Well, I must admit that I am a news junkie. I try to keep up with most current events, but with my busy schedule, sometimes it’s difficult. I used to keep up with the news when I was a newspaper delivery boy, and I would read the newspapers as I delivered them. Then I stopped following the news in the 1980s when I returned to Chicago from the Marines. That is, until one day, I went grocery shopping and I tried to buy a gallon of milk, but the grocery store refrigerators were empty. Apparently, there was a salmonella outbreak that contaminated bottled milk and I didn’t know about it because I didn’t keep up with the local news. Many people became sick from the salmonella because the grocery stores kept stocking the milk and people who didn’t watch or listen to the news didn’t know about the salmonella outbreak and bought the milk anyway. Well, that really scared me into keeping up with the news. I didn’t want to die needlessly if watching the news could perhaps save my life. Not that I ever feared death, but why die stupidly?
However, when I watch the news now, I always think that everything will affect me personally. If I see or read a news story, I think it will affect someone I know in that area. So, while I watched the news about the fire at 3034 S. 48th Court in Cicero, Illinois, I immediately thought about my aunt Concepción Rodríguez Molina and her son Peter Molina, my cousin. Normally, news stories do not involve anyone I know. But this time was different. My aunt and cousin lived next door to the house that started on fire and killed seven people. She smelled smoke and so they both ran out of their house grabbing only a laptop. They are lucky to be alive! The village of Cicero temporarily put them up in a motel, but they’ll have to find a new place very, very soon. I will help them out in any way I can. But I still can’t believe this happened to someone I knew!
In Mexico, I was surprised when my cousin handed me a bag of potatoes and a potato peeler. She actually wanted me to peel potatoes! In the past, whenever I went to Mexico, I was never allowed in the kitchen while the women cooked. So I sat down at the kitchen table and actually peeled potatoes while my cousin and my aunt prepared the New Year’s Eve dinner. Amazingly, there were two other males in the kitchen helping with the cooking. Mexico is changing. I remember when I was a boy and my mother and aunts were making tamales, I got kicked out of the kitchen while they were preparing the tamales. Once my mother made tortillas and she let me roll one tortilla, but then she kicked me out of the kitchen. My abuelita never even let me try to cook anything when she lived with us in Chicago. Now that I think back, most Mexicanas always tried to discourage me from helping in the kitchen. But I think that it’s a conspiracy. Because then when you meet American girls, one of the first things they ask is, “What can you cook?” And if you ever go to their place for dinner, they test your culinary talents by making you help with the dinner. They’ll let you cook the entire meal if you’re able. But if you’re like me and grew up in a traditional Mexican family, you won’t be able to do much more than warm up tortillas! And they’ll settle for you washing the lettuce.
Whenever I go to México City, I’m always certain to visit mi tía Jovita. I believe she was my mother’s favorite sister. And tía Jovita has always paid me a lot of attention whenever I’m in México. I know I can go to her house anytime and I’ll be welcome there. The earliest I can remember visiting her is 1965 when we spent about two months in México from December to February. My mother had told the nuns at Holy Cross School that we were going to México for two months and the nuns told mother that if my brothers and I missed that much school we would all fail to be promoted to the next grade. My mother didn’t take the nuns seriously and we stayed in Mexico for two whole months and didn’t come back until the end of February. And guess what! My mother bragged that the nuns didn’t fail all of us! They only failed to promote me! Danny and Tato were promoted, but I wasn’t. Well, two out of three ain’t bad! I had to repeat the fourth grade, but my mother viewed this as a victory against the Holy Cross nuns. I, however, was distraught about being considered a retard! Kids were cruel like that back then. Now, I look back and think of it as 4th Grade 2.0.
