Nestor Gomez had a story ready to tell. It was going to be his first time telling one publicly.
And he almost didn’t make it to the stage.
“I was freaking out,” Gomez remembers. “I almost chickened out three times. If it wasn’t for my wife I would have chickened out.”
Gomez was worried about his accent, and about whether an American audience could relate to the stories of an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant.
But he gave it a shot and came in first place that night. You can watch that first story here:
Live competitive storytelling is huge right now, thanks in large part to the success of The Moth Radio Hour on public radio. All over the country, people are telling true stories onstage to live audiences. Many of the Moth live events are story “slams” – competitions with an audience panel selecting winners who go on to “grand slams.”
Gomez is the winningest Moth storyteller in Chicago – he’s won 36 slams so far.
Among the 100-plus stories he’s told are humorous tales about driving Uber to deeply serious ones about his father’s alcoholism, or the sexual abuse he experienced at the hands of an uncle.
“I think that what makes Nestor such a compelling storyteller is he tells stories that have to do with everyday struggles of him navigating through life,” said Joyce Kim, who produces the Chicago Moth slams. “But what I think makes him extra special is when you put that against the backdrop of his own story.”
Gomez has told many stories about life in Guatemala and his family’s illegal trek to the U.S. “It’s 1980. I am 10 years old, living in Guatemala with my siblings and my parents. And we are very poor,” begins one story. His parents come to Chicago for better work, leaving Gomez and his siblings with grandparents. “But the civil war got so bad that my mother decided it wasn’t safe for us to be in Guatemala anymore,” his onstage story continues. “So she decided that she was going to bring us to the United States instead. But she couldn’t wait for visas so she was going to bring us undocumented instead.”
Gomez has made sharing immigrant stories something of a mission. He now produces his own performance series called “Around the World in 80 Minutes: Immigration Stories.” He brings the show, which includes many storytellers, to schools and theaters. On Tuesday and Wednesday night, the show stops at Steppenwolf Theatre.