I would especially like to thank my father Diego for being my father. He’s holding my baby brother Joey in the picture and I’m standing next to him. Seated are my brothers Danny, Rick, my sister Delia, and my brother Jerry. My mother isn’t in the picture because she was the photographer. She loved taking pictures of the family!
I can honestly say that the happiest days of my life were when I was a boy living with my family before my parents got divorced. Both my parents were always there for me, although we did have a few misunderstandings. My taught me some carpentry and how to use tools. I would always help fix his cars because he was a mechanic at the Curtis Candy factory. He was proud to be a mechanic. My father respected anyone who was a good carpenter or mechanic by calling them maestro. Thanks to my father, I’m now able to perform many fix-it projects around the house.
As a father myself, I often think of all the things my father did with us and I try to do some of the same things. Sometimes, just being with his children was enough satisfaction and joy for my father, especially after my parents divorced. Even we’re not doing anything together, I’ll often sit in the same room with my sons just to be with them. Occasionally, we’ll start an unexpected entertaining conversation.
My father always asked me for suggestions for trips we could make, and no matter how crazy I thought the idea was, he would take us on the trip. He never made any excuses for not going. So, now I follow my sons’ suggestions. One time, my oldest son was writing a report on Mount Rushmore and we all became interested in the report. My son suggested that we go to Mount Rushmore and we went the following June. Every time I go on vacation with my sons, I always think of my father.
Our lives are marked by many milestones. The most easily recognized milestones are birthdays. I don’t really remember any of my birthdays until I reached the age of five. Five was such a magical number for me. Just ask William Carlos Williams about the number five and you’ll see what I mean. Five was special because a nickel was worth five cents (obviously) and that would buy me a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup when I was five. Then there was a long dry spell before I reached the next milestone of 10. It sure felt much longer than five years! Probably because I would tell people my age by half years: “You can’t talk to me like that. I’m seven and a half!” But when I turned ten, I had hit the double digits. I felt grown up. So grown up that I talked my mother into buying an electric guitar and amplifier that I promised to learn to play but never did.
Thirteen was another important milestone because, suddenly, practically overnight it seems, I became a teenager. Being a teenager was cool! My sixteenth birthday meant I could take driver’s ed. I felt like I was really moving up in the world. I was sixteen and I had my driver’s license! Of course, I couldn’t drive because I didn’t have a car and no one was foolish enough to let me drive their car. I wouldn’t drive a car until I turned eighteen and I bought my own car. Eighteen was a very memorable milestone for me, too. I also had to register for the draft and I was sure I would get drafted and have to go to Viet Nam! So I enjoyed life as much as possible before I was drafted, even though President Nixon had stopped the draft and no one was actually getting drafted anymore, but I was convinced that I would somehow get drafted anyway. Nonetheless, I was an adult with voting privileges.
Nineteen was also memorable because that’s when the state of Illinois, in its infinite wisdom, lowered the drinking age to nineteen for beer and wine. Let’s just say that I communed with the spirits on weekends to unwind from the long week of work at the peanut butter factory. When state legislators realized they had made a mistake in lowering the drinking age, they raised it back up to twenty-one again. But not before I turned–Tada!–twenty-one! I take pride in having planned my date of birth so precisely. Twenty-one meant I was an adult for real. Even if I would never get drafted. You would think that there would be no more milestones after twenty-one, but then you would think wrong! As all male drivers under twenty-five know, surviving your own reckless driving habits to live to your twenty-fifth birthday grants you the privilege of seeing your auto insurance drop dramatically.
Then the milestones were no longer significant. Thirty? The big three-oh? Thirty was so anti-climactic after seeing my auto insurance rates drop. Forty? What a yawn! I celebrated by taking a nap. And don’t even ask me about turning fifty. So stop asking me already. I actually forgot all about my fiftieth birthday until my sons reminded me that we usually go out for dinner and the movie of my choice for my birthday. Do I know how to celebrate or what?