Anyway, when we first went to tía Jovita’s house it only had one floor. The house is built on the side of a steep mountain slope. At the top, stood a little brick building that served as the bathroom. It’s now a two-room house where my cousin Mauricio lives with his daughter and her daughter. But when I first went there, it was a very small house with all of tía Jovita’s children living there. She eventually had ten children and her grandchildren would often be there, too. There were always a lot of children there because her brother-in-law lived right next door and there was a door that opened to my tía Jovita’s back yard. I remember my cousins would call their cousins primo or prima I would also call them cousin. But they would tell me that they weren’t my cousins. They were just their cousins. And they were right. But as a nine year old, I just didn’t get it. Now that I think of it, I’m still confused by our family tree.
I went there in 1978 and it still had only one floor. And then I stopped going to Mexico for about twenty-nine years. But I got to see the house, because every time my sister Delia went she brought back pictures of the house. Well, not exactly pictures of the house, but rather pictures of the family. I couldn’t help but notice the house in the background in these pictures. One time, I told my sister, “Wow, tía Jovita now has a second floor!” When I returned last December, I saw that she now had a third floor. When I left, I asked her to build a fourth floor so I could move in.
So, tía Jovita has a son living on the second floor with his two daughters, a daughter living on the third floor with her husband, son and two daughters. And another son living in the little house at the top with his daughter and granddaughter. An NO ONE pays any rent to tía Jovita! Even in México, this just isn’t right! But she doesn’t say anything. She is just such a nice woman.
Thanksgiving Day was a reunion of sorts for the Rodriguez family in Chicago. I really enjoyed getting together with my family as much as possible. As usually happens, this reunion was a last-minute get together that turned out better than if someone would have planned it for weeks.
I really had no plans for Thanksgiving Day since my sons would spend the day with their mother and her family. When we were married, many relatives came to our house for Thanksgiving dinner. But now, I never know what I’ll do for Thanksgiving until the last minute. I’m not really very good at planning too far in advance. Anyway, our family started the day with a memorial mass for three relatives who had died in the last six weeks: My cousin Shirley, my Aunt Marcela, and my Uncle Meño’s mother-in-law.
My Uncle Placido was coming in from Lubbock, Texas, where he is the bishop of the archdiocese and he would say mass for us. We all agreed to meet at St. John Fisher Church for the 9:00 am mass and then go our separate ways because everyone, presumably, already had Thanksgiving Day plans. Well, we stayed in the back of the church talking awhile and then we started taking pictures. Lately, we can’t take enough pictures of each other. I took extra pictures on my iPhone so I could add everyone to my directory, even though I had no immediate plans to call anyone.
Then, my brother Jerry suggested we go back to his house for coffee for an hour or two, but then we’d have to go because his wife was having dinner for her family in the afternoon and it was the first Thanksgiving without her father because he had died earlier this year. Whoever was available could come back at about 7:00 pm. Well, some of us stayed and never left. I won’t mention any names, but I could name all the people who came and stayed, and all the people who left at the appropriate time–because I was there until midnight. And I didn’t come alone either. I brought my father, my Aunt Conchita, and her son Peter. No one complained that there was extra company in the house, especially not the people who had overstayed their invitation. Uncle Placido showed us the 25th anniversary book for his archdiocese in Lubbock, Texas. Later, we looked at more pictures after we ate a huge dinner. Despite the fact that there were more people there for dinner than were invited, there was plenty of food for everyone. In fact, everyone was invited to take leftovers home. We all said good-bye and promised to see each other very soon. We shall see.
I don’t know why, but Mexicans find it difficult to write letters to each other.
When I left Mexico, both times, I said I would write back and send pictures. Well, it took me a while took write back, but I finally wrote back! And guess who wrote back? One cousin to whom I didn’t even write. So, I felt guilty and wrote her a letter.
I wrote to my aunt and then she relayed a message to my cousin who e-mailed me telling me that my aunt said hello. This same aunt still had letters that I had written to her thirty years ago. They were tucked away in her picture box along with my Chicago Marathon medal, which I have no idea how she obtained it. Perhaps, I gave it to my mother before she went on one her trips to Mexico. Now it’s starting to come back to me. My mother said if I wanted to give something to my aunt, so I gave her my marathon medal. Actually, it was a lot easier than writing a letter. Even with the Internet we don’t seem to be writing to each other any more frequently. I still have a long list of relatives to whom I will write before my next visit. But even if I don’t, we’ll pick up the conversation right where we left off the last time. My cousin likes to IM me and that’s fine when I have time. It is a lot easier than writing letters.
