Ever being redefined, the American Dream seems to have become more elusive and remote than ever. But then you talk to Nestor Gomez, and you realize that for many, it is alive and well. “I hope, and I really believe, that the American Dream is about more than just buying a house and having a lot of money.”
Gomez is a storyteller, which is not the easiest way to earn a living, but it satisfies Gomez on many levels. It has enabled him to express himself at various storytelling events here and nationally, making him an important force of that scene, especially as the curator, producer and host of a powerful traveling storytelling show. His “80 Minutes Around the World” is dedicated to immigrant stories from “immigrants, the descendants of immigrants, the friends and allies of immigrants.” Created in response to the previous presidential administration’s anti-immigrant policies, it premiered in 2017 at Lifeline Theatre in Chicago and subsequently was performed on stages in Kentucky, New York and local spots. It has played at the Steppenwolf Theatre.
As Gomez told me then, “It is a way to build bridges rather than walls.”
His own immigrant story is a compelling one.
He was born in Guatemala 50-some years ago into a family that was in the business of making small, colorful dolls that they sold to tourists. But civil wars stopped the flow of tourists and the sales of dolls and forced his parents to come to the U.S. They sent money home to their kids.
Undocumented, Gomez at age 15 came here with two brothers and a sister. None of them spoke English and Nestor had it tougher. So bad was his stutter, his parents lacking money for speech therapy, that he did not speak at all.
He taught himself English at first by watching television, as the family lived in various neighborhoods. He graduated from Roberto Clemente Community Academy, married immediately afterward and began working in a restaurant. Soon two children arrived. “I worked hard and was working my way up to better positions but when they found out I was undocumented, they had to let me go. I wound up as a garbage man and a bus boy. I was just trying to put food on the table and pay the rent.”
He did have a secret life: “It was the only way I could express myself. I would write poems and I would write stories. I only let a few people read them. I buried them under clothes in a drawer.”
One night he felt brave enough read in public, going to the Green Mill. He was, he thought, ready to participate in Marc Smith’s Poetry Slam.
He “chickened out.” His girlfriend at the time, and the woman who is currently his third wife, Melissa Pavlik, convinced him to compete at an upcoming Moth storytelling event. “She gave me the courage,” he says. “I told my story, and I changed my life.”
He won first place that night and he has over the ensuing years become the winningest Moth storyteller in Chicago history. He has told more than 100 stories on stages, and they range from relatively humorous tales to a haunting and chilling story of his father’s alcoholism, wrenching but easier for him to present since his dad has been dead for two decades.
The Moth is a prominent part of the vibrant competitive storytelling scene here and elsewhere with dozens of chapters across the country producer and the weekly “The Moth Radio Hour,” which airs on hundreds of radio stations (here on WBEZ-91.5FM). In Moth events, people tell true stories onstage to live audiences, with a five-minute time limit and without using notes. Many of these events are in the form of competitions, with a panel of audience members selecting winners.
For the last COVID-shadowed months, Gomez has missed the shows, “the opportunity to get out of my bubble and meet other people with other ideas.”
He became a U.S. citizen a few years ago and has long worked for years in the quality control department of S&C Electric Company, a more-than-century-old Chicago firm that develops and manufactures products for the electric power industry.
He lives in the Edgewater neighborhood with his wife; his adult children, Miriam and Geovanni live elsewhere in the city. Before COVID came and clamped down on life, Gomez was excited. He was planning to spend much of 2020 talking to school children and other groups about his new and first book.
“Your Driver Has Arrived” (Tortoise Books) is a gathering of some of the stories Gomez has told about his years as a ride-share driver some years ago.
“I was working other jobs at the time, trying to get myself out of debt,” he says. “I was planning to marry Mel and was tired of being broke.”
The book is small, “so it can fit in the back pocket,” but wonderfully entertaining and potent.
“I didn’t have to change very much the stories from what they were like when performed them on stages,” Gomez says.
On stage, Gomez is a powerful performer, a 5-foot dynamo, and you feel that in print.
He writes: “You never know what the rides have in store for you. Things happen so suddenly that you unsuspectedly become part of your riders’ lives.”
After an encounter with some passengers spouting racist invective, he writes: “In the end I was able to realize that although there are some haters out there, for each of them there are three, or maybe even 10, or maybe even more open-minded people that are trying to make not only America, but the whole world, a better place.”
He is ever hopeful, writing: “As a nation we are taking a ride into the unknown. It’s a ride that will probably be more of a roller coaster than anything else. Perhaps more, uncertain, dangerous or scary than we had imagined. It’s a ride that might not be safe for all of us, but it’s a ride that we must try and survive together.”
He hopes the book, the stories, can help empower others to write and perform, especially young people. “I think they will like the book.,” he says.
Others have. As NPR’s Jenn White says on the book’s back cover, this book “goes far beyond adventures. Nestor’s stories put you behind the wheel and immerse you in the experience of finding your place in a new city while navigating the mythology of the American Dream.”