That sounds like a very good idea, in theory anyway. The first day of the semester, I always give The Speech about how to excel in my Spanish class. Number One on the list is coming to class each and every day. Why? Well, class, you should come to class because attendance is 15% of your overall grade, I like seeing my students in class, and if you come to class, you might actually learn something. Most students do come to class just because it’s required. Others, however, think attendance should be optional and nothing I say will persuade them to come to class more frequently.
A few years back, a student enrolled in my class who took skipping class to a new level. He showed up the first day of class and then I didn’t see him again for two weeks. I couldn’t figure out why he would miss so many classes. One day, as I was reading the university newspaper, I noticed a guest opinion piece in the editorial section titled, “Let’s all go to class,” in which the author stresses the importance of attending class. In fact, he keeps harping on it even though he missed a lot of classes the previous semester to sleep, play video games, and almost finish writing late papers for his English class. In principle, I agreed with the idea that all students should attend class, but something about this piece made me suspicious. The author was named Patrick. So I immediately remembered him. That’s one thing you should know about me. I don’t often remember names unless your name is David, Catherine, Adam, Yolanda, Patrick, Poindexter, or Allouissius. So I suddenly realized that the author Patrick was the student whom I had only seen on the first day of class and then never again. About two weeks later, he showed up to class again and I asked him if he was the author of the guest opinion. He blushed and admitted that he was, in fact, the author. I asked him if he had ever considered following his own advice. He looked at me as if it had never occured to him! I didn’t see him in class again for another two weeks. His attendance the rest of the semester was very sporadic and somehow he managed to pass the course!
Growing up in Back of the Yards had many advantages. One of them was the Peoples Theater at 1620 W. 47th Street where we went almost every weekend to see movies. I was really impressed by the theater because it seemed so classy to me. There were marble floors, marble walls, and even the restroom looked elegant with its marble floor and walls. The incongruous thing about the restroom was the fact that the rolls of toilet paper were securely bolted in place. Otherwise, people would either steal the whole roll of toilet paper or dump it into the toilet. I could never understand why anyone would dump a perfectly good roll of toilet paper into the toilet, but other public restrooms in the neighborhood that didn’t take such precautions actually had rolls of toilet paper in their toilets. However, in my circle of young friends, there was an unwritten rule that you never used the sit-down toilets of a public restroom. Never! Never ever! Under no circumstances. You were supposed to hold your number two in and run home to the comfort of your own bathroom, hopefully in the nick of time. In the auditorium of the theater, there were a lot of terra-cotta decorations. I used to stare at them while waiting for the movie to start. I was always fascinated by the ceiling way over my head. There was a giant oval recess that was always lighted. I would imagine different things while looking at it. But what I usually saw was the underside of a giant turtle. I imagined that it was in a huge overhead aquarium and I was always afraid that it break open from the weight of the giant turtle and that we would all drown under the huge waterfall. As you may have already divined, I now tell this story because no such disaster ever befell upon me!
For Christmas, Holy Cross School would have a special day for us to go to Peoples Theater to see a Christmas movie. We would get out of school for this special field trip a whole two blocks away from the school. We loved any event that allowed us to miss class!
During the week in the summer, my mother would take my younger brothers and me to Peoples Theater while my father was working. She used to like watching those romantic movies, which I found so boring when I was little. I believe we saw Gone with the Wind, Dr. Zhivago, and From Here to Eternity. Whenever the couple would kiss, I thought the movie was over and I would pull my mother’s arm so we could go home. My mother only took us to the show when she wanted to see a movie. My father would take us even if it was movie just for kids. Of course, he would sleep through the entire movie because he worked midnights at Curtiss Candy, a candy factory underneath the old S-curve at Lake Shore Drive and the Chicago River that manufactured Butterfinger and Baby Ruth candy bars. The only time he really wanted to see a movie was when they showed Cecille B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments. Of course, he fell asleep through those movies, too. We usually only went to the matinée show on Saturday because the tickets were only fifty cents.
When I was a little older, I started going to the movies with just my brothers and no parents. I was in charge of taking care of them. When my brothers were older, we all went to the theater separately with our own friends. I went a lot with Adam Mendez or Patrick McDonnell. One day, Patrick invited me to go with him during the week. I told him I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford the full price of the ticket. He told me that he had free passes for the theater. His father had told him where to get them. There was an insurance sales office near the theater that gave free passes to customers. Patrick, who was wise beyond his years, showed me where to go to get the free tickets. He made small talk with one of the insurance agents who asked how Patrick’s father was and gave us two free passes to Peoples Theater. After that we went to show once a week during the week when the tickets cost full price and sometimes we were able to sneak in to see some adult movies. However, they caught us when we tried to see Bonnie and Clyde with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway and they made us leave. One day when we went to the insurance office, the manager told us that they were closing down, so he gave Patrick the whole packet of movie passes. If we liked a movie a lot, we would see it at least twice, oftentimes, more. When Patrick moved away, I inherited the packet of passes from him. Then, I used to go Peoples Theater with my brothers and my friend Adam. I remember that Adam and I really loved the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly so much that we saw it everyday for two weeks. And we never got tired of it. I saw many of my favorite movies there: The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Born Losers (a biker movie), Flipper, and others that I can’t recall now.
