Labas


HH

 

Labas. That’s right. Labas. To all my Lithuanian friends: Labas! In fact, I’d like greet everyone reading my blog: Labas! That’s hello in Lithuanian. My Lithuanian friend Vito taught me that word because he always insisted that we greet each other by saying Labas. Now, I always greet Lithuanians with Labas and they always smile. I especially love to greet them with Labas especially if they didn’t think I knew they were Lithuanians. I’m not sure why, but they’re always thrilled to hear me say Labas. So to all my Lithuanian readers: Labas! I guess sometimes I go on and on, don’t I? Well, my friend Vito taught me another Lithuanian word: tylėk. Sometimes we would go to the show, I would just keep on talking even after the movie started. He would keep telling me tylėk until I finally shut up. That’s right, tylėk means shut up in Lithuanian. But I never did. And I never will.

For as long as I can remember, I have always lived near Lithuanians in Chicago. In Back of the Yards, Holy Cross was the Lithuanian church I attended. At Holy Cross School, the nuns always praised The Jungle by Upton Sinclair because the protagonist was Lithuanian and the novel was set in Back of the Yards. When we moved to Marquette Park, 2509 W. Marquette Road, many Lithuanians lived there and they even had a street named Lithuanian Plaza Court. In fact, that neighborhood was the unofficial capital of Lithuania during the Soviet era. Maria High School, run by Lithuanian nuns, was at Marquette Road and California Avenue. Right on the same campus was the retirement convent for the Sisters of Saint Casimir at 2601 W. Marquette Road. The Lithuanians also had their own Holy Cross Hospital at California Avenue and Lithuanian Plaza Court. I met my friend Vito when I lived in Marquette Park. Vito and I used to eat at the Lithuanian McDonald’s at 68th and Pulaski. I don’t know if it was actually Lithuanian, but Vito told me that the tiles on the wall were typical Lithuanian colors, so it became a Lithuanian McDonald’s in my mind. When I moved to Bridgeport, there weren’t that many Lithuanians there anymore, but they did have a street named Lituanica Avenue. My favorite restaurant in Bridgeport was a Lithuanian restaurant named Healthy Foods at 3236 S. Halsted Street. When I saw the movie Chariots of Fire, I was thrilled to learn that the family of Harold Abrams were Lithuanian Jews.

When I was a student at Holy Cross, my best friend was Patrick McDonald, but when he moved away, I became friends with Adrian Stanislovaitis and Anthony Kivenas, both Lithuanians. Whenever I was with them, we spoke English, but when they were with their parents, they spoke Lithuanian. I never understood what they said and it didn’t bother me at all. However, I never even learned one Lithuanian word from them. And when they came to my house, I spoke Spanish with my parents and grandmother. I envied Adrian and Anthony because they got to go to Lithuanian classes on Saturday morning. I wanted to go with them. I wished Mexicans would have Spanish classes for Mexicans. Anyway, Adrian and I spent a lot of time together. For school holidays, we used to take the bus downtown and just wander around, but he showed me a few points of interest, such as the Prudential Building because it used to be Chicago’s tallest skyscraper.

When we moved to Marquette Park, we met more Lithuanians. Marquette Park has a monument for Lithuanian aviators Captain Steponas Darius and Lieutenant Stasys Girenas. This is where I met Vito and other Lithuanians. I went to Lithuanian restaurants and bars with Vito. At one bar on Lithuanian Plaza Court, it might have been Knight’s Inn, we met a Lithuanian improv group that was named Second Village, which is Antras Kaimas in Lithuanian. It was inspired by the name of Second City. We talked to them a while, and Jim, Vito, and I told them that we performed standup comedy. We ended up making a little skit/song/dance for them sung to the tune of “Skip to My Lou.” I still remember it, but don’t know how to spell it because it was in Lithuanian. Vito wrote most of the song. My contribution to the song? Labas and tylėk! No surprise there!

We once went to a Lithuanian festival on Western Boulevard near the Lithuanian V.F.W. Hall, which if I remember correctly was named after Darius and Girenas. Anyway, there were all kinds of Lithuanian food. One vender is selling empanadas, which really surprised me because as far as I knew, empanadas were Mexican food. The Lithuanian cook tells me that empanadas were invented by Lithuanians. He could tell that I didn’t believe him. He pressed on with his explanation and tried to convince me that I really didn’t know Mexican food. He was so convincing that I almost believed him. Almost, but not quite. Finally, he told me that he learned to make empanadas in Argentina. During WWII, his family went to Argentina before they came to America.

That’s how I think of Lithuanians. They’re always ready to play a friendly practical joke on you. Vito was always the joker and had a great sense of humor that not everybody got. I could tell he got it from his father. Once I went to Vito’s house so we could go to the show. His father answered the door and I asked for Vito. He knew very well that I was asking for his son, Vito, my friend, but he said, “You’re talking to him.” I said, “No, Vito Junior.” He said, “I am Vito Junior!” This went on much longer than was comfortable for me, but Vito’s father was really enjoying this. Finally, he said, “Vito’s not home.” Why didn’t he just tell me that in the first place? Well, he wanted to play a joke on me. I laugh now that I think of it. But that day I learned that both Vito’s father and grandfather were named Vito. What really made me uncomfortable about them was how they greeted each other and how they said good-bye. Vito would always kiss his father on the lips. Talk about culture shock! For a while, Vito lived with his grandfather Vito. Before we would go out, Vito would kiss his grandfather on the lips before he went out. It was as shocking since I had finally gotten used to him kissing his father. But one day we were talking and Vito told me that his father was adopted. Suddenly, it hit me. “Vito, you kiss your grandfather on the lips and he’s not even related to you!” He thought nothing of it. I still can’t get over it!

 

Holy Cross


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

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!

Mexican Catholics


Mount Carmel Church, Chicago, Illinois

The Mexican stereotype is that all Mexicans are Catholics. And most of them are. However, when I met my ex-wife’s family, I was surprised, even shocked, that most of her father’s family were Mexican Protestants. And her family was Protestant in Mexico, too! Talk about culture shock. Even though I’m a Mexican Catholic, I, too, stereotype all Mexicans in Mexico as Catholics.

As a young boy I was a parishioner at a Lithuanian Catholic church, Holy Cross, where I also attended their grammar school. The church population consisted of mostly Lithuanians, but there were also a lot of Mexican families in the parish and school. We always went to mass on school days before we went to class and on Sundays we sat with our classmates and teacher for mass. All the Mexicans in the neighborhood went to mass, if not every day, at least on Sundays. My father’s family was extremely religious, so I had this image of all Mexicans being devout Catholics.

When I went to Mexico, I realized that my mother’s family wasn’t as religious as I had imagined. All of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and other family members always said that they were Catholic. What a disgrace it would be not to be Catholic!

Anyway, once I went to Mexico to visit for a month. By the third week, I realized that we had not even gone to church even once. I wasn’t really a practicing Catholic then, but I was worried about what my family would think of me if I didn’t go to church or even suggest going to church. So I asked them if they ever went church. Immediately, my aunt told everyone to dress up nice. We were going to church! Well, we went to church and there was no one there. There were no masses scheduled for that day, on a Sunday no less. We sat in the pews for a while attempting to pray, or at least pretending to pray, and then we went home.

So now that’s how I remember Mexican Catholics. People who want everyone to think that they’re Catholic. And, I guess, I’m no exception, either. Whenever someone asks me my religion, I say, “I’m Catholic!”