The Story of Their Lives

A new program collects the voices of Latinos in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

By Erasmo Guerra Nov 11, 2009

(Pictured in photo: Marithelma Costa and Alfredo Villanueva)

November 11, 2009

Before texts, Tweets and Facebook updates, there was talk. Telling stories was the original social medium for sharing family dramas, relationship woes and personal triumphs.

“We entertain people with the story of our lives,” said Alfredo Villanueva, a poet who recently took part in Historias, an oral history project that collects and preserves the voices of Latinos throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.

Villanueva, 65, who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in Venezuela and moved to New York more than 30 years ago, said that storytelling is a large part of Latino identity. “I cannot recall a party at home that didn’t end up with everyone telling tales,” he said.

Historias (“stories”) is a new effort by StoryCorps, a nonprofit established with the mission “to honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening.” Since 2003, the conversations of nearly 50,000 people have been recorded in 40-minute exchanges among family members or close friends, often at public “StoryBooths.”

Launched earlier this fall, Historias speaks to the growing Latino presence in the American narrative, as they now represent the fastest-growing segment of the population. These stories will join the broader collection of recordings that have been aired on National Public Radio and archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

During this first year of Historias, StoryCorps plans to gather 700 individual testimonies as they go on a national tour, making stops in over 20 cities in the United States and Puerto Rico.

They’ve already made visits to New York Latino community groups in Washington Heights,  Queens and, over a two-day period in late September, at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where Villanueva had come to share what he called “Polaroids”—snapshots of memory that make up his life.

He recalled the grandfather—“He died before I was born,” Villanueva explained—who worked as a janitor in a rum factory, a story that had been told to him by his mother and aunts, whom he called “the suppliers of the past.”

Marithelma Costa, who interviewed Villanueva, said she believes the oral tradition and the passing down of stories isn’t given enough importance in these times. A scholar of medieval history, Costa said that these days, people watch TV or play video games. “They don’t talk,” she said. “And if they do talk, they gossip.”

“We even gossip about ourselves,” Villanueva agreed with a laugh.

Elba Cabrera, 76, who sailed to the U.S. from Puerto Rico when she was not yet two years old, arrived at the studio set up in a Hunter College classroom to record her memories about how she and her two sisters had grown up in El Barrio and then the Bronx during the 1930s and 1940s.

She wanted to speak about her experiences, she said, because they were “part of a larger story about the migrants from Puerto Rico.” She also wanted to clear up widely held misconceptions about Puerto Ricans. She pointed out, “We’re citizens, even though a lot of people don’t know it.” (Puerto Rico has been an unincorporated territory of the U.S. since 1899, after the U.S. invaded the island during the Spanish-American war, and political control was ceded by Spain in the Treaty of Paris.)

Cabrera was interviewed by her son, Paul Mondesire, 50.  He said he sees these accounts of migrants and immigrants as true American stories.  And, though he and his mother have sat down routinely to talk over the years—the last time was over champagne on the day of President Obama’s inauguration—he still gets swept up by his mother’s anecdotes. “To hear about the way New York was when she was growing up, the wistful tone when she talked about being able to leave the doors open because you didn’t have to worry about things,” he said.  “Or finding out that she met my dad the first time she went to the Palladium and that Tito Puente and Machito were playing.”

Yazmin Peña, 28, a poet born in the Dominican Republic and now living in Brooklyn, grew up reading Spanish literary classics like Don Quixote and One Hundred Years of Solitude.  But hearing real stories of people’s lives has brought her a different kind of insight. “You’re a witness to what could be a very personal moment between two people,” she said.

As one of the newer additions to the StoryCorps team, Peña makes door-to-door visits across the country, setting up digital recording equipment and coaching storytellers through their sessions, capturing three interviews on a typical day. Peña said the process has trained her to listen harder and ask better questions. The project has also enabled her to appreciate her own family history with a sharper, more sympathetic clarity.

She had known her mother didn’t have an easy childhood, for example, but she said, “It never occurred to me to ask her how it felt to be 10 years old and working.” She plans to discover that side of her family’s legacy on November 27—StoryCorps’ “National Day of Listening”—when she sits down at the booth in downtown Manhattan to interview her mother.

To find out more about StoryCorps and listen to stories, go to

Erasmo Guerra lives and writes in New York City.