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Chicago show brings immigrant stories, journeys to centerstage

By January 22, 2020September 30th, 2022Arts & Culture

Nestor Gomez’s storytelling showcase 80 Minutes Around the World focuses on the personal in a time of competing narratives about immigration.

By January 22, 2020September 30th, 2022Arts & Culture

Nestor Gomez’s storytelling showcase 80 Minutes Around the World focuses on the personal in a time of competing narratives about immigration.

Above: Nestor Gomez wins his 41st Moth Slam on Dec. 16, 2019, at Lincoln Hall in Chicago, Ill. Photo by Matt Lingenfelter/The Moth 

When Nestor Gomez came to the United States from Guatemala in the mid-1980s as a 15-year-old, he only knew a few words of English. Today, he is the force behind Chicago’s regular immigrant storytelling performance, 80 Minutes Around the World: Immigration Stories.

Gomez’s first introduction to live storytelling came in Chicago in 2014, when he signed up for The Moth StorySLAM at Martyrs’ on the city’s North Side. He says he hoped the performance would help him overcome his fear of public speaking. 

Gomez continued to perform in The Moth events, but after President Trump was elected he felt the need to bring more stories like his own to the stage. The result was a storytelling performance featuring true stories told by immigrants, their descendants and allies curated and hosted by Gomez dubbed 80 Minutes Around the World.

Since its debut in 2017, a revolving cast of storytellers, writers and comedians have brought their personal experiences to life in over a dozen performances in Chicago and New York City. Performers include Danny Forster, the host of the Science Channel’s series Build it Bigger, and Anurag Gupta, a lawyer turned entrepreneur who gave a 2017 TED Talk on removing unconscious bias. 

Last year, Gomez partnered with Hong Kong immigrant Angel Ling, herself a podcaster and storyteller, to produce a podcast based on the show called Immigration Stories with Nestor Gomez. The podcast features selections from performances and conversations with performers about their story and its relevance amid shifting immigration policies. 

Ahead of hosting a performance of 80 Minutes Around the World this Friday in Chicago, Gomez spoke to Borderless Magazine’s Nissa Rhee about the project.

Nestor Gomez pictured at First Person Livea storytelling show in Arlington Heights, Ill. Photo by Diane Kastiel

Borderless: I first met you when you performed at a storytelling event we held to mark the first anniversary of the Muslim Travel Ban in 2018. How has the world changed since then for storytellers like yourself who talk about their immigration journey?   

Gomez: I think there are more stories being told now. Because of the political climate, we know that we have to speak up. We know that if we don’t speak up, then other people are going to tell our stories and other people will be telling information that is either misleading or completely wrong about immigrants. 

So I think the current climate has helped a lot of people speak up about not only what are things the administration is doing wrong but our own history. With the current administration, there are a lot of anti-immigration policies that the president has enacted to keep people of color from coming into the country and to try to get rid of people of color who are already in the country. And the situation at the border, the Muslim Ban, all of those things have made us aware that we have to speak up.

Borderless: Tell me about the storytellers in 80 Minutes Around the World. What types of people do you include? 

Gomez: We try to be diverse. From the very first day that we did the show, I didn’t want to have just a bunch of Latinos talking about crossing the border. That’s what most people think about immigration. No, immigration comes from all areas of the world. So from the very first show, I’ve wanted a diverse line up of storytellers telling stories from Latin America, from Europe, from Asia, from Africa. 

We tell stories from people who are documented who become undocumented. They came with documents but then they didn’t have documents anymore. We also try to include at least one person from the LGBTQ spectrum in each show. We wish we could include more people with disabilities, but we have only been able to include two or three people with disabilities in our show. 

At least a quarter of the people who have told stories in our show have never told a story in their life before. Not only are there a lot of people out there speaking out, but we also try to do our part by bringing more storytellers out.

Borderless: What has been the impact of the stories that are shared in 80 Minutes Around the World?

Gomez: For me, it’s been a sense of being proud that I’m able to provide a platform for people to tell their stories. I came to this country undocumented, I didn’t speak any English and I used to stutter. And to be able to tell stories in front of an audience and to give other people the chance to tell their stories, which makes me feel really proud.

For the audience, I hope the impact has been that they have been educated about other people’s immigrant experience and that they are able to build bridges from their own experiences to our experiences.

I go to high schools that have a large immigrant population and they tell me it’s really exciting to see somebody of color with their own experiences sharing in front of their class.

Borderless: But not all of the responses have been positive, right? I’ve seen you share some of the hate mail you’ve gotten on social media.

Gomez: Yes, it’s mostly been on Twitter. There’s a lot of people who let me know that they’re not happy with what I do and they are not happy with the fact that I came to this country undocumented.

So that happens and I usually gather them and post 30 to 50 of those new messages on my Facebook account once a month. I started doing it because I was feeling overwhelmed by all of the hate. And at the same time, it helps me remember why we’re doing this. Because there are people who are ignorant or don’t know any better. So we continue to do our stories because they need to be informed and educated. Hopefully, once they listen to a story they could understand the reality is different from what they think.

Borderless: What are we as the media getting wrong about immigration stories?

Gomez: The media is getting a lot of things wrong. Some of the media demonizes immigrants, they say they are criminals, people who don’t want to work or take other people’s jobs. So they get a lot of things wrong. And then a lot of the media that don’t want to portray immigrants in a bad way; [instead they] portray immigrants as victims.

Immigration coverage should be constant. It shouldn’t be something that the news discusses for a couple of weeks and then people aren’t talking about it anymore so the reporters don’t cover it.

I think the Spanish-speaking media could do a lot more to provide information to people and to provide resources. Like where do you look for a good lawyer? What do you do if you’re undocumented and want to become documented? That’s the kind of information that people need.

You can see “80 Minutes Around the World: Immigration Stories” on Friday, January 24 at 8:30 pm at the Lifeline Theatre in Chicago as part of the Fillet of Solo Festival and on Saturday, February 8 at 4:00 pm at Caveat in New York City. Future performances can be found online.

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