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Life experiences of Latinos

Sounds of the Past

In a StoryCorps Historias interview with his mother, editor Carlos J. Queirós learns of her sacrifices, heartaches, and joy.

En español | It's a crisp, sunny day as Mom and I head into New York from New Jersey. The real destination, however, is the past. We'll be recording an interview as part of StoryCorps Historias.

We reach the perfectly rectangular StoryBooth in Foley Square across from the U.S. Courthouse and are greeted by Veronica Ordaz, the StoryCorps New York City site supervisor who will guide us through the recording process. It's warm inside the booth, so we hang up our coats. Although I told Mom there was no need to dress up, she's wearing a brown-striped blazer adorned with a butterfly pendant, a necklace looped several times around her neck. I'm wearing a brown-and-gray argyle sweater and realize that we match.

Veronica guides us to our seats, offers us water, and hands us special archival pens to fill out the simple consent forms. She delivers instructions in fluent Spanish, which puts Mom at ease. We both check off the boxes to have our interview included in the Historias project and within minutes are escorted into the next room, two steps away, where the interview will be recorded. We find out that, once we're finished, we'll not only get a free CD of our interview, but that it will be archived in the Library of Congress for future generations.

The room is dimly lit and has a table, two chairs, and sound equipment off to the side, where Veronica adjusts recording levels. Mom and I take our seats across from each other, and if it weren't for the two microphones hovering near our faces like spongy ice cream cones, this would feel just like a cozy kitchen table. I worry that the microphones might inhibit Mom's answers. With sound levels set, Veronica closes the room's door and the suctioning sound makes this moment dip into the magical and sacred. Today has been snatched from time. On a typical Thursday afternoon I would usually be working in front of a computer monitor, and Mom would be taking care of Jason, a one-year-old child, but the child's family is visiting relatives in Brazil.

We are told to begin by stating our full name, age, date, and location. We're speaking entirely in Portuguese; to do otherwise would make us feel like strangers.

"My name is Natalina Queirós. I'm 55. Today is January 7, 2010, and I'm in New York with my son, Carlos Queirós." Mom's voice rings out certitude, clarity, and pride.

I take a deep breath and ask my first question: "What was the happiest moment in your life?"

There's a pause as I wait for Mom to travel the necessary distance into her past. I look into brown eyes framed by rectangular black glasses that seem to shorten the trademark long nose we share. I'm reminded of how beautiful she is, how she always carried herself with dignity, taking pride in her appearance — even now she visits the salon almost every Saturday to prepare for a night of dancing with her friends. As she starts to speak, I'm surprised that the microphones, obtrusive only moments ago, have disappeared. So have the sound equipment and Veronica. It's just me and Mom having a conversation. Nothing could be simpler.

"Quando eu dei à luz a minha primeira filha."  And I'm reminded of how unintentionally poetic the Portuguese language can be as she describes giving birth as "giving light" to her first daughter. "I was 19, and we had recently arrived in Venezuela from Portugal. Your dad was 21 and owned his own butcher shop and couldn't afford to leave it unattended. I felt nervous and abandoned, but then Elika came and I felt I had the world's greatest riches, something of my own."


I imagine Dad, now 59, at this very moment less than an hour away, slicing meat for ShopRite in Elizabeth, New Jersey. As a kid, I remember him coming home every so often with a partially severed thumb wrapped like a mummy. He never complained; it was nada, nothing, just work.

For the next couple of minutes, Mom answers my questions in a straightforward manner with little hesitation.

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