Blog Archive

Saturday, December 29, 2007

2007 Year in Review

It seems very unlikely I'll have another chance to post again before 2008 arrives, so here's a quick review of the best and worst moments of 2007 on Marshfield Avenue and beyond, from this limited perspective.

Block/neighborhood highlights

Big Picture successes: the play with Teatro Vista, first graduating class, Day of the Dead show

New neighbors--the Bradys

The Peace & Education Scholarship fundraiser, which I believe raised $80,000 for scholarships for local youth regardless of immigration status

The barbecue, despite its aftermath.

Five moms for coffee-I'm sorry I haven't followed up, but I hope it was a good bridge-builder for the moms to get to know each other.

The High School Fair van! I can't find a post about getting eight kids from the block to the high school fair, but we did it.

Getting the abandoned house resealed--thanks to help from Neighborhood Housing Services.

Our whole side of the block shoveling the sidewalk right away after the December big snow! Even if Yup-yup was part of it.

Block/neighborhood heartbreakers

The fight to save Big Picture--no one seems to know what next year holds, but it doesn't look good.

Chris Pineda's murder. Let's remember the outpouring of love and support at his funeral here.

Shots on our block, and on the next block up

The Halloween murder of Leticia Barrera

Dorothy's disappearance--I haven't written about this, hoping she'll come back, but since the house got boarded up she's been gone. It hasn't stopped Yup-yup. He doesn't talk about her; he has that new bucktoothed girl to hang out with. Unlike before with Priscilla, I don't know that Dorothy's disappearance means good things for her. Let's hope and pray it does.

While you're hoping and praying, keep my favorite next door neighbors in there, too. Dawn, Julian, Jr., Joey and their parents are all having big ups and downs right now. Let's hope 2008 brings good tidings and peace to them, and to all of us here in Back of the Yards.

Oh, and one last thing that made 2007 special--the arrival of a roommate who hasn't caused any tropical storms, so I don't write about him here. We'll call him Medicine Man, since he's an aspiring doctor, staying with me for a year while he serves as an Americorps volunteer in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood. On top of his day job and med school applications/interviews, Medicine Man has quietly paid his rent on time, loaned me his car, made coffee for moms, and helped schlep the 8th-graders to the high school fair. You rock!

Marshfield Mom of the Year

...goes to one of the Brady moms down the block. This lady works nights--she gets off at 1:30 a.m., with Monday and Tuesday off. But she and her 2nd-grade daughter showed up on my doorstep at 11 a.m. today so her daughter could read me a Disney story in English for her Reading Fair project. If I understood her mother correctly, usually one of the older children would work with the little one, but right now the older sibs are in Mexico for the holiday. I also think she told me her older daughters are even doing some studying while they are down there. She asked me something I didn't really grasp about scholarships, so I suggested we talk about it when she comes back with her daughter on New Year's Day afternoon (it's a Tuesday so she has off).

When we were trying to figure out when to get together again, she asked about Monday and suggested evening, like 8. I reminded her it was New Year's Even and she had an "oh, yeah!" expression on her face. Not much holiday for her, clearly.

I've seen this mom at LSC meetings. She is really looking for some supports out here. She told me back at Whittier (or Whitney? their old school in Pilsen) there was a parent group that helped her a lot. Hedges has one here, but as far as I know Chavez only has the formal committees-bilingual, LSC. I don't even know if they have the NCLP parent involvement thing going or if it would be any good if they did.

Anyway, this poor woman was nodding off on my sofa while her little girl read me a story about Ariel the mermaid. When she finished, I had to write a reaction to the story as the "generational connection." The Ariel story made the point that busy dads like King Triton need to spend time with their Ariels, so I referenced that and then said that her mom lived it by being with us for the story when she didn't even understand English. I told her daughter to explain the story to her mom in Spanish after Mom gets a nap!

Saturday, December 22, 2007


No, not that kind. (Lots of my neighbors would be more interested if I were writing about this more often. In fact I just bought a calligraphy book today for Joey, because he wants to learn how to draw Olde English letters. Maybe it'll help his reading. Seriously.)

Apparently there's a blog chain mail thing going around. I was tagged by the author of the Prea Prez blog, but I only found out because suddenly people were coming over from his blog to mine, and I didn't know why. He got tagged by Eduwonkette. She left the rules. Here they are:

- Link to the person that tagged you and post the rules on your blog.
- Share 7 random and or weird things about yourself.
- Tag 7 random people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs.
- Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

So here are my seven random/weird things:

1) I was born in Wilmington, Delaware and still go back regularly (like for Christmas) to see family.

2) Maybe my mom has finally thrown out all the Barry Manilow and Abba records I owned as a kid, but I'm not sure.

3) My driver's license is suspended in Wisconsin: I was busted for civil disobedience and refuse to pay the fine that would reinstate it.

4) I have never owned a car. (So the license thing isn't a big deal.)

5) The family homestead in Delaware almost certainly still has home movies of me, my sister and brother breakdancing to Lawrence Welk. (My youngest sister wasn't born yet--she got off easy!)

6) I don't own a television set, either. (But I like to go home and watch HGTV with my mom over holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving.)

7) I'm with Eduwonkette--the Jersey Shore is one of my favorite vacation destinations!!

And here are the people I'm tagging:

Puns in the Oven

District 299

Life in Union Victoria (Guatemala)

City on the Make

Mamita Mala

City of Progress (a new one to me--check it out)

Bridgeport Seasoning (also new to me, but hey, reaching out to the neighbors is what I'm all about, right?)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Heard on the Ashland Bus

Around 2 this afternoon, the package-laden crowd on the Ashland bus got a good laugh just before we went under the viaduct at 49th.

A fiftyish mom in a pink jacket and white sweats was sitting with her twenty-something daughter, wearing a black jacket, jeans and black boots. A man selling DVDs on the bus was seated nearby.

"Do you have Endless Christmas?" the mother asked.

"No," he answered, then rattled off similar DVDs he did have, but she had all of them already. Then he turned to the daughter: "Alvin and the Chipmunks?"

"No way!" she said, offended.

"For kids?" he suggested.

This led her to explain that the lady in pink was her mother and all her children were grown.

"For your kids?" he asked.

"I ain't got none," she said, rather emphatically.

"Want some help with that?" he asked.

"Hell, no!"

All of us within earshot cracked up at that. It put the merry in Merry Christmas today.

Good Book News

On Wednesday I went to Holy Cross's posadas and ran into Xochitl, the big sister of Citlali, whose birthday was not too long ago. I saw their parents at a baby shower on Sunday night and gave them Citlali's birthday present--a book. (I still have to get the shower gift--I'm one gift behind at every party these days, ouch.)

I got Citlali El desierto es mi madre/The Desert Is My Mother, an illustrated children's book by Pat Mora and Daniel Lechon. It's beautiful. Xochitl told me on Wednesday she had already read it to her sister.

I forget if I mentioned Alberto wants to read the copy of Carl Hiasson's Flush I brought back from the book fair in September. That would be for his Reading Fair project.

Joey likes the book I picked up for him--he was thinking about a comic book. I got one of the ones in the Bone series. Joey took a little while to look through it, said yeah, he'd like to read it, and started drawing. A while later he asked for some plain white paper and construction paper. Not sure how he'll read it, but I'm happy he's going to spend some time looking at it and getting meaning from it his own way. I told him we'll read it together later on.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Memorial Vigil Tomorrow

Tomorrow at 4 p.m. on the corner of 48th and Loomis there will be a vigil and interfaith prayer service to remember Alexandra Toro, 16, who was shot and killed Sunday afternoon. The Tribune ran a story about the shooting today.

At tonight's NHS dinner and meeting, some folks who knew her told a little about her life, which was a very hard one.

As one of us said at dinner tonight, "Nobody deserves to be killed."

Christmas Gifts for Neighbors

While considering what to get my brother-in-law for Christmas, I found this
nifty web site chock-full of Christmas gift ideas.

They even have a section on Christmas gifts for neighbors.

"Christmas gifts for neighbors don't have to be expensive things. It's the thought that counts." True enough. My favorite gifts to give out are books, especially bilingual children's books. With families other than the Bradys, it's hard to know whether they are really getting read, but hey, you try. Last night I handed a pretty one off to a family with a number inside for the dad to call Instituto del Progreso Latino, which offers English classes at 46th and Wood. He wants to improve his English.

Despite the nice thought that neighborly gifts shouldn't get too expensive, Santa's wish list on this block does include some pricey and/or hard-to-get items:

the Julian, Jr. legal defense fund, opening at $1000

new jobs for Julian Sr. and our other Junior friend's dad--not pricey per se, but not easy for me to find, since I don't have strong connections in welding, restaurant or factory work

No Manches t-shirts for three boys who think they are funny!

acceptances to Curie, Whitney Young, Kennedy, Juarez and whatever other high schools are on our 8th-graders wish lists

affordable mortgage refinances for all my neighbors on adjustable-rate-mortgages

long-term residential drug treatment for Dorothy, who has vanished since the house was boarded up

So Santa, if you're listening, keep these in mind, OK, even for the one guy who hasn't been good. He hasn't been as bad as the charges made him out to be.

In happy news, congrats to the Su Casa Catholic Worker, who have raised the roof! They've raised the funds for much-needed roof repairs, I gather to start as soon as the weather permits.

Squatter House Boarded Up

Well, Yup-yup's been boarded up out of the house in which he was squatting. Saturday morning, after the 4-inch-ish snow (before the 8-inch-ish snow we got Saturday night), he was hanging around on the corner drunk as a skunk, hollering at passers-by and generally making a nuisance of himself.