Over the years, I have had one identity crisis after another. The identity crisis recurs most often is the one in which I can’t decide if I should live in Chicago or Mexico because I’m not sure if I’m Mexican or American. Sometimes I feel as if I don’t belong here in the U.S. because I feel so Mexican and like a foreigner here. When I’m Mexico, I feel very comfortable there. Of course, that could be merely because I’m a guest there and the excitement and the newness of my being there hasn’t worn off yet. If I stayed much longer, everyone might not be as friendly toward me. I’ve mentioned to some of my friends that I was thinking of moving to Mexico and they immediately offered to help me pack! Wow! What friends!
I went to Mexico when I was 22 and I seriously considered staying there. But then I realized that I would have to get a job in order to support myself. But Mexicans don’t really want foreigners coming in and taking away their jobs. Besides, I didn’t really want to work a back-breaking job in Mexico when I already had a back-breaking job in Chicago. So I went back home to Chicago. However, I often daydreamed about living in Mexico.
Now, I am actually in a position where I can afford to move to Mexico since I have a small pension. I now have to work a job in order to live comfortably in Chicago, but I could live more than comfortably if I moved to Mexico. And I won’t have to work at all if I lived in Mexico. I could sit at home all day writing blog entry after blog entry. Wait, that’s what I’m doing now! But I have to teach in order to supplement my pension. In Mexico, I would always find something to keep me busy since they do have the Internet down there. And I wouldn’t be lonely because I have a lot of family in Mexico in several cities. Our family, both on my father’s and mother’s side, was very prolific. That’s why Rodriguez and Martinez are some of the most common Spanish last names in the world. So I wouldn’t be lonely. And even though I’m American, Mexicans–my family in particular–consider me Mexican, sort of. Since I’m American, everyone in Mexico was surprised that I spoke Spanish and ate tortillas. I’m glad that Mexicans thought of me as a Mexican, at least most of the time.
When I go back to Mexico in July, I’ll take another look at where I could possibly live in Mexico. I really love Celaya, Guanajuato, the home of my father’s family. It’s a fairly big city with a small-town feel to it. And, I have an uncle, two aunts, and fifteen cousins who live there! Plus, there’s a university in the city where I could possibly find a teaching position if I ever have the urge to teach again. That would be quite an adventure for me. So now I’m struggling to redefine myself and resolve my latest identity crisis. I’m sure that this time I’ll find myself. Or, maybe not.
My tía Matilde was quite a character. Once when we were visiting in México, we stayed with my abuelita who was blind. All our relatives would always visit abuelita, especially when we came from Chicago. Matilde was still single at the time, so she lived with my abuelita.
While we were there, my mother decided to fix up my abuelita’s place a little. That meant everyone there had to work, vacation or not! We cleaned and painted, and when my mother saw the freshly painted walls she decided to hang up some family pictures. Only one problem. My abuelita didn’t have a hammer. So, my mother sent tía Matilde to get a hammer from a friend’s house.
That sounds easy enough, no? Well, not to a Mexicana. Somehow the simplest errands become complicated quests. Tía Matilde sets of on the simple errand of bringing back a hammer so my mother could hang up some pictures. My aunt should have returned in ten to fifteen minutes tops. Well, a half hour went by and tía Matilde didn’t return.
My mother looked down the street and saw no sign of her sister. An hour passed, then another, and still no sign of tía Matilde. My mother sent me to the friend’s house to see if Matilde ever went there. No, they hadn’t seen her all day. No one really worried about her because in México sometimes people get distracted and forget their original mission, in this case, the quest for the hammer.
