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Collecting L.A.'s life stories, one person at a time

An oral history project of National Public Radio and the Library of Congress comes to MacArthur Park.

January 25, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

As children lofted soccer balls in MacArthur Park and ice cream vendors passed with bells ringing, a dozen Latino parents and the Real Madrid girls' soccer team crowded around an unfamiliar silver Airstream trailer earlier this week, full of questions.

A Honduran immigrant, Miguel Velasquez, emerged and explained in Spanish to the group that the trailer is part of StoryCorps, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based oral history project sponsored by National Public Radio, the Library of Congress and private companies. Staffers have been traveling the country since 2003, building an archive of more than 15,000 everyday life stories. By year's end, StoryCorps staff will have recorded stories in each of the 48 contiguous states.

The StoryCorps trailer has parked in Southern California before -- in San Diego and most recently in Santa Monica, but this time organizers wanted to chronicle an immigrant neighborhood; they chose MacArthur Park after reading about immigration rallies there last spring.

Stories collected include that of Miguel Velasquez. After Velasquez immigrated to Los Angeles in 1984, he lived in the park for a time, washing himself in the pond, sleeping under discarded furniture and eating food left by passersby.

Velasquez, 47, eventually found work as a janitor and graduated from community college as a nurse assistant. Now a case manager at St. Barnabas Senior Center near the park, he is working on his bachelor's degree in social work at Cal State Los Angeles while raising two children.

He heard about StoryCorps through his job and decided to be interviewed by his boss, who spent the recording session asking Velasquez about how he immigrated to L.A., including a bracing swim across the Rio Grande.

Most people who tell their stories agree to have them archived at the Library of Congress, open for study by academics and future generations. Some of the recordings become special StoryCorps projects, chronicling the lives of African Americans, families living with Alzheimer's disease and survivors of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Some people made reservations months in advance to tell their stories in MacArthur Park. There is time, too, for walk-ins. People can interview one another or talk on their own in the back of the trailer.

There is a $10 suggested donation, but volunteers told MacArthur Park regulars they can participate at no cost. Each participant receives a free CD of his or her session.

"It's a complete documentation of what life has been like in these neighborhoods that are completely under the radar, and no one's making an effort to document them," said Terry Scott, a Southern California native and senior coordinator for StoryCorps in L.A.

Some people are reluctant to talk.

"People are apprehensive when they are going to say something very personal," Velasquez said after chatting with the girls' soccer team. "You have to have a liaison first with people who speak the language, like me with the girls there. And then there will be no hesitating. Because I think there are great stories here, especially in this park."

StoryCorps staff called ahead and scheduled interviews with some MacArthur Park denizens, including Sandra Romero, owner of Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe on 7th Street, and residents of Saint Barnabas.

After the trailer arrived Jan. 10, StoryCorps staff drafted Spanish-speaking volunteers from public radio station KCRW-FM (89.9) to walk the park, talk with soccer coaches and escort Latino parents and players to the trailer. They distributed sample interview questions, including "What was the happiest moment in your life? What was the saddest? How did your life turn out differently than you once imagined?" The StoryCorps trailer is in the park, near the band shell, until Feb. 1.

Daniel Morales, a Nicaraguan immigrant who runs a youth soccer league in the park, Youth Empowered Through Scholastic Sports Service, said many immigrants were worried that they might be asked about their immigration status or, worse, be detained.

"They don't really trust where it goes. They think it's la migra," immigration agents, Morales said.

But StoryCorps staffers are having some success persuading immigrants to tell their stories.

What sort of stories do they want to hear?, asked Edith Linares, an immigrant mother who lives near the park. Does the information stay private if we want? And what exactly is the Library of Congress?

Linares' daughter, Melissa Ruiz, a 16-year-old sophomore at Los Angeles High School, translated for the StoryCorps staff, explaining in Spanish that Linares could talk about whatever she liked and that, if she wanted, her story could stay private.

In that case, Linares said, she wanted to talk; she had a lot to say about the run-down condition of the park soccer field and the needs of local kids.

By the end of the soccer team's tour of the trailer, six of the teenage girls had signed up for recording sessions too and were soon busy doing some informal outreach of their own, trying to persuade teenage boys nearby to do interviews.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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To contact StoryCorps, call 800-850-4406 or 646-723-7027. To learn more and hear participants' stories, visit www.StoryCorps.net

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