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Bernardina Bañuelos (center) with daughter Angelica (left) and English in Action tutor Jill Cohen (right).

Featured Article

Lights Up on Language

English in Action’s “Immigrant Voices” Annual Storytelling Event on October 25 Helps Create a Culture Where Everyone Has a Voice

It was a simple soup, made by her mother, with foods harvested by her father: wild turkey, rabbit, and snake. Bernardina Bañuelos, who grew up on a farm in Zacatecas, Mexico, can still remember the taste of this dish, eaten when she was just six years old. She remembers vividly how hard her parents worked to feed their family, but sometimes, she recalls, there simply was not enough to eat. During those times, her father would take his rifle into the mountains near home and hunt for wild game to bring back for his wife and 11 children.

Bañuelos, who now lives in Aspen, was not able to attend school as a young girl. She immigrated to the United States to give her own three children a better life, and in 2016 made the decision to learn English with a tutor through the El Jebel-based literacy nonprofit English in Action. Despite never having received a formal education in her native tongue—she could not read or write growing up—she is now able to speak two languages. After just a year and a half of study, Bañuelos even spoke publicly about her childhood—memories of that turkey soup, the farm, and her family—during the organization’s inaugural 2017 live storytelling event, “Immigrant Voices.” Alongside five other immigrant community members, she took the stage before a packed house at The Temporary (then located in Willits) and delivered a story in her second language of English for nearly 15 minutes.

“I want people to know me, because people like me make a difference here,” Bañuelos says of sharing her story in a recording that is viewable on English in Action’s website. “Everybody works so hard, everybody is friendly...People are just working to support their families. Please [do not be] scared to teach people like us. You teach people like me, and you guys make a big difference in the United States.”

English in Action, in partnership with performance artist Alya Howe of Writ Large, will again bring “Immigrant Voices” to life on October 25. Rachel Schmidt, one of the organization’s program coordinators, says the event offers English language students a unique opportunity to hone their skills, gain confidence, and engage in a cross-cultural exchange with the public.

“Preparing for the event is a process of several weeks for the storytellers,” she says. “We produce a storytelling workshop beginning in September, which runs for four two-hour sessions. Typically it’s in-person, but this year due to Covid-19 we planned virtual and in-person content. Students are able to craft their stories with volunteer coaches, practice reading, and learn about the art of storytelling for a live audience. Often our storytellers for ‘Immigrant Voices’ come to the fore during these workshops.”

When the storytellers are selected, they work with Alya Howe to form their personal accounts of love, loss, learning, and life into compelling stories for the stage. After a couple more weeks of preparation and one dress rehearsal, it’s lights up.

“We are so proud of our English in Action storytellers each year,” Schmidt says. “Our community needs their stories and their voices, now more than ever. It takes a lot of courage to tell a personal story onstage in your non-native language.”

This year, a new group of storytellers will perform at the Third Street Center in Carbondale for a hybrid live/virtual event. Audience members will be limited to participants’ friends and family, but the community at large is invited to tune in online. One of this year’s storytellers is Berenicé Forrest, born in Chihuahua, Mexico. Forrest immigrated to the U.S. with her parents in 1987, when she was a child, and she later became a U.S. citizen the day she turned 18. She grew up seeing her parents intent on providing her with “the American dream,” she says. Her father worked in restaurants and her mother did housekeeping for many years, until they were ultimately able to put Forrest and her younger sister through college. Today, Forrest works as the assistant director of the Basalt Regional Library, where she also manages its Spanish Language Outreach program. 

“Now that my sister and I are grown, my parents have retired and moved back to Chihuahua,” she says. “It’s bittersweet, because I just had my first baby last year and he’s their first grandchild. But, they are now living their best lives in Mexico. It’s a dream come true for them to be back home there. My son will be able to go and visit, just like I did with my grandparents.”

Forrest has been preparing for weeks to tell her story, which will be centered around her childhood experiences and her parents’ decision to return to Mexico after so many years on U.S. soil. She feels that an event like “Immigrant Voices” can help humanize what has become a highly politicized topic in American life.

“Every immigrant’s story is so, so different,” Forrest says. “People immigrate for very different reasons, from all over the world, and it’s important for them to be able to talk about their lives. Some are living in the shadows. For many people, to move to a country where you don’t speak the language, or leave your family and your home behind, it’s very difficult.”

“Immigrant Voices” offers a personal glimpse into the lives of locals who aren’t often afforded a platform to speak. With a mission of helping the valley’s non-native English speakers gain a linguistic foothold in their new home, English in Action is able to align its objectives of language education, cultural connection, and celebration of diversity into one very powerful evening. 

“Immigrant Voices”

October 25, 2020

7 p.m.

Live stream at EnglishInAction.org

  • Bernardina Bañuelos (center) with daughter Angelica (left) and English in Action tutor Jill Cohen (right).