I would especially like to thank my father Diego for being my father. He’s holding my baby brother Joey in the picture and I’m standing next to him. Seated are my brothers Danny, Rick, my sister Delia, and my brother Jerry. My mother isn’t in the picture because she was the photographer. She loved taking pictures of the family!
I can honestly say that the happiest days of my life were when I was a boy living with my family before my parents got divorced. Both my parents were always there for me, although we did have a few misunderstandings. My taught me some carpentry and how to use tools. I would always help fix his cars because he was a mechanic at the Curtis Candy factory. He was proud to be a mechanic. My father respected anyone who was a good carpenter or mechanic by calling them maestro. Thanks to my father, I’m now able to perform many fix-it projects around the house.
As a father myself, I often think of all the things my father did with us and I try to do some of the same things. Sometimes, just being with his children was enough satisfaction and joy for my father, especially after my parents divorced. Even we’re not doing anything together, I’ll often sit in the same room with my sons just to be with them. Occasionally, we’ll start an unexpected entertaining conversation.
My father always asked me for suggestions for trips we could make, and no matter how crazy I thought the idea was, he would take us on the trip. He never made any excuses for not going. So, now I follow my sons’ suggestions. One time, my oldest son was writing a report on Mount Rushmore and we all became interested in the report. My son suggested that we go to Mount Rushmore and we went the following June. Every time I go on vacation with my sons, I always think of my father.
I think we can all agree that liver and onions is not a very popular dish in America. Otherwise, someone would have opened a fast food restaurant with a drive-thru specializing in liver and onions by now. This will never happen, but imagine the possibilities! For me, this would be great since liver and onions is one of my all-time favorite dishes. Luckily, it’s available at many restaurants. It’s easy to prepare and I’ve actually made it myself a few times.
Even when I was little, I loved liver and onions. My mother prepared it frequently because she loved liver and onions. I guess I inherited her love of liver and onions. Sometimes mother would make just for her and me. Beef liver was usually very cheap. I guess not many people liked eating liver back then, but no part of livestock was wasted. As The Jungle famously quoted one of the meatpacking plants, “We package everything except the squeal!”
Unfortunately, my younger brothers wouldn’t eat liver and onions if they knew exactly what they were about to eat. So, my mother would explain that were about to eat some exotic dish. As we sat down at the table, my mother would always say something like, “Hoy vamos a comer tigre.” “Today we are eating tiger.” “Hoy les preparé algo muy sabroso. ¡Tiburón!” “I made you something delicious today. Shark!” And my little brothers would eat up the liver and onions that they so detested.
Once, we all sat down for dinner and my mother announced, “Hoy vamos a comer ballena.” “Today we are eating whale.” And so we all started eating whale. On this day, I found the whale especially delicious. I was the only one who knew we were actually eating liver, sans onions to create the effect that we were actually eating whale. Have you ever eaten something that was especially delicious and it really hits the spot. Perhaps I was suffering from an iron deficiency that day. Well, on this occasion, the liver tasted especially good despite lacking onions. I asked for second and thirds. My brothers continued eating it. Until I blurted, “The liver came out really good today!” My mother gave me a pained stare. And my brothers yelled, “Yuck, I hate liver!’ And they all stopped eating. My mother yelled at me because my brothers would have kept eating if they still believed they were eating whale.
This reminds me of something that happened recently with my son Alex recently. We were at Old Country Buffet and he came back to the table with what he thought were chicken fries. He said they were really good. When I went for seconds, I saw where he got the chicken fries. He was actually eating calamari. I love calamari, so I got some for myself. Alex was surprised that I would eat chicken fries. I told him that he really ate calamari. He insisted on knowing what exactly calamari was. When I told him it was squid, he stopped eating his chicken fries!
I guess sometimes you’re better off not knowing what you’re eating.