I was shoveling off my front step. By the time I got to the bottom, he had waddled his way down the street and started into what was headed for a long diatribe. "Miss Maritza, you see they boarded up the house....I can work..."

"I know you can work," I said. "I want you to shovel the snow down there," I said, pointing at the house on the corner. (They never shovel. There was packed ice under the new snow there, the worst.)

"Sometimes I talk too much," he said, slightly ruefully.

"You don't have to go on. Just go ahead and get started."

He did the sidewalk over there very thoroughly. There were only two ice patches that were too deep to dig up without risking breaking the shovel, so I put salt on them. He went out in my backyard and dug out the back porch and the sidewalk to the alley. It got him off the street and toned down his incessant yapping (should I say yup-yupping) to a minimum.

That was one of the few times I've ever felt good about paying him for a job.

Friday, December 14, 2007

District 299 Tips on High School Hunting

Next Friday, December 21, is the last day to apply for non-neighborhood high schools in CPS. Since our elementary school gets out early for Christmas, applications were due on Wednesday. I submitted a post to the local education blog District 299 asking for advice, and it generated a lot of response and interesting buzz about new charter schools opening, changes in leadership at Bogan High on the Southwest side, and other good tips.

So if you're still in the high school hunt and you live around here, check out the post and comments here. Looks like the conversation may go on for a while yet, so check back and see if there's more over the weekend, too.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Science Fair Today

Just back from judging the Chavez upper grade science fair. My favorite project:

"Which Hamburger Has More Grease?"

The 6th-grader compared Burger King, Wendy's and McDonald's cooked burgers, weighing them after squeezing out the grease. His exhibition board included a photo of the greasy paper towels. His hypothesis was Burger King would be greasiest. The winner?


Another favorite: "Does Pop Make Your Teeth Dark?"

More on the event later.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Nice White Lady

I hope you all get as big a laugh as I did out of this one.

Last-Minute Science Fair Project

So Junior and his little brother showed up on my doorstep around 5 this afternoon.
"Can you help me with my science fair project?" Junior asked.

"When's it due?" I asked back.


Of course. Well, let's hear it for the Internet--a little web surfing produced a project we could actually do in a little more than an hour. I tried looking for a quick save-the-rear-end project last Friday, when Peter Pan asked me, but everything I found on that web tour required equipment I didn't have in the house.

Today I had better luck. I found an experiment that investigated how well popcorn pops in the microwave starting from different temperatures. We kind of skated between two different versions of the experiment I found online. Junior had to count out 100 kernels of corn three times, putting each 100 into a different Ziploc bag. One bag went in the freezer, one in the fridge and we microwaved the third batch right away at room temperature. The fridge and freezer batches were left to chill for an hour.

We predicted the freezer bag of kernels would have the most unpopped kernels, but for us it was actually the fridged bad that had the most. We took lots of digital photos of Junior counting kernels and putting the bags in the fridge/freezer. We also took pictures of the results--each batch of popcorn, labeled, in two bowls: one for popped and one for unpopped kernels. They were pretty close in amounts, between 42 and 55 unpopped kernels, so you probably won't be able to see the difference in the photos. But hey, we tried. At least he won't get an F.

If anybody happens to have leads on other science fair experiments you can do with stuff in your kitchen reasonably quickly, let me know. I should start keeping a file, and I should really start keeping useful equipment around. Here are some things I spotted that I don't have in the house but should:
cloth tape measure
food coloring
empty spray/spritzer bottle

I saw a couple of experiments I liked about diffusion. In one, you test how quickly different types of food coloring diffuse into water. In another, you test how quickly different scented liquids (perfume, essential oils, whatever) diffuse into the air. The other experiment I liked was having different kinds of people (ages, gender, whatever) see how far they could blow up a balloon in one breath.

Anyway, suggestions are welcome. I'm getting a rep as the last-minute science fair bailout center, so I might as well have the resources to do the job right.

Aqui Estoy Gets Sun-Times Rave

Just a quick post to let you know the Chicago Sun-Times published a review yesterday of Albany Park Theater Project's Aqui Estoy.

To read the rave, click here.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Back of the Yards Meets Albany Park

In my continuing quest to get kids from here to see shows performed by the Albany Park Theater Project, I bought four student tickets to the current show, a remounting of 2003's Aqui Estoy.

For more about the show, in both its original production and its current run, look here.

Finding the four students to join me proved a bit of a challenge, but I should know by now not to try to plan anything in advance. That would have spared me some headache.

First I invited Dawn and another Big Picture student to come and bring a friend. They both said yes at first, then bailed a few days later. Next, I tried calling Su Casa, but their houseful of young people has shrunk in recent days, for happy reasons. One family got an apartment. The director volunteered to call them for me to see if their older kids wanted to go, but I never heard back from her.

So, at 4 p.m., I did what I should have done all along-went out on the block to see who was out throwing snowballs. The 7th-grader at the end of block I refer to as Peter Pan was out with two of his younger brothers.

"Wanna go to a play tonight? It's free," I said.

"Yes!" He wanted to know who else he could bring. We got his older sister and two of the Bradys -- he's friends with one of their boys, the one I worked with on a hard reading assignment. He and one of his sisters came. We'll call these Bradys Alberto and Irene.

Before the play, we met some grownups for dinner at Semiramis, a Lebanese restaurant not too far from the theater. None of the kids had ever had Middle Eastern food before. I kept bugging them to try different foods: the olives and pickled turnip (I know, I was mostly kidding, but for a while there wasn't much else on the table), hummus, baba ganoush, etc. The girls were squeamish, but Peter Pan went for it.

"It's pretty good; it tastes like mayonnaise," he said of the hummus. He even tried the turnip and said it tasted a little like carrot. They all had chicken shawerma sandwiches and fries. The fries came with some spicy seasoning on them; they were a big hit. So was the baklava.

Then we went off to the theater. Peter Pan got very excited when he saw an electronics store that had Wiis and good games. "Lawrence and Central Park," he kept repeating, until he could write the street names on his hand so he'd remember to tell his dad and uncle when he got home.

The best part was watching the kids watch the show. Aqui Estoy is two plays in one--a piece about the lives of day laborers in Albany Park, including the hazardous trek to get to this country as told by one man from Honduras. The second piece is the story of a former company member who was brought to this country from Colombia as a child and his life growing up without legal status.

Alberto's eyes grew big watching the cast leap on stage and engage in some very physical choreography to represent painting, roofing, demolition and other construction work day laborers do. I saw Peter Pan grin at some of the funny, earthy jokes. Irene pointed out Elizabeth Cobacho's name in the program and asked me if she was the one with the big voice in the painter's hat. She was. We met her and some of the other cast members after the show.

In the car I asked what they thought of the show and they told me they liked the show and they want to go back, with more friends. Whoo-hoo! The also said they liked both pieces equally well, that the actors who stood out for them were Cobacho, Jesus Matta and a new cast member whose name I don't know--I'm sorry! He played the role of Honduran soccer star turned day-laborer and told the story of his harrowing journey through Mexico. I personally thought the two company members who portrayed mother and son in the second piece, "Nine Digits" gave very strong performances, too.

On the way home we talked about high school. I'm trying to persuade Peter Pan's sister that Tilden High isn't a great idea. She has friends going there. I told her I've been over there and it has a lot of problems, and many students don't graduate. "Maybe you could get your friends to apply to Kennedy with you," I suggested.

Peter Pan gets it about thinking ahead for high school. He told me, "I know a guy who graduated [from Chavez] last year. He said he would never go to Richards, but he's there now."

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Big Picture College Essays

This is the second year in a row I've spent some time over at Big Picture, helping seniors write and revise their college essays. Today a few students gave permission for excerpts of their work to be shared on this blog. The students decided for themselves how they wanted to be identified. Pseudonyms are in quotation marks.

From Alejandra Garcia, who is applying to Columbia College:

I am very passionate about interior design. I know when I see something and it's a "wow" moment for me, that someone put a lot of time and effort into what they did. It's about using your passion and your resources to the best of your ability.

Most people tell me this passion came from my family. They say, "It's in the blood." My dad has worked as a carpenter for 40 years and is always trying to come up with new designs. Based on his designs and the color of the wood, I redecorated my room over the summer.

From "Daniela," who transferred from a large neighborhood high school to Big Picture and has already won one scholarship:

Everybody should have access to higher education, regardless of their income, if they have the character, the motivation and the desire to learn new concepts.


During my first three years of high school, I felt like I was unprepared to make a commitment to my education; however, this has changed. I am currently enrolled at a non-traditional high school with a very different curriculum. It haas given me the opportunity to develop my interests and passions while serving my community through real-world experiences.

From Omaar, who is applying for a Golden Apple Scholarship:

I want to become a teacher because my parents' and teachers' hard work to educate me paid off. Not only do I want to repay them, I want to share. By becoming a teacher I will share not only my knowledge but my empathy with students; what I mean by this is not giving up, having hope in even the most troublesome human being.

I hope to have more of these up between now and Christmas.

Things Could be Worse for Undocumented Students

While the national debate on the DREAM Act is over for this season, and students here in Illinois can at least go to community college for in-state tuition rates, things are worse elsewhere.

This article from Inside Higher Ed describes the current uproar in North Carolina over admitting undocumented students to state community colleges at all. Not whether they should pay in-state rates; in fact, those in North Carolina who see the wisdom in allowing local folks without papers some opportunity to better themselves still agree that paying out-of-state tuition, which is at least $2000 more than the estimated cost to educate a student per year, is OK.

But apparently even this is too much of a stretch for some folks to swallow. Apparently the former attorney general, now governor's legal opinion that holds colleges cannot exclude applicants for "non-academic" reasons is mighty unpopular.

