first time, he was going to read his own poetry to a live audience.
“I put my name on the list to tell a poem,” says the 47-year-old Guatemala native. “But then I realized that everyone was telling their poems in English, and I only knew how to tell mine in Spanish.”
Gomez didn’t get onstage that night, but after attending a few other slams and storytelling gatherings, he eventually stood in front of a crowd a few months later and recounted his first day as an immigrant in Chicago and the comedy-of-errors process of learning that the same word can have varied meanings to Latinos from different countries. When he was crowned the winner, he started to see storytelling and poetry reading as much more than a hobby.
In 2017, he founded 80 Minutes Around the World: Immigration Stories, a bimonthly happening that celebrates the narratives of immigrants, their descendants and their allies through live readings.
“Storytelling is an easy way to relate our experiences, and it has the power to build bridges across communities,” he says. “I’m an immigrant and English is not my first language, but people still find ways to connect with my story, even if their lives are different.”
At the gatherings, the storytellers tackle all sorts of themes: For example, a South Korean immigrant explained why having her name pronounced correctly was so important to her, a first-generation American spoke about her struggle to relate to family back home in Jamaica, and a French woman told her tale of marrying a U.S. citizen for a green card.
“To be a storyteller, you just have to tell your story, whether it’s by reading from a piece of paper or by recalling it from memory,” says Gomez. “A lot of people who come to our series are telling a story for the first time onstage.”
Gomez hopes that the attendees and speakers walk away from his events with compassion and a deeper understanding of other people and cultures.
“We need this kind of dialogue now more than ever,” he says. “For us immigrants, it’s a chance to bring our stories to life so that others might gain a deeper sense not of who others claim us to be, but of who we really are.”