The Chicago snowstorm is more than just a meteorological event. For my brothers and me, this was the perfect time to go out to play in the snow, make snowmen, and build snow forts. We enjoyed staying out all day in the snow if possible. My mother would send me to the store so we could stock up on milk and bread. She was afraid the stores would run out of milk whenever she saw the first snowflake falling. I had to buy at least two gallons of milk and bread. We were tortilla eaters. We never really ate bread at home unless there was a snowstorm. So, I had to buy as many loaves of bread as my mother could afford. We would eat sandwiches and toast for weeks after a snowstorm. My brother Jerry and I used to go knocking door to door with shovels to see who wanted us to shovel their sidewalk. We would earn some money that way. We watched Ray Rayner to see if our school would close for a snow day. But it never did. All the teachers at Holy Cross were nuns who lived in the convent next to the school and most of the students lived within a three-block radius anyway. Ray Rayner would announce school closing after school closing, but he never called out Holy Cross Grade School! Going to school really cut into our snow playtime.
So, it’s snowing now and has been snowing since early this morning. I’m hoping for an e-mail from UIC telling me they’re calling it a snow day. But they can’t close the campus because they also have a hospital. UIC has never shut down the campus for a mere snowstorm. Not even the Big Snow of 1967. So, I better get up early tomorrow morning so I can shovel my car out and drive to school. I don’t mind going to school in the snow. I’ve lived in Chicago my whole life, so I enjoy the snowfall. I enjoy shoveling the snow. As an adult, that’s how I now play in the snow. And I love it!
When I was in grade school, we used construction paper for just about every art project. I’m reminded about this because my son Adam was working on a school project and was coloring white sheets of paper with a purple marker. If he would have asked me for advice, I would have brought out an aging pad of construction paper that I’ve had for years (mainly because my sons never think of using construction paper) in order to speed up his project. Could it be that because he’s been trained to do many homework assignments on the computer he no longer thinks of using his dear old dad’s techniques? On the plus side, he has become very independent and he is intelligent enough not to need my help for his homework very often.
When I was in grade school at Holy Cross, art class was a very special time of day. If a student misbehaved, he or she was deprived of participating in art class and would have to sit in the corner with his head placed down in his or her folded arms for the duration of art class. And take it from me, that was no fun at all.
Okay, okay, I was deprived of art class one time or two or three, but I was framed! Each and every time! When we had art class, we always–I do mean always always–started with one sheet of construction paper. Usually, it was manila-colored, but for those special art projects we could get several sheets of construction paper–each a different color!
I remember one class, Sister Francine told us told us to hold the sheet of construction paper–I can still smell it!–vertically. Meaning standing up and not lying down. She even showed us the sheet of construction paper in the upright position from the front of the classroom and then she walked between every aisle between all the desks to ensure that every third grader in the class had the construction paper in the correct position. I was certain that the health and wellbeing of every American citizen depended upon our completing our art project successfully because Sister Francine’s face reddened every time she observed a student with the construction paper in the wrong position.
Finally, every student had the paper vertically in front of them on the desk, including Claudia who sat next to me. Sister Francine then instructed us to fold the paper vertically, from left to right. Not from right to left, but left to right. She repeated several times, in such a stern voice that I thought I would crack from the tension that was building up in the classroom. But lo, I correctly folded my sheet of construction paper in half vertically, as instructed, and I even passed Sister Francine’s eagle-eyed inspection. I was spared her wrath for the moment. However, she turned to Claudia and Sister Francine blew a gasket! Claudia had folded her construction paper–not vertically–but horizontally! Widthwise instead of lengthwise! Much to Claudia’s embarrassment, Sister Francine led her up to the front of the classroom to show her construction paper folded horizontally. She was the only student who could not–no would dare to defy a direct order from Sister Francine–follow instructions.
I don’t even remember what art project we did that day, but I do remember how badly Claudia felt. Now that I think of it, why did I like art class so much?
I just finished rereading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. This is a book I knew about about since about the third grade because the Lithuanian nuns also mentioned it at Holy Cross School. The nuns always wanted to remind us that we didn’t always have life so easy. They would often describe the squalid living conditions of our neighborhood, The Back of the Yards, and the horrendous working conditions at the Union International Stock Yards. They stressed that education was the best way to improve our lives and that we should excel in grade school, in order to get into a good Catholic school, in order to prepare us for college. I always recall the incident about the boy who drowns in the street. Several nuns over the years described that scene. And we were so lucky to live in a neighborhood with concrete sidewalks, paved streets, and a sewage system. No one from our neighborhood ever drown in the street–that I know of.
When I worked at Derby Foods, we didn’t have a union even though Chicago has always been known as a union town. And I didn’t realize at the time, but we didn’t need a union because all the other factories around us were unionized. Our factory paid us above-average wages and we worked under better-than-normal working conditions. They followed bidding by seniority for different job openings in the factory.
