Everyone has a story. It’s a reporter’s job to get to the part of someone’s life that captures a compelling moment that will motivate, entertain, or move the reader. Of course, unless it’s something ‘newsworthy,’ most people aren’t asked to tell theirs. And that’s too bad. There are some remarkable stories that might just change a life.
That’s what Angeline Sturgis hopes for anyway.
Sturgis isn’t a reporter, nor even a storyteller. She’s a retired ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher who moved from New Jersey to Easton. What Sturgis does well is listen. It started with a friend of hers, a janitor from Cuba named William, who worked at her old school. “William would tell me his amazing story,” said Sturgis, “about how he had come to the United States when he was in his early 20s. One day I said to him, ‘William, you have to write this story down!’ And he said, ‘Why? Do you think I’m going to forget it?’ And I said, ‘No. For other people.’”
That was the beginning. Sturgis took her laptop down to his tiny janitor closet and documented his words. She then asked William’s 6-year-old daughter to illustrate the narrative. Once completed, Sturgis found an online site that allowed her to create a picture/photo book. Within a short time, she had chronicled other stories from her students.
After her move to the Eastern Shore, Sturgis looked to volunteer her time. She heard about Chesapeake Multicultural Resource Center (ChesMRC), an organization that provides services to non-English speaking residents from Talbot and surrounding counties, and asked if they’re be interested in her immigrant stories. With help from a small grant from Talbot Arts Council, Sturgis turned to Victoria Gomez Lozano, ChesMRC’s Hispanic Outreach Coordinator, for assistance in identifying the ‘storytellers.’ Three Easton families volunteered. Each family is from one of three countries: Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras, countries that are representative of the immigrant population on the Eastern Shore.
As these books were being written, Sturgis imagined a small gathering, at a local church perhaps, where these stories would be read aloud, while the pictures drawn by the children would be projected on a screen. She already knew how moving such an event would be, having experienced it in Jersey.
That’s when Matthew Peters, Executive Director of ChesMRC, stepped in. He agreed that these stories were important but knew they needed to be shared on a larger scale. “We’re not an advocacy group or organization,” said Peters, “and we’re not advocating for any change. But we also know the real stories behind what we see every day. What’s normal for us is not being told or heard because it’s too tough. Politics and idealisms aside, we need to start listening to these accounts.”
They were never similar, says Sturgis, yet each touched her. She mentioned parts from the books that stood out for her. One was a drawing from the book called The Pieces of My Heart. “The grandson illustrated it with a heart that keeps shattering. And every time something awful happens to his grandmother, a piece of the heart chips off.” Or this quote from one of the books: “This was harrowing for all of us, but especially for me, because at 14, I was now practically a mother to my seven-year-old brother, responsible for his welfare, and far more aware of the dangers of international travel by unaccompanied children. The two of us were sent off by bus to make our way alone through Central America. It was as awful as all the stories we had ever heard.”
What’s important to Sturgis that people understand is that her focus is not on the adversity of these families. “That’s why I call this project Telling the Family Story,” she said. “It’s not called, Against the Odds. These are snippet of the universal desire to work hard and get ahead. It’s, for lack of a better word, the American Dream.”
Once completed, the only thing that needed to be considered was how to best honor these stories. With Peters’ backing, a decision was made that with Hispanic Heritage Month occurring in September, the right time was now. The Avalon Theater was the right place, and a fundraising event would be held to expose Easton (and the world) to the emotional themes and the journeys that led these three families to the Eastern Shore.
So on September 24th at 7:00 pm at the Stoltz Pavillion, ChesMRC will present “Nuestras Raices (Our Roots),” where each family will read their unique chronicle. Signed copies of the books will be available after the show. The Director of the Center for Cultural Engagement at The Catholic University of America, Javier Bustamante, will be the keynote speaker and musician, Tori Gomez will perform. Following the event, there will be a mingling session where attendees can meet the families.
This will be a day that Sturgis has been looking forward to—not for herself, but for the families whose stories she captured. “My name is nowhere on these books,” she said, “they are the authors, and the children are the illustrators. And can you imagine if you had to leave school in the fourth grade—being the author of a book! Each story shows that what they went through was to benefit their children because they knew that life was too dangerous not to do anything else.”
The books will be available in either English or Spanish. They are:
The Pieces of My Heart, by Veronica Renero Paz and illustrated by her grandson, Jose. She talks about her life in Guatemala and her determination to keep her family together as they traveled to a new country.
Love Leads the Way, by Trinidad Bravo Bravo, is a story about two Mexican teens whose parents were determined to keep them apart and their commitment to make their relationship work, no matter how far they needed to travel. It is illustrated by three of the couple’s children, Jeremy Jonas, Jadiel, and Genesis Rosario.
Because of Mommy Tomi, by Estela Vianey Ramirez Ulloa and illustrated by her daughters Daniela and Natalie, is a heartbreaking account about the bond between a grandmother and her young granddaughter and the ultimate sacrifice the grandmother had to make to protect the children she was raising in Honduras.
Everyone has a story.
To purchase tickets for this event, go here. https://tickets.avalontheatre.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=1309
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.