Tía Matilde finally returned about three hours later! My abuelita and my mother started interrogating her. “Where did you go? What took you so long?”
Well, she met this certain Samuel. He was standing on the corner playing the guitar and he started serenading her. They went for a walk and before she knew it, three hours had passed. Then, she remembered about the hammer! She returned, finally, but without the hammer!
My abuelita and mother were mad at tía Matilde, but they also couldn’t help laughing at the whole situation. By the way, Matilde and Samuel eventually married and had six children.
My tía Matilde came to Chicago as part of the package deal when my abuelita came for eye surgery. Tía Matilde also needed surgery, so she came from México to have surgery on her ears. I’m not sure what exactly was wrong with her ears, but she was otherwise healthy.
My aunt was very young when she came and she liked living in Chicago. She loved listening to pop music on the radio and she bought all the records by her favorite singer, Rick Nelson. She went wild when listening to his music.
What I remember most about my tía Matilde was how she did laundry. We, my parents, my three brothers, my abuelita, my tía Matilde, and me, all lived in a small four-room apartment. We had a washer and dryer in the kitchen next to the sink. When my parents were at work, tía Matilde would do all the laundry in the house, every last handkerchief and sock. She would search everywhere in the apartment for dirty clothes. She found dirty clothes where I would never even think of looking. She just had to make sure that every last item of dirty clothing was clean when she was done doing the laundry. And so, when all the dirty clothes were in the washer, and there was a little room in the tub for more clothes, she would start taking off her clothes right at the washer and start putting them in the washer. She would be standing in the kitchen wearing nothing but her bra and panties, proud of the fact that all the dirty clothes in the house were now washed, obviously oblivious to my presence.
Back then, we always seemed to be either at home or at Cook County Hospital taking either my abuelita or tía Matilde to the doctors there. Anyway, my tía Matilde, who would undress at the washer, was very shy with the doctors when they asked her to disrobe. The day of her surgery, she refused to undress and refused to put on the hospital gown because it had no back to it. I still remember her telling this story when she returned from her surgery. She absolutely refused to undress for the nurses and doctors. She thought she had won her battle, but after the surgery, she woke up in her hospital bed and immediately realized that she was completely naked! Whenever she told this story, she always sounded so shocked that this could have happened to her despite her precautions. She didn’t even remember when or why she lost consciousness. She always wondered who managed to see her naked. She would blush everytime she told the story. She was truly traumatized by this experience!
She eventually went back to México with my abuelita.
There are good-byes. And then there are Mexican good-byes. By this, I mean that most people say good-bye and then they leave. Mexicans, on the other hand, say good-bye and think of many reasons for staying un poquito más. Such as telling the story they just remembered on the way out, upon touching the doorknob. Or, because they haven’t seen each other in such a long time, like since last week. I, too, of course am guilty of these long, extended good-byes. Perhaps, I didn’t say everything that I wanted because I couldn’t get a word in edgewise or the stories told were so good that I didn’t want to interrupt them.
While I was in Mexico, every good-bye was a despedida mexicana, but one long good-bye especially comes to mind. I was staying at my cousin’s house and we were going to visit her sister. My cousin, her husband, my aunt, and I went to my other cousin’s house. We would leave about three o’clock in the afternoon in order to avoid the afternoon rush hour traffic. I agreed because Mexico City’s normal traffic is horrendous and traumatic, even if you’re just a passenger, let alone driving during rush hour. So we visit my cousin, we eat at a restaurant called California, we go back to the house of the cousin we just visited, look at some old family pictures, and talk and talk and talk over old times since the last time I went to Mexico, which was twenty-nine years earlier. By the way, we started up the conversation right where we left off the last time I was there as if I had just left a few days before.
At 3:00 p.m. sharp, my cousin announces that we’re leaving immediately in order to avoid the rush-hour traffic. My cousin’s husband says that we can’t leave his house without first drinking some tequila together. That would reflect poorly on their hospitality. Besides, how could I go to Mexico and not drink tequila?
