Tell it like it is: Stories on Asheville’s Front Porch series spotlights diversity

STORIFY: Asheville resident and first-generation Cuban-American Althea Gonzalez will tell stories as part of Latino Day, the July 5 program in this year's Stories on Asheville's Front Porch series. Photo by Rodney Smith of Tempus Fugit Design
STORIFY: Asheville resident and first-generation Cuban-American Althea Gonzalez will tell stories as part of Latino Day, the July 5 program in this year's Stories on Asheville's Front Porch series. Photo by Rodney Smith of Tempus Fugit Design

Before coming to Asheville, Sarah Larson, the founder/director of the Stories on Asheville’s Front Porch series, taught storytelling to high school students through a required course in genealogy. She encouraged her students to research their ancestors’ cultures, Larson says, “and then they had to learn a story from that culture.”

Larson brought her passion for storytelling with her when she moved to Asheville. And when she graduated from the Leadership Asheville Seniors program, she recruited fellow graduates to help her with the project that became Stories on Asheville’s Front Porch. “We saw ourselves preserving the tradition of storytelling in the mountains,” she says. But in addition to promoting that art, Larson says, “our dream was to get all the voices on the porch.”

This year’s theme, the kaleidoscope as a symbol of diversity, provided a natural fit with the founders’ mission to build community. Larson worked with Sarah Nuñez, a Colombian-born writer and activist, to put together the lineup for Latino Day, the July 5 program. “It’s exciting, but also really scary. You’re putting yourself on a stage in front of people,” Nuñez says. She and Larson invited storytellers who will explore the wide differences in background and experience among the Latino community.

Nuñez, who came to Raleigh from Bogotá when she was a child, will “talk about myself as a one-and-a-half generationer,” she says, “and how it feels to be stuck in two identities as a Colombian woman and a woman from the United States, North Carolina, the South.”

Artist Victor Palomino, also a Colombian, will tell stories about migrating to the U.S. from Colombia and living in Asheville for several years. Ultimately, Palomino recalls, “I realized that Asheville was also my home. That was a big realization. To have the privilege to have two homes in the world.” The program will feature artwork by Palomino (and by painter Sandra Garcia). The art is not simply ornamental, however: Palomino feels that his sculptures, which use recycled and repurposed materials, are “a reflection of my life — by migrating and traveling to a different place, you reinvent yourself. You reuse all different parts of yourself.”

The July 5 lineup also includes Cuban-American Andrea Garcia and Carolina Silicel, a Mexican-American who graduated from Brevard College this spring. Silicel, whose parents came from Mexico, says, “My story shows you a little bit of the farmworker, rags-to-riches kind of dream that the movies portray.” But she will also recount the challenges she faced as an undocumented student in North Carolina’s public schools (“I faked not knowing English for a while to help other students,” she confesses), and how it felt when one of her guidance counselors was unsure whether she could even attend college. “I’m going to talk about what it felt like to walk into that office and hear that after all these years of working hard, I was going to be segregated after I left high school.”

In the end, years of hard work paid off for Silicel. She hopes listeners will come away from her story inspired to do as she has done and “embrace your identity.”

But even though each storyteller will recount the journeys they took to find their personal identities, the participants in this Saturday’s program hope to also reveal the kaleidoscope of identities lumped under the Latino label. “Latino is a very simple term for a very broad class of people,” Nuñez says.

Silicel seconds this idea. “Sometimes ‘Latino’ is given one face,” she says. The storytelling program “is giving ‘Latino’ many faces.”

The kaleidoscope theme carries through each of this summer’s five programs. The series kicked off June 28 with nationally recognized African-American storyteller Bobby Norfolk. The July 12 installment features Gullah storyteller Tim Lowry. On July 19, four pillars of the Asheville community — Emöke B’Racz, founder of Malaprop’s; Howard Hanger, founder of Jubilee!; and restaurateurs Hector Diaz and Reza Setayesh — will tell stories relating their varied backgrounds to the diversity they have discovered in Asheville. The series concludes on July 26 with performances by members of the Asheville Storytelling Circle.

The storytelling series is meant to celebrate the stories as much as the people who tell them. “It’s a soulful, sacred experience, to be in the presence of and to be a listener to someone’s story,” says Larson. “It is entertaining and it’s fun, but it’s so much more.”

WHAT  Stories on Asheville’s Front Porch

WHERE  The Rhino Courtyard at Pack Place

WHEN  Saturdays, July 5, 12, 19 and 26 at 10:30 a.m. Free. avl.mx/0bx

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About Doug Gibson
I live in West Asheville. I do a lot of reading. Follow me on Twitter: @dougibson

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