In the discussion below the thread, one poster argues that if colleges wouldn't want felons on their campuses, they shouldn't let illegal aliens on them either. The last I knew, there was no formal bar on admitting those few ex-cons who've manage to get to the point where they'd want a college education. But hey, what do I know? Besides, I live in a town where ex-felons are aldermen.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Quick Updates

Tony's bump: it was a boil. Nothing serious. He came over and raked my yard Saturday.

Julian is locked up. It's a long, sad story I don't have energy to tell. Sorry.

Yup-yup hasn't been too much of a pest, but apparently he tried to hit up my roommate for money. I ran into him on the street last night and asked how he was doing.

"I'm blessed," he replied. That does make me think how the rain falls on the just and the unjust. His new lady friend was with him. Her hoodie was up so I didn't get a good look at her. She seemed to be all teeth. Cheery and friendly, though. I'll be interested to see if Yup-yup figures out that maybe he shouldn't introduce his women to me, because there's a growing pattern of them coming to me for help when they want to quit tricking and using.

Baby Shower

The president of the Chavez LSC is expecting, and one of her fellow LSC members had a shower for her on Saturday night. Despite the freezing rain and ice everywhere, I went. I learned some new baby shower games as a result. They played a round of how fast can you eat a jar of baby food blindfolded, being fed by the person across from you. Wow! I've seen some baby-food eating races, but not blindfolded and fed by a partner.

Among mostly Spanish-speakers, I'm at a double disadvantage blindfolded because it's much harder to figure out what people are saying when you can't look at them. It was a good challenge.

They also did a race to see who could chug a baby bottle of orange juice the fastest without biting down on the nipple. One woman was the equivalent of those frat guys who could beer bong--she just tilted her head way back to get gravity in her favor and gently sucked away. The winner!

They had a really nice cake with strawberries. The hostess told me she got it from Bombon because she liked their cake at my party last summer.

Response to Trib Editorial

Last night I found out Fr. Bruce at Holy Cross wrote a response to the Trib editorial about the shooting of Leticia Barrera. Here's a little of what he said:

Your editorial blames residents of the Back of the Yards neighborhood for violence on its streets, for not speaking out against the gangs, for not cooperating with police in identifying gang members or those who are responsible for the tragic shooting of a pregnant mother on Halloween. You couldn't be more off the mark.


You think people here are "silent lambs"? You're wrong. To catch the guilty we work with police, not Tribune reporters or editorial writers. And to dissuade our young from joining gangs, we don't publicize the gang names because we know that publicity feeds their egos. You printed the names of two street gangs in your editorial. Shame on you.

For more, check out this link.

In our conversation, another person present pointed out that since the shooters likely crossed 47th to enter opposing territory, it's quite possible neighbors on the block really don't know the shooters at all.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Dorothy's Back

...and still trying to get a bed in inpatient treatment. If any of my social worker pals are reading this and can help bump her up in line somewhere, please email me privately with tips. Not Haymarket, though. She's been there, done that and says she won't go back. She's trying to get a spot at the Women's Treatment Center, so if anybody has an in there, that would be a plus.

Big Picture in the News

Yesterdy the Day of the Dead ofrenda created by Big Picture students served as the backdrop for a press conference where Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin promoted his ordinance to tighten gun control by closing gun shops within one mile of schools or parks and ban gun shows in the county. Two students were interviewed on Univision last night, but I can't seem to find a link on their site. WBBM carried a short item mentioning Big Picture.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Neighbors Have Their Say on Violence

Thanks to Francisco from the neighborhood and Dan Weissmann at Vocalo for recording and broadcasting some neighbors here and their thoughts on the recent violence here, gangs and the police. (There's even one person talking about pollution.)

You can check it out here.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Fighting Crummy Developers, Onion-Style

Someone tried to comment on my post from last Wednesday by offering an article from the Onion. I try to keep the rough language down here, so I'll skip the headline, but if you'd like to see what the Onion makes of efforts to fight developers, look here.

I won't spend too much time on this, either--it's probably bad for my blood pressure, but the Tribune editorial about fighting gangs made me more angry at the arrogance of the Trib than inspired to fight gang violence. The part that made me the most angry was after setting up the scene of the mayor talking to residents, the Trib had the nerve to say the mayor was "standing alone" in his comments. On a second read, I think they were trying to take a swipe at police brutality activists, but on my first read it came off as if the mayor was on the street by himself, which he was not, and the neighborhood was not taking a stand against violence, which was the whole point of the day.

And I'd like to see how the Trib editorialists would feel if they spent even a week living on a block. Then they, and the mayor, might be a little more thoughtful before making comments like, "Look in the mirror and say, 'I can do better.'" If you can do so much better, come on out here for more than a photo-op or a one-shot editorial.

On a happier note, I'm glad someone else, commenter Laura, found it inspiring enough to take the next step and start a block club. Laura, what neighborhood are you in, if you don't mind telling us?

Meanwhile, I heard at church yesterday that a guy on 49th Street is trying to get neighbors together to strategize about what to do there. That's where the shooting was a few weeks ago, and my neighbor tells me those guys don't even live on the block. I'm not surprised.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Today's March Against Violence

Between 100 and 200 people came out tonight for the Peace and Education Coalition's peace march in the wake of Leticia Barrera's death on Halloween. This Tribune story lays out what happened and the neighborhood reaction pretty well.

Lots of politicians turned out tonight, including Mayor Daley, Aldermen Cardenas (I think), Cochran, Dowell and Thompson, State Representatives Esther Golar, Susana Mendoza, and Tony Munoz, and Sen. Mattie Hunter and maybe a second one--sorry if I forgot who. CPD Interim Superintendent Dana Starks and 9th District Commander Eugene Roy also came out. Our local leading lights included the pastors of St. Michael's, Holy Cross/IHM and St. Joseph, Paul Lopez from Park Federal Savings, Emilio Carrasquillo from Neighborhood Housing Services, Alfredo Nambo from Big Picture HS, the principal of San Miguel School, Oscar Contreras of Catholic Charities Street Intervention and many more.

I was happy to see Brother Jim from the prayer walk in the crowd. He told me he had been walking over on Seeley and in the neighborhood this morning. I hope I can go out with him again sometime.

Taking a guess as to where the regular folks who came were coming from: people from San Miguel School were there, parishioners from St. Michael's, at least a dozen folks from Su Casa Catholic Worker, at least a few I knew from Holy Cross. The Peace and Education Coalition gave themselves a week to organize the march, which was good. It showed in the politicians, press and equipment (signs, people to direct traffic), and in the end of the march being at the San Miguel gym with hot chocolate for everyone.

Before the group began walking, Mayor Daley spoke. I'm not sure I can quote him--I wasn't taking notes--but he was impassioned to the point of near anger in his insistence that the community not let the gangbangers get away with this one. "I don't care if they're Two-Sixers or Latin Kings or Black P Stones or Disciples, or who--you have to tell us what you know."

Comments like that and 'don't let yourselves be afraid of a 14-year-old' (I think that was pretty accurate) are fine as far as they go, but I don't think they really help when people are still reeling from a shooting in the street. I know I was scared when the shots went off over here a couple of weeks ago, and I'm still scared when some of the squatters have tried to stare me down once or twice as I'm coming out of the house.

Fr. Bruce seemed to get it. He translated Daley's comments in a very interesting way, at least as I understood what he was saying. Basically, his translation came down to, we are one family, we have to have courage, as a family we need to tell the truth about what happened. An excellent spin, I would say.

Anyway, lots of politicians talked, we went up the street and prayed in front of the Barrera's house, then we walked over to the San Miguel gym for some more speeches and hot chocolate. A lot of business seemed to be getting done on the walk--I know Ald. Thompson got an earful about the rate of foreclosures in the 16th ward and the number of adjustable-rate mortgages with rates poised to go up.

The Coalition is sponsoring a fund for the Barrera children. Donations can be made in Leticia Barrera's name and sent to Park Federal Savings Bank, 2740 W. 55th St. Chicago, IL 60632.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Peace March Wednesday

After the horrific Halloween murder of the pregnant woman out trick-or-treating with three children, (news link here), the Peace and Education Coalition is sponsoring a peace march on Wednesday at 6 p.m. The march will start at 48th and Seeley, where she was shot.

The Fox Special Report

Here's the link to the Fox 32 segment that aired a couple of weeks ago about the Dream Act. I just looked at it myself. Though I spoke to one of the students, who thought Fox did a pretty good job of conveying their point of view, at the end the host says the only comments his blog has received are from people saying "illegals go home."

I wonder what would happen if we started calling everybody who ever got a parking ticket an "illegal"? Or everybody who forgot to get their city sticker renewed? I'm trying to think of other paperwork hassles, since so often the fine line between illegal and legal is a matter of paperwork.

Tony's Bump

I got home around 6 tonight and Tony was waiting by the front gate. He was kind of hunched over. He's let his beard grow.

I asked how he was and he said, "Not good."

"That makes two of us. What's wrong?"

"I came to see if you had any pain pills or something," he said. He came inside the gate and pulled up his shirt. A little southwest of his navel there was a lump or a bump sticking out. The bump was not open or or oozing, just a lump under the skin, but it was pretty big, maybe an inch horizontal and almost as long vertical. It was somewhere between round and rectangular. "It just showed up yesterday," he said. "It hurts. I didn't get out of bed today until now."

"You need to go to County. Now," I said at once. "Here is two dollars, for bus fare to Cook County Hospital, only."

He made like he was going to take my bike up the front steps. "Nuh-uh! You can hold the door for me if you want, but you are not carrying anything with that going on."

So he held the door for me while I got my bike in the front foyer. I invited him in for a minute and asked if he'd eaten anything today. He said he had and it had stayed down.

