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Ingrid Rojas Contreras searches for the forgotten magic in immigrant stories

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For all thirteen years as an immigrant I have collected answers to this question: When you traveled over what special item did you bring?

A poetry book. A dress. A father’s bow tie. I used to ask this more when I lived in Chicago, where I often found myself in the wee hours of the night waiting for the owl bus, huddling with strangers under the shelter of one heat lamp.

I remember a young Mexican bartender who told me a flag and a tall African man who said for him it was his mother’s white, leather slippers. A friend recently told me he knew of people who brought the key to their house in the old land, even though they no longer owned it, and in one occasion, when they returned not the door nor the building existed.

The conundrum of being an immigrant is that there are things you must always lose.

Even in the realm of stories, there are those we let go of, we cease to tell. There are many reasons for this—they may feel extraneous or contradictory to the beliefs and mores of the new land, they are painful to dredge up, they are weird, they are other.

The story I stopped telling once I arrived to the United States is about my grandfather: he was a folk healer in Colombia who it is said could move clouds. The moment I stepped on North American soil I knew that even though it was my heritage, this story, with its fierce defiance of the North American cult to logic, intellectualism, the division of black and white, was not a story that could fit in.

So I segregated stories between languages. In Spanish, I could tell the stories about my grandfather, about my mother appearing in two places at once, about my aunt being able to physically see a shadow settle on someone’s face when they were marked for death.

Recently, it dawned on me that this is self-censorship.

An immigrant cannot lay claim on a new land unless they can tell the stories, all the stories, even the weird ones, out loud.

For me, radio as a medium of pure voice holds an enigmatic appeal visit us. It’s as close as I can think to get to the old way in which stories were told. It’s a public forum, where one voice can rise above all others, and the rest of us can slow down and listen.

Me, I am obsessed with oral storytelling and the familiar shapes it takes in each culture. My storytelling fellowship project can be a way to bridge this space between the old and new ways of telling a story.

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