Antonio Rocha, a storyteller who lives in Gray, performs tales from around the world. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

GRAY – Antonio Rocha’s parents were speechless when he told them he wanted to be a mime.

Despite whatever misgivings his parents might have expressed, Rocha, a storyteller from Gray, learned to perform in his native Brazil and came to Maine on a sister-cities scholarship to study with the late Tony Montanaro at the Celebration Barn in South Paris more than 30 years ago. Now 54, Rocha became a legal resident of the United States in 2001 and tells his immigration story in a new collection of stories, “The Immigrant,” which he just released on CD.

For a variety of reasons, Rocha kept his personal immigration stories mostly private over the years. The turmoil at the southern border with Mexico and the larger global discussion about the displacement of people prompted him to tell his story more widely and publicly.

“I want to bring humanity to the fear of the unknown,” said Rocha, a towering man with a soft voice and shaved head, who tours internationally and conducts programs in schools across Maine and New England. “I think people fear the unknown, myself included, if I let myself go there. But I am discovering more and more, life only thrives in the unknown. That is life’s playground, the unknown. If you try to control tomorrow, where is the joy of living?”

As an immigrant from South America, he hopes to show people there’s nothing to fear. Rocha treats his stories as bridges of understanding, and tells school kids he works with, “When you encounter something different – an accent, a food, a face – it’s an opportunity to discover something you didn’t know before.”

He was afraid of telling his immigration stories because of the stigma some people associate with people who come from another place. He worried people would judge him or label him. He kept his stories close, waiting for the right time to begin telling them. “They were something I always had in the trunk of my car. Now they’re in the front seat with me,” he said.

Rocha begins his stories with an ice-breaking joke that addresses the stigma immigrants often face. “Hi, my name is Antonio Rocha. I am immigrant,” he says. “But I decided not to take anybody’s job when I came into the country, so I picked mime and storytelling as a career.”

People tend to giggle and relax, and he begins his stories. He came to the United States to study with Montanaro, who studied with Marcel Marceau in France. Rocha weighed going to France to study with Marceau directly, but opted for Maine because of a sister-city relationship that existed between communities in Maine and the area in Brazil where he lived. After his residency with Montanaro at the Celebration Barn, Rocha extended his visa to study theater at the University of Southern Maine. Eventually he received a permit to work for a year after graduating from college, then married a woman from Maine, enabling him to stay.

He became a citizen in 2001, taking the oath of citizenship a few days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The judge considered postponing the ceremony but opted to hold it as scheduled, telling Rocha and others who were standing up for their new country, “I am not going to let the horrendous act of a few change the fabric of the United States.”

He relates that story and others in “The Immigrant.” In another he talks about a time in 1987 – before he came to America, when he was exploring the boundaries of performance – when he intervened during a student protest on a college campus. An elderly professor from Chile was lecturing about the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and students were hassling him, chanting “go home, go home.”

Chile was coming out of a dictatorship and undergoing social upheavals. The students objected to the presence of an authority figure from Chile, but Rocha was horrified at their treatment of him. He felt compelled to do something, so he slipped into his mime persona, bounded a table at the front of the lecture hall and performed an improvised routine that involved him grabbing an invisible rifle, pointing it at the students and then shrinking it into a small box.

When he opened the box, a bird emerged and flew away.

The next day the newspapers praised the mime who performed for peace.

“From then on, I knew my art had to be about bringing an understanding between people, as a mime and storyteller,” he says, “because stories beget understanding, understanding begets respects, respect begets justice and justice begets peace. That’s the power of story.”


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