The first place I ever lived in Chicago was Pilsen. I hate to admit it, but I’m not a native Chicagoan. I have always regretted not being born in Chicago because I love Chicago so much. Yes, I’m not happy to admit that I’m a foreigner. I was born in Perth Amboy New Jersey. We moved to Chicago when I was about one and a half. We moved into my grandparents’ house at 977 W. 19th Street. We lived in the second floor rear apartment that didn’t have its own bathroom. There was no back door either. There were wooden stairs leading downstairs to the backyard from our rear window. I’m sure this didn’t meet the Chicago building codes, but it was very practical. My brother Danny and I always went down the back stairs to play in the yard. We lived there until we moved to Back of the Yards shortly before I started the kindergarten at Holy Cross.
I still drive through Pilsen when I go to UIC because it’s an interesting neighborhood. I’ve been taking pictures of the neighborhood for years now. Every time I take a different route I find something I have never seen before, like the mural in the picture above. I’ve driven on 16th many times, but I only recently noticed this mural of the Aztec calendar. I know this mural has been there for at least twenty years. Parts of it are slowly fading away into obscurity. I plan on walking through Pilsen and taking more pictures.
Actually, that’s only the half of it. When I was in Celaya, Sometimes my cousin Ignacio caught himself in mid-word, “¡Chin … !“, when he saw children around, and not complete the final syllables of “-gado.” My father would start out, “Chi …” and then see brothers and me, and immediately change to the word, “¡Chihuahua!” You see Mexicans are famous for being the most notorious practitioners of swearing of all Spanish speakers in the world. And their favorite swear word has to be, “chingado.” Occasionally, when my father didn’t feel like referring to dogs or cheese with the word “chihuahua” would say, “chispas,” which merely means sparks. So if you hear someone who is frustrated by their present circumstances, and they shout, “¡Chispas!“, “¡Chihuahua!“, or “¡Chingado!“, behold (and beware), because you are most certainly in the presence of a Mexican.
The other day, my Spanish class asked me about the word “chingado” and I was brutally honest with them. I told them that it’s derived from an Aztec word. Since I had the interest of the entire class, I snuck in a Spanish class without them realizing it. I began with the infinitive chingar and I conjugated it for them: chingo, chingas, chinga, chingamos, chingáis, chingan. They were so enthralled by me lesson that they didn’t even complain that I had used the vosotros form of the verb, as they usually are scared of it. I even showed them how to use the past participle as an adjective: chingado gobierno, chingada migra, chingados rateros, chingadas cuentas. Once I had their interest, I was able to teach that day’s lesson easily. They paid attention the whole class. It was simply amazing!
Americans take English for granted. They also accept all foreign borrowings into the English language without any qualms, which is the reason that English has the largest vocabulary of any language on Earth. There are many words of Spanish origin and actual Spanish words in our English vocabulary and everyone uses them without realizing it.
For example, on the news they’ll talk of military juntas. For years, people have been going to rodeos and watching cowboys lasso calves. Let’s not forget about the countless times we went to the plaza with gusto. Of course, many people eat tortilla chips with salsa. Let’s not forget about our famous politicians who use Spanish phrases to court the Hispanic vote. President Bush has said good-bye by saying, “¡Adiós, amigos!” and Arnold Schwarzenegger by saying, “¡Hasta la vista, baby!” In the office, we occasionally need something done ASAP! But sometimes, we need it “¡Pronto!”
Those tasty avocados come from the Aztec word for testicles. I hope I didn’t cause you to drop your tortilla chip full of guacamole! That reminds me. When we’re hungry, we often eat tacos, tamales, quesadillas, bocadas, and eat flan for dessert. When someone asks you a stupid question, you may say, “Does chili come with con carne?” Sometimes we want to be moderate and not go all the way, but other times we want the whole enchilada! If we really love something, we become an aficionado of the thing we truly love. Occasionally, we stray from the path to eternal salvation and commit pecadilloes. And if anyone disagrees with me about these words of Spanish origin, I will take you on mano a mano. Because I know how to take care of número uno! Sayonara!
