Irma Serrano

Irma Serrano at the People’s Theater, Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

I never understood why my mother went to Mexico when Irma Serrano came to Back of the Yards to perform at the People’s Theater. She absolutely loved Irma Serrano. My mother had all her records. My mother saw all her movies. Yet, my mother went to Mexico the summer of 1970 when Irma Serrano came to People’s Theater.

But my mother had a plan! While she was away in Mexico, I would go for my mother to see Irma Serrano in concert! I was only fourteen at the time, so I was a little nervous when my mother explained her plan to me. I would see Irma Serrano in concert and then tell my mother all about the concert when she returned from Mexico. My mother thought her idea was absolutely brilliant. I, on the other hand, had mixed feelings. Because of my mother, I, too, loved Irma Serrano as a singer and an actress. I just couldn’t let my friends know this dirty little secret about me. What if my friends saw me going to the People’s Theater when I went to see Irma Serrano? What would I tell them? What if they wanted to tag along? That was my dilemma of the summer of 1970.

My mother arranged everything. She bought another camera just for the concert because she always took her camera to take pictures in Mexico. I was to take pictures of Irma performing on stage. I was to take pictures of every outfit she wore. She changed a few times during her performance, so I made sure I took pictures of every outfit. I must admit that this was fun, especially since Irma seemed to welcome the additional attention of an adolescent male admirer. My mother also wrote a letter to Irma that I was supposed to hand deliver to Irma Serrano personally. Those were my mother’s orders! My mother wanted me to go backstage after the performance to talk to Irma and take more pictures of her.

Irma Serrano in the dressing room.

“But how am I supposed to go backstage?” I asked my mother. “Just tell them that you’re delivering a letter to Irma Serrano from Carmen Rodriguez! They’ll let you in then!” I was always painfully shy, but now I was truly afraid to follow through with my mother’s plan. She wanted me to meet someone who was really a successful star and really, really famous. I was scared to approach Irma after the show. But I was even more afraid of how my mother would punish me if I didn’t take pictures of Irma and deliver my mother’s letter backstage.

I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the concert! Of course, that was also because none of my friends saw me going to the People’s Theater that afternoon. Luckily, the concert was on a Sunday afternoon when most of my friends spent the day visiting relatives. I recognized every song Irma sang because my mother always played them at home on her 8-track player. The only time I didn’t like listening to my mother’s Mexican music was on Saturday mornings. She played her music starting at sunrise. If I told her to turn it down a little, she would yell at me for being lazy and staying in bed. I would put the pillow over my head and the music didn’t sound so loud that way.

Since I was at the Irma Serrano concert of my own free will, according to my mother (under duress, if you asked me), I attempted to enjoy myself as much as possible. The audience consisted of less than about a hundred people, but they were all really into Irma. Even me! It was a really good concert! And since the audience was so small, it was also very intimate.

After the concert, I was able to get backstage by mentioning my mother’s name. I seriously doubted that would work, but I was amazed that I got to meet Irma Serrano in person. I told her that Carmen Rodriguez had written her a letter and I then handed her the letter. She smiled as she took the letter and said, “So you’re Carmen’s son? She told me about you.” I don’t know if Irma really knew my mother, but she knew how to treat fans appreciatively.  I asked Irma if I could take more pictures of her, and she consented. I was thrilled to be backstage with Irma Serrano all by myself!

So that was my closest encounter with a very famous star!

Isle of the Dead

Chicago Symphony Center

I love music! But I don’t know very much about music. In fact, thousands upon thousands of music books have been written about everything that I do NOT know about music. And, I am proud to say that I have never read even one of those books! Despite the fact that I love music so much.

I really do love music. I listen to music almost every waking moment. But I listen to different kinds of music, depending on where I am. When I’m at UIC, I listen to  rock on my iPhone. When I’m driving, I listen to the oldies. However, whenever I’m home, I listen to 98.7 WFMT. All the time! Even when I’m sleeping. And I always crank up WFMT all the way to eleven. Except when I’m sleeping. Listening to classical music allows me to read or write, or even correct Spanish compositions. I don’t know much about classical music either, even though I listen to it all the time.

Even though I’m not qualified to critique music, I would like to tell you about a concert I attended at the Chicago Symphony Center. I went to see Beyond the Score that explained the structure and meaning of Sergei Rachmoninov’s Isle of the Dead. The orchestra played the works of other composers who influenced Rachmaninov for this piece. It was a multi-media presentation, so there was a giant screen to show pictures of the painting Isle of the Dead that also influenced this piece as the story was narrated. I sat in the third row right in the middle of the screen. When the conductor Vladimir Jurowski came out, he stood right in the middle of the screen, illuminated by it from behind. This ominous sight made such an impression on me that I wanted to take out my camera and take a picture. But I managed to refrain myself. I regret it now. I should have lived a little more dangerously and taken the picture anyway!

So why do I love music so much? I’m not really sure. Why do I especially love classical music even though I don’t understand it? Okay, you really got me on that one!