Now, I hate when people ask me my age. And not because I’m embarrassed about my age. I actually enjoy being my age and I never try to appear younger than I really am, but please don’t ask me my age. That involves math. How old am I? Let’s see. This is 2010 minus 1956, the year of my birth. That makes me … Oh, I hate doing the math. That’s why I majored in literature! After twenty-one, I stopped keeping track of my age. Age became just a number to me–an unknown variable that I didn’t want to calculate! Why do I need to know my own age anyway. If I go to the liquor store for a bottle of wine and the clerk asks me if I’m old enough to drink, I just hand him or her my driver’s license and say, “You figure it out.” Now that I think of it, why am I still be carded?
My next milestone–and one that I look forward to seeing–is my 100th birthday. Triple digits! I hope you read my blog entry on that very special occasion!
The thing I enjoyed about being in Mexico was being away from the winter weather awhile. I kept hearing about the extreme cold temperatures and snowstorms back in Chicago, but I was in warm, sunny Mexico. When I was in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, I was actually sweating on the beach. Meanwhile back in Chicago, winter raged on without me. While I was in Mexico, I had my brother Danny visit my house just to check it out once in while and make sure everything was fine.
One evening, I was sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo with my cousin and her family when suddenly I had an unusual feeling. I told her that I was going to call my brother Danny. So out of the blue, I called Danny. He was very relieved that I had just called him because he just walked into my house and he heard running water. He had just gone to his car to get his flashlight because there was no electricity in my house. He said the power was out. It turns out that a water pipe had frozen and burst in my second-floor bathroom and was pouring water into my first-floor bathroom. The plaster from the ceiling in first-floor bathroom had come down and the first floor and basement were flooded. Danny asked me how to shut off the water to house and I told him where the main valve was. However, I’m sure he would have figured out how to shut off the water without my help because he is very handy with those kind of things. Well, he shut off the water and saved my house. Who knows what further damage would have occurred if Danny had not arrived when he did.
I should explain that Danny usually watches my house when I go on vacation. I should also explain that I had never called him before while I was on vacation. I never felt the need to call him before. I have no explanation as to why I called him this time. I just suddenly announced to my cousin that I was going to call Danny. She didn’t say a word or even ask me why I would call him. I’m glad she didn’t ask me why I was calling him because I wouldn’t have had an explanation.
So why did I call him when I did? I have no idea. The next day, I called Danny to see what happened on his follow-up visit to my house. There was no heat in my house and the water was draining. Then, he asked me why I had called him the day before soon after he had entered my house. I told him I didn’t know why. I had some sort premonition or gut feeling, so I called. And at the precise moment. Danny mentioned that I had never called him before when I was on vacation. But I did call at the right moment this time because he wasn’t sure what to do. The next day, the heat turned on mysteriously and I didn’t have to rush home to take care of my house. I was afraid that if the house froze with the first floor flooded I would have even more damage. Well, for whatever reason I called, I’m sure glad I did!
Duke was the best dog that our family ever had. When we lived at 4405 S. Wood Street, he followed my brothers and me home from school. He really did. At first, he followed us at a distance and that was fine by us because we weren’t sure if he would bite us. He was already full-grown and he was at least part Golden Retriever and maybe a little bit German Shepard and Chow Chow. We were sure that, since Duke got along well with the whole family, he probably was also part Mexican.
He followed us into our backyard and we went into the house. When we looked out the window later, he was still there. We gave him some bologna and went back inside. The next day, he followed us home again and we gave him some milk this time. He let us pet him and he seemed very friendly. He was too clean to be a stray dog and he didn’t have the battle scars of street dogs, but he didn’t have a collar or dog tags either. We never let him into the house because we knew our mother would get mad at us. But Duke kept following us home after school. He knew what time we got out of school and he would meet us at the corner of our block and follow us home so we could give him something to eat.
