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An experiment in preservation and interpretation /
by Cristal Olivas & Rich Gutierrez

I am constantly telling stories, turning daily lived experiences into narratives that I can use to entertain my friends. Most of these stories I have never written, but rather keep them organized tightly in my memory. I recently decided to begin writing down some of these stories that I have told over and over, mostly from my childhood. After writing the first one, I recorded myself reading it aloud, partly to hear the flow and also to hear the difference between my oral and written renditions. When I showed Rich, he suggested us swapping stories and reading each others. We were interested in hearing the ways in which our stories could be interpreted differently when someone else read them. We wanted to hear what was important to the reader based on their inflections, pauses, their tone. I have certain ideas of how I want my stories to be presented, how I want them to be read. But once I extend my internal as a creative output, I am allowing for my stories to be open to interpretation by the reader. Oral storytelling allows for people to pass down memories and histories in their own ways, with every tongue emphasizing different words or sounds, highlighting details that feel most important to that person and where they find themselves in that time and space. It allows for people to have some kind of ownership and involvement in the preservation of that story.


When I heard Cristal’s recording it made me think about my own writing process. When I write, I am sometimes unaware of where I’m going — but the process reveals things to me. I remember things that I previously have forgotten, or thought I had forgotten. Once those pieces are all in front of me, I place them according to how they appear in memory, like falling leaves detaching from limbs, each shaded independently, each traveling a separate path. How I process the feelings and memories is only specific to me, from where I stand beneath the tree, so it has a flow and a purpose that resonates with me. That is what I assume others see. Stories are special in this way: they will always be different from where you stand beneath them. Words land atop your head, and you let some stick, and the others fall around you unnoticed.


We agreed that we both struggle with calling ourselves writers because of the internalized expectations of what a writer is. But we also believe that everyone is a writer; everyone has the potential of creating their own narratives. Oral storytelling is one of the most accessible ways of writing our histories, and is a powerful tool in teaching and learning. It is devoid of the notion that education is rarefied; it is inborn. From this we stumbled into the idea of this project, turning written histories into oral history as well. Storytelling as activism, placing our histories in the hands and mouths of our peers intentionally.

We chose the name ‘MY DUNGEON SHOOK’ after the James Baldwin piece in The Fire Next Time, where he writes a letter to his nephew. He’s telling his nephew about how he comes from a long line of poets, and how he has always been a writer, whether he knows it or not. He says that line from an old slave spiritual, “The very time I thought I was lost / The dungeon shook and the chain fell off.” It really resonated with how we felt about what writing has done for us and continues to do. Sometimes it feels like it awakens parts of ourselves that are hidden by assimilation or tucked beneath fear. When I feel most trapped it is the vulnerability of writing and sharing that breaks the chains, fully aware of the sadness and happiness they carry. The lines blur and its not about LOSING myself in those feelings, but ACKNOWLEDGING them and embracing them and what parts of them have been passed to me.

“You got a right, I got a right,
We all got a right to the tree of life.
Yes, tree of life.
The very time I thought I was lost,
The dungeon shook and the chain fell off.
You may hinder me here,
But you can't hinder me there.”

In the process of carrying this project out, we were lucky to have good friends feel comfortable and encouraged enough to share their stories with us, to share their poetry with us, and to be a part of our collective vulnerability in allowing someone else read and listen to their words. In this series we include our own pieces along with writings by Ashley Hakimbachi (27, SGV), Estrellita Muñoz (27, San Jose), Rikki Lynn Vick (25, San Jose), and Sara Gonzalez(25, Xicago).

Rich Gutierrez - A mixed brown boy, a self proclaimed writer and artist born and raised in San Jose, California. Within the last couple years, I have started writing again, self-releasing four zines of personal writings called 'boy seeking pain'. I am a strong supporter of using art and writing as structure to heal and unlearn; most of my "work" is centered around acknowledging fears and strengths and the importance of both. Acknowledging the true beauty and duality of Black and Brown folks by reinforcing the importance of documenting our own histories regardless of how sad, hurtful, loving or strong. We will create and continue to create in the face of misfortune.

Cristal Olivas - A musician, writer and cantautora from San Jose, California. I am a first generation xicana, constantly navigating the in-between-ness that I find myself in, trying to build connections between my current space and and the parts of me that have been alive for generations. I strive to encourage and help facilitate in building creative spaces for myself and peers, family and youth around me in hopes of taking steps toward active healing.

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