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.

Windy Citizen Share