I went looking to see if I had any Tylenol, but I don't. Dr. Maritza needs to beef up her first aid supplies: the Band-Aids are getting used up and we're out of painkillers. I did have a bottle of water and a two-pack of granola bars. "This is for your trip. I know it's a long wait at County. You're going, right?"

He said yes. I walked back out to the front gate with him and told him to come see me when he knows what it is.

Then I walked in the house and opened the newsletter from Partners In Health to read Paul Farmer saying, "All enduring good work is done by teams (no doctor can be effective alone)." Dr. Maritza is feeling like her bench, like her medicine cabinet, is not that deep.

On Hospitality

I found this paragraph about hospitality on the Lydia Home Association web site. Over the weekend people were asking me about why I chose to do what I do here and I didn't feel like I was able to answer them very well. This paragraph says it better than I could myself:

Biblical hospitality involves taking chances and serving others in ways in which we might feel uncomfortable. It is deliberate. Biblical hospitality goes against our nature. It is not something we are naturally drawn to do. We have to be deliberate in our actions to engage in this type of hospitality. It is demanding. If comfort and predictability are important to you, than biblical hospitality is not what you are looking for. Biblical hospitality forces us to get involved in the lives of others, forcing us to be more dependent on God in order to fulfill our commitment to others.

Last week was hard. I don't know whether one of the guys on the block here made it to his appointment with a lawyer. I don't know how Deborah is doing. On Thursday I drove her up to the North Side to a shelter-she wanted to get out of here. I haven't seen her yet, so I'm really hoping she's still up on the North Side.

This morning, Yup-yup already asked me if she's got mail at my house. She doesn't.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Day of the Dead

I'd like to take a moment today to remember some of the young people of Back of the Yards who have died in the past year.

Chris Pineda, Whitney Young senior

Esmeralda, 15-year-old parishioner at Holy Cross, who died recently of a seizure. The other day I was on Paulina and saw "RIP Esme" graffiti-ed on a window. You can read about her and her family at the Holy Cross/IHM website, in back issues of the bulletin.

Dorothy's son, although I don't know his age.

The son of the woman who was walking up and down the street on North Marshfield late last winter soliciting donations for his funeral expenses.

Fabio Laic, 19, shot in the alley near 49th and Hoyne in late September.

IF you are reading this and know of others you'd like to remember, please comment and add their names. Rest in peace to them, and my prayers go out to all their families today.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween in the Hood

Well, so far Halloween has not been too crazy. I still have a bag of Reese's Stix left for any late night trick-or-treaters. We had clowns and witches and devils and dancers and superheroes and face-painted cats and plenty of kids with no costume, just a bag and the cry of "Trick or Treat!"

Angel tried a Reese's Stix, or at least a piece of one.

Even Yup-yup came by for a trick or treat. Whatever.

"Pookie OK?" he asked me, meaning Dorothy.

She didn't call last night like she was supposed to, after all our drama. "I guess," I said doubtfully. Full of doubt I am, both of the answer and of the questioner.

One of the older Brady Bunchers didn't go out trick-or-treating. She stopped by just to hang out. Her younger siblings were driving her crazy, she said.

She was looking at Earth From Above, a big coffee table book full of aerial photos from all over the world. Then we messed around with some computer stuff and genealogy stuff, and finally we had a Colombian snack. I bought a tin of wafers that came with a container of arequipe (caramel, like dulce de leche) and a plastic spreader. You spread the arequipe on one wafer, then put another on top of it and eat it like a sandwich. The wafers were very thin but big rounds, like three inches in diameter. I broke mine in half to make a sandwich.

The closest to anything bad I have actually seen today was one little boy who had hidden an egg in a face mask he wasn't even wearing. It fell out and cracked on my front step. However, I hear a lot of helicopter noise and a lot of sirens outside.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

More Trouble

Mr. House Arrest needs a lawyer. He's facing four felonies the first time he was charged with anything (not the first time he's been arrested, maybe the first time he's been arrested and charged as an adult). His buddy who got busted with him has a lawyer and says he'll take House Arrest's case at a discount. I think I can get him a lawyer for cheap or maybe even free. Guess we'll find out tomorrow if I'm right. House Arrest's dad refuses to pay for a lawyer, saying a) he doesn't have the money (which is probably true) and b) House Arrest made his bed; he should lie in it. While there is some truth to the second point, I suspect if we all lived in Evanston House Arrest would be facing one or more misdemeanors and not four felonies for breaking into some garages.

Dorothy needs to get out of here now. Yup-yup hit her twice today, I gather. It was hard to tell. She was red eyed and mumbling. She only smelled of cigarette smoke.

"Did you use today?" I asked her pointedly.

"No, I didn't. I had one beer and some cigarettes," she said, quite clearly. She's lucid enough to figure out if she keeps staying there he will work her into debt she can't get out of. She spent all day selling drugs for him apparently because she "owes him rent" or some such baloney. It's not like he owns that house.

However, getting her out of here doesn't look like such an easy proposition at the moment. Our two best leads aren't panning out. Hmmm.....

Meanwhile the teen who ran away with a younger sibling in the car is back, I gather. Haven't laid my own eyes on that person yet. We'll see.

And tomorrow is Halloween, a day notorious for trouble. Kids start off throwing eggs and it escalates into worse. Years ago I knew a young guy who landed in the hospital with a gunshot wound from an escapade that started as egg-throwing.

Late this afternoon, I was on the Ashland bus at 49th and a gaggle of eight or ten little boys went by, including a couple of the Brady Bunch kids. It was warm this afternoon and they were mostly in short sleeves. When the light changed they crossed the intersection in a big herd, then broke out running down the sidewalk and around the corner into the alley. Half of me thought: "how fun!" and the other half thought: "what are they doing in that alley? are they safe? are they all going to grow up and become gangbangers?"

In happier news, I believe they did finally paint over the graffiti by the viaduct at 49th and Marshfield.

Monday, October 29, 2007


Recently, there's a lot of trouble on this block and the next block up. I went out Saturday night and smelled marijuana coming out of a car up the street. I knew the kids inside and didn't want to call the cops on them. I just asked them to keep an eye out for me about someone coming to pick up some stuff. I also smelled weed from a neighbor's house, but that's a pretty regular occurrence. Some of the people who live there are OK, but others aren't. In deference to the OK people and the notion of staying safe, I didn't call on them either.

As for the local teens, one got out of a mental hospital recently, another is on house arrest and a third ran away from home after leaving a very young sibling unattended in a car at midnight or so.

The last time one of the Bradys wanted help with homework was last week, and I had to say no because I was working. That happened today with somebody else.

The Souls have large graffiti all over the railroad viaduct at Marshfield and 49th. I called about it twice last week to no avail. Will have to get on the horn again tomorrow. It's not far north of where three guys were shot last week. You would think the city could make a special effort to get rid of that stuff in the wake of a shooting, but apparently that's not their priority.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Three Shot Today

...on the 4900 block of South Marshfield, less than an hour ago. Not our block, thank God, but close enough for us to hear the police helicopters, etc. Lots of people went to look. The cops cordoned off the south end of the block. I personally did not see anything--I thought I heard two shots, but then when I went out people were saying three people had been hurt and were being taken to Holy Cross Hospital. As far as I know no one is dead.

From what some of the young guys were saying, this may be the latest in the current gang wars. I think that means the LaRazas came across Ashland, but the thing I don't get is that last week's shooting was about Saints vs. LaRaza and Saints territory ends at 47th. South of 47th it's Latin Souls, and I don't know what is going on between them and LaRaza. I will have to see if any of my younger friends are willing to explain this to me.

Two young men I didn't know came walking from the east, saw the police cars everywhere and started hollering, "I just want to get high! I just want to get high!" I was standing with some other teenagers on the sidewalk and we all kind of smiled at each other, sort of a signal that those guys are crazy to be saying that stuff so close to a bunch of cops.

Sandy and Ms. Ribs took the opportunity to complain about the privacy fence and how difficult it is to see anything around it. We were also talking about the graffiti on it last week. "He's lucky they didn't burn it down," Ms. Ribs noted.

A couple of officers known in the community arrived later and one came over to talk with the young people I was with, so I got out of the way and went back in the house. I can still hear plenty of people on the street.

Big Picture Students on Fox Friday

Last Friday, Fox 32 came out to Big Picture to interview two students about the DREAM Act. Their interviews are supposed to air this Friday night at 9 p.m. I wasn't there, but I heard afterwards that it went well.

Last week, senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) reintroduced the DREAM Act as SB 2205. The bill is expected to go to a cloture vote tomorrow (that means the Senate is deciding whether to act on it this session), so today would be a really good day to call your Senator and tell him to support the DREAM Act, or, if you're from Illinois, to thank Durbin for reintroducing the measure and thank Obama for continuing to support it.

Capitol switchboard is 202-224-3121. Or you can send emails through the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights web site.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Cleaning up

Two quick items on cleaning up, so to speak.

Yesterday morning I woke up and spotted huge gang graffiti written on a large wooden fence at the north end of the block. I am pleasantly surprised to report that I called Graffiti Blasters at 9 a.m. and the truck was there to get rid of it a little after 1 p.m. Sadly, the overpass at 49th is also re-covered in graffiti and I haven't called it in yet. I hope someone else has.

Guest blogger 49th remains concerned about larger issues of environmental damage and passed on this story from CNN about pollution in Houston. "Hopefully the problem [here] is not as far-fetched as in the story. But if we don't do something, it might happen in our own backyard!" he warns.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Yup-yup and Dorothy On My Stoop

Dorothy got a letter from DHS on Friday. I was out of town last weekend and didn't see her before I left. Since Monday I've been keeping an eye out, hoping she would come by to pick it up.

