Pugilism in Pilsen, Part I

Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent. This is the first part of a four-part story. Read PART I hereRead PART II here. Read PART III hereRead PART IV here.


Pilsen (Photo credit: sea turtle)

When I was a kid in the early to mid 1990’s my family would make weekly sojourns to eat at La Casa Del Pueblo. Each trip more or less started out the same way.

First I would be startled awake at an uncivilized hour by my dad. He would either be yelling at the top of his lungs into my ear and/or squirting a water gun at my face. After taking a shower while half asleep, I would saunter into my mom’s minivan and my family would head to Immaculate Heart of Mary for Sunday mass.

During the service I was either half awake or bored. Usually bored, so I would replay an episode of The Simpsons in my head to pass the time. Once the service was over we’d get in the car again, hop onto the I-90 ramp in Old Irving Park and haul ass down to Pilsen to eat. Usually I would ask if we could go home or to the movies instead. We usually went to Pilsen, which sucked.

From my point of view, half the day had already been wasted in church and now I was stranded in Pilsen with my family for an indeterminate amount of time. Time I could spend trying to fight my way though the Shadow Temple in Zelda.

Yeah, I was a kind of a jerk growing up.

Pilsen back then was still mostly comprised of hispanic families that were newly immigrated or first generation American. Because of this the cultural touchstones that I was familiar with in grade school didn’t always synch up with what Pilsen had to offer. So I usually had my nose buried in a book or was playing with my Gameboy while we were there.

The neighborhoods on the north side that I lived in and rode my bike to before I was in high school were all pretty mixed culturally and ethnically. Growing up in a multi-cultural area was my parent’s way of keeping my sister and me from growing up ignorant. Thanks to my parents’ foresight I grew up without a lot of prejudices and learned at a very early age to keep an open mind.

However, none of these neighborhoods had the same kind of intensity that Pilsen had. Every time we went down to 18th Street and Blue Island Avenue it was amazing how unapologetically Mexican everything was. The music, the food, the smells, the language and especially the art. Beautiful murals everywhere. Sometimes after eating we would wander the neighborhood, window shopping. Eventually we’d make our way to a Mexican bakery for pan dulce. Nowhere else in Chicago do I feel this immersed in my cultural roots.

Now, my parents have never been traditional in the way they raised their kids. My mother’s family is from El Paso and my father is originally from Mexico City. Because of this, teaching us the difference between Mexican Independence Day and Cinco de Mayo was just as important as learning who The Temptations and James Bond are.

These trips to Pilsen were another way for my parents to help us appreciate our roots. At the time though I was more concerned with learning everything I could about Batman and Star Wars. Pilsen was severely lacking in both departments. I never hated going, but I also would rather we went somewhere else.

As time went on these trips to Pilsen became less frequent and I lost touch with the neighborhood. Looking back, I should have enjoyed the trips more and soaked in the intense Mexican atmosphere while it lasted.

It wasn’t until 2009 that I started going to Pilsen on a regular basis again and finally appreciated what my parent’s were trying to do by dragging me down there so often. But by then what made Pilsen so Mexican had already begun to fade away. Ω


Notes from the peanut gallery.

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