Regardless, I hated working there because I was a lowly manual laborer. The money was good, but I was unhappy about not being able to go to college. I continued working there because … because–just because. When I started at Derby Foods, about three-hundred people worked there. But over the years, the company kept modernizing by buying machinery that would replace employees. By the time I had eight years on the job, I was still near the bottom of the seniority list of about 134 employees due to the lack of hiring because of the worker displacement caused by the new machinery. Since I was at the bottom of the list, I had to work an undesirable work schedule. In food production, the plant and machinery have to be cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis. Well, I had to work the midnight shift from 11:00 pm until 7:00 am the next morning. Regardless of what anyone says, the human body never fully adapts to a nocturnal life. The schedule was bearable until Saturday when I would get off at 7:00 am, but would have to return at noon to clean and sanitize the plant. Everyone else who worked the Saturday shift worked either days or afternoons, so they didn’t complain. Besides, they enjoyed working for time and a half because it was a Saturday.
I complained about my schedule to my foreman, the shift foreman, and the manager. No one thought it was a problem. I had no union with whom to file a grievance, so I called the federal labor law organization and they told me that my employer was not violating any federal laws by requiring me to return to work an eight-hour shift within four hours of working an eight-hour shift. Well, I was happy that I tried everything possible to improve my working conditions.
Then, it dawned on me! I’ll read The Jungle! I’ll find scenes in the novel that compare to my present working conditions! So, during my breaks and down time in factory, I read the paperback edition of The Jungle that I always carried in my back pocket. When I was done, I was so grateful to be working for Derby Foods! I never realized how good I had it compared to the Stockyard workers in the early 1900s. Because of that book, federal laws were enacted, the Pure Food and Drug act in 1906 for one, in order to improve the lives of millions worldwide. The unions in Chicago and nationally became stronger. I had forgotten the lessons of my dear Lithuanian Catholic nuns at Holy Cross School. But upon rereading The Jungle, I was grateful, nay, thankful, to be working for Derby Foods. I never complained about my employer ever again.
Duke was the best dog that our family ever had. When we lived at 4405 S. Wood Street, he followed my brothers and me home from school. He really did. At first, he followed us at a distance and that was fine by us because we weren’t sure if he would bite us. He was already full-grown and he was at least part Golden Retriever and maybe a little bit German Shepard and Chow Chow. We were sure that, since Duke got along well with the whole family, he probably was also part Mexican.
He followed us into our backyard and we went into the house. When we looked out the window later, he was still there. We gave him some bologna and went back inside. The next day, he followed us home again and we gave him some milk this time. He let us pet him and he seemed very friendly. He was too clean to be a stray dog and he didn’t have the battle scars of street dogs, but he didn’t have a collar or dog tags either. We never let him into the house because we knew our mother would get mad at us. But Duke kept following us home after school. He knew what time we got out of school and he would meet us at the corner of our block and follow us home so we could give him something to eat.
One day, my mother came home from work and asked us about the dog on the back porch. “What dog on the back porch?” I asked, knowing we were about to get in trouble. We didn’t admit to anything. Eventually, my mother brought Duke into the house and we all started playing with him. He was really happy with us and never even growled when my little sister pulled his ears or fur. We asked our mother if we could keep it, but she said it probably belonged to someone else and they would eventually want him back. We could keep him until someone claimed him.
We were so happy to have a dog again. And the good news was that he was already house-broken. At first, my mother would open the door to let Duke go out by himself thinking that he would eventually go to his real home. But he always came back. After a while, I started walking him without a leash. He always stayed close to me and he would never run away. I walked him all over the neighborhood so that maybe Duke would recognize his original home, but we never found his original owner. Soon I knew I was Duke’s master because one of the neighborhood bullies threatened me with Duke at my side and Duke growled at him ready to defend me.
Duke had some pretty good street cred, too, because when other dogs would see him, they would run away. I didn’t need a leash to control Duke because he so obedient that he listened to my every command. However, he loved to chase squirrels, but he would only do say when I gave him permission. Whenever he saw a squirrel at a distance, he ears would perk up and he would growl, but he would stay by my side until I said, “Go get him, Duke!” And he would run at full speed toward the squirrel. He never once caught a squirrel because the squirrels were usually too far away from us and too close to a tree that they climbed to escape. Only once, did I think that Duke would actually catch a squirrel in his mouth. He was rapidly closing in on a squirrel that was foolish enough to try to outrun Duke instead of climbing a tree. I think that Duke slowed down to give the squirrel a running chance and the squirrel got away.