This morning the doorbell rang. "Maybe that's Dorothy," I thought. Honestly, this was the first time in a long time I was happy at the idea Dorothy might be at the door. And it was. She looked good.

"I have a letter for you," I said.

"I thought you did," she replied.

"Let me go get it."

When I came back, Yup-yup was across the street. He looked over and saw us and started coming our way. Oh, Lord, not two handouts at once, I thought to myself. Dorothy was about to ask me for bus fare, but I nodded over at Yup-yup and said quietly, "Not right now." She got it.

Yup-yup came over and started pretending like he'd been cleaning the traffic circle. "The only thing I couldn't do was pick up that sign," he said. Someone hit one of the reflecting signs and knocked it down. I couldn't believe he was trying to tell me he'd cleaned up the circle when I could look down the street in broad daylight and see the trash in there, but I didn't say anything.

"I need to call 311 about the sign," was my only response. "Maybe in a couple days things will be better," I added, obliquely referring to the state of my wallet. He got that hint.

Dorothy went down the steps and started reading her letter out on the sidewalk. Yup-yup walked right over and put his hands on her shoulders, looking over her to see what the letter said. I thought she might jump on him for touching her, but she was too intent on reading the letter. I stood at the door, watching. The last time I saw them on the block at the same time they got into a shouting match.

When her head came up, I decide to butt in, gently but proactively. "Hey, Wesley," I called out. "Could you shut my gate?"

He left her and went to pull the gate shut. She walked across the street. A gray car pulled up by the traffic circle, and Yup-yup went to talk to the driver. Meanwhile, Dorothy picked up three trash bags full of stuff (her things? not sure) and started walking toward Ashland.

I have no idea what any of that means. Did Dorothy get kicked out of her housing? [I'm not sure, but I thought she was staying with her sister.] Have she and Yup-yup made up? That might spell bad news for her efforts at recovery. Are they just on polite terms? Hard to say.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Peace March Tomorrow

At today's Peace and Education Coalition meeting Oscar Contreras announced a peace march will be held tomorrow at 4:45 p.m. at the shopping mall where Monday night's shooting occurred. The shopping mall is on the 1400 block of West 47th Street, corner of 47th and Loomis.

Today the owner of the Farmers' Best Market grocery store came to the meeting and appealed to those in attendance to shop at the store and encourage others in the community to shop there, too. After the meeting I went to check out the store. It is very nice and clean and the produce is fresh. I'm told his prices beat Food 4 Less but I didn't compare closely.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Monday's CAPS Meeting

Last night about 50 people attended the CAPS meeting for beat 931, about twice the usual turnout. The additional people were mostly from the 4700 and 4800 blocks of South Marshfield Avenue. Apparently there's been an effort to organize neighbors to get new sidewalks, street resurfacing and some action to clean up the parking lot at 48th and Marshfield. One of the families on 4800 got in touch with an organizer for the Illinois Hunger Coalition, and together they got about two dozen additional people to turn out as part of their effort around street improvements.

Alderman Willie Cochran, the new alderman in the 20th Ward, was there as well. The people from 4800 told me they had been calling all last week to get him to come. At first they were told he would be there, then at the last minute a staffer said he wouldn't make it, so they didn't press everybody to come. Then he made it after all, and they were sad they hadn't shown their full muscle. If that's what the did without really trying, I'm still impressed.

I got there late so I'm unclear what action if any will be taken about the parking lot, which is full of empty beer bottles, condoms, etc. Cochran did not make any specific promises about their block, just said there will be work done but some of it may have to wait until spring. As for the sidewalks, any sidewalks that are cracked and uneven by more than two inches are supposed to be fixed by the Department of Transportation, not the alderman's office. He told them to call 311 and his office and his people would bug Transportation for them, too.

There was also much talk about the shooting on Saturday night. A man was shot and killed at 48th and Marshfield. The shots came from the railroad viaduct. Someone at the meeting was a witness-she was a friend of the victim and had been standing with him when he was killed. She asked whether the city could put lights up on the railroad tracks to make it easier to see what's going on up there. Ald. Cochran told her that because the railroad owns the land they would have to decide to put up lights. That viaduct has been a problem for years--people go up there with guns and use it as a sniper's perch.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

First Guest Post

Wow, I'm impressed by the quick response. Here's our first guest post, from 49th Street:

Regarding the blessing of the animals last Thursday, it was quite astounding to me at the presence of all the people (especially in our community) that showed up with their beautiful pets. I saw a turtle, small rooster, four parrots, about 4 kittens and about 12 dogs. Father Ed also looked intrigued since I am sure that he was not expecting all these people to show up!

One thing that I have to say regarding the BOY is that it has definitely transformed from what it was back in 1991, when i was about 13 years old and had just moved from the Little Village area. I was young and though I knew my surroundings I was taken aback at the atrocities being committed day in and day out. The only reason that my parents had picked to move to this area was because it was the only area affordable enough for my dad to purchase a not so dilapidated home; and even to this day our home is one of the ones that stands out in our block of 49th and Hermitage. Anyway, those were the days that most of our blocks were packed with various gang members representing every other block. As a youngster, although I was never initiated into a gang, I know some gang members from every other block, plus it did help not to get beat up or pressured to join one from the other. Although I knew that being part of a gang was not the right thing to do I knew not to be initiated into one because I did have my father who looked out for me too. Most of the individuals that were part of gangs back in the day did not have father figures or quite simply didn't care for their lives and other people's lives either.

Before I forget, this past Saturday from what I heard from around the neighborhood, they shot the owner of the building that sits right off 49th and Paulina, who or why nobody knows!

Guest Bloggers Wanted

This morning someone from 47th Street commented that what they read here doesn't seem like the heart of the community they know from growing up here. See our comments exchange under "Cranium on the Stoop" for more.

This got me thinking that maybe the best way to address this problem is to open up the blog to guest bloggers who've been living here longer than I have. So, if you've got something to say about Back of the Yards, email me at and I'll be happy to publish your thoughts as a guest blog.

Some things I'd like to hear about from longtime residents:
what was it like growing up here and what's the same or different now?
is gentrification coming to Back of the Yards? what do you think?
how can we make BOY safer and better for families without gentrifying?
what activities would you like to see in the parks here?
what are you hoping the new high school will be like?
anything else that's on your mind

By the way, to 49th, I missed the blessing of the animals at St. Joe's last week, but if you'd like to tell us more about it, email it to marshfieldtattler@hotmail and I'll put it up so it gets more visibility than the comments. Thanks!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Cranium on the Stoop

Last night, the Brady Bunch and some of their pals wanted to learn how to play Cranium. "We have it, but we don't know how to play," one of the boys told me. I have it, too. So I pulled it off the shelf and brought it out on the front stoop.

I believe we had 10 kids playing, from age three to about age 11 or 12. I have the original Cranium, which is a pretty hard game for kids. The rules are kind of complicated--I frankly don't really understand how you're supposed to start the game, so I made up a variation and just got us going. There are four categories of questions: data head (facts and numbers); word worm (spelling and defining words); creative cat (drawing and sculpting words for others to guess); and star performer (singing and acting to convey a famous song or performer).

Unlike when I played with Danny and Junior and Oscar, two kids in this group knew who Tina Turner was. "She's the lady who sings on TV," one of the Bradys said. Their friend Brian knew who she was but couldn't think of her name. This time one of the younger boys and I sang "Proud Mary" together--he caught on fast. We shook our heads a lot to make our hair fly around.

For one 'Star Performer' question, they all had to hum "This Land Is Your Land." None of them knew the song. They learned the tune but not the words. I'll have to teach them the lyrics some other time. I was trying to post the Bruce Springsteen video on You Tube to this blog, but some glitch happened. Another day.

They liked drawing and even spelling. Our littlest team member did a pretty good job of guessing how to spell "hippopotamus" backwards. "S,U,M,P,O,P,I,H," I think she came up with. Pretty darn good for a three-year-old. Everybody learned two new vocabulary words: manicure and oxbow. "What's the new word for polishing your nails?" I asked. "Everybody say it together--one, two three!"

"Manicure!" they all yelled.

I need to start looking around for more age-appropriate games for them. I'd like to get Pictionary, Jenga and Connect Four for starters. I do see that Cranium has some new games out that might have clues that would be more relevant to them.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

More on Health and Pollution

For today's poster, who also expressed interest in what's spewing out of the stacks in the stockyards, here's a group that might be able to help us do research:
the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

I met one of their organizers last winter when a group of maybe 50 people were outside EPA's local headquarters protesting.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Health Report

So, a week ago today I biked over to the post office near 43rd and Halsted to pick up a package. On the way home, I decided to bike through the Union Stockyards, once the core of this neighborhood. It's now an industrial park that employs a fair number of neighborhood folks--you can see them in the Dunkin Donuts at 45th and Ashland picking up coffee at 6:45, before their 7 a.m. shifts start. But the industrial park is far from the employment colossus that the stockyards once were.

When I first moved here, I biked through the stockyards quite often to get to work downtown. Riding at off-shift hours, I usually didn't hit much traffic and it was pleasant to bike through so much open space in the middle of the city. But when I mysteriously found myself saddled with three sinus infections that year, I decided I wasn't going to take a chance on biking through an industrial park any more.

If you drive along 47th Street at night between Ashland and Racine, you'll see a gigantic factory spewing white smoke into the sky. It's very Simpsons-esque. I don't know what's in that smoke but it certainly has made me wonder. I've had allergies and sinus trouble my whole life, but they have reached a new level of difficulty at times down here.

