Parque Marquette


Taste of México, Marquette Park, Chicago, Illinois

My oldest son found a frog at the forest preserves and decided to keep it. He bought an aquarium, but soon the house smelled of stagnant water. He really didn’t clean the aquarium regularly or properly. Then he got bored of having a frog. He thought of releasing the frog in our backyard, but I told him it would die there and that would be inhumane. I suggested he take the frog to the Marquette Park lagoon where it would at least stand a chance to survive. A week passed and the frog was still our roommate and the aquarium water was still polluting the air we breathed. Yesterday, we both were home at the same time, with free time at the same time–something that rarely happens with our busy schedules (even though I’m on summer vacation now!).

So, I said, “Let’s take the frog to Marquette Park now.” Amazingly, he agreed. However, he didn’t want to touch the frog because of the putrid smell. He brought the aquarium down from his bedroom and put it on the front porch. He almost threw as he set the tank down. So, I was the one who took the frog out of the smelly tank and put it into a five-gallon bucket to take to Marquette Park.

I’ve been going to Marquette Park since the 1960s. My parents always loved taking us to parks or beaches whenever possible. When my mother got her driver’s license, she ventured further away from our house. Once she took us to Brookfield Zoo! But first she had to build up her courage. So she took us to Marquette Park. She had heard that it was a nice park. She drove us there in her 1964 Chevy Impala convertible. I remember driving on Marquette Road to get to Marquette Park. My mother was amazed by the houses we saw there. When we drove back home on Marquette Road, my mother said, “Some day we will live on Marquette Road!”

Eventually, we did live at 2509 W. Marquette Road! Many Lithuanians lived in Marquette Park. There were very few Mexicans in the neighborhood back in the early 1970s. But that didn’t stop my mother from moving in. I missed my old friends at Back of the Yards, but Marquette Park was a much bigger and better park than Davis Square Park. Marquette Park had a lagoon for fishing, sailing, RC boats. There were plenty of activities at the field house where I eventually joined the Mar Par Chessmen. Years later, I joined the Marquette Park Track Club that was coached by Jack Bolton. There were soccer and baseball leagues. I went there for a wrestling match when I was in the eighth grade. I got to know Marquette Park very well. There were very few Mexicans at the park then.

So, imagine my surprise when I returned with my sons to Marquette Park to release the frog (I bet you thought I forgot all about the frog!).  Over the past few years the neighborhood has been changing. African-Americans started moving in. Now, Mexicans are moving in, too. Whenever I drive through the neighborhood, I see more store signs in Spanish. Since I don’t spend all that much time there, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at the park. Marquette Park was filled with mostly Mexicans. Several soccer–actually, fútbol–games were in progress. Unlike the 1970s, all the players were Mexican. Ditto when I drove past the concrete basketball courts. I was also surprised by the Mexican food vendor in the picture above. They sold the usual Mexican food items: elotes, tacos, gorditas, raspados. My son was hungry, so he bought a couple of tacos de carne asada and an elote in a cup. I didn’t even know you could buy elote in a cup! I always buy it on a stick! As Dios intended. But, I’ve also seen pizza in a cup. So why not elote in a cup?

Anyway, we placed the frog (See! I still remember that this post was about the frog!) on the grassy shore of the lagoon and the frog immediately jumped into the water. Live long and prosper!

Many are cold, but few are frozen


Pilsen, Chicago, Illinois

I’ve heard a lot of complaints this winter about how much snow we’ve had in Chicago this winter and last. People are also complaining about how cold it’s been lately. Most of these complainers are either too young or haven’t lived in Chicago very long. These are the cold, bitter winters that I remember as a boy! No, I won’t exaggerate about how cold and snowy winters were in Chicago in days of yore. I don’t have to. Just recall the weather since December and you’ll see how much snow we used to have and how cold it used to be. Once you get used to the weather, you can actually still enjoy living in Chicago. There are, after all, much colder places than Chicago.

When I was a boy, I spent a lot of time outside during the winter. I delivered newspapers, shoveled sidewalks for money, played ice hockey, and occasionally, played baseball in the snow. We liked to do things that would make adults shake their heads at us. Like staying outside in the cold. The one thing I did learn–although somewhat accidentally–was to dress in layers. We didn’t have very much money for proper winter clothing such as down coats, wool socks or sweaters, or insulated gloves. One day, while ice skating at Davis Square Park across the street, I got cold, so I went home and put on some more pants and socks and shirts, eventually experimenting until I learned the correct amount of layers to wear. I would wear two or three t-shirts, three or four pairs of pants, and four or five pairs of socks, depending on the temperature. When everyone else went into the park fieldhouse to warm up, I continued skating outside. I never got cold again once I learn to dress for the weather.

And I also taught my brothers how to dress properly for winter. One extremely cold, snowy winter, our school, Holy Cross School, had a fundraiser for which we had to sell Christmas cards door to door. There had been snow on the ground since Thanksgiving Day. Even though the sidewalks were shoveled, there was snow pile up everywhere where no one walked or drove. My brother Tato and I started knocking on doors trying to sell our Christmas cards–unsuccessfully. We were at the third house and the woman who answered the door told us she was interested in buying Christmas cards. So, we turned around and started walking down her front porch stairs. When I reached the sidewalk at the bottom of the wooden stairs, I heard my brother Tato slip on the ice and fall down the stairs. I checked to see if my brother was okay and I helped him up. The woman who was watching us through the front window opened the door and called us back up to the porch. “I’ll buy a box of Christmas cards,” she said. Well, we sold her a box of Christmas cards and went on our merry way to the next house. This woman also refused to buy Christmas cards from us. As we were walking down her front porch, Tato again “fell” down the stairs. Of course, the woman called us back and bought a box of Christmas cards from us. We persisted with our sales pitch until we sold all of our Christmas cards. In fact, the next day, we asked Sister Cecilia for more Christmas cards for us to sell. She was suprised that we could sell that many Christmas cards!

