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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Spars

Bringing Chicago to the Sonoma Classroom

On Wednesday April 28, the Humanities 3 classroom was wowed by a visit from Chicago Moth Storytelling Slam champion Nestor Gomez. Nestor has won 62 Moth Slams, and, in addition to running his own storytelling website, has been at the center of collecting stories from immigrants to the US.

Over the past few months I have brought several storytellers to my classroom to help my high school juniors see the diversity in voices and experiences that can be captured in telling stories. Some, like Linda Yemoto and Sheila Arnold, tell traditional tales, while others, like Ben Tucker and Nestor, tell true personal stories. My students have learned about the Reconstruction Era, the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, the Dust Bowl, and World War Two. We are headed into the Civil Rights Movement. I believe what they are going to remember from this class are the voices and faces of the four tellers who have come.

Nestor began with stories set in his place of birth, Guatemala. At twelve, he was the man of the house, and he had to help his mother sell the "worry dolls" that she made for tourists. It was Nestor who had to take the bus to bring boxes of these dolls to shops at the airport and near the presidential palace. Some of his early adventures took place on these bus rides. He recounted the first time when his mother was showing him the bus route. He was trying to step into his role as the man of the house, but on the public bus, he was exposed to a vision of just how formidable his mother could be as she fought to get through a crowd, scolded him for letting go of her hand, and then sat him in her lap. The story ended with a beautiful blend of Nestor's becoming independent from her while still being enveloped in her loving embrace. As she held him, he fell asleep to her voice telling him to sleep well, that she loved him, and he was her little man of the house.

One of Nestor's stories presented a spectrum of Latino identity coming into intersection with African Americans in Chicago. Nestor, upon arriving undocumented, quickly took up with Mexican American friends who called him "Amigo," something that was rarley used in Guatemala (he called his friends "boss"). When Nestor saw an African American boy for the first time, he remarked to his Mexican American friends about the color of the young man's skin using the Spanish word for the color black, which was heard and misunderstood by the African American. Nestor and the African American were drawn into a conflict, which was mediated by the Mexican Americans. The encounter ended with the African American calling him "Amigo," and Nestor correcting him, as he shook his hand. "Not Amigo, but friend."

Many of the seven or eight stories Nestor told us were about how hard he was working, although this was never the conscious focus of the story. Nestor worked so many shifts at Taco Bell and other places that he seldom saw his two children. He cherished the photographs his wife took with a Kodak camera, and once, when he called in sick to stay home, he used the knowledge he gained from the photos as a guide for how to take care of his kids. The story was imbued with humor as he tried to recreate each photo he had seen of his young ones eating, listening to books being read aloud, and bathing. Underneath the light tone and humor was a gravity that made each scene, each moment in his account, filled with value for the simplest, most common activities: watching your child play or fall asleep. Of course, the "turd" in the bath bucket stole the show in this story.

It was wonderful to watch my students get slowly swept up in the arc of Nestor's life that he painted over the course of his 75 minutes with us. This has been a week in which students had to take the SAT while prepping for the AP exams, which are next week. They came in tense, their mouths tight with hard frowns, but this slowly loosened as they began to smile. There was plenty of raucous laughter by the end, but the real magic of Nestor's telling is the gentle smile that his stories inspire between the moments of outright laughter. I have one right now as I am writing this.

Humanities III Classroom, Sonoma Academy, Wednesday, April 28, 2021


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