One day, my mother came home from work and asked us about the dog on the back porch. “What dog on the back porch?” I asked, knowing we were about to get in trouble. We didn’t admit to anything. Eventually, my mother brought Duke into the house and we all started playing with him. He was really happy with us and never even growled when my little sister pulled his ears or fur. We asked our mother if we could keep it, but she said it probably belonged to someone else and they would eventually want him back. We could keep him until someone claimed him.
We were so happy to have a dog again. And the good news was that he was already house-broken. At first, my mother would open the door to let Duke go out by himself thinking that he would eventually go to his real home. But he always came back. After a while, I started walking him without a leash. He always stayed close to me and he would never run away. I walked him all over the neighborhood so that maybe Duke would recognize his original home, but we never found his original owner. Soon I knew I was Duke’s master because one of the neighborhood bullies threatened me with Duke at my side and Duke growled at him ready to defend me.
Duke had some pretty good street cred, too, because when other dogs would see him, they would run away. I didn’t need a leash to control Duke because he so obedient that he listened to my every command. However, he loved to chase squirrels, but he would only do say when I gave him permission. Whenever he saw a squirrel at a distance, he ears would perk up and he would growl, but he would stay by my side until I said, “Go get him, Duke!” And he would run at full speed toward the squirrel. He never once caught a squirrel because the squirrels were usually too far away from us and too close to a tree that they climbed to escape. Only once, did I think that Duke would actually catch a squirrel in his mouth. He was rapidly closing in on a squirrel that was foolish enough to try to outrun Duke instead of climbing a tree. I think that Duke slowed down to give the squirrel a running chance and the squirrel got away.
When we moved to 2509 W. Marquette Road, Duke moved with us. By then, he was part of our family. Somehow, I remained Duke’s master. My brothers and I had to be careful when we wrestled because Duke would attempt to bite my brothers in my defense. Even after I married and moved away from my mother’s house. Once I was visiting and I started wrestling with Tato, my brother Jerry, in the basement just like in the good old days. Duke just stood there watching. He was a lot older now and he didn’t growl at my brother as he once did. Well, I could still out-wrestle all my brothers even though we were all about the same size now. I managed to throw my brother down on his back on the sofa. I jokingly said, “Sic him!” and Duke ran and bit my brother’s face. I really didn’t think he would attack my brother. I immediately grabbed Duke by his collar and he finally calmed down. My brother had some puncture wounds on his face from being bitten a few times. I apologized profusely to my brother. Neither one of us thought Duke would attack. But he did. I was still his master even though I had lived away from him for about a year. I still feel badly about this even now as I described the incident.
Duke lived to be very old, but we never knew his exact age since he was already full-grown when he started living with us. Eventually, he had so many health problems that my sister had him put to sleep. He was such a great dog that I can still visualize him.
Riverview will always remain my all-time favorite amusement park! Of course, nostalgia has a lot to do with it. Everytime I recall Riverview, I always remember the best days of my childhood.
This was an amusement park right in the city of Chicago and it was easily accessible by car or public transportation. What I remember most about it is the circus atmosphere about it, something today’s modern theme parks seem to lack. They had a tattooed lady, a bearded lady, world’s smallest man. But we never actually went in there because my father said that we couldn’t afford the tickets. There was Aladdin’s Castle fun house with its distortion mirrors and the maze that scared the heck out of me when I was six. And half the fun was getting there. My father usually drove us to Riverview, but occasionally, we would take the bus and El to get there. When I was older, I realized that my father took us way out of the way just so we could ride the El, but we always had fun. Of course, my mother never went when we took public transportation. I think my father had the most fun on these trips.
My little brother Dicky was about four the first time he went to Riverview. He got scared when we rode the El and realized we were about two stories off the ground. We thought he wouldn’t have fun at Riverview because he would be too scared for all the fun rides. We took him on the age-appropriate Merry-Go-Round, but he cried. Then we took him on the Caterpillar, which was basically like train on the Tilt-a-Whirl tracks. During the middle of the ride, a canopy covered all the cars. Dicky started screaming and kicking when we were under the canopy. I tried to calm him down, but he didn’t stop screaming until the ride was over. I thought we wouldn’t have any fun at Riverview.
