Dead. Forgotten. Lost. That’s the fate of many wonderful New Mexico stories, but Levi Romero is changing that by requiring his students at the University of New Mexico to make short films he calls “digital cuentos.”
Romero, New Mexico’s Centennial Poet, is known for his way with words, but it’s the words of his students, their families and communities that capture his attention. These cuentos, or stories, are the histories and wisdom found in the ordinary people around us. “Those are the stories that we really should be listening to because they hold those things that are important for us,” he says.
The digital cuento format is a five-minute documentary in which students chronicle the essence of people or places of personal significance, and it takes the place of the typical final paper or exam in his classes, “New Mexico Villages and Cultural Landscapes” and “New Mexico’s Literary Landscape.” “Supreme value is placed on other people’s histories, other people’s cultures, traditions, etc., etc., but we’re never asked to reflect on our own culture, our own traditions, and our own values in our own homes,” Romero says.
“It was an homage to my parents, and how my dad took a completely vacant piece of land, and turned it into my home, the home that I know, the only place that I will ever call home,” says Lucia Wilfon, whose digital cuento is about her childhood in Apache Springs.
Wilfon, once embarrassed about the location and circumstances of her childhood, found a new appreciation for it during the process. “Somehow I reconnected with myself, by reconnecting with my parents, reconnecting with my culture, reconnecting with my lugar … the location where I grew up.”
“We all have a story to tell. We all have vulnerabilities,” Wilfon adds, “and something about Levi Romero’s classroom is he builds this beautiful, warm, safe environment for us to share the beauty in our poverty, the beauty in our struggle.”
Christopher Baca made a cuento about the small towns of San Mateo and Seboyeta because they’re “close to my heart ’cause my family comes from there. I tried to show how the people of those little villages sustained their livelihood from the land, and the community they lived in, and the connection they had with one another, and how everything worked together.”
Stories live on
A lot of meaning and information can be packed into a five-minute film. “Just like haiku – it’s so condensed and so powerful and so explosive, and that’s what I love about the digital storytelling format,” Romero says.
It can be very effective, says Alanna Offield, who made three digital cuentos in her time at UNM. “I could give you all the demographic statistics of my hometown and bore you to death, or I can have someone from my neighborhood talk about how gentrification threatens the culture we have worked hard to protect and it has a totally different impact.”
After attending a workshop on digital storytelling by Agnes Chavez at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, Romero incorporated the digital shorts into his classroom. “Students turn in these amazing midterm papers and final papers … and … the only person that reads [them] is me,” but as a short film they “can share this beautiful story with the world.”
Romero says this format allows the stories to live on, and be seen by many people on the Internet, or given as gifts on DVD to families and communities.
“Why not empower yourself through this medium?” Romero asks rhetorically. Offield answers it for herself: “We are saturated with images that misrepresent communities of color and women … then I realized that making a digital cuento gave me the ability to speak back to stereotypes and misrepresentation by creating an alternative that people could see.”
Out of comfort zone
The short film is intimidating to many students at first. “It’s not your typical final project,” Wilfon says. “You do end up grabbing at skills that either you don’t have at all, or you have very little experience with,” but “once I got started, I didn’t want to stop, and I want to make more.”
“I love to write, so the cuento took me out of my comfort zone, which was great, and allowed me to explore different areas of creativity that I didn’t think I was able to do,” Baca says. “I’m really glad he made us do it.”
“I fell in love with the process and don’t find it intimidating anymore,” says Offield. “What I find intimidating is getting the story right. If I’m going to talk about my community, I want to make sure I’m doing so in a way that is accurate and respectful.”
Both Romero and his students find value in sharing the stories. “In education we tend to be taught to be listening to what the people in the front of the classroom are saying, or what the voices are saying coming out of the books,” he says, “and we’re not listening to the people around us with that same kind of focus.”
“It gives you the opportunity to see life from a different perspective” says Baca. “You got to see a lot of different things. There’s a lot of diversity in the cuentos people had.”
“I want to see them all!” Wilfon says enthusiastically. “[Romero] never went into it, I think, to try to build a legacy, but he is. It’s turning into something that I don’t think he ever imagined it would.”
Ultimately, Romero says these digital cuentos honor “the people in our lives that have influenced us in ways that we don’t even realize are profound.” We are products of our environments, and reflect the families, friends, foods, traditions and communities that shaped us.
“Those are the things that move your heart,” Romero says with quiet sincerity. “So for me that’s what the digital cuentos are about – telling the story that nobody is telling anymore. They’re not telling it because nobody’s listening to it. People will tell stories when somebody is listening.”