Stories Can Change the World

Stories Can Change the World

Award-winning author part of Creighton 140 Presidential Lecture Series

Julia Alvarez, an award-winning writer whose family fled to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1960 to escape the dictatorial regime of Rafael Trujillo, believes stories have the power to change the world.

Alvarez’s campus address in September was part of the Creighton 140 Presidential Lecture Series, presented in collaboration with the Institute for Latin American Concern (ILAC) program at Creighton.

Alvarez focused her talk on activism and storytelling — weaving together stories from her own life.

After fleeing the Dominican Republic with her family when she was 10, Alvarez found the transition to the U.S. difficult. She recalled being bullied in school in New York because of her accent. She felt homesick and lost.

But then her sixth-grade teacher gave her a list of books to check out at the library.

“A sixth-grade teacher. A librarian. They put books in my hands,” Alvarez said. “What an amazing world this was. What freedom. What’s more, the world of stories was a truly welcoming place. ‘Come on in,’ my favorite writers seemed to be saying to me. I found what we had come looking for in the United States of America in between the covers of books.”

Alvarez’s passion became sharing stories of her own — stories that shed light on injustice and uplift our shared humanity.  

“As storytellers, we have an important role to play in bringing about the changes that must happen if we’re going to survive as a human family on this small planet of diminishing resources,” she said.

Alvarez’s work spans genres. Her novels include How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies. She has also published poetry, nonfiction and books for younger audiences.

Her work has earned her numerous awards, including the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award and the Hispanic Heritage Award. In 2013, she received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.

Alvarez and her husband, Bill Eichner, have also been active in humanitarian projects in the Dominican Republic.

The couple purchased land in the Dominican Republic and started growing their own coffee, with an organic and fair-trade label. Naming their farm Alta Gracia (or “high grace”), they used proceeds from coffee sales to start Foundation Alta Gracia, which funds local literacy projects.

They have also been involved in Border of Lights, which commemorates the 1937 Haitian Massacre, in which thousands of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic were systematically murdered by government soldiers.

In a case of life intertwining with art, Alvarez’s A Cafecito Story and A Wedding for Haiti intersect with their outreach.

“People say, ‘Where do your stories come from?’ I don’t go thinking them up; they come to my door and knock,” Alvarez said. “The reason I write is there is a pebble in my shoe. I learn about something, and it bothers me. It hurts me. It’s a pebble in my shoe.

“Everybody has a different way of getting the pebble in their shoe out, and my way is when I write about it, when I story-tell about it.”