March 23, 2023
In early March, The Moth, the global Peabody Award-winning, nonprofit organization that presents personal storytelling events in a live setting, released a podcast version of the live storytelling event featuring Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) English Professor Marguerite Maria Rivas.
Professor Rivas’s compelling first-person narrative, “Between The Rock and a Heart Place,” lasts just under 15 minutes and recounts her heartbreaking experience in 1982 of giving birth to her daughter Maria, who died shortly after birth, and her quest to visit her daughter’s grave decades later.
“When I spoke, she looked at me,” Rivas says of their short time together. Then, as she tells it, a woman with a clipboard entered her room and said, “The city usually takes care of things, in cases like this” — meaning the removal and burial of the body.
“I was 23 hours post labor, pumped up on pain killers and full of sorrow. I signed the papers,” Rivas tells the audience.
It wasn’t until she was home and had a chance to review the documents that she realized she signed away the right to visit her daughter’s grave.
“The New York City potter’s field on Hart Island, which is in the Long Island Sound, is administered by the Department of Corrections,” she says. “It was against the law to visit. It was like Maria had died all over again. I had nowhere to mourn.”
That pivotal event put Rivas, “a typical Staten Island working girl commuting to a job on the Staten Island ferry,” on a different life path.
She returned to college, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English at the College of Staten Island, CUNY, and eventually, a doctorate at Drew University. She started a family, giving birth to two healthy baby girls, and joined the English department at BMCC in 2004. In 2019, she was named the first poet laureate of Staten Island.
When policies changed regarding family visits to those interred on Hart Island, Rivas applied to make the trip and set up a date in late 2019. The journey began with a ferry to Hart Island. “We started to cross and the fog was so dense you had no idea where you were going,” Rivas tells the audience in her Moth performance. “It was like you were crossing the River Styx. A white bus takes you to your loved ones’ graveside. You can’t take pictures or leave till the bus comes back to take you.”
Professor Rivas has shared her Moth story and the experience of drafting and shaping it, with her students.
“The telling of this experience has absolutely informed my teaching in all of my classes,” she says. “The first formal paper in my composition and creative writing classes is a personal narrative. Students watch and listen to Moth stories before they read other narratives and begin to write their own.”
She has also encouraged students to use sensory details in their stories, and to notice how the structure of a good story is the same, whether spoken or written.
She explains that mining her own personal experience through storytelling and writing, models an invaluable process for students.
“It gives them license to share what they might have felt was not allowed for discussion, or was too hard to talk about, or could incite judgement from others,” she says.
She adds that the experience of crafting her Moth story for the stage and working with a director highlighted strategies that can benefit students as they revise and locate the heart of their own stories.
“My goal in sharing my experience has been to show my students the power that narrative has,” she says, “in transforming a lived experience into something that others can learn and grow from.”
To listen to the Moth story, “Between The Rock and a Heart Place,” by Marguerite Maria Rivas, visit here.
To learn more about the BMCC English department, which offers degrees in Children and Youth Studies and Writing and Literature, as well as a concentration in Journalism, visit hereor call (212) 220-8270.
- The Moth, the global Peabody Award-winning, nonprofit organization that presents personal storytelling events in live settings, released a podcast version of a live Moth event with BMCC English Professor Marguerite Maria Rivas on the Public Radio Exchange and as a podcast to all 50 states and to Europe, Canada and Australia
- “Between The Rock and a Heart Place” recounts Professor Rivas’s experience of finally gaining the right to visit graveside, her baby that died shortly after birth
- Professor Rivas uses the principles of Moth storytelling to teach creative writing students who are learning the transformational power of their own narratives