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Interview with Iliana L. Nieves

Nieves, Iliana
Cheezem, Renee
Date of Interview: 
Relationships with People and Places; Stories and Storytellers; Childhood Adventures
Iliana Nieves talks about her childhood and her favorite childhood readings, "Cinderella," Snow White," and Puerto Rican children's tales of Juan Bobo. She also talks about her son and his reading.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Renee Cheezem interviews Charlotteans to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
Interview Audio: 
RC (Renee Cheezem): This morning I am interviewing Iliana Nieves who is from the city of Arecibo in Puerto Rico. Iliana, I thank you for this interview and for helping with the research project at UNCC on storytelling. Iliana, when you think back to when you were a little girl growing up in Puerto Rico, what are some of your earliest memories of stories being told to you as a child?
IN (Iliana L. Nieves): [Laughter] It is hard! I was thinking about this yesterday, and I really don't remember exactly many stories. Probably I remember those that I heard at school. Like, Cinderella, Snow White, uh the story of The Three Pigs and the Wolf?
RC: The Three Little Pigs?
IN: [laughter] Yes, but the one that I remember most, because it was the one that I liked, was Cinderella because of the fantasy, that she was a poor girl and then, you know, all the miracle that the [pause] god-lady?
RC: The fairy godmother?
IN: The fairy godmother [pause] yeah, I liked her so that's the one I remember the most.
RC: And you think you liked her because of the fantasy of the little girl, you--
IN: Yeah, you always dream about things like that someday you are going to see the prince coming to rescue you or things like that. I know that was the reason why.
RC: So these were stories that were read to you by your teacher--
IN: Right, in school.
RC: In elementary school?
IN: Uh-huh.
RC: What about in your home, did your parents or your grandparents ever tell you stories?
IN: Well probably, the story related to the way they were raised, and they told us when we were kids, they lived on a farm with cows and what they did there. But I really don't remember a story that my mother, you know, told me when I was a kid. I don't remember.
RC: Were there any funny stories that you recall them telling you when they were growing up? Things that you thought were funny or interesting because their lives were different than yours as a little girl?
IN: Well, I enjoyed a lot, and I still enjoy them when I talk to my grandmother. She always, uh, told us the way, how hard it was for them, for example, to do things that for us are very simple. The way, for example, something like drinking milk, we go to the store, we buy the milk, and it's so easy. For them it was the whole process, you know, to go to the farm, and how do you call it?
RC: Milk the cow?
IN: Yeah, milk the cow. Then take that milk to the house. Then the process of boiling the milk, you know, to be able to drink it. You know it was for me so different. That's what I remember about my grandma's stories.
RC: Was your grandmother the one who primarily told you the most stories, probably, of the older days?
IN: Yes, and she still does it. Anytime I go there she tells me the same stories that I knew since I was a kid. She just enjoys them, and I do too.
RC: So it's good for both of you. She likes to tell the stories and you enjoy hearing the stories.
IN: Yes, for me it is like a movie. I can picture everything, you know, the way she tells it, it's like I am participating in the same thing.
RC: That's wonderful. So your grandmother told you lots of stories. Did you have a particular teacher at school you remember, who especially spent time telling stories to your class?
IN: Well, there was a club at our elementary school, it was part of the library. It was like a, they were assistants in the library, but they were students and they used to go to the classrooms to tell stories and dramatize the stories. And for me that was so interesting. I liked it so much. That is really when I learned the most about stories.
RC: Do you remember the kind of the stories that they acted out in the library?
IN: Probably, the same stories, that I liked. Cinderella, Snow White--
RC: The fairy tales?
IN: Right, right.
RC: Now you have lived in the continental United States and also in Puerto Rico. Do you remember fairy tale-type stories that you heard in Puerto Rico that we don't know here in the United States? Stories like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty that are Puerto Rican folk stories?
IN: Yes, yes, probably. Yes there is a writer in Puerto Rico, his name is Abelardo Diaz Alfaro. He died about four years ago. And he used to write stories related to a man, a character, and his name was Juan Bobo, like John the Dumb.
RC: John the Dumb?
IN: Yes, John the Dumb, and they were funny stories because they were using the innocence of the character to talk about things related to the country, people in the country, you know, hillbillies.
RC: [Laughter] OK.
IN: So those stories like, gave us the opportunity to imagine how things were for people who were not able to go to school and were not very educated. Things like that.
RC: Were they making fun of the--?
IN: No, funny things happened to the characters. What they were trying to do was to emphasize the beauty of innocence. That's the way I understand it.
