The first place I ever lived in Chicago was Pilsen. I hate to admit it, but I’m not a native Chicagoan. I have always regretted not being born in Chicago because I love Chicago so much. Yes, I’m not happy to admit that I’m a foreigner. I was born in Perth Amboy New Jersey. We moved to Chicago when I was about one and a half. We moved into my grandparents’ house at 977 W. 19th Street. We lived in the second floor rear apartment that didn’t have its own bathroom. There was no back door either. There were wooden stairs leading downstairs to the backyard from our rear window. I’m sure this didn’t meet the Chicago building codes, but it was very practical. My brother Danny and I always went down the back stairs to play in the yard. We lived there until we moved to Back of the Yards shortly before I started the kindergarten at Holy Cross.
I still drive through Pilsen when I go to UIC because it’s an interesting neighborhood. I’ve been taking pictures of the neighborhood for years now. Every time I take a different route I find something I have never seen before, like the mural in the picture above. I’ve driven on 16th many times, but I only recently noticed this mural of the Aztec calendar. I know this mural has been there for at least twenty years. Parts of it are slowly fading away into obscurity. I plan on walking through Pilsen and taking more pictures.
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.
My favorite all-time Mexican restaurant is Azteca Tacos in Pilsen, 1836 S. Blue Island Avenue, Chicago, IL 60608, 312.733.0219. I’ve eaten there many times over many years. I was still in high school the very first time I ate there. My father and I went to the Fiesta del Sol when it was still on Blue Island Avenue. Rather than eating at one of the vendors from the fiesta, we went to Azteca Tacos and ordered our food through the window with wrought iron grating as we stood on the sidewalk. It was kind of like eating at a restaurant in México. Authentic Mexican food is served by authentic Mexicans. The food is so delicious–¡Riquísima!–and they serve you large portions. It’s like being in México. Street merchants walk in to sell you everything from chiclets to blankets. Once an elderly man came in with a boom box and a book with a list of songs in Spanish. I picked two songs that I recognized and he sang them for us. I paid him $10 and he left the restaurant with a smile. I like going there with my friends because it’s a nice place to hang out for a few drinks. Granted, it doesn’t look like a luxury restaurant,the seats in the booths are worn down a little, and the bathrooms remind me of México, but the food and the ambience make up for everything else. You have to go there at least once in your lifetime!
I just drove through the McDonald’s in Pilsen and was I ever surprised! You can now buy jalapeño peppers for 25 cents each at McDonald’s! Where were those jalapeños when I was little. Whenever we ordered at McDonald’s or Burger King, my father would invariably ask for salsa or jalapeños, depending on his mood. Of course, they would always tell him that they didn’t have salsa or jalapeños. And my father, being my one and only father, would say, “That’s okay! I brought my own!”
Chicago is the greatest city on earth! It’s a microcosm of the world. Many of world’s languages are spoken in Chicago. My greatest regret in life is that I wasn’t born in Chicago. Unfortunately, I was born in a place far, far away, called Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Where my parents led, I followed. To be honest, I wasn’t in on the pre-natal decision-making process. I was conceived in Mexico, but I was born in the U.S.
I have lived in several neighborhoods in Chicago. My grandparents came to Chicago in the 1950s and lived in Pilsen. So, naturally, when my parents moved to Pilsen, so did I. We also lived in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. When my parents divorced, my mother, my brothers, my sister, and I moved to the Marquette Park area. My father moved back to his father’s house in Pilsen. I bought my first house in Bridgeport and lived there until I started my own family and moved to Ashburn on the southwest side. When I divorced, I bought my present house in Beverly. Some people have told me that I live in a black neighborhood, but that’s not true at all. This is one of the few Chicago neighborhoods that is truly integrated! This is the best neighborhood in which I have ever lived.