Anyway, here it is, a week after that bike ride, and last night through today I have had godawful allergies, congestion, sinus headache, etc. etc. It could be the time of year, it could be built up congestion--I had a bad headache one day in Colombia that could have been congestion-related--but somehow my gut says I really must not bike through the stockyards any more.

Anybody know anything about the pollutants factories there emit? Or how to find out that kind of thing?

Sunday, September 30, 2007

"When we see a star in the sky, we will remember them."

This is the artists' statement that Dawn wrote (with some help from her art teacher) regarding the Big Picture ofrenda now at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen:

This ofrenda is dedicated to the memory of the 32 Chicago Public School students who died during the 2006-2007 school year. We want to honor their presence with us, even as time passes. As students, this crisis of violence against youth makes us upset. It’s terrible having this violence around our community. At Big Picture H.S. in Back of the Yards, most students have experienced a violent death of a brother, sister, father, neighbor, or friend. The deaths of the CPS students affect their family deeply and also other students because violence happens to the people we know. The losses of these students change our school environment because it makes us scared and insecure. There should be no reason to be scared to go to school, to take public transportation, or to be out in our community. It bothers us to have so many young students die. These students, no matter what their situations were, should have been future doctors, lawyers, social justice leaders, and had the chance to change our community for the better. Today we honor and remember the 32 students who passed away during the last school year, and their continued presence in our lives as students. In our offering, we created an empty classroom with a symbolic seat for each of the departed students. This represents the absence other students will feel when they are not with us this year. We included school supplies that are essential for daily learning and other things they enjoyed during their lives. We created papel picado with a gold foil star that has a silhouette of a girl or boy representing each student. When we see a star in the sky, we will remember them. We wanted to capture the feeling of sadness and emptiness that their absence has created, and to remember what their lives meant to us while they were among us. Sharing our sadness is part of the process of healing, and we hope that visitors will be inspired to take action the end the violence against youth that continues in Chicago.

Block Book Fair

This afternoon I went to the 57th Street Children's Book Fair in Hyde Park. Someone I know told me that in the last hour you can get heavily discounted children's books. While the books were not as heavily discounted as I had been led to believe--I didn't go home with a bag full of books for a quarter--I did get 20 books for a dollar apiece, and more for about half price. And yes, I fell for the three for the price of two on Roald Dahl books offered by 57th Street Books, and picked up others from them as well. In total, I spent $120 on about 40 books, so the average price was three dollars each. Not too bad, especially since I did find some Spanish-language books at the dollar price, too.

My new tenant/roommate (who is so easy to live with he doesn't even rate tropical storm status, so I haven't given him a pseudonym yet), loaned me his car to help me get the books home. As it turned out, I probably could have managed my small boxful on the bus, but it was nice to step out of the car after parking near the Brady Bunch house and hear all the children on the porch holler, "Maritza! Hi, Maritza!"

"Guess what I have," I called back as I made my way to their porch with the box in my arms. When I got there, I showed them the books. "I got a lot of books cheap this afternoon," I explained to their parents in Spanish. "They can come over and choose which ones they want."

"It's like a book fair," said one of the younger ones. She and two other of the littlest ones came right away, eager to check out what was on hand.

They loved "There Were Ten in the Bed" by Annie Kubler, who created a book with a little wheel on the side so you can make the children disappear as the song progresses. (You can look it up on Amazon if you are interested--it's ten bucks. I got mine today for about five.) The song is:

There were ten in the bed,
Ten, ten,
And the little one said,
"Roll over! Roll over!"
So they all rolled over and one fell out.

It goes to nine, eight, seven, etc. When none are left, the little one says, "Good night." We kept forgetting that part when we sang, which made us all laugh.

We all sang the song innumerable times, and the youngest had a lot of fun spinning the wheel and making the children disappear one by one. The two older girls had the song memorized by about the fourth try. The younger one, who is still obviously learning English, was singing the way I do at Spanish Mass--faking it except for the word or couple of words she knew really well. I smiled at her and she got embarrassed, but I kept smiling until she smiled back and sang louder. Next time I'll have to tell her that's exactly how I sing in church.

So we took that book and a bunch of others to their house, and then the older kids had to have a chance to choose. All in all, about three waves of kids came over to see what the pickings were. By the end they were pretty slim.

To call this endeavor the Block Book Fair is an exaggeration. Although I saved a few books for some of our friends--Danny, Daya, Dawn and the other kids at Big Picture--the Brady Bunch down the block walked away with more than three-quarters of what I brought home. I only have eight books left on the kitchen table. Whew!

It is an especially good time to be handing out books since Chavez Elementary is on intersession in October, which means the kids are out of school for two or even three weeks. The teachers usually assign them a book to read or some other long project, but I'm glad to be contributing to 16 kids' intellectual stimulation while they're on vacation.

When we got back to Brady Bunch Central, one of their moms was pretty excited to see the Spanish-language books in the stack. That was very gratifying. Dawn's mom has occasionally picked up the couple of Spanish-language baby books I got for Angelito in Oaxaca last year, and Daya's mom reads to her sometimes, but neither of them has ever examined a book with as much interest as this mom did. Hurray!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Shout-outs of thanks and action

First a big thank you to Alexander Russo at District 299 for picking up my blurb about the Day of the Dead show tonight at the National Museum of Mexican Art. His current lead post is about our neighbor to the south, Englewood, and efforts to partner with Teach for America to create a principal pipeline for schools there.

Now, a big no thanks to Senate Republicans, who backed off the DREAM Act under pressure from a flood of negative calls. I called my senators to support it and I hope lots of other people reading this did, too. Harry Reid and other Senate Dems decided it wouldn't get 60 votes any more, so they pulled it off the defense appropriations bill. Reid has vowed to introduce it on its own by November 16.

I just met another young woman on the block here last night who might benefit from the DREAM Act. She's the oldest sister of my new young friends who come over for homework help. She's a sophomore at Rauner College Prep, one of the Noble Network Charter Schools on the Northwest Side. She travels two hours a day to attend the school, and gets up at 5:30 a.m. so she can arrive early enough to do their morning exercise program. She's also getting involved in fundraising for books for a school in Nicaragua. "Because of my status, I probably can't go down there, but I wanted to help out," she told me. That was the tipoff that college will be an issue, too. Given all her siblings and cousins, I now have about 16 new friends who could benefit from the DREAM Act.

I'm just going to say it one more time: these kids are here, this is the only country they've ever really known, and we're shooting our neighborhoods and our society in the foot if we don't give them a real chance at a college education. That's what the DREAM Act is designed to do.

If you'd like to balance the flood of negative calls and tell your senators to support the DREAM Act, you can call them through the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 or find them online here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Day of the Dead Show Opens Friday

This photo is a little sample of the ofrenda (altar) created by Big Picture Back of the Yards for the National Museum of Mexican Art's 21st annual Day of the Dead exhibition. According to the art teacher who worked with the students, Dawn was her "lead, lead artist!" and worked really hard on the project. Dawn also wrote the artists' statement that appears next to the ofrenda, explaining that it was created to remember all the Chicago Public Schools students who were killed violently last school year.

The opening is this Friday night at 6 p.m. For directions to the museum, click here. For more info about the Day of the Dead show, click here.

Dorothy gets Mail

I bet you're asking: who's Dorothy? Dorothy is the name I'll use in the future for the woman I've been calling "my friend the prostitute." For the purposes of this blog, she's now named after Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, who staked her life on the observation that "The gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor."

Anyway, while I was in Colombia, some mail for Dorothy arrived at my house. I think it's from the Department of Human Services, probably paperwork related to applying for SSI (Supplemental Security Income).

Dorothy is in her mid-fifties, homeless, crack-addicted, has mental health issues and is HIV positive. She's been on the streets a long time and it seems like she's finally starting to get ready to get off them, I hope for good. Although the government has strictly narrowed the eligibility criteria over the last decade or so, if she doesn't qualify I'll be fighting mad.

This afternoon, she was coming down the street just as I was walking out the door to get my bike and ride to the post office for a package. "Wait, I have some mail for you!" I said, going back in the house for the three big manila envelopes.

"I was waiting for you to get back," she told me. "I didn't want to come up and check in your mailbox."

"You look good," I told her. "Healthy." She was eating a banana and drinking juice. She does look better. She's not rail-thin any more and her skin is brighter.

"Thanks," she said. "I'm going to a meeting tonight. You know, those people I used to hang around with--they're just depressed all the time. They argue."

"What you're doing is hard work," I said. "I'm praying for you."

"Keep on praying," she said. If anyone reading this post wants to join in, you'd be very welcome. Just pray for Maritza's friend Dorothy. I'm betting God will know who you're talking about.

Sunday in Soacha, Bogota

Quedate Senor, quedate Senor, Quedate Senor
aqui, aqui, aqui

Stay Lord, stay Lord, stay Lord
here, here, here

That was the chorus of the communion song at an outdoor Mass on Sunday in Soacha, a community of poor people and civil war refugees who live in the hills above southern Bogota. It was the same song Fr. Ed sang at my housewarming party almost three years ago.

About 50 people attended the Mass, held on a flat patch of dust above the local brick factory. More than half of the people who came were children under 10. Mass was celebrated by six German priests plus the U.S. Jesuit in our delegation. Radical Catholic readers will appreciate the following details. During the homily, members of the congregation were invited to speak, and the whole congregation said the consecration together. Given that the word I heard is most of the Colombian church wouldn't do that, it was an extra treat to be there.

I put Soacha in Google and the first thing in English that came up was an EU-funded project to improve education and prevent forced recruiting of youth into the armed groups. Here's the story.

