BY HEATHER J. CHIN
Every person has a story and the inaugural Stories at Sunset gave several of them a chance to be heard.
From a third-generation poet whose grandparents got married in a local church and a first-generation artist whose mother worked in a sweatshop in Brooklyn’s Chinatown to a young transgender woman who still struggles to find her own community and culture in a neighborhood full of both – each voice filled the Sunset Park Recreation Center with history and hope, while also inspiring those in the audience to tell their own stories.
“We wanted to bring together different parts of the community that don’t typically interact and wanted people to think deeply about the neighborhood and become more involved in shaping the neighborhood into what they want it to be,” explained Bridget Bartolini, founder of the Five Boro Story Project, which hosted the event at the invitation of nonprofit education and outreach center Turning Point Brooklyn.
Tom Rigney’s Sunset Park told of a familiar past where latchkey kids played basketball and got in water balloon fights in the park before their parents got home, and boys watched St. Agatha’s schoolgirls. He also told of not-yet-forgotten memories of summer fun in the 1950s – “probably the best season of all in Sunset Park” – because of the three pools.
“There was a record store at 48th Street and Fifth Avenue where you could listen to any record before you bought it. And a sneaker store at 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue,” said Rigney. “I met a guy in Sheepshead Bay once who also lived here and he remembered the bonfires of dry old Christmas trees on street corners, usually on Seventh Avenue, right on 46th and 44th Streets. These are stories maybe nobody else is telling.”
Stories were also told through dance, by youth performers from Ballet Folklorico de Quetzalcoatl. The traditional Mexican folkdances told stories of friendship, courtship and community through sweeping colorful skirts, waved red bandanas, elaborate hairpieces and circling boys and girls.
“This is great because I’m Mexican and Colombian and my daughter is really into Mexican culture, so I want to be there for her,” said Raymond Rojas about his six-year-old daughter.
For Betty Yu, to tell her story is to tell her mother’s story. The two are interwoven, she explained, because while she grew up “sort of defying that division [between Latino and Chinese immigrant communities on Fifth and Eighth Avenues],” there was also “a lot of shame as a teenager whose parents were immigrants working in a garment factory for 16-hour days.
“I’d hide my parents’ occupation and it wasn’t until college and beginning activism that I started to see why my parents were in those situations and conditions,” Yu said. “I saw the exploitative and systemic problems and the health impact on tens of thousands of garment workers and families who were in the same thing.
“These conditions still exist despite gentrification,” Yu stated. “We have to fight it. We can’t rely on others to tell our stories. We have to tell our own stories.”
A young woman named Noelli took that message to heart, speaking in public for the first time about what it is like growing up in a religious Mexican immigrant family while being a transgender female.
“Being transgender, I have to be able to make a choice of who to be and how to live,” Noelli said. “Being raised here and being afraid of coming out to the community as a transgender woman, I realized that there is prejudice from the different cultures in Sunset, too.
“People can be closed-minded,” she said. “They don’t understand things they don’t know. But when you’re true to yourself, people may judge you but you know who you are. [So] sharing our stories is how we come home.”
Photos courtesy of Alex Gordon Photography and Five Boro Story Project