When we moved to 2509 W. Marquette Road, Duke moved with us. By then, he was part of our family. Somehow, I remained Duke’s master. My brothers and I had to be careful when we wrestled because Duke would attempt to bite my brothers in my defense. Even after I married and moved away from my mother’s house. Once I was visiting and I started wrestling with Tato, my brother Jerry, in the basement just like in the good old days. Duke just stood there watching. He was a lot older now and he didn’t growl at my brother as he once did. Well, I could still out-wrestle all my brothers even though we were all about the same size now. I managed to throw my brother down on his back on the sofa. I jokingly said, “Sic him!” and Duke ran and bit my brother’s face. I really didn’t think he would attack my brother. I immediately grabbed Duke by his collar and he finally calmed down. My brother had some puncture wounds on his face from being bitten a few times. I apologized profusely to my brother. Neither one of us thought Duke would attack. But he did. I was still his master even though I had lived away from him for about a year. I still feel badly about this even now as I described the incident.
Duke lived to be very old, but we never knew his exact age since he was already full-grown when he started living with us. Eventually, he had so many health problems that my sister had him put to sleep. He was such a great dog that I can still visualize him.
In Spanish-speaking countries, the two most common names are José and María. Some parents name their sons José María and their daughters María José. My Uncle Eutimio and Aunt Asunción named their sons José Eutimio, José Ricardo, José Carlos, José Ignacio, José David, José Daniel, and José Agustín. They named their daughters María Concepción, María Elena, María Angélica, and María Carmen. They had fifteen children, but I can’t remember all their names right now. When I first met them on my last trip to Celaya, Guanajuato, they introduced themselves as Timio, David, Carlos, Ricardo, etcetera. Later, I heard one cousin call his brother Pepe, which is the nickname for José. I asked my cousin why he called him Pepe and he said that his name was really José. Later on, another cousin called another brother Pepe. This was a different from Pepe from the first one. I asked how they could both be Pepe. Then they explained to me how all the brothers were named José and all the girls were named María. I still don’t understand how they can name them like that, but they did. Afterwards, I thought about how convenient that would be. If you needed something, you would merely shout José or Pepe and you would have at least two or three sons running in to help you. Ditto if you shouted María.
Okay, I’ve been preparing my sons to go to Mexico. They’re still excited about going even though I told them that in Mexico everyone speaks Spanish. My oldest son used to speak Spanish when he was little because I always talked to him in Spanish and he went to Cordi Marian and was taught by Mexican nuns. The twins are learning Spanish in school now. For the past few years, I’ve tried to get them to speak Spanish at home, but they won’t. If they sneezed, I said, “Salud” and they were supposed to respond, “Gracias.” But they wouldn’t. Ever since I told them that we were going to Mexico, they speak a little Spanish with me. I’m glad their attitude has changed a little bit. If I’m writing something in Spanish, Adam will read it aloud and ask me if he pronounced it correctly. I’m happy that they’re trying because now I know they really want to go to Mexico.
I’ve also tried to explain some of the cultural differences between our two countries.They shouldn’t have any problems, but I want them to know in advance that they shoul expect some differences. They probably won’t play any video games while we’re in Mexico. But my sons are very adaptable. They’ll manage somehow. We’ve taken driving vacations before and we always adapt to every situation. I’m really not worried about much. Well, except maybe Montezuma’s Revenge. If they get it, I hope they get it right away and they won’t get too ill. After that, they’ll build up their immune system. I warned them about how the food will be different, too. We won’t be going to McDonald’s or Burger King once we cross the border. They won’t see a burger or chicken nugget until we get back to the U.S. And, all the food will be spicy. In Mexico, even the candy is spicy. On Sunday mornings, I make huevos con chorizo and tell them to eat them with tortillas because that’s how Mexicans eat–without silverware. So far, they’re still excited about going to Mexico.