Mi casa es su casa. Come into my home, por favor. So you tell me. Am I Mexican or not? I have books written in Spanish on my bookshelves. I have movies in Spanish without English subtitles! I have a wooden Aztec calendar that my friend bought for me when he went to Mexico. However, I have a regular calendar to find the current date. I have a votive candle with the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe. My mother always lit up one these when she prayed for someone or wanted something. I haven’t lit my candle yet, but I have it just in case of an emergency. Just in case there’s a blackout and I run out of tortillas at the same time. And I also have a Mexican flag hanging on the wall. Well, it’s actually a bandana that says “Made in China” in the corner. If you go to any Mexican home, you will find at least an Aztec Calendar, La Virgen de Guadalupe, and a Mexican flag.
Years ago, I attended Divine Heart Seminary in Donaldson, Indiana. I recently went to a DHS reunion where my classmates and I remembered our Spanish teacher Enrico Mordini. Señor Mordini was the Spanish teacher who taught me a lot about being Mexican even though he was an Italian born in Italy and raised in Spain. He taught me that there is more than one way to speak Spanish. I never realized there were so many dialects. I was originally in his Spanish I class, but he moved me up to Spanish II because I knew some Spanish. I had always wanted to learn Spanish formally so that I could read and write it. As an aside, when I attended Holy Cross Grade School, since the Lithuanian school didn’t offer Spanish classes, I asked if I could go to Saturday morning classes to study Lithuanian. I was told, “First, you have to learn English.”
Once I started classes with Señor Mordini, I questioned whether I even knew Spanish. He said some words so differently from my mother that it took me some time to recognize them. For example, “to drink” to my mother and me was “tomar” and to Señor Mordini it was “beber.” I had never even heard the word “beber” before! When my mother said “good” in Spanish, she would not say it the same way as Señor Mordini’s “bueno,” but rather, she would say, “güeno” instead. The Spanish word for needle was “aúja” to my mother and me, but to Señor Mordini, it was “aguja.” Our word wasn’t even in the dictionary without the letter g. When I informed my mother of these differences, she said that’s because Señor Mordini spoke “castellano” and not “español.” When I told Señor Mordini what my mother had said, he said that “castellano” and “español” were synonyms for the Spanish language. My mother never really believed him! After all, he wasn’t Mexican. In fact, he wasn’t even Spanish either. He was Italian!
Once while discussing Mexican culture in class, I said that I knew all Mexicans were a mixture of Spanish and Aztec blood. I was shocked when he said that was only partially true because not everyone, in fact, not many people were purely of Spanish and Aztec ancestry. I insisted that I was right. Even my father had told me so. Even after several convincing arguments by Señor Mordini that there were people in Mexico of pure, unmixed Spanish blood , I still didn’t believe him. When I reported this to my mother, she said that not all Mexicans were only of Spanish and Aztec ancestry. In fact, her grandfather had been Irish! “What?” I was so shocked. “Why didn’t you tell me before?” I asked my mother. She just nonchalantly said, “I didn’t think it was important.” Suddenly, I was sixteen and learning for the first time that I had more than just Spanish and Aztec blood coursing through my veins. In fact, I might not even have Spanish or Aztec blood coursing through my veins. I was in shock! It took me years to adjust to this new discovery about my ancestry. Was this a possible explanation for why my best friend in the Catholic Lithuanian grade school was Patrick McDonald from Ireland? But the fact remained that Señor Mordini was right again!
Years later, when I applied to teach Spanish at a community college, I was hoping against hope to get the position because I saw in the school catalogue that Señor Mordini was on the faculty! But such was not my luck. Señor Mordini died that year and I didn’t get the position! I suffered two severe blows at once. But I was lucky enough to have met Señor Mordini when I did. He certainly made more aware of myself and made me a much better person.
Above: This was the Spanish classroom at Divine Heart Seminary in Donaldson, Indiana, in the 1970s. This is one of the many schools where Señor Enrico Mordini taught. As an aside, Señor Mordini had a good sense of humor and got along well with the students. Once my classmates talked me into hiding in the fire escape, which was a giant slide in a huge metal tube on the right in the picture but out of view, and Señor Mordini humored us by looking for me wherever my classmates suggested: under his desk, under the student desks, behind the bulletin board, etc. 🙂