As the guest of honor, he served me tequila in his very own special tequila shot glass that was wrapped in specially treated tan leather with his name embossed on the leather. How could I say no to this shot of tequila? So we all had a shot of tequila as we were standing to leave. Sure enough, we all start talking about when my cousin came to visit Chicago in 1979. As luck would have it, I was in California in the Marines at the time. So we all sit down to hear about her trip to Chicago and how she almost saw snow because the weatherman predicted a snowstorm, but then there was only a light dusting.
Of course, this called for another shot of tequila! Which no one refused, including me because I always try to be polite and eat and drink everything that is served to me. Then it occurs to our host that if you drink tequila you should drink it properly. So he serves us another shot of tequila, but this time he passes around a bowl of lime slices and a salt shaker. That’s how Mexicans really drink tequila! You squeeze some lime juice on the side of your fist, shake some salt on the lime juice, you drink the tequila shot in one gulp, and then lick the lime juice and salt afterwards. Well, we down a few tequila shots the proper Mexican way and then our host said he had to go to work to take care of some business, but when he returned, he would bring back some food for supper.
The tequila had long ago been consumed and we were left to our own devices to entertain ourselves. Actually, for Mexicans like my aunt, my cousins, and I, we merely entertain ourselves by talking about what we did in the past since the last time we saw each other. In fact, I spent most of my trip just sitting around talking to my relatives bringing myself up to date on their lives. Well, it’s after six p.m. and our host still hasn’t returned. His wife calls him on his cell phone and it turns out that he’s stuck in rush-hour traffic. When he finally returns, he returns empty-handed. We’re all extremely famished by this time. So we all pile into two minivans and go to their favorite restaurant in town. We eat supper and spend a couple of hours talking over our food. By the way, we’re still saying good-bye since three p.m.! We eventually return to my cousin’s house about 9:30 p.m.! However, we did manage to avoid Mexico City’s infamous rush-hour traffic! I have to admit that it was my longest good-bye ever, even by Mexican standards. But it was also one of the most entertaining.
Okay, let me just blurt this out and be off. ¡Adiós!
After we moved from Pilsen, our family moved to Back of the Yards where my tío Simón and tía Mari lived. They lived at 4546 S. Marshfield and we moved to 4545 S. Hermitage. Back of the Yards was named thus because it was literally located behind the International Union Stockyards if you headed southwest from downtown. They were made famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. In grade school, the Lithuanian nuns always mentioned the novel proudly because the protagonist was Lithuanian. They always talked about the man who drowned in the unpaved street and when I finally read the novel I convinced myself that I had deduced exactly where he drowned. The Stockyards where ever-present in our consciousness because many of our parents worked there in one of the meat-packing plants, we had to drive past them to go downtown or to the lakefront, or mainly, because of the pungent odors produced by a fertilizer company ironically named Darling and Co. The stench produced in the fertilizer-making process was inevitable if the wind blew in the direction of our neighborhood–even if we were indoors. My friend Patrick McDonnell used to take me there to play because it was the ideal playground for boys with over-active imaginations. But we had to look out for security guards, Patrick told me, and run if we saw them in order to avoid getting shot by their pepper guns. Luckily, we never saw any. One day Patrick told where there was a swimming hole and we went swimming there. It was dirty, smelly water, but Patrick talked me into jumping in. The next day when I told one of our neighbors where I had gone swimming, he laughed uproariously. He finally told me we swam in the pool that they used to wash the pigs before they were slaughtered! Well, we never swam there again.