J should have been D. But he wasn’t. He was J. And for a very good reason. My mother said so! Well, I’ve already talked about my mother’s naming process in my previous blog entries. My parents had six children: David Diego, Daniel, Diego Gerardo, Dick Martin, Delia Guadalupe, and Joseph Luis. All of names started with D–except for Joseph (which starts with J and not D, as I’m sure you probably noticed. I have always admired the intelligence of my readers!). The other notable oddity in the naming process is Daniel who has no middle name! I was less than two years old when Daniel was born, so I have no idea why he has no middle name. Were we too poor to afford a middle name for Daniel? Was my mother mad at my father for getting her pregnant again and so she denied my father Diego yet again the opportunity of having a son named Diego? I really don’t know because neither my father nor mother ever talked about how Daniel got his name. To this day, Daniel’s lack of a middle name remains one of the great mysteries of our family.
Before my youngest brother Joseph Luis was born, my parents were in the middle of a hostile separation and later a contentious divorce. How my mother got pregnant was a mystery to me even back then because I hardly ever saw them together for about a year. But somehow she got pregnant. And my father was proud of the fact that he had gotten her pregnant.
However, there was never any doubt the he was my father’s son because when Joseph was older, many people thought he and I were twins. The resemblance was that strong. So how did he come to be named Joseph Luis? Well, he was born in August of 1968, months after our Uncle Joseph, my father’s much younger brother, died in Viet Nam. I remember when my Uncle Placido called to say he had to visit us to tell us something very important. He came after my brothers and I were already in bed, so I knew he had something important to say. I listened from my bedroom, which was right next to the kitchen where they sat. I heard my Uncle Placido say that my Uncle Joseph had died in Viet Nam. I could hear both my mother and father crying. I cried, too, in my bedroom. So my mother named my brother Joseph in his memory. That was actually a very good reason not to follow the D rule in naming us.
Our Uncle Joseph was everyone’s favorite uncle. He loved playing with all his nephews and nieces. Everyone cried when he died. It was the longest funeral procession I had ever seen–and I lived by a funeral home so I saw a lot of funeral processions! My father was one of his pall bearers. The day after the funeral, my father couldn’t get up out of bed. He was paralyzed from the waist down. Whether his paralysis was physical or psychosomatic was never determined, not even by the doctor who came to our house to treat my father. After about a week, my father just got up out of bed and started walking again. He wanted to go to work again.
My tía Matilde came to Chicago as part of the package deal when my abuelita came for eye surgery. Tía Matilde also needed surgery, so she came from México to have surgery on her ears. I’m not sure what exactly was wrong with her ears, but she was otherwise healthy.
My aunt was very young when she came and she liked living in Chicago. She loved listening to pop music on the radio and she bought all the records by her favorite singer, Rick Nelson. She went wild when listening to his music.
What I remember most about my tía Matilde was how she did laundry. We, my parents, my three brothers, my abuelita, my tía Matilde, and me, all lived in a small four-room apartment. We had a washer and dryer in the kitchen next to the sink. When my parents were at work, tía Matilde would do all the laundry in the house, every last handkerchief and sock. She would search everywhere in the apartment for dirty clothes. She found dirty clothes where I would never even think of looking. She just had to make sure that every last item of dirty clothing was clean when she was done doing the laundry. And so, when all the dirty clothes were in the washer, and there was a little room in the tub for more clothes, she would start taking off her clothes right at the washer and start putting them in the washer. She would be standing in the kitchen wearing nothing but her bra and panties, proud of the fact that all the dirty clothes in the house were now washed, obviously oblivious to my presence.
Back then, we always seemed to be either at home or at Cook County Hospital taking either my abuelita or tía Matilde to the doctors there. Anyway, my tía Matilde, who would undress at the washer, was very shy with the doctors when they asked her to disrobe. The day of her surgery, she refused to undress and refused to put on the hospital gown because it had no back to it. I still remember her telling this story when she returned from her surgery. She absolutely refused to undress for the nurses and doctors. She thought she had won her battle, but after the surgery, she woke up in her hospital bed and immediately realized that she was completely naked! Whenever she told this story, she always sounded so shocked that this could have happened to her despite her precautions. She didn’t even remember when or why she lost consciousness. She always wondered who managed to see her naked. She would blush everytime she told the story. She was truly traumatized by this experience!
She eventually went back to México with my abuelita.