South Side Story


I learned a lot about Chicago when I attended Divine Heart Seminary in Donaldson, Indiana. For example, in my World History class, we went on a field trip to Chicago to visit the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. My father had taken us to what I thought were all the museums Chicago had to offer. Mr. Gibson, our history teacher merely told us were going on a field trip without any further explanation.

As we approached Chicago, I was surprised we were going to Chicago for our field trip. Even though we had visited the Museum of Science and Industry many times, I had no idea the Oriental Institute was nearby. I was very impressed by the museum. I was surprised by the many things I learned at the seminary. None of them relating to becoming a priest.

I learned that people in Indiana were fascinated with Chicago and visited my city quite often. Some of my classmates often asked what it was like to live in Chicago. They wanted details! To me, these were mundane facts, but I told them how I lived on the south side of Chicago, near where the Union Stockyards used to be. I told them how I attended a Lithuanian Catholic church and school, how I used to deliver the Chicago Sun-Times, Tribune, Daily News, American, and Today. I also delivered to Polish newspapers, the Daily Zgoda and the Chicagowski (I’m not making this name up!). These rural classmates of mine were truly fascinated by all these details.

Occasionally, I went home on weekends. The first few times, I took a Greyhound bus from Plymouth, Indiana, to downtown Chicago. And then I would take the CTA the rest of the way home. One of my classmates, Jim, was so curious about Chicago that he offered to have his mother take me to White Sox park, which was close enough to home so my father would pick me up. He lived in Whiting, Indiana, so his mother wasn’t driving that far out of the way. He was so excited to be in Chicago! He enjoyed waiting with me for my father in the stadium parking lot. We did this a couple more times.

One of the activities we did together as seminarians was watch television premieres of blockbuster movies. I remember watching Love Story because the upperclassmen made it sound like the coolest movie ever! I was surprised that many of my fellow seminarians cried at the end. There was a lot excitement when West Side Story was scheduled. I must confess that I had never seen the movie. In fact, I had never even heard of West Side Story. Everyone was shocked by ignorance. They just assumed I had seen the movie. I had no idea what the movie was about, and I was afraid to ask after all the teasing I suffered.

Well, I loved the movie! I loved the movie, the acting, the music, and the dancing. But I especially loved Natalie Wood as Maria. Of course, many seminarians were crying at the end. I couldn’t believe how these supposedly tough guys cried so easily.

Anyway, West Side Story suddenly made me the expert on gang life because I was from Chicago. I was always asked questions about the movie, gangs, and what it was like to be Puerto Rican. I explained that I was not qualified to say what is was like to be Puerto Rican because I was Mexican. That didn’t matter. The questions continued.

The next time we had a holiday weekend, my friend Jim offered to have his mother take me all the way to my house. All the way home, he kept asking if there gangs in my neighborhood. If the gangs were like the ones in West Side Story. If I ever saw anyone stabbed. The questions just kept coming all the way home.

I told him that, yes, our neighborhood did have gangs, but they didn’t dance like in West Side Story. I did see someone who was stabbed, but the not the actual stabbing. Jim kept prodding me for details. I told him about how a rival gang drove into our neighborhood to challenge our local gang. They shouted from their car as they drove past them as they played baseball in the park. Suddenly, their car stalled. Our gang ran up to the car with baseball bats. They hit the car a few times before it started up again and they took off.

I told Jim all these details, and then some, and he was enthralled by these stories. On the way home, he asked me where exactly I saw the stabbed person. His mother was interested, too, so we drove past the exact spot where I saw the stabbed person picked up by an ambulance. Before they drove me home, I had to show them where the rival gang’s car had stalled and where the other gang was playing baseball. Jim and his mother loved the tour I gave them. They finally took me home.

When I returned to the seminary after that weekend, I felt that everyone looked at me differently. Obviously, Jim had told everyone about his south side tour on the way to my house. To me, my life was just a normal life.

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!

I’m Mexican!


¡I'm Mexican! ¡Soy mexicano!

The other day I was walking around the Arizona Mills shopping mall in Phoenix and noticed that a teenager with black hair, brown eyes, and a perpetual tan was wearing a T-shirt that said, “I’m Mexican,” on the front. On the back the shirt said, “I’m Mexican / I’m not Latino / I’m not Hispanic.” I wasn’t surprised to see such a message since I have always felt the same way. I mean what am I supposed to call myself? As a teenager, I was even more confused. In grade school, I told everyone that I was Mexican. Then in high school, another Mexican told me about that I was a Chicano. Back then, all the older Mexicans like my parents, aunts, and uncles all thought that Chicanos all belonged to gangs. So I stuck to being Mexican. But now that I’m more mature, I still don’t know what or who I am. No matter what I call myself, someone within earshot will disagree. Lately, I’ve been telling everyone that I’m Mexican. And I’ll keep telling everyone that I’m Mexican until I figure out my identity–whatever it is!

I'm Mexican!