When I was older, my mother sent me to see Irma Serrano at the Peoples Theater. My mother went to Mexico when Irma Serrano came to Chicago. She told me to tell Irma I was Carmen Rodriguez’s son. When I did, Irma invited me backstage and I took pictures of her. I never did learn how my mother got to know Irma Serrano
Alas! Peoples Theater is no more! There is a Walgreen’s on the site now. But I will always remember Peoples Theater for all it’s terra-cotta decorations and marble walls and floors, even in the restroom! It was kind of like going to church every week.
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.
Years ago, I attended Divine Heart Seminary in Donaldson, Indiana. I recently went to a DHS reunion where my classmates and I remembered our Spanish teacher Enrico Mordini. Señor Mordini was the Spanish teacher who taught me a lot about being Mexican even though he was an Italian born in Italy and raised in Spain. He taught me that there is more than one way to speak Spanish. I never realized there were so many dialects. I was originally in his Spanish I class, but he moved me up to Spanish II because I knew some Spanish. I had always wanted to learn Spanish formally so that I could read and write it. As an aside, when I attended Holy Cross Grade School, since the Lithuanian school didn’t offer Spanish classes, I asked if I could go to Saturday morning classes to study Lithuanian. I was told, “First, you have to learn English.”
Once I started classes with Señor Mordini, I questioned whether I even knew Spanish. He said some words so differently from my mother that it took me some time to recognize them. For example, “to drink” to my mother and me was “tomar” and to Señor Mordini it was “beber.” I had never even heard the word “beber” before! When my mother said “good” in Spanish, she would not say it the same way as Señor Mordini’s “bueno,” but rather, she would say, “güeno” instead. The Spanish word for needle was “aúja” to my mother and me, but to Señor Mordini, it was “aguja.” Our word wasn’t even in the dictionary without the letter g. When I informed my mother of these differences, she said that’s because Señor Mordini spoke “castellano” and not “español.” When I told Señor Mordini what my mother had said, he said that “castellano” and “español” were synonyms for the Spanish language. My mother never really believed him! After all, he wasn’t Mexican. In fact, he wasn’t even Spanish either. He was Italian!
Once while discussing Mexican culture in class, I said that I knew all Mexicans were a mixture of Spanish and Aztec blood. I was shocked when he said that was only partially true because not everyone, in fact, not many people were purely of Spanish and Aztec ancestry. I insisted that I was right. Even my father had told me so. Even after several convincing arguments by Señor Mordini that there were people in Mexico of pure, unmixed Spanish blood , I still didn’t believe him. When I reported this to my mother, she said that not all Mexicans were only of Spanish and Aztec ancestry. In fact, her grandfather had been Irish! “What?” I was so shocked. “Why didn’t you tell me before?” I asked my mother. She just nonchalantly said, “I didn’t think it was important.” Suddenly, I was sixteen and learning for the first time that I had more than just Spanish and Aztec blood coursing through my veins. In fact, I might not even have Spanish or Aztec blood coursing through my veins. I was in shock! It took me years to adjust to this new discovery about my ancestry. Was this a possible explanation for why my best friend in the Catholic Lithuanian grade school was Patrick McDonald from Ireland? But the fact remained that Señor Mordini was right again!
Years later, when I applied to teach Spanish at a community college, I was hoping against hope to get the position because I saw in the school catalogue that Señor Mordini was on the faculty! But such was not my luck. Señor Mordini died that year and I didn’t get the position! I suffered two severe blows at once. But I was lucky enough to have met Señor Mordini when I did. He certainly made more aware of myself and made me a much better person.
Above: This was the Spanish classroom at Divine Heart Seminary in Donaldson, Indiana, in the 1970s. This is one of the many schools where Señor Enrico Mordini taught. As an aside, Señor Mordini had a good sense of humor and got along well with the students. Once my classmates talked me into hiding in the fire escape, which was a giant slide in a huge metal tube on the right in the picture but out of view, and Señor Mordini humored us by looking for me wherever my classmates suggested: under his desk, under the student desks, behind the bulletin board, etc. 🙂