• Thu. Aug 18th, 2022

Long story short: The return of storyteller Joe Hayes | Performance

ByRandall B. Phelps

Jul 15, 2022

When storyteller Joe Hayes was a kid, he loved chewing gum. His teacher always made him spit it out, but he kept another packet in his shirt pocket. This dismayed his mother as he forgot to take the gum out of his pocket before putting his shirt in the wash and the clothes were ruined.

“But then one day something happened and it changed his mind,” Hayes says of his mother in a recorded performance of his short story “The Gum Chewing Rattler” (youtu.be/mruSVrlyIVg ). “She never got mad at me again for keeping gum in my shirt pocket.”

In the desert, chewing gum, oblivious to where he was going, Hayes stepped on a rattlesnake. With its fangs pointing at the boy’s heart, the snake pounced but struck the packet of gum instead.

“As he worked his jaws, trying to get his fangs out of the bubblegum, the bubblegum started getting softer and softer and softer.”

And now this rattlesnake is blowing bubbles too.

“The Gum Chewing Rattler” encapsulates Hayes’ way of combining a Southwestern setting with a childhood memory to create a tall tale. One of the greatest pleasures of listening is hearing a story told well, letting its images materialize in your imagination as your own experiences color the way you see it. Hayes knows this and has spent much of his career telling stories to children and adults alike while carrying the torch for one of mankind’s oldest forms of art and entertainment.

“I started doing storytelling full-time in 1980,” says Hayes, 76, a former high school English teacher who spent four decades as a professional storyteller at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian on Museum Hill before retiring last year. “Santa Fe was a small town then. It’s hard to believe now, but it was kind of out of town.

Hayes comes out of retirement to tell more stories on the Hill, but he has a new gig. Beginning with a 7 p.m. performance on Sunday, July 17 at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art (MOSCA), you can hear Hayes weave his tales as part of a five-week summer series. Other performances will follow at 7 p.m. on July 24 and 31 and August 7 and 14.

“As a strong supporter of Northern New Mexico’s rich storytelling tradition, which spans from the Spanish Colonial era through the late 20th century, Joe and the Spanish Colonial Arts Society are a perfect fit,” says the executive director of the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art. Jennifer Berley. “Joe has introduced generations of New Mexico children to our state’s traditional storytelling, and we’re thrilled to welcome him back after his ‘retirement’ to tell stories on our campus this summer.”

Hayes is a fixture in Santa Fe. Many adults have fond memories of his visits to the classrooms of their childhood, and Hayes has the testimonials to prove it.

“I’ll be 35 on Saturday so it’s too late but just wanted to let you know how much your storytelling meant to me as a kid and how much it means now,” wrote a fan from Salinas, Calif. , in a note shared with Pastime. And a Houston, Texas-based college student wrote, “You really inspire a lot of people, and you’re one of the best writers of all time in my opinion.”

While none of the performances fall on the anniversary of Hayes’ special day, the one on August 7 comes close. Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber declared August 8, 2021 to be “Joe Hayes Day” by official proclamation. It was the occasion of Hayes’ retirement and his last performance at Wheelwright.

Hayes’ storytelling has always been tied to the Southwest. But he doesn’t really tell true stories. Maybe he liked chewing gum when he was a kid, but that piece with the rattler was pure invention.

“Even if I attach a story to my childhood or something, it’s still fictional or exaggerated,” he says. “The personal story has become a very popular type of storytelling, but it has a different flavor. People react in a different way than they do with traditional stories, which have a universality about them, and they operate on so many different levels.

Tales told to young and old children

“I came here from Arizona where I had a lot of contact with Mexican American cultures,” says Hayes, who worked in mineral exploration in the mid-1970s, doing fieldwork in Spain, Mexico and the United States. When he moved to Los Alamos in 1976, Hayes returned to teaching, taking up storytelling because he had children of his own.

After a divorce, Hayes’ ex-wife moved the kids to California. Hayes learned stories and recorded them on tapes and sent them to his children. And, he discovered that when they spent the summer vacation with him, he wanted a collection of stories to share with them, and his passion grew.

“I was teaching in high school, but there was an elementary school across the street. I started going to primary school and telling stories to children there.

It has spread. People in the community would ask Hayes to tell stories around the campfire or to Cub Scouts and similar groups. But a full-time teaching career made it impractical, until a statewide teachers’ conference changed everything.

“Every school district in the state had a day off, and the teachers were all coming to Albuquerque for the conference,” says Hayes. “They were sending out these flyers ahead of time, asking for party ideas.”

Hayes suggested a narrative presentation, which was accepted. It turned out that the majority of attendees were elementary school teachers, and after the conference, requests to bring Joe to their schools poured in.

Originally sponsored by the defunct Bank of Santa Fe, Hayes learned that if he could attract 50 people to his opening night at Wheelwright in 1982, they would sponsor a continuing series.

“We ended up having about 150,” he says. “It was beyond all of our dreams.”

In the years since Hayes turned pro, the field of storytelling has only grown.

“In 1980, if I said to someone, ‘I’m a storyteller,’ they would say, ‘What is that?’ But now, if you say, “I’m a storyteller,” they’ll say, “Me too.”

As Hayes’ storytelling possibilities increased, so did his fictional arsenal, and Hayes began to write the stories. Today, he is the author of more than two dozen children’s stories and short story collections, including The Day It Snowed Tortillas (Cinco Puntos Press, 144 pages, 2003), Beware of smart women (Cinco Puntos Press, 160 pages, 2019), and The rattler chewing gum (Cinco Puntos Press, 32 pages, 2006). Most of Hayes’ books are bilingual.

“Being published has been very helpful to me, especially in my work with schools,” he says. “It gives me a double whammy because now I’m a guest writer, as well as a storyteller. One of the things I like about a story being told is that, really, everyone has a different experience. You take the pictures.