I tried to think of rides that he would like, but I was sure they would all scare him. Back then, there were no size restrictions, such as having to be a minimum height to get on a ride. So even though Dicky was only four, he was able to ride the Silver Flash roller coaster that went around the amusement park. I thought for sure that Dicky would start crying immediately, but no, he loved the ride and laughed his head off the entire ride. So we rode roller coaster the rest of day, even though I would have liked to ride the Caterpillar a few more times. I never could figure out Dicky. On the way home, he was no longer afraid to ride the El.
I spent a significant number of years during my coming of age at Holy Cross Church and Holy Cross School. This parish was founded in the 1890s by Lithuanian immigrants. In the 1930s, there was a large influx of Mexican immigrants to Back of the Yards, which is one of the main reasons our family moved to the neighborhood in the 1960s after having lived in Pilsen.
I attended Holy Cross School from kindergarten through eighth grade and I graduated on June 6, 1971. The study habits I developed during this time served me well the rest of my years in school, especially college. Of course, it helped that all the teachers were strict Lithuanian Catholic nuns, with exception of Mr. Hovanec the history teacher. Nothing instills healthy study habits better than the fear of being disciplined with corporal punishment by a nun wielding a yardstick and a man’s name such as Sister Joseph or Sister Bartholomew.
Of course, during the 1960s there was a movement to convert U.S. to the metric system and move away from the English system of measurement that even the English didn’t use anymore. Our nuns participated in the metric system conversion by trading in their yardsticks for meter sticks when they hit us. That meant 3.37 more inches of pain. These nuns really wanted us to learn so we would go on to excel in high school and college. The school was very strict and if the corporal punishment didn’t straighten out a student quickly, expulsion was imminent. Once the principal, Sister Cecilia, lectured us on the importance of behaving well because our school record now could affect us later as adults. Recently, she told us, a former Holy Cross student applied to become an FBI agent and the FBI came to Holy Cross to see what kind of student he was. Well, that was enough to scare me into being a good student.
At school most of my friends were either Lithuanian or Mexican. Everyone had to learn English. Everyone had to become a good American citizen. In fact, the nuns constantly reminded us that any one of us could one day grow up to become the President of the United States. We always had to study hard and be on our best behavior. But somehow someone always got in trouble. I used to get in trouble for laughing at the class clown. When the nun would ask me what was so funny, I would tell her and she didn’t understand why I would laugh at such a thing. Looking back, I see her point.
Above all, they taught us to be good Catholics. We went to church everyday before going to school. If we were late for morning mass, we were considered late for school. Back then I thought the whole world was Catholic. Everyone I knew was Catholic. My parents, my brothers, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, the nuns, our pastor, I mean everybody. Even famous people were Catholic. Mayor Richard J. Daley was Catholic and he was well-known for stopping at St. Peter’s on Madison Street to hear mass before going to City Hall. President John F. Kennedy was Catholic. The nuns would proudly remind us at every opportunity. To me, the whole world was Catholic. Even the Pope was Catholic! So why did he wear a yarmulke?
Of course, attending a private school meant paying tuition and having fundraisers. As I recall, we had one fundraiser after another all year, culminating in the parish carnival in June. We had raffles for everything. One year, the raffle prize was a brand new station wagon, and miraculously, one of the nuns had the winning ticket. There were bake sales, rummage sales, Christmas card sales, movie showings, and sometimes just outright petitions for donations for certain goals either at school or church. I remember that I liked selling the Christmas cards door to door. My brother Tato and I teamed up one year on a cold, snowy day. We carried our boxes of Christmas cards with us and didn’t have much luck selling them at first. Then, we were at one house on the icy porch of a woman who had just refused to buy a box of Christmas cards from us. As my brother started walking down the stairs, he accidentally slipped on the ice and rolled down about eight stairs all the way to the bottom. Well, the woman asked if he was okay–he was because we always bundled up in multiple layers on cold days like this. Then she bought a box of Christmas cards from us. I think she was afraid of a civil lawsuit. At the next house, the woman didn’t want any Christmas cards either, until my brother “accidentally” fell down the stairs again. This was my brother’s brilliant idea and he kept falling until we had sold all our Christmas cards!