The story mentions an educational method from Brazil that helps children make up for lost time in school. Someone from the program says it has helped students make three years of academic progress in one school year. CPS, are you listening? Maybe that's something worth researching.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

saludos desde colombia/greetings from colombia

well, marshfield tattler hits the road again. some of you may remember my trip to colombia last summer. i am back, visiting some of the same people i met last time and meeting many new people. today i got very sunburned while going to Mass on top of a hill outside bogota. six german priests and an american jesuit presided. we worshipped with a community of people displaced from their homes by the civil war here. we also had an opportunity to see people working on a community home-building project. i bought a baseball hat at the community store but it was too late to keep me from getting burned.

this afternoon we visited the gold musuem in downtown bogota. The museum was full of amazing precolumbian gold artifacts. wow!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Yup-yup Returns

I heard his rooster cry this morning. I saw him tonight when I got off the Ashland bus.
I was carrying a load of dry cleaning and walking slowly to stay within range of an older woman and a young boy as long as we were all walking in the same direction.

"Yup-yuup," he called softly. "I'm back. I'm rested and refreshed. How are you?"

"I'm busy, stressed and broke," I said with a mix of bravado and brusqueness. I was expecting to get hit up for money. I was wrong.

"Busy is good and stressed you can fix," he advised. Not bad advice, really.

Yup-yup was drunk, I think, not high, because he waxed philosophical. (I tried really hard not to get close enough to smell the alcohol, so I can't say for sure.) What is it about booze that brings out the armchair philosopher, especially in middle-aged men? It took a few minutes of him chatting at me for me to realize he was behaving like some other middle-aged drunks of my acquaintance, including my own father back in the day. He ranged from the bush in the traffic circle to reconnecting with family in Mississippi to roots and place.

"How can a person live in a place where he has no roots?" Yup-yup inquired. I thought I was supposed to take that personally and started to feel defensive, but as he kept going I decided I didn't have to. "My mother's spirit rests in that house," he said, pointing down the block. "My nephew's is in your house. My sister killed him."

"I know," I said. But I didn't know until that moment that it was Yup-yup's sister and not his sister-in-law who set the fire that killed her son.

I had just heard a couple days ago that he was in Mississippi, hiding out from the law over "something bad," sources said. I must say I was hoping he would stay down there longer. I had just started to enjoy the quiet.

He alluded to the "something bad" very obliquely. "This neighborhood is changing. People be taking down license plates and stuff. How can you live in a place where you have no roots?" he asked again.

But he didn't want an answer, and I didn't try to provide one. Another guy went by in the street, pushing a cart. "Tony, is that you?" I called out, hoping.

"No," Cart Guy said. But he hung around.

Yup-yup broke off talking with me and started asking Cart Guy for a sandwich. I tried to slip off unnoticed, but he looked back as I was locking my gate and said, "You keep that gate locked, Miss Maritza." He's been saying that to me since the not nice new kids on the block arrived, even though I think he squats with them at least some of the time.

"Yes, sir," I said.

New Kids on the Block--Very Nice!

I haven't had a chance to write about the new family down the street. There are two brothers who bought a house together a few houses south of here. Both brothers have big families; I think each has eight kids. Maybe we'll call them the Brady Bunch on Steroids for purposes of this blog.

Some of the girls over there like to rollerblade on the sidewalk. We had races and I pulled two or three of them down the street in a line. The other night I went out and read them some Shel Silverstein on the sidewalk. They liked that so much I loaned them the book a few days later, in care of the oldest girl I've met, an 8th-grader.

A couple of afternoons this past week I was lucky enough to be home at homework time. Eight of them piled in my house to do work and take care of their youngest brother, who is not even a year old yet. Little Eddie takes a nap around 4, so it was just a matter of getting him down. His six-year-old sister gave him a bottle, and his 11-year-old brother took him home when he fell asleep. Their mom/aunt works at home in the afternoons putting boxes together, and she has trained them all to do their homework very quietly. I was amazed at how little noise they all made while they were working. The first day, I even got some writing done!

Later, one of the younger ones, who is obviously in the early stages of learning English, came and told me she had to read a book in English to somebody for her homework. It was a beautifully illustrated book called Half-Chicken/Mediopollito, bilingual in facing pages. She started reading it to me in English, but one of her older sisters suggested that I read the Spanish on each page before she started reading the English, "so she'll understand." I jumped on this immediately because I wanted the practice and the help with Spanish pronunciation. So I read the Spanish and occasionally asked for help pronouncing unfamiliar words. Then Alma read the English. When she clearly had no idea how to pronounce some of the words, I would re-read the sentence in English to her and then invite her to try it again. One of her brothers liked the story so much he hung around listening through the whole process.

The second day, it became more apparent which of them are struggling. Everybody seems to be doing pretty well in math but a couple of them are struggling with the transition from Spanish to English. One of the older boys is in 6th grade and was struggling with some hard words the first day. I loaned him my copy of "My Side of the Mountain" (in English) to see if he liked it and if he could understand it. He had some trouble with that book, too. I think maybe we should read it aloud and have him draw some of the descriptions if I can get enough time to do that with him.

There's a second-grade girl who is still a little weak on the alphabet, and her spelling reflects that. It's invented and looks more like first-grade spelling to me. I suggested to her big sister that they try getting some alphabet flash cards from the dollar store and singing the ABC song with her once or twice a day.

"Like before bed?" When you pray?" kidded the older sister.

I grinned. "Well, probably before praying," I suggested.

One of the younger girls had a Spanish vocabulary assignment, including the word unidad. The English word given to define it was "together," but the kids and I all thought that was weird. "Juntos" means together. I got out my Spanish-English dictionary and as I suspected, "unity" is a better definition, but she didn't quite get the concept. That's probably why the teacher gave the word together, but it didn't satisfy us. Her older brother was able to help her get unidad from communidad (unity from community) and we put our heads together and came up with this sentence:

The family that has unity is going to have a lot of success/La familia que tiene unidad va a tener mucho exito.

That would be their family, for sure!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Mentors Are Good

Today I was riding my bike up by Soldier Field, in Burnham Harbor. Today was about as spectacular as it gets in Chicago, clear blue sky and water to match, light breeze, sunny. Great biking weather--so great it surprised me not to encounter too many cyclists.

But one did notice me. A skinny bearded white guy rode past me and said, "Yay! Mentors are good!" It took a split second to realize he was referring to my Big Picture t-shirt. On the back it says, "I am a mentor."

We smiled and laughed together. Before I could thank him, he was gone.

Guess Who Got the Microwave!

Yesterday afternoon, I ran into Jesse on the street. I hadn't seen him for a while. Junior's whole family came and cut the grass last weekend because it was a foot high and breeding all kinds of bugs. I wanted Jesse to do it but he was nowhere in sight. So now he's around and the grass is short. However, Junior's family didn't cut back the baby trees in the fence that keep overgrowing the sidewalk. So I still had a job for Jesse, and he agreed to come over this afternoon and take care of it.

Once the branches were all cut back, I came out in the yard to pay him and he asked me, "Do you sew?"

I do not, but I would almost consider starting in light of his latest alley find. He picked up an almost-brand-new Singer sewing machine with patterns to boot! I'm sure he'll find a taker for it--somebody around here does alterations (maybe she threw it out? who knows?). Anyway, once he had thoroughly dissected all the good points of that find, he said, "You put that microwave out, didn't you?"

"You picked it up, then?"

He nodded. "I'm using it now."

"You cleaned it, right?" I asked. "And it still works?" I went into some detail about my efforts to clean it with the garden hose, etc.

"I left it out in the rain," he said. "I plugged it in and it still works fine." He assured me he had cleaned it out thoroughly and the flies were out of the door's window.

Well, I'm glad it went to a good home. And I'm double glad my new tenant/roommate has a microwave, so I don't miss the old one!

News from the Hood

This is the third night in a row I've called 311 to get the streetlights back on. They are out from Ashland to Paulina, and 51st to the viaduct at 48th.

My friend the prostitute stopped by yesterday afternoon. I am very much afraid she is relapsing.

In happier news, at Holy Cross today Fr. Bruce announced the Board of Education has promised our new high school in Back of the Yards will be built by 2010. There was a board report over the summer making it official that the site will be near 47th and Hoyne, if I remember correctly. I'll post a link soon.

Also, it sounds like the idea of putting a Chicago Public Library branch in the Goldblatt's building at Ashland and 47th is not dead yet. Stay tuned....

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Breaking News--A Happy Midnight Visitor

You may recall that Yup-yup's girlfriend stopped by in August and I gave her a referral because she wanted to get treatment. Well, she's going for it. She came by a few minutes ago with a paper which I now forget where it was from--not Thresholds (where I referred her) but maybe public health? She looked clean and seemed calm and explained she is out through the weekend but they are trying to get her into an in-patient drug treatment program. She needed a contact number and address--her social worker wants to talk to someone who knows her out in her real life--so I gave it to her. A little scary.

It was easier with Priscilla, who just disappeared once she was up and ready for treatment.

She says she is going to stay with her sister until she can get into an inpatient program. I hope so. I hope she wasn't bullshitting me and about to relapse.

As she was leaving she said, "I'm sorry I came through the neighbors' yard, but I thought you'd want to know about this."

"You were right," I told her.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Prayer Walk

This morning I went on the weekly prayer walk sponsored by the Port Ministries. The walk was started by Deacon Coleman, a longtime employee at the Port and a neighborhood legend. I hear he's now working in Roseland but still living in Back of the Yards and hopes to make it back for some prayer walks when he gets settled in his new job.

Brother Jim, a Franciscan who lives in Berwyn but comes to walk every Wednesday, is now the linchpin of the walk. He wears a habit he sewed together from old blue jeans about 20 years ago. He's a six-foot-plus white guy walking around in a denim habit in 90-degree weather. Our third walker, Walter from St. Joe's, observed that we got a few more stares with me along today than Brother Jim was racking up. (All it takes is two X chromosomes, I gather.)