Our neighborhood was typical of any Chicago neighborhood in that there was a surplus of neighborhood bars. There was at least one bar on every corner. But there were some corners that actually had two or three bars. And usually there was at least one or two bars in the middle of the block. The whole theory behind having so many bars was that if the man of house went out to tipple a few beers, everyone would know where to find him. Every payday, I had to make the rounds of the bars within a two-block radius to find my father before he spent too much of his salary before he got home. Later, I got the brilliant idea of taking my shoeshine box with me when I looked for my father in the bars. I would first go to the bars where I absolutely knew my father would not be and ask for him. Some of bar patrons whom I thought were surely upright citizens would see my shoeshine box and then ask me for a shoeshine. I made some pretty good spending money this way. One day, my father didn’t recognize me because I didn’t get to him in time and he paid me for a shoeshine. And he gave me a generous tip, which I dutifully gave to my mother when we returned home.
The neighborhood served as a port of entry for many ethnic groups. When we moved there in the 1960s, the Mexicans were just starting to move in, but there were plenty of us to go around. I had friends who were Lithuanian, Polish, German, Irish, Italian, and of course, Mexican. I remember going to many a friend’s house and not hearing any of their parents speaking very much English. In my neighborhood, there were three parishes within four blocks of my house. I attended Holy Cross Church because they also had a grade school. There was also Sacred Heart of Joseph that was the Polish parish also with its own school. Immaculate Heart of Mary was the Mexican parish, but they didn’t have their own school, which is why we attended Holy Cross. The main reason I attended Holy Cross School was because it was the closest Catholic school in the neighborhood. In fact, we lived right across the street from the school.
I remember my first day at Kindergarten. My tía Mari and her daughters Lourdes and Jane came for my mother and me and we all walked to school together. After school, I went out to the schoolyard with my cousin Jane who was in my class. We saw her mother, but my mother wasn’t there for me and I started crying. How would I get home, I wondered, even though I only lived across the street. My tía Mari told me not to cry. My mother showed up a few minutes later. She said that she had forgotten all about picking me up and I started crying again. The next morning, my mother woke me up to go to school. I was surprised. I said, “I have to go again?” I didn’t realize that Kindergarten would get so involved. But I agreed to go only if my mother remembered to pick me up this time.
Back then, no one sent their children to a Chicago public school if they could afford to send them to a private school. Holy Cross had Lithuanian nuns and they were very strict, but it was an education that lasted me a lifetime. I remember we had to go to mass everyday before we went to school. Back then the masses were still in Latin, but I liked the old masses better. Of course, I rarely go to mass now, but I haven’t forgotten what it is to be Catholic. I still feel guilty if I even think of committing a sin. Anyway, some of the Holy Cross students, namely the Mexicans, began attending mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary because the priest said the mass in Spanish. Well, this didn’t go over well with our Lithuanian nuns. They insisted that we attend mass at Holy Cross and started taking attendance at mass by keeping track of the envelopes that we gave during the offering at mass. We had to sit with our class at the 9:00 a.m. mass. Attendance was mandatory! Unless we could bring documentation that we were hospitalized or that something more serious had occurred to us. Because of this new rule, I often went to mass twice on Sundays. My mother would send me off to mass at Holy Cross and when I returned home, we would all pile into the car, go to Immaculate Heart for the Spanish mass, and then do our Sunday visits.
Our neighborhood was very territorial. Everyone knew where everyone belonged. Territorial transgressions where sometimes retaliated with physical violence. I remember once during our school lunch, my brother and I went to the candy store that was more or less between Holy Cross School and Sacred Heart School. He left the store before me. When I went out, I noticed my brother was crying. It so happened that two students from Sacred Heart had beat him up. As the older brother it was my moral obligation to defend my little brother. So I chased the two kids and I started punching them and telling them never to hit my brother again. Just then, a nun from Sacred Heart grabs me by the collar because I’m a stranger in a strange land. They take my brother and I to their principal’s office. One phone call to my school and my brother and I are in really big trouble so I try to be polite to the nuns. Luckily, I didn’t accidentally punch the nun who grabbed me. All we got was a lecture! But not a very good one. The principal, also a nun, said my brother and I reminded her of Cain and Abel. I couldn’t help it, but I absolutely had to correct her. I told her, “Cain killed his brother. I was defending my brother!” They principal told me not to talk back and she released us.