Nothing scares an undocumented Mexican more than the words “la migra.” Immigration agents seem to pop up out of nowhere and roundup illegal aliens at their place of employment. As a warning, someone will shout, “¡la migra!” But sometimes, they mistakenly pickup legal aliens and citizens by mistake. This happens all the time.
When I was about ten, I was in charge of making sure that my brothers and I walked home safely after school while my mother was at work. Most days this was an easy task. However, other days, we would walk our separate ways and meet up at home within a half-hour. We were always home together before my mother returned from work. Usually, we did this when we wanted to walk home with friends from our class, or occasionally, when we were mad at each other and didn’t want to talk to each other. My three brothers and I would form different alliances depending on who was mad at whom. One of the most bitter was the one that pitted the Americans against the Mexicans. There were four of us: David Diego, Daniel, Diego Gerardo, and Dick Martin, in order of birth. Guess which brother was born in Mexico! That’s right, Diego Gerardo was born in Mexico. All because my mother insisted on going to Mexico while she was nine months pregnant even though everyone warned her not to do it. And my father Diego finally had a son named after him.
Anyway, when brother Diego would get mad at us, he would exclude himself from us because we were American and he was Mexican. He would proudly remind us that he was born in Mexico during these arguments. It was after one of these arguments after school that he walked off alone away from us. Well, I started to get worried when he didn’t return home within a half-hour. I went out looking for him, but I couldn’t find him at his usual hangouts. I knew my mother would be furious when she came home. Well, she came home and Diego still wasn’t home. She didn’t explode like I had expected, but she made me go with her and look for Diego everywhere. We looked for about an hour and still didn’t find him. We returned home to take a little break. While there, we heard a knock on the door. Two immigration agents were at the door with my brother. They had mistakenly picked him up after school. My mother explained to them that he was a legal resident and showed them the documentation to prove it.
Well, it turns out that the agents drove up alongside Diego and asked him where he was born. Of course, he said, “Mexico!” proudly. They scooped him up into their car and took him into their office for further questioning. Of course, Diego was only about six at the time and he didn’t know his address. When no one called for him at immigration, the agents asked my brother to show them where he lived. That’s when we saw him at home again. Would you believe we never the the Mexican-American wars again? In fact, he never again bragged about being born in Mexico.
Happy Thanksgiving! I’m about to go out to a Thanksgiving dinner. While others are busy preparing for this cornucopious feast by shopping for groceries, cleaning the house, or cooking dinner, I’m, I’m–well, I’m busy writing my blog entry for today. However, I will buy an alcoholic beverage so I don’t arrive empty-handed at the Thanksgiving dinner today. I will also participate in the festivities by attempting to drink most of it. I love Thanksgiving because, well, because of all the food. Oh, yes, and the people with whom I eat and talk.
I always fondly remember my childhood Thanksgiving dinners at my tío Simón and tía Mari’s house. My father had a very large family, so the house was always packed with people, most of whom were related to my aunt and uncle somehow. Some of the others included friends of the family and neighbors past and present. My aunt did most of the cooking herself. She was an excellent cook! And there were never any leftovers!
As soon as people starting coming in, my aunt would start serving the food because there no possible way for everyone to sit down at the same table, at the same time to eat dinner. We had to eat in shifts and you didn’t want miss your turn because all the food would be devoured if you devoted too much time to your Margaritas. My parents in particular loved going to this dinner because this was the time to catch up on all the latest family news. My brothers and I loved going because we got to play with cousins we rarely saw. To this day, I love going to family parties because I always meet someone new who turns out to be related to me in some remote way.
