A 2023 National Storytelling Festival Preview
A multitalented storyteller and actress from Chicago, the Colombian American performer Jasmin Cardenas will bring a stunning array of traditional tales to the National Storytelling Festival in October.
Cardenas plans to pull from her signature collection “Cuentos from the Americas,” which includes stories, folk tales, myths, and legends from North, Central, and South America (as well as the Caribbean islands).
“I love being able to share customs and stories from the Americas because all of our cultures have beautiful folk tales that teach lessons about how to treat each other, how to be strong, how to believe in ourselves, how to be kind, and how to be smart,” she says. “Hearing new stories from different cultures can help us see the breadth of beauty that exists in the many cultures that share this hemisphere.”
Cardenas’s parents, who immigrated to the U.S. long before Cardenas was born, are both vibrant and talented storytellers in their own right. Their experience inspired Workers Teatro, a theater collective that Cardenas founded to help working immigrants share their stories and advocate for safe conditions and fair laws.
Her bicultural roots were a source of both enrichment and struggle as Cardenas grew up in Chicago. Her family spent two months of every summer in Colombia, where she had the opportunity to connect with extended family and learn more about her heritage.
But Cardenas also dealt with painful discrimination from her young peers, who weren’t yet mature enough to appreciate cultural difference. One of her signature stories is about her childhood birthday parties, which were a source of bafflement among her school friends.
“They didn’t mean to be hurtful, but it was strange to them,” she explains. “It was food they had never smelled or tasted before. It was games they’d never played. It was music they’d never heard. They had never seen people dancing.”
Another signature story explores the period in which Cardenas gave up speaking Spanish after children mocked the conversations they overheard her having with her mother. “Sometimes we don’t realize the painful things we do when we’re little,” she says. “It took a long time to come back to being a Spanish speaker. I had to basically relearn my language.”
Cardenas first performed in Jonesborough as an Exchange Place teller at the National Storytelling Festival in 2016, and has been itching to return ever since.
“It was such a magical weekend,” she says, recalling the hours she spent in the audience with as much fondness as the time she spent on the stage. (Watching Donald Davis was a highlight.) “Their lives were so different than mine growing up, and yet I had so many moments of shared laughter. I’ve been dreaming of going back as a featured teller, so this really is a dream come true.”
While Cardenas is a dedicated ambassador of appreciating cultural difference, she has also been delighted by the times that her audiences focus on similarities in the human experience across time and place. In Jonesborough, as an Exchange Place teller, she shared a personal story about getting married that she thought was rooted in her Latina identity. But many women in her audience came up afterward to share that they had been through something similar.
“I had all these beautiful Tennessee women come up to me and be like, oh my gosh, that happened to me too!” she recalls. “It was a joy to get on that stage and be reminded of our shared humanity as women, and of our shared struggle to try to be our own person while also partnering with somebody and melding your life together. I was reminded that we’re all human and all trying to navigate this thing called life.”
With a strong belief in the fundamental goodness and kindness of people, Cardenas thinks that building those connections across cultures is just as important as celebrating difference. She holds both goals in mind every time she takes the stage. “The stories are an attempt to create bridges and a sense of curiosity and desire to know more about each other,” she says. “Our world is a beautiful place, and it would sure be boring if we were all the same.”
Jasmin Cardenas is our first featured New Voice for the 51st Annual National Storytelling Festival. Join us in Jonesborough October 6–8, 2023, and watch this space for our profiles on four more new faces.