Pop


This is my father in about 1976.

Pop. Just Pop. That’s what I call my father now. My brother Jerry’s children who are half Irish call him Papa Diego. I still call him Pop because when I was little we only spoke Spanish at home and my parents were mami and papi. When you’re very little, say up to about five or six years old, calling your parents mami and papi is still acceptable. When I started playing at the Davis Square Park, other kids called me baby if they heard me call my parents mami and papi. So, eventually I began calling them Mom and Pop. Definitely more acceptable by my peers of preteens. But I could never write pap because everyone would mispronounce in English. So that’s how he became Pop, just plain Pop.

I remember, once when I was at the park, Bobby–I never did learn his real last name–started a fight with me. I must have been about six at the time. I still had not learned the protocol that if someone hit you hit them right back or they would forever pick on you. Bobby punched my face and I ran home crying. I got home quickly because we lived right across the street from the park at 4501 S. Hermitage Avenue. Both my mami and papi were home. My father was somewhere in the apartment; how someone could disappear from his family in a four-room apartment is beyond me. Anyway, my mother wanted to know why I was crying. I said, “Bobby hit me!” but in Spanish. “¡Bobby me pegó! My mother thought I had said papi hit me. My mother immediately began scolding my father–who was forced to come out of hiding. It actually took a couple minutes for me clear up the confusion and prove my father’s innocence to my mother. My father took me to the park to look for Bobby, but he had left. Somebody was probably trying to beat him up for some prior transgression. As I would learn later–mainly because Bobby was always in life no matter how I tried to avoid him–no one liked Bobby because he was an all-round  troublemaker. Once someone tried to shoot him, but they missed him and shot the person sitting next to him on the park bench. Luckily, the bullet went through the fleshy part of his thigh. Everyone was troubled by the fact that such an act of violence had failed to restore peace to our neighborhood by ridding everyone of Bobby for good.

But back to my father. Pop. When I started calling him Pop, no one made fun of me anymore. One unintended side-effect was that my little brothers stopped calling my parents mami and papi. That was rather sad because everyone knows how cute little children are when they call their parents mami and papi.

That's okay if you don't have salsa. I brought my own.

Davis Square Park


Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time in Davis Square Park in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. The park is located between Marshfield Avenue and Hermitage Avenue, 44th and 45th Streets. There are larger parks in the city, but when I was five, the park was huge. My mother always took my brothers and me there to play whenever it was nice out. Basically, if it wasn’t raining, my mother took us to the park to play no matter how cold it was. I loved going down the slide, which was the biggest slide I had ever seen! All the kids said it was the world’s biggest slide and I believed them. Come on, I was only five years old at the time. One day, I fell of the top of the slide because one of the kids told me to slide down one of the supporting poles instead of sliding down the slide.

When I was too afraid to go down the pole, he demonstrated how I should go down by doing it himself. Well, my legs didn’t wrap around the pole just right and I fell for what seemed an eternity and landed on my right arm. I cried because I was in so much pain! My mother came running over to see what had happened to me. She took my brothers and me home immediately. She massaged my shoulder, but I kept crying. She called a friend of hers who immediately came over. She looked at my arm and shoulder, and then, boiled some herbs on the stove. She then rubbed this pungent concoction on my shoulder and arm that made me gag and massaged me forcefully. I remember crying even more while she did this. Actually, I remember feeling much worse after her “cure.”

Davis Square Park had a field house where we would go after school in the fall to play floor hockey and in the winter to play basketball. In the winter, they would hose down the baseball fields so would could play ice hockey. Everyday after school, I would play hockey all afternoon and evening long. I just loved playing hockey. I would have been a great hockey player if it weren’t for my one weakness: I couldn’t skate very well! However, I was fearless. I turned out to be a very good goalie. As long as I was standing in front of the net, I could block slapshots with my stick or chest, and I could catch the puck and give it to one of my teammates. My team usually won because hardly anyone ever scored on me.

The park had a swimming pool where we spent as time as possible, although that was very limited because of their schedule. For reasons unbeknownst to us, the schedule alternated between a boys day and a girls day when we could go swim without an adult. In the afternoon and evening, families could go swimming together. I could never go because you needed an adult to take you. My mother never took us because she refused to wear a bathing suit. In fact, I never saw her go in the water when we went to the beach.

Our time at Davis Square Park just flew by. When it was time to go home, my brothers and I would want to stay. It seemed like it wasn’t until we were really having fun that my mother would decide we had to go home. But we had to go home, my mother told us, because they let lions loose at the park at night. She told us this every time it was time to go home. At first, we went home without questioning her. Then, I started thinking about the logistics and safety of maintaining lions at Davis Square Park. But my mother always had an answer for every question I posed. “Where do they keep the lions?” “In the basement of the fieldhouse.” “How do they let them out?” “Through the steel plates that cover the basement windows.” “How come the lions don’t run away if there’s no fence all the way around the park?” “Because the love the park.” “What’ll happen if I don’t go home with you?” “Fine! Stay! But don’t come home crying to me when the lions eat you!” “Wait for me!”

I met Mayor Richard J. Daley at Davis Square Park for the first time. Our neighborhood had a slight gang problem, so Da Mayor decided to start up his own rival gang called the Centurions. In theory, the Centurions would provide an alternative to street gangs. All my friends and I joined even though we never even thought of joining a gang in the first place. But we had a lot of fun! We played all kinds of organized sports and sometimes we even won a trophy. I really loved when they would load us up on a school bus and take us the the White Sox games for free!