Wicker Park native Rob Ruíz joined the storytelling scene two years ago. In a past life, he worked as a law enforcement officer, boxer, teen counselor, film producer and radio personality, yet now he takes the stage to share his experiences being a Puerto Rican in the U.S. in The Spanglish Memoirs.
The performance is storytelling mixed with stand-up and sketch comedy. A description of Ruíz’s stage performance reveals the one hour show will feature “inappropriate abuelitas, a selfish tía, Papa Dios, cucos in the closet” and more.
La Respuesta interviewed Ruíz before his March performances, which took place at Gorilla Tango Theatre in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. He shared his insight into becoming a stage performer, talked about his large Puerto Rican familia and spoke about what it was like when his relatives moved to the States.
LR: I read your bio and you seem to have experience with everything. Tell me when and how you became a storyteller.
RR: The storytelling pretty much has been my whole life. I come from a big, huge Latino family, over 100 members. And I grew up in a household where everybody told stories, and it just got progressively louder as the night went on because everybody was trying to get their stories in first.
About two years ago, the owner of the Silver Room – a good friend of mine, Eric Williams – invited me to Grown Folks Stories and this was before I even knew that there was this underground world of storytellers that would gather. So because it was a personal invite, and I knew that his mother just passed, I thought I would check it out. I went to my first show and the rest was history.
LR: You never rehearse before going on stage. Can you tell me a bit about your performing style?
RR: All the stories are based on truth. Some stories I add a bit of exaggeration, I’m not going to call it fiction because it is not fiction, a lot of it is how I perceived it as a child through my eyes, my interpretation of my truth. And these are stories that I remember from my youth and because I don’t write the stories, it is all through memory.
I wait until I get on stage and I survey the audience. If I see younger people, teens, I try to graph the story around the age group so I don’t say the wrong things, or say too much, or offend anybody. Or if I see there’s an older crowd, a more mature audience, I may be more edgy with it. And I also try to see what gender outweighs, if there is a lot more women there than men then I might throw some stories that would cater to them a bit more. So I feel that if you script it then you are stuck to that, so no matter who shows up to the show that is what you are going to give them.
I want it to come across as if I’m talking to someone across the breakfast table. I don’t want it to feel robotic or without heart or without soul, and I may remember the story and I’ll throw it out there. And I feel that gives the show more true heart.
LR: What memory stands out the most to you, while growing up in Wicker Park?
RR: My most dominant memory was that it felt like the entire neighborhood was your family, you knew everybody [and] they knew who you were, who your parents were, what your name was. We had that village feeling to it. We not only knew our neighbors, it was OK for them to scold you, to discipline you.
I look back and the neighborhood was not safe, you had a lot of gang banging going on, drugs going on and a lot of poor families living in the neighborhood at the time. But it felt safe because everybody knew you, and I felt protected in a sense. So I think that family feel is what I remember most.
As far as my family in those days, it was more of the house always being filled with people, with music – everything was always celebrated with food. It didn’t matter, graduations, birthdays, somebody got a new job, got married – there was always food, music and ruckus going on in the house.
LR: Why did your parents move to the States from Puerto Rico?
RR: Back in those days people were always talking about Estados Unidos, the American experience, and getting a job out there and making a lot of money. And I’ve seen that influence my parents and a lot of my uncles. I remember a story where my grandmother on my mother’s side wanted to go [and] they were contemplating Miami, New York and Chicago was a place as well. I’m not sure why my grandmother chose Chicago and 20 family members followed. They all lived in the same building or right next door to each other, everybody always stood close, which is why our house was always filled with 30 or 40 people.
But it’s something I miss because my grandmother was the grand matriarch of the family. And when she was alive, everybody went where my grandmother was, but once she passed it’s like everybody broke off into their own groups and it’s like 20 christmas parties going on in different places. I think that is one reason I created this show. I’m really connected to my roots in Puerto Rico, my history, and there aren’t really that many shows in Chicago that focus on Spanish voices in Spanglish. Yes, there are a lot of Latino comedians in Chicago and every now and then they will throw one or two lines in. But it’s primarily English and I think there is an audience for this type of a show and a market for it … and that is why I like telling the stories.
You can catch the next The Spanglish Memoirs shows on June 27 and 28 at the Gorilla Tango Theatre.