RC: What a wonderful idea, and you really enjoyed that?
IN: Yes.
RC: Are they available in the United States in an English version?
IN: I don't believe. Maybe in the public library. He wrote lots and lots of stores. Juan Bobo.
RC: OK. We talked about stories being told to you and stories being read to you. Now, at home, when you were a little girl, did you have some of them read to you? Someone who read stories to you?
IN: Not really, my mother was working all the time and I think that I was born with a natural desire to learn and to read. So that was something that I always did by myself. For example, as a girl, one of the things I enjoyed was to write, to write poems, to write stories, things like that. I always, always wrote.
RC: So you pretty quickly began to write your own stories.
IN: Right. I used to write novels and then after I wrote them I, how do you say.
RC: You would tear them up?
IN: Yeah, that was the process.
RC: What kinds of things did you write about?
IN: Things relating, you know, when I grew up there was like uh, [pause] a time of lots of novels on TV from Mexico, from Spain, and I liked to see those movies to watch those novels because my grandmother who was taking care of us while my mother was working, that what she used to do. She made it the whole day. So somehow, I developed a desire to write things related to fantasy things, like Cinderella. I wanted to write that kind of thing. And I don't know why, because when I was a girl, I used to love to look in the dictionary to find new words to make my vocabulary more rich? Richer? And that is something that I still do because I love it. I love it. And the other thing that I used to read was our Constitution.
RC: The Constitution? The Puerto Rican Constitution?
IN: Yes, that was something that I enjoyed because of the vocabulary, you know that--
RC: That's amazing. And you really did this on your own? Without anyone telling you, "Iliana, you need to learn three new words this week?" [Pause]
IN: That's right. I was like 10 or 11.
RC: Where were you in the family? Were you the younger or the older--?
IN: The younger.
RC: Did you have older brothers or sisters who read to you before you learned to read yourself?
IN: No.
RC: They just left the baby alone?
IN: [Laughter] Yeah, in my house we grew up, like, being very independent, because my mother, she didn't have time to help us. So, it was like each one of us knew that we were on our own and it was our responsibility to do whatever we had to do.
RC: And your father was working many hours.
IN: Yes, but the main role in the house was my mother's.
RC: Did your grandmother live in the house with you then, or did she just care for you during the day?
IN: Part of the time, because we traveled, like several times from here to Puerto Rico and then to the United States, and stayed four years since we went back there, for vacations and things like that. So my grandmother somehow was very involved with taking care of us.
RC: So she was traveling with you and living with you and telling you her wonderful stories.
IN: Right.
RC: So you knew much about her life. Did you ever write about her or use the stories she told you when you write.
IN: Never. No. Maybe that was a good idea and I never used it.
RC: Do you remember just the general plot of one of the folk stories you wrote when you were 10 or 12 years old?
IN: Not that well. No. And I used to have a diary or journal. And when I was a young girl, maybe ten, I was very intense you know how you dream of the opposite sex and you start like dreaming, and I wrote about some of those things. Some of the stories were romantic.
RC: So some of your stories were romantic. Iliana/Cinderella?
IN: Yes, [laughter] you are learning a lot about me today. [Laughter]
RC: I wish that you had saved your stories!
IN: No, no. I think that several things I wrote as an adult, maybe poems that I might have shown to someone else, but that is enough.
RC: So your writing was a very personal thing for you.
IN: Yes, the songs that I have written for the church, for worship--. I have shared.
RC: And you said that you remembered from your childhood storytelling songs, and you made me promise I wouldn't ask you to sing.
IN: Yeah, well there is one, maybe I can sing that one. It is about La Cucaracha.
RC: About the cockroach?
IN: Yeah. (Singing in Spanish)
RC: We have that song in the United States. It's a song that children learn to sing when they are studying Spanish, learning Spanish--
IN: Really?
RC: And, I can't remember. What are the words to the song in English?
IN: The roach, the roach cannot walk because one leg, which in Spanish is another word, is missing.
RC: The poor roach!
IN: Then there is a short poem that is very popular in Puerto Rico. The poem says, "Los zapatitos me aprietar." [pause] It's like saying uh, my shoes are very tight, the socks make me sweat, but when I look to the sky, I see the sunshine--. Something like that.
RC: But in Spanish the words rhyme--
IN: Right.
RC: And that's a song you sing--
IN: Always, always, it's a poem that you have to learn in school. It is part of one that we would sing every single day.
RC: As you think back on your own life, are there stories, bible stories, stories that you read or were shared that you think had an impact on your life and your career, how to be a mother?