Brother Jim has been going out walking and praying in all kinds of places for a long, long time. He used to work at St. Malachy's Parish in the Henry Horner projects. He's still walking through Dearborn Homes regularly--everybody knows him over there. I gather he's pretty new to our neighborhood--it's the first time in his ministry that a lack of Spanish has been a burden to him--but he has great presence and connection.

We stopped to pray in front of a couple of houses on my block. One where the shots were fired recently, the other the house where there are squatters. It was 10 a.m. and the block was very quiet. Only one young guy was out on a bike while we were making our way down the block. I prayed at the house where the shooting happened in thanksgiving for the safety of everyone who lives there, especially for the little girl, and for peace within and outside the house.

What interested me was that later, we were over by Sherman Park, and we ran into Mr. Worrisome, who lives in the house where I prayed that morning. Regular readers will remember Mr. Worrisome as the guy who was always bothering me with marriage proposals and such when I first got here. Now that I'm friends with his sister, his niece and his nephew, he's calmed down a little bit. Maybe he's also calmed down because he has a girlfriend....

We came upon Mr. Worrisome and his lady friend sitting in the shade along the edge of Sherman Park. Mr. Worrisome recognized me first. "Hey, I know where you stay? What you doin over here?"

I knew who it was from the voice and crossed the street. Brother Jim and Walter came along and we all introduced ourselves. We got to talking with them and Lady Friend said she could use some prayers for her health. Brother Jim was all over this and asked Mr. Worrisome what he'd like to pray for.

Among his prayers, he offered, "That she'll marry me." At least this time he meant Lady Friend, not me. Thank God for that!

So we all joined hands and prayed, and Brother Jim gracefully managed to keep marriage out of it but pray for both of them and their needs. He did a good job.

"You really touched me today," said Mr. Worrisome. Despite the liquor on his breath, I think he was pretty much for real about it. Lady Friend appreciated it 100 percent.
And it's the nicest I've felt about Mr. Worrisome since I met him.

Sometimes in these situations, prayer can be used as a confrontational tactic. Big groups praying out in front of a drug house send a pretty clear message--shape up or ship out. This prayer walk isn't really like that, and that's part of why I decided it was time for me to go. Because I don't know the New Kids on the Block here, I'm just mad at them for messing things up. They're not like Yup-yup to me, who's a pain in the ass but he's my pain in the ass in some kind of weird way. I struggle to believe in their humanity. That's why I wanted to go pray in front of their house.

Brother Jim and Walter helped me to remember they are just people after all, even though we didn't see them or talk to them this morning.

After we got done with Marshfield Avenue and Sherman Park, we walked pretty far east, to 52nd and May, where Jim and Walter had heard there was a shooting last night. Four young men were hurt badly and had to go to the hospital. I haven't found a thing about it on the news, which doesn't surprise me.

It turns out we picked the right spot on the corner, according to two church ladies who walked up and joined us in prayer. I'll call one Ella because she used to lead her old church choir. She wore an SEIU t-shirt and sang "Precious Lord" in a key (or keys) I couldn't follow in the slightest, so I didn't try to sing along. Her companion told me she has two sons who are Catholic--one is in the service and the other just got out of jail. I'll be praying for Roy and Beau tonight.

We walked down the street a bit and there were a few people sitting on their front stoop. They wanted to know when the Bread Truck was coming back. They take a vacation in September because they work extra hard feeding kids during the summer, when many aren't getting free lunch. Even though the city provides meals, they're at summer programs or in places the poorest kids may not be in, so the Bread Truck hits the streets.

"They be all over the place," one stoop-sitter commented, "47th and Racine to 55th and Ashland." My friend by 63rd and Kedzie knows the Bread Truck.

The folks on the stoop talked a lot about the shooting. Not super-great information, but more than the none they would have given the police, I imagine. It was a testament to the trust the Port and its Bread Truck inspire.

The lady on the stoop asked if we would come inside and pray with her mother, who is homebound and on oxygen. So we went in. She was reading the Bible, book of Revelations, chapter six, verses one and two, where the lamb is breaking the seven seals:

"Then I watched while the Lamb broke open the first of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures cry out like thunder, 'Come forward.' I looked, and there was a white horse, and its rider had a bow. He was given a crown..."

Oxygen Lady asked Brother Jim what the verse meant. He took a minute of verbal tap-dancing, and then asked what it meant to her.

She thought for a minute and said, "If I do what the Lord tells me I will get a crown."

Jim went with it. We prayed for her that she would know God's presence near her whenever she was afraid. I think she let a tear or two fall near the end of Jim's prayer. They looked like good tears. Ella had followed us down--she knew her neighbors--and she prayed the Our Father for Oxygen Lady with us as her backup pray-ers. Then she sang a little more.

I should go out with those guys more often.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Five moms!

Whoo-hoo--I got five moms to show up for coffee and doughnuts and to talk about stuff on the block. My friend Mike, who is fully bilingual and used to be president of his block club in Chicago Lawn, came over and helped translate and told us about some things his block has done to try to help keep his block nice and encourage neighbors to get involved. One of them says she will go to our next CAPS meeting, which is good because I can't make it. We hope to make it two or more by talking to some other folks who couldn't make it tonight.

Monday, September 03, 2007

All Politics Is Local

I've been out a few times in the last couple of weeks trying to round up signatures for a nominating petition. In the past I've signed a few but never circulated one. It's tricky to do around here--there aren't that many registered voters to begin with. Then there's the language barrier, then just shyness. And until yesterday I wasn't totally sure of the boundaries for this office, so I think I got a few out-of-bounds signers. I've even encountered two Republicans!

And I'll be hosting our latest attempt at some kind of block meeting tomorrow night. Yesterday afternoon I ran into our precinct captain, who tells me she was going to start a block club with just the homeowners but she never got around to the paperwork. I don't know what we're calling tomorrow night but I intend to invite long-term renters, too. We need to get everyone who's willing to keep an eye out together. I have to make and pass out flyers and clean up the house. I feel very under-energized about this, but I made a promise, so here we go. At least maybe I'll find someone else to go to the CAPS meeting on Sept. 17 since I can't make it.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Gunshots Last Night

The problem block of 5000 S. Marshfield exploded in gunfire last night. Four shots rang out at the north end of the block a little after 10:30 p.m. A two-year-old girl was outside in the line of fire at the time; fortunately, she was not hit. As far as I know, no one was hit by the shots.

Neighbors say the police response was quick and massive, but it is not clear whether any arrests have been made.

I was in my house at the time and heard the shots but could not tell where they were coming from. The little I know is from what neighbors on that block told me this morning.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Isabel's birthday

I ran into Isabel's husband at St. Joseph's this afternoon. Today is their annual kermes, or parish festival. I went to Mass outside, in front of the church, and then was hanging around. Her husband told me it was her birthday and suggested I go over, so I did.

I arrived just as three other women from St. Joe's, one quite elderly, were at the front step. Isabel's oldest daughter was letting them in the back, so I tagged along. Everyone in the back was very polite--buenas noches, pasale. There was no music playing, which seemed a little unusual. We went up the back stairs and into the kitchen. Everybody gave Isabel and hug and a kiss and then we all sat down. Isabel tried to feed us, but we all resisted since we had just come from the St. Joe's festival.

Isabel was making gorditas. She has a really cool tortilla press. It's wooden and it essentially folds twice. The invention of plastic wrap has made tortilla (and gordita) making much easier. She laid a round ball of masa on the plastic wrap, which was big enough to cover both the base and the initial lid of the press. Then she folded the first lid, then she could fold the second lid on top to squeeze it down. Since she was making gorditas, she pressed the second time very gently. One of the other guests took over on the press and didn't bother to use the second lid at all. They came out perfectly every time. My friend Katie has a metal press that seems to be more difficult to work with. Although I didn't actually use this one--I might have had just as much trouble, being an inexperienced tortilla-maker.

After the masa is pressed into a flat circle, you put it on the comal (griddle) and heat it up. Isabel must have asbestos fingers--she would check them for doneness with her bare hands, then flip them over, take them off and stuff them, all with her fingers. To stuff the gordita, you slit the side of it part way round with a knife and then put in the filling. I don't know for sure if that was carne al pastor (pig on a spit), but it was definitely shredded pork, and very juicy. I thought it was plenty spicy on its own, but Isabel persuaded me to add a little salsa. Muy sabroso.
The other women wanted to know if it was too spicy for me, but we got it right, so I wasn't dying.

This was probably the first group of mostly new-to-me Mexican women in a kitchen where I didn't feel grossly out of place. Maybe because Isabel's youngest daughter hugged me like she hugged all her mother's friends coming in. Maybe because the conversation was usually pretty easy to understand. I mean, it's a birthday. They were all talking about how old they were when they got married, but mostly everybody was interested to see I could follow the conversation. Maybe it was because nobody noticed when I stopped paying attention because the conversation got too hard to follow. Maybe because we were all full, so for the first time ever I managed to keep Isabel from feeding me for at least half an hour. But after sitting around making and watching and schlepping gorditas downstairs (that part I could do), we all caved and ate some with Isabel. Oh, my God--"I should have eaten less at church," I said to the group. They all laughed.

Right now I feel like Templeton, the rat from Charlotte's Web, after the state fair. I ate two steak tacos and five tamales at St. Joe's, followed by three of Isabel's pork-stuffed gorditas. I'll have to go back to church and dance to work them off.

If you want to see what gorditas look like, look here. They have different fillings, but they're about the same size as Isabel's.

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