Festival features Colombian storyteller

Photo courtesy of Carolina Quiroga 

Carolina Quiroga performs for a children’s group. Quiroga is one of the professional storytellers performing at the first Sandbar Storytelling Festival this October in Winona. Her work centers on the stories of Latin America. 



As a child, Carolina Quiroga heard tall tales from her mother, who used the stories to share about fun experiences or impart lessons. Today, Quiroga is continuing that tradition as a storyteller. 

Quiroga is one of five professional storytellers who will perform at the inaugural Sandbar Storytelling Festival in Winona this October. 

Quiroga has been a professional storyteller for about 11 years. She tells family and children’s stories and historical and literary tales from Latin America and the Hispanic culture of the Southwest U.S. The historical stories are based on the history of the Aztecs, Maya, Inca and other indigenous Latin American cultures. The literary tales are included in her podcast about Latin American literature in which she narrates stories in Spanish and English. Additionally, she writes stories of her own that draw from her childhood and experiences in the U.S. 

“I think storytelling means … each person is a story. Each community is a story, is many stories. So storytelling is just carrying the stories of humans on and on and on, and the experience of being us in this world, and of having ups and downs and journeys, and having challenges, and becoming heroes,” she said. “We love our heroes, but a lot of times, movies have shown that the heroes have capes and superpowers. But a lot of times, people don’t understand that we are the heroes of our own stories,” she said. 

Quiroga is looking forward to sharing her stories in Winona, and Sandbar Storytelling Festival Board of Directors President Hywel “Taff” Roberts is excited to hear her tales, as well. “When she gets up on the stage, she is dynamic,” Roberts said. He added, “She is very expressive … You will not be able to not be captivated by her.”  

To develop stories, Quiroga reads and rereads Latin American literature. She notes which pieces she thinks she could adapt and rewrites those tales in her own words. She also draws out stories to visualize which parts of the tales should go where. She can then rehearse the stories. The rehearsal process features “constant dialogue” between her and the stories, she said, because though storytellers may feel they know how to tell the story, on occasion, they feel the story is saying “no” and redirecting their interpretation of it. Quiroga also researches the cultures from which the stories come to ensure she is presenting them fairly. 

When Quiroga writes her own stories, the process often starts with her remembering something from her childhood and writing down a possible story title. She later revisits the titles, and if the idea still strikes her, she starts writing.

Performing sometimes presents challenges. Once, after Quiroga began a story by saying, “Back when animals could talk,” a child exclaimed, “Animals cannot talk!”  Following that experience, Quiroga began to start performances by inviting attendees into a time of imagination and end them by inviting participants to return to reality. 

Performing also brings joyful moments. Quiroga strives to include children in performances, as well. It all started when a child asked if they could hold a puppet Quiroga was using while telling a story, and she thought, “Why not?” She explained, “That has been one of the most rewarding things, because a lot of the time you think as the storyteller you should be in control of everything, but a lot of times, the children, and the audience, they also know the story, because the stories are archetypes. And they repeat in so many ways. So they already know how many things are going to go, and we are all storytellers, so I have to trust they can do it, too.”

Helping children learn to imagine through listening to stories could teach them to think creatively as adults, Roberts said. “You have to capture it when they are young, or it will not develop,” he said. “When listening to a story told without visual images, you then create your own. An oral delivery is much more powerful than seeing the images on a TV or tablet.” 

Before presenting stories, Quiroga heard many as a child. Quiroga’s mother played a large role in inspiring her to pursue storytelling. Her mother taught in a small town in Colombia over the course of her career. That teaching experience translated to another talent of hers: storytelling, which she used to pass on life lessons to Quiroga. “She’s very animated. She’s very creative, and she is really good at telling tall tales,” Quiroga said. She used the stories to laugh about daily life or share cautionary tales. “She’d turn something that happened in her life into this adventure tale that most of the time carried a message, a message of warning or a message of having fun,” Quiroga said. 

Quiroga also has appreciated theater since she was a child. In college and during her early career, she took storytelling workshops at a few universities. “We did some shows, and I loved it,” she said. After taking a different job at a cultural center, she saw many musicians and dancers perform, and she continued to feel called to the stage. “I love being behind the stage, I loved it, but I really, more and more, I want to be on the stage. I want to be able to cast that magic that storytelling has on audiences,” she said. 

As her 30th birthday approached, Quiroga pondered what she wanted her next adventure in life to be. She worked to save up for a backpacking journey around the world. A friend also mentioned that he heard of a storyteller from Colombia studying for a master’s degree in the art form in the U.S. Thinking that the friend was mistaken about such a graduate program existing, Quiroga looked programs up and found out that there actually is one at East Tennessee State University. She decided to apply. If they said yes, she would complete the program, and if not, she would travel the world. She heard about her acceptance a few months later, and eight months after, she was in Tennessee. “I fell in love with the program,” she said. 

Pursuing a career in storytelling began working out in the first couple years after graduation. “I was like, ‘OK, I think I’m in the right place. I’ve finally found my calling,’” Quiroga said. 

Since then, Quiroga has traveled as a storyteller to places like Colorado, Utah, Texas and Costa Rica. Her next goal is to tell stories in Europe. 

With Quiroga and other storytellers soon arriving in Winona, Roberts hopes community members embrace storytelling as an exercise in telling and listening. “We all tend to want to tell our story, but we also have to listen to other people’s stories,” Roberts said. “I think that’s when we can get together and get to know people better.” 

Those interested in volunteering at or attending the festival can find more information at sandbarstorytellingfestival.org