StoryCorps' Oral Historians

"If I die tomorrow, or in one year, you won't know I grew up in Guatemala, or that my family disappeared," says Leo Archila, a small, vibrant, middle-aged man standing in the heart of MacArthur Park. Behind him, the familiar silhouette of the old band shell is surrounded by a crown of spindly palms shifting in the wind. The sun is shining for the first time in a week, and Archila is hoping to score an interview in the silver Airstream trailer with "StoryCorps" painted playfully in red across the side.

To kick off its 2008 national tour, StoryCorps planted its MobileBooth here in the fake-ID capital of Los Angeles. After a monthlong stint on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade in November, the nonprofit project moved downtown in search of fresh voices, and with hopes of reaching beyond the KCRW crowd. But even after many attended the StoryCorps outreach events, hosted by Sandi Romero at Mama's Hot Tamales Café, or noticed the article in Hoy about the opportunity to interview a loved one, few booked one of the 40-minute time slots. Then again, most Spanish-speaking people on this side of town do not tune in to Morning Edition on Fridays to hear the latest installment of interviews from the oral-history project as it makes its way across the country.

"People I work with, they are shy because they think Immigration will find their picture. They won't come," says Archila. He is not shy, and in fact he seems to be warming up for his interview, explaining in rough English the details of his struggle with diabetes and his work as a writer when he isn't out doing manual labor.

Archila is a good candidate for StoryCorps, which aims to compile the largest archive of oral histories from everyday Americans since the Great Depression for the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center. Over the phone from his office on the East Coast, founder Dave Isay describes his project as "a simple idea that at its core tells people that they matter and that they will not be forgotten." StoryCorps is not about discovering the most fantastic, tragic or unusual experiences, he says, but rather conjuring up essential themes from the private lives of ordinary people.

"From place to place, accents change, the kinds of stories change depending on the region of the country you're in," says Isay. "But no matter where you are, the stories harken back to the great themes of human existence, because of the nature of the questions. All of these stories are about love and death and family, and I think when you listen to these stories, you realize how much more we share in common as a nation than separates us."

On the first day, actor Roger Guenveur Smith showed up to interview his mother, Helen, a retired dentist and civil rights activist, who moved to Southern California from New Orleans. Although it took some effort for her to get up the few steep steps into the van, Helen's sharp wit and eloquence distracted from any physical signs of age. "I have nothing I have not exposed to the world, but my son seems to think I might have something," she explains.

Listening to a StoryCorps interview is a treat, like being read to, or sitting back to listen to an old record with your eyes closed. In the last minutes of Guenveur Smith's interview, the 86-year-old slips into song, her voice gentle yet passionately speaking the hymn, "Lift Every Voice and Sing":

"Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us; sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us."

More than 100 people have been ­interviewed here in the past month, and while the StoryCorps team has tried to bring in people from the neighborhood, taking field trips to Keiro, a Japanese nursing home, and St. Barnabus, a local senior center, only seven of the 100 interviews were recorded in Spanish, and most of the interviewees were NPR fans, some of whom drove from as far as Santa Barbara.

In the final week of StoryCorps' 24-day stint in MacArthur Park, the MobileBooth has begun to feel like it belongs here, shaded by the occasional flock of crows cruising overhead and serenaded by the endless drone of ice cream trucks playing versions of La Cucaracha in exhausted minor keys. For the few neighbors who came out to tell their stories, StoryCorps offered an unusual opportunity to be listened to, a chance to record family history for the generations to come. Leo Archila is one of them. "I don't have family," says Archila. "The idea that I can pass these stories out of my hands and into yours makes me feel at rest."

For the others, the visit from the silver Airstream trailer will be a faint detail in their memories of the first month of 2008, a mysterious vessel that made its home in the community-center parking lot, a gleaming installation they passed on their way to work.


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