However, if I think really hard, I picture Sister Cecilia from my school days at Holy Cross. Sister Cecilia was the music director for our school. She would teach the school songs for Sunday mass, for Christmas, and–her favorite holiday–the pastor’s birthday. For Father Edward’s birthday, the school would meet in the assembly hall at least twice a week and we would sing a special birthday song that Sister Cecilia prepared just for him. She would take a current top forty hit and change the lyrics just for Father Edward. For example, one year, she took “Georgie Girl” and we sang “Hey there, Father Edward …” Another year, “What’s It All about, Alfie?” became, “What’s It All about, Father Edward?” Pretty clever, huh? Unfortunately, I can’t remember the rest of the lyrics to these wonderful songs or any of the other songs we sang for Father Edward’s birthday.

Sister Cecilia went through great pains to teach the entire school these songs. When we met to rehearse, she would pass out the sheet music with her new, improved lyrics. She was very demanding. We would stand at attention while we sang and she would walk among our ranks ensuring that everyone sang. She would tell us, “Open your mouths wide when you sing! I should be able to put a silver dollar in your mouth when you sing!” Things didn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes she would yell at us if too many students sang out of key. She would yell, “Look at the music! If the note goes up, your voice goes up, too!” I always sang at my best when she stood directly in front of me. The rest of the time I merely lip-synced the words. I think I was ahead of my time.

When we got a new pastor, Father Mikolaitis, she didn’t seem that enthusiastic about his birthday celebration. In fact, we never called our new pastor by his first name.

In the seventh and eighth grades, we took a music appreciation class, taught by none other than Sister Cecilia. I actually enjoyed this class. I don’t remember much from this class. Well, I do remember f – a – c – e and every good boy does fine, but other than that, not much. My favoritie part of the class was learning about the orchestra. She would place the phonograph that came in a box that always reminded me of a traveling valise. She would put it on her desk and play a 78 rpm record. The narrator described all the instruments of the orchestra one by one. Each instrument would demonstrate its range and what it was capable of playing. I was truly fascinated by this information. To this day, I recognize most of the instruments of the orchestra. Sometimes, I like to amaze my friends with my knowledge of music while we listen to classical music, despite insisting that we listen to something else. Ever the veritable font of wisdom that I am, I will correctly point out, “Did you hear that instrument? THAT was a triangle!” And they’ll stare at me with their mouth gaping. Because I know that they’re truly amazed by my knowledge of the classical music and the orchestra!


Once, soon after my son started getting into the latest cool music, according to his friends, my son asked me if I had ever heard of the rock band Kiss. He described the band before telling me the name because he just assumed that I had never heard of them. Not only that, but I also knew all their names. Wow! Was he in for a surprise! I told him that not only had I heard of them, but that I also had all of their albums–on black vinyl, of course! He was shocked. I then proceeded to show him the Kiss albums and he was in awe of me. I truly believe my cool factor with him increased exponentially at that precise moment. Flattered by all this, I gave him all my Kiss albums. That nearly floored him. Then, I pulled the ace from up my sleeve: “I once went to a Kiss concert,” I told him. He was truly impressed by this. “And I can prove it, too!” I opened up the Kiss Alive album and pointed to a fan in the audience who resembled me when I was younger. That was perhaps the coolest moment between my son and me! Sometimes the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Why don't we go to a rock concert together?

Flor de Mayo

Irma Serrano, The Peoples Theater, Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois.

My mother always helped Mexicans who were new to Chicago. Whenever people threw away furniture, I would have to help her bring it from the alley to our basement until she could give it to someone who desperately needed furniture more than us. Many Mexicans came and went from my house because not only would my mother give them furniture, but she would also advise them on how to survive in Chicago.

My mother went to Mexico about once a year. She loved Mexico so much because the Mexicans in Mexico loved her and envied her because of her success in America. One year when she returned from her Mexican vacation, I overheard her calling the Spanish TV station and I asked her why. She had met a single Mexican mother with a one-year-old daughter. I don’t remember the woman’s name, but she also played guitar and sang songs she wrote herself. My mother had convinced this woman to come to Chicago because my mother knew people at the radio and TV stations. Important people!

So anyway, my mother told this woman she would have a promising musical career if she left Mexico and came to Chicago. Somehow, my mother convinced this woman to come to Chicago and she was scrambling to get her an appearance on the radio or TV. My mother was so sure that this woman was an extremely talented musician! I don’t know how she did it, but after a few days, my mother got her on the radio and on a TV show. I remember she rehearsed at our house a few times before her appearances. I was only about ten years old at the time, but I thought she performed very well and she was so beautiful!

Sometime after her public appearances, she returned to our house to show us her new 45 record. I don’t remember how well it sold, but she had a record! Her manager gave her the stage name of Flor de Mayo. We were all excited that Flor had made it, but none more excited than my mother who had exaggerated her connections to get Flor de Mayo to come all the way from Mexico.

At my mother’s wake, many people, most of them Mexicans, came to pay their last respects to my mother. We had a three-day wake, which families no longer have. I saw a lot of people whom I hadn’t seen for years. The biggest surprise arrival was a woman who approached me, shook my hand, hugged me, and said in Spanish, “If it wasn’t for your mother, I wouldn’t be here in Chicago!” She was rather plump then but still beautiful. I recognized her voice, but I couldn’t place her, so I asked her who she was. She said, “Flor de Mayo.”