IN: Well, to say something about which one, I don't know, but when I was in fourth grade I had a wonderful Spanish teacher. Almost all the classes were in Spanish, but she was so perfectionist with the language--
RC: She taught you the grammar?
IN: Yes and something else, she was always teaching us how to think beyond the words. Every time there was a word on the book that we did not understand, she stopped and she went to the dictionary to make sure we understood the meaning of all of those words and at the same time she made us think and consider different aspects of life. I remember writing essays in her class.
RC: So she had a big influence in your desire to write and to learn new words--
IN: And to love my language and I love Spanish. English is different and my vocabulary in English is so limited. But in Spanish, that is something that enjoy a lot.
RC: In Spanish, you have the freedom to really in ways that you can't say it in English. Is that fair to say?
IN: Yes, right and the other thing is I like, I don't know what the word for this is in English, I used to write in like a poetic way and I always like to incorporate into my vocabulary new words, and I'm always watching the way I speak in Spanish.
RC: What kinds of--? Who do you enjoy reading now? Now that you're an adult and can read for fun [pause] when you read for pleasure do you read books in Spanish?
IN: Sometimes, right now there is not a lot of books in Spanish available here so I mostly read in English, but I like to read scientific topics and things related to new information in science. Uh, I like to read about--. There is a magazine that is from Spain that is not available here, but I enjoy it a lot because it has a variety of stories about people in Spain, for example the queen and the king, the kinds of things in their lives and how real and how normal all of them are. How they are like you and me. That is the kind of thing I like to read and also it has new information about science and science fields, things like that. There is something that I loved when I was a kid, to read about space and all my projects were about space and the planets and the stars. And I always said when I was a kid I wanted to be a scientist but that's OK. [Laughter] I didn't do it, but-- [Pause]
RC: In your next career!
IN: [Laughter] Yeah. Right! [Laughter]
RC: I know that you have an elementary school aged, wonderful little boy. Do you tell stories to him? Do you share stories with him that your grandmother told you?
IN: Not those ones, because as an adult I think that Cinderella was a bad childhood story for him I think.
RC: I mean the stories that your grandmother told you about her own life?
IN: Sometimes.
RC: Or your life in Puerto Rico when you were younger?
IN: Sometimes, for example when I share with him what --. I'm much older--
RC: You are very young, much younger than me!
IN: [Laughter] When I tell him for example, "Sebastian, when I was a kid, we needed to buy milk, it was like 32 cents." He would go, "Oh Mom, that was so long ago!" And I feel so bad because, when I tell him, for example, for five cents, you maybe could buy three or four candies or more and he would go, "Wow! I'd like to be there to get so much with so little amount of money!" But since I was pregnant, I used to talk to my son and read, and also his father. When he was born, we always talked to him a lot, a lot, a lot! Even when we were [pause] cleaning him!
RC: Changing his diaper?
IN: Yes, and bathing we were explaining to him everything. Like this is the soap and we are cleaning you because we love you and you are our baby, things like that. All the time!
RC: So you were building his vocabulary--
IN: Right, and in Spanish he's just like I am and he's a very good student.
RC: Did he have a favorite story when he was a little boy? Did you have a favorite story that you would tell him? Some of the Spanish language stories?
IN: I think that I didn't because I am judging now that some of the stories and the characters in the stories are bad and I really don't like them so much.
RC: John the Dumb?
IN: No!
RC: For your son you don't think they're very good literature for children?
IN: Well, I think that for example I read him something from the Bible or stories that have a message about the family. There is one book that we love and I can't read it a lot because I always cry. It is called I Will Love You Forever.
RC: Oh that's wonderful! That's one of my favorite stories also.
IN: Somehow, I just identify with the lady, the old lady that was that young mom that started like, how you say, nurturing?
RC: Nurturing.
IN: Nurturing her baby and I just imagine when my son, in the future, being an adult, I don't know why but I think that will be the same way with me. And that is the kind of stories that I used to buy. We love to go to the library. He loves to read. And he loves cars, so right now that is one of his favorite things to read about books about cars. But he likes to read, so when we go to the library we spend a long time, sometimes one hour, two hours, just looking through the books and we buy books, always with a message. I always read them first to be sure I like the message of the book and then I give them to him.
RC: So you look for books that are fun for him to read, but that also have a principle and a message.
IN: Right. Always.
RC: Thank you Iliana for participating in this interview and for helping with the research project for UNCC. [Laughter] I do want to read one of your stories, the next one you write!
IN: [Laughter] OK. All right.