On a Thursday earlier this May, four Arts Midwest staff members joined NEA Big Read grantee ArtReach St. Croix in welcoming acclaimed Mexican-American writer Luís Alberto Urrea to the St. Croix Valley for a public conversation with Krista Tippett, host of the popular podcast “On Being”. In this four-part series, they each share their individual takeaways from that evening.
Emma Bohmann, Arts Midwest Development Manager
“What power is it that stories wield over us? How is it that they can move us to tears, inspire laughter, linger with us for days after their telling?”
Before he joined Krista Tippett in Stillwater’s Trinity Lutheran Church, before he spoke of love and borders and the lines that do, but should not, divide us, Luís Alberto Urrea sat at a table after a meal and told a story.
We were a disparate group: staff members from Arts Midwest and ArtReach St. Croix, local librarians, and four high school girls who’d created a podcast inspired by Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North. We were surrounded by sunlight and photographs of the immigrant experience, by the paper plates, napkins, and crumbs left from our dinner. We sat, silent and transfixed, as Urrea spoke.
Nayeli, he said, referring to the protagonist of Into the Beautiful North, is a real person. And then Urrea told us about her, this real-life Nayeli: about the Tijuana garbage dump where he’d met her mother at the age of seven; about knowing Nayeli since she was born; about her mother’s vow not to let Nayeli grow up to work the dump; about visiting the dump while recording a This American Life segment; about taking Nayeli out for a seafood dinner after the segment was complete, only to discover she had a severe shellfish allergy.
“I held her in my arms,” he said. “She was dying in my arms.”
What power is it that stories wield over us? How is that they can move us to tears, inspire laughter, linger with us for days after their telling? Since hearing Urrea’s story last week, I have been unable to erase it from my mind. The homes built on mounds of garbage; the desperate race to the doctor as Nayeli’s throat closed; the promise, after the crisis had passed, to write a book about Nayeli, to make her famous; her incredulity, and his, shifting to astonishment as the novel came to fruition; and the way we listened, engrossed by the tale.
I’ve heard it said that our storytelling is what sets humans apart from other animals. While I cannot empirically state that this is the case, the claim resonates with me, for stories bear the truth of who we are. Urrea’s story contained kindness and humor and pathos and joy and anger and gratitude. At its heart—and at the heart of all his books—lay a deep, abiding love for all of humanity.
Without stories, we are no one. But with them, we are magnificent. With them, we are us.