Nestor Gomez, "creator, producer, curator, and host" of the immigrant-focused storytelling series, 80 Minutes Around the World, has always lived and breathed words and storytelling. "When I was a kid [growing up in Guatemala]," Gomez explains, "my father would play these records of poetry read by famous Latin American poets. Sometimes they were short poems by someone like Octavio Paz. Sometimes they were longer poems that told a story. And I used to lose my mind listening to them."
Listening turned into telling and writing, and by the time he was in high school he was writing poetry every night. "And after, not as much as I used to in high school. But I was still writing." Eventually he filled binders and binders with his words. "Some of the poems were bad. But it was just the fact of writing a poem every day. I didn't show them to anyone."
Gomez's words remained hidden in binders until he found his voice, and was confident to let others hear that voice. Before he could tell his stories, he had to live them.
Born in Guatemala City, his life has been a whirlwind since at least 15, when he and his brothers and sisters moved to Chicago, undocumented and knowing almost no English, learning it on the fly.
"My mother and father came here first," he says. "They were trying to get money together to buy a house." But before his parents could get that house in Chicago, they separated and later divorced. Nestor's mom brought her kids to Chicago anyway.
Nestor went to Roberto Clemente High School, and then got married right after high school. "I got my girlfriend pregnant. I told my mother, 'She is going to move in with us,' she went, 'Uh-uh, she is moving out of her house, she is going to get married.' She was my first wife. I ended up being married three times."
Without a college degree, Nestor took whatever job he could. "I used to work at a Taco Bell. I used to work 60, 70 hours a week. I worked my way up to management. I started out on the line making tacos. And I worked my way up to assistant manager and then they found out I don't have my immigration papers. And I got fired. When I lost my job at Taco Bell I had to keep going. I can't just go home and cry. I have to go and start from the bottom again.
"There was a time when I was so broke. Because I was getting divorced for the second time. We had bought a house. This was when the real estate market went boom. I lost quite a lot of money. I lost a lot of money. There was a time when I was half a million dollars in debt. Me and my ex-wife bought a building [in Logan Square]. And we basically lost that. We lost all the money we put into that. It was a good investment. But people were not paying rent, they were behind in rent; we had trouble paying the mortgage. I basically ran away from everything. We had a lot of credit card debt. I said I would take care of that. For the next six years there was like $20 in my savings account for the whole week."
Through all this, Gomez kept writing. And writing. And getting courage to speak his words. Once he went to the Green Mill Lounge to read at the poetry slam. He even signed up to perform. But at the last minute he backed away because his poems were in Spanish, and all the other competitors did poetry in English.
But Gomez was determined to perform in public. "I used to stutter," he says. "[Performing] was a thing I did to get rid of my fear of public speaking."
Gomez discovered The Moth, a storytelling competition similar to the poetry slam. Gomez decided to try his luck telling stories, in English, at The Moth.
"For my birthday [my girlfriend] bought me a ticket for The Moth. And I wrote a story for that. I practiced it at home. I practiced it in front of some friends. I went to the slam. I told my story. And I won." Gomez pauses, and gives a look suggesting that he still can't believe it. "I didn't expect to win," he confesses. "If you win, they invite you to the grand slam. And I freaked out. I knew how good the others were. I started going to a lot of [storytelling] slams and telling my story. It became a big part of my life."
Gomez didn't know he was a storyteller, but he had been preparing to be one his whole life.
Gomez has a likable, unpolished, unpretentious teddy-bearlike presence on stage. He just steps out and begins speaking. He doesn't do anything fancy with his words; he lets what he has to say pull his audience in. He talks about his life, and all he has been through, and we are fascinated.
"I tell stories about crossing the border. I tell stories about growing up in Guatemala. I tell stories about my first day in the United States. My first day of school in the United States. The birth of my daughter. The birth of my son. My first divorce. My second divorce. There are very few things I have not told a story about." Gomez pauses and laughs, "I have a story about going to the washroom and washing my hands."
Then he adds: "It is not that I am a great writer, that I come up with great ideas, it is that I have a lot of stupid stuff in my life. If I hadn't made all those mistakes, I wouldn't have that much to write about." v
Gomez and 80 Minutes Around the World perform three consecutive Fridays as part of this year's Fillet of Solo Festival, which highlights the work of several storytelling collectives around the city this year. Gomez plans to unveil a new story at each of the performances.