Happy Birthday, Chicago!

City of Chicago Seal

The City of Chicago was incorporated on March 4, 1837, and the world has never been the same since. Chicago helped shape American history. No one in Chicago actually celebrates this birthday, but true Chicagoans are always aware when March 4 comes and goes without any fanfare.

The City of Chicago Seal was adopted officially in June of 1837. I will try my best to explain the symbols in the seal. I will rely on my memory, which isn’t always very accurate, to recall facts and myths I have heard or read. I remember a  little from the Chicago History course I had to take way back in the fourth grade. The Lithuanian nuns at Holy Cross School were just crazy about Chicago History. I’m not sure if there’s even an official explanation of the seal anywhere, but I will try my best to explain its symbolism.

The shield represents the United States of America. The colors of the American flag are represented as are the original thirteen American colonies by the thirteen stripes. The sheaf of wheat represents our abundant agriculture and fertility. The ship represents either Columbus, the Europeans, or the Pilgrims arriving in the New World. The ship is seen and/or greeted by a Native American. In the fourth grade they were called Indians, but we all know that Indians is a misnomer because Columbus never did reach the East Indies as he had planned. Well, Native American isn’t a very good term either. After all, America was named after Amerigo Vespucci who did a better job of selling and publicizing the New World to the Spanish Catholic Monarchs.

The baby in the seashell represents a new beginning. I suppose it also has echoes of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. I remember during Mayor Harold Washington’s reign, some of the African-American alderman wanted to get rid of the white baby because it was a racist symbol. The baby might have been legislated out of the seal, but then someone projected the cost of removing the white baby from every place it appeared in Chicago into the millions of dollars. And so, the City of Chicago still has a white baby. We have learned to live quite well with the white baby.

At the very bottom is the Chicago motto: Urbs in horto, which means city in the garden in Latin. Well, we are a city, but we are no longer in the middle of a garden. And you can thank urban sprawl for that!

Good Friday

Holy Cross Church, Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

Good Friday always reminds of many things. I know, I know, it’s Saturday. I’m not late. I’m running on Mexican Time. I once saw that on a T-shirt.

If you ever have a party and invite some Mexicans, make accommodations for Mexican Time. If you want everyone at your house by four, tell them the party’s at three. Well, because 3:00 o’clock lasts until 3:59! 3:59 is still 3:00 in the mind of a Mexican. Say 3:59 out loud. Go ahead. Did you hear all three digits? If you did, you’re not Mexican. A Mexican will only hear the initial digit “3” and then block out the rest of the digits. That’s just how Mexicans process time.

Anyway, I forgot all about Good Friday until late last night when Jay Leno mentioned that is was Good Friday. And then I felt guilty. Because I’m a lapsed Catholic who suffers from constant guilt. It’s kind of like being Mexican. You never stop being Catholic–or feeling guilty about something. Well, during the day yesterday, I actually remembered that it was Good Friday. I thought I should celebrate it in my own lapsed-Catholic fashion to ease some guilt for forgetting about not going to church on Good Friday. So I had decided to write a blog entry about Good Friday. But then I forgot all about it. Or, perhaps, I blocked it out. And now I feel extremely guilty. That’s why I’m writing this while Good Friday is less than twenty-four hours over. I actually feel a little less guilt now.

Toluca, México

As Mexican Catholics, we attended a Lithuanian Catholic church in the Back of the Yards. Holy Cross Church was our parish. I also attended Holy Cross School from kindergarten through eighth grade. There was no separation between church and school. We were taught lessons in church and we prayed in school. In church, we were taught by Lithuanian priests and in school we had Lithuanian nuns, with the occasional visit by the pastor who would give us holy cards if we answered his catechism questions correctly. We never forgot about religious holidays because we were in school five days a week and in church six days a week. We would be reminded for weeks in advance of an upcoming holy day. Holy Week was one of the most important times of the year for us. It began on Palm Sunday and ended on Easter Sunday.

Mexicans in Chicago commemorate many of these events by reenacting them. I’ve been to reenactments of the Last Supper, Jesus Christ’s procession to Golgotha, and the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This always seemed to strike many people, who were of the non-Mexican persuasion, as sacrilegious.

To this day, the holy day that I remember the most is Good Friday. That was the day that Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins. And we should never forget that!

We attended school on Good Friday until it was time to go next door to church for the Good Friday service at 3:00 p.m. sharp. All the students sat with their classmates and nuns who were their teachers. We would get to church early so we could pray until the service began. We were supposed to recall all the events of Jesus Christ’s life and how he died for our sins.

I remember when I was about eight years old, the nun told us in school that Jesus Christ died at three p.m. and that every Good Friday it rains at that time for Jesus Christ. I was just boy and I believed absolutely everything I was taught. During the Good Friday service, the bright sunny church interior suddenly dimmed and then darkened. Just as the priest told of how the Romans were nailing Jesus Christ to the cross, the church became as dark as night. Someone turned some lights on. Then, we saw lightning flashes and a moment later we heard deafening thunder. The church trembled and the lights flickered. The thunderstorm, lightening, and thunder continued for several minutes. The priest stopped to genuflect and bless himself. That was a defining moment in my development as a young Catholic. I became a true believer at that precise moment. From then on, I always believed everything that the priests and nuns told me.

Back of the Yards

Entry to the Union Stock Yards

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.

You swam in the pig's bathtub!

I am a Mexican!

The Finish Line

What do you call someone of Hispanic descent? I am truly confused about what to call myself. I have heard a lot of terms, good and bad, to describe Spanish speakers or people from Spanish-speaking countries, for example, Latino, Hispanic, Latin-American, Mexican-American, and on the negative side, beaner, spik, and wetback.

But what should I call myself? What term should I use to describe myself? None of the terms seem adequate. Latino, Hispanic, and Latin-American are too all-encompassing and include a lot of Spanish-speaking nations, but they don’t describe any of my individual characteristics. And let’s not forget that I have been born and raised in the United States of America as an American citizen.

When I think back to my childhood, I used to tell everyone, “I’m Mexican.” When I was a student at the Lithuanian Catholic grade school Holy Cross, the nuns would ask me what nationality I was and I would answer, “I’m Mexican.” Sometimes when visitors came to class, the nuns would tell the visitor, “This is David. He’s a nice Mexican boy.” Now that I look back, that seems to be the best term to use today in our politically correct times.

Let me explain. If I say that I am a Mexican-American, that seems redundant. I was born in the USA to parents who emigrated from Mexico and I speak fluent English. My parents were born in Mexico and were citizens of Mexico. My mother eventually became a naturalized U.S. citizen. If you asked my parents what they were, they would reply, “Somos mexicanos” in Spanish. So when I say, “I’m Mexican” in English, without a Mexican accent–okay, perhaps a bit of a south side accent–, I imply that I am an American citizen of Mexican descent. If I were a Mexican national living in the USA, living and working here, legally or otherwise, I would say, “Soy mexicano,” perhaps even because I couldn’t speak English.

So I say to you, “I am a Mexican,” in English, without a Mexican accent, but with a south side Chicago accent. Do you hear me? I am a MEXICAN!