Thanksgiving dinner was a special family occasion, so we had to dress up in our best clothes, something I hated to do because we’d get in trouble if we dirtied or ripped our clothes while playing. One year, my brothers and I actually wore suits and fedoras to the Rodríguez family Thanksgiving dinner. My grandfather had died the previous August and my mother said we had to wear suits to his funeral. So my three brothers and I went to Meyer Brothers on 48th and Ashland Avenue in Back of the Yards where she bought us all matching suits on credit. Since my mother had spent so much money on those suits, she would make us wear them for every special occasion, which eventually included going to Sunday mass.
Once, while traveling in the country, Mark Twain saw a sign that read, “Junk bought, antiques sold.”
To my mother, junk wasn’t merely just junk. To this day, I realize that there’s junk, and then there’s Mexican junk–there is no Spanish word for junk, although I did see a sign that read “Yonke” in my travels through Mexico). My mother managed to salvage just about everything she found in the alley. No chair was so splintered, no dresser was missing too many handles or drawers, no bed frame was so rusty or bent that they could not be repaired, refurbished, or rehabilitated with a little paint, elbow grease, and TLC. If my mother found something that was too heavy or bulky for her to bring home, she would come home to get me and between the two of us we would put it into the back of her red Volkswagon Squareback station wagon.
My mother always knew some Mexican or an entire Mexican family who had just come from Mexico and needed furniture. She would help them set up a home by giving them whatever furniture she had found. She genuinely loved to help people and she would never ask for any money in return. Occasionally, someone would offer money, but she would refuse it saying that they could repay her when they were settled down. People would come from Mexico and look for my mother because they knew that she would help them.
When I bought my four-flat house in Bridgeport, I attempted to help Mexicans on a smaller scale than my mother. I only helped my Mexican tenants and a few of their friends. When my brother lived in one of my apartments, he wanted to get rid of his living room set, but didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t know anyone who needed furniture at the moment, so I told him to put it out in the alley only he didn’t want to throw it away. I explained to him that if we put it in the alley early Sunday morning, the Mexicans going to church would see it and take it home with them. Sure enough, all his furniture was gone within an hour.
When I got divorced and I needed to refurnish my new house, I got most of my furniture from my brother and sister. Sometimes I feel so Mexican!
Once when I was I boy, I visited Mexico and I realized that I wasn’t Mexican. I was American! All my Mexican cousins told me so. I didn’t speak Spanish as well as them. My Spanish vocabulary was lacking compared to them. I always had to stop to think in order put my thoughts into Spanish. Even though I spoke Spanish with my family and friends in Chicago, I had lost what little Spanish I had and I never improved my Spanish vocabulary by constantly speaking Spanish with Mexicans from Mexico. Well, some of the children made fun of how I spoke Spanish and called me gringo.
Well, one day, I noticed that my aunt had various copies of Life Magazine in her house. I immediately recognized the Life logo, white letters in a red block. I was so excited because now I would be able to read something in English! But upon picking up the magazine and flipping through the pages, I realized that the magazine was published in Spanish. One of my cousins asked me what I was reading and I told him, “Life,” but I pronounced “Life” in English. He asked me to repeat it, and when I did, he said that I didn’t know Spanish because I didn’t call the magazine, “Li-fe,” pronounced in Spanish as two syllables. I explained that “Life” is an English word and so I pronounced it in proper English as a one-syllable word, with a silent e. Of course, he didn’t believe me. I was still el gringo who couldn’t speak Spanish. Not only that! I also couldn’t speak English! He called my other cousins over and told them about how I had my own peculiar way of pronouncing “Li-fe.” Well, after that, they constantly quizzed me about the pronounciation of “Li-fe.” Remember, “Life” in Mexico is “LI-FE” with two syllables!!