Sunday, August 9, 2009

I am La Migra

Wednesday, 22 July 2009


I find out, after returning to the mission that there have been ICE officials scanning the parking lot at Home Depot. Padre runs out there to take care of anyone he can. He returns later; thank god there were no arrests.

But the rest of the day, everyone is jumpy. A new woman comes into the mission and eyes me suspiciously. I overhear her question to the girl I am talking to—Is she the mirga? I am horrified. I never guessed people might look at me and see me as the oppressor.

Later that day, I am interviewing a man. He is homeless, I know, but he is giving me the runaround. I just stop by here, he said, waving at the camp. I have a girlfriend! A son! I live with them! I live with my son and my girlfriend! He repeats it over and over.

Surprisingly, despite his suspicions, he is still willing to talk to me, even if he is projecting an alter-persona. So I am asking him some questions when he stops.

You aren’t a reporter, are you? Are you? He accuses suddenly, like he is teasing it out of me—this great secret. You are la migra, huh? That’s it! You aren’t a reporter.

The muchacha is a reporter, my friends vouch for me, just as the girl did back at the mission.

But it stings all the same. 

A Girl like Me

Wednesday, 22 July, 2009


I’m sitting on the sticky leather couches of the mission, biding time until José is ready to go to the Factory with me. A girl who I have met before, but whose name I have forgotten, sits down next to me. We begin to chat.

I learn, during the conversation’s course, that the girl I am speaking to is my same age. That’s always interesting to consider—the parallel life that I could have. She is at college now, at a Catholic school, studying to be a teacher. Her father pushed her to enroll and though she was resistant at first (scared about her still shaky mastery of English), she is now glad that she is there. She isn’t a rough girl, doesn’t get into trouble or gangs and the people she has met at college are good, too.

Life is scary for her. Here, her neighborhood of little brick houses is the site of gang activity. She doesn’t go out at night. She used to love to return to Mexico, to stay with her Grandmother in the north of the country. But that area is scary now, too, since the drug ring gangs have started moving in to the area. 

Her eyes widen, big and fearful. Is anywhere safe to live? She asks.



Wednesday, 22 July 2009


When I walk into the Guerra-Gonzalez family home, I look at a picture of a tubby baby on the wall.

Is that you? I ask Jasmin, the oldest.

No, no, she says, None of the stuff on the walls out here can be ours. We can’t have anything here, it all has to be in our room. But come on! See the picture of our whole family—us and our dad!

I follow Jasim, 8, and her squealing siblings down the little hallway and we enter a door plastered with kids drawings. I poke my head into the tiny room, crammed full with a dresser, a TV, clothes and toys. Inside is one giant bed. Four out of five members of the Guerra-Gonzalez family now sleep in this bed—the mother; Araceli and the three children; Jasmin, 8, Anai, 6 and Carlos, 3. The one member missing, their father, Moses sleeps at Christian Country Prison. He awaits deportation.

Moses was arrested in December of last year. He had supported the entire family by working two jobs. Since his arrest, life has been hard. Araceli never had to work before, but now, she spends her days cleaning. The work is hard and she is forbidden from speaking Spanish in the workplace—which makes even communication exhausting. She has applied for work at a million other places; but no one is hiring. There is also another complication—she is undocumented and places like factories now ask any worker for papers.

But the hardest thing is sharing their home. Before, the family lived in the spacious upstairs and rented their basement to a family with two children. But after Moses left, Araceli realized the rent would be impossible—her husband used to make $700 a week; now she makes about $100 to $150 a week. She moved in with the family downstairs so she could rent up the upstairs to new tenants. Now, she and her three children live confined to their tiny bedroom. But the bedroom is not even their own—a tiny cot in the corner sleeps the daughter of the couple downstairs. It is, after all, her room. The Guerra-Gonzalez family are essentially; unwanted visitors in their own home.

Araceli stays strong by thinking about her husband. They met in Mexico when they were ten years old. By the time they were thirteen, they were boyfriend and girlfriend. The year they turned fifteen their families moved to the United States; Araceli’s to California and Moses’ to Chicago. They kept in contact that whole time and when Moses visited, he would try to convince Araceli to marry him. Finally, when they were seventeen; she agreed and he whisked her away to Chicago. They were married there and soon after; their three children were born. The separation now is worse than their brief separation as teenagers.

“I love him even more now than I ever did,” Araceli said. “For the first time in my life, I am alone.”


The kids are having a great time showing me the apartment they share. Even under less than ideal conditions; they are proud to be tour guides.

“Come, come! To the kitchen,” shouts little Carlos, leading the way. He climbs on a stool and shows me the ingredients for his favorite drink—leche. Then, he points out the microwave. “For leche!” he announces.

As I drink a glass of water with them in the kitchen; the kids clamor to show me “the rest of their house.”

“Are you coming upstairs?” Anai asks.

When Araceli gently reminds them that upstairs isn’t really their house any more that the kids’ faces fall and they decide, instead, to show me their bikes, stacked outside.


As we drive back, Araceli is tired, a little sad. She doesn’t like going home, even for a short visit.

“It is very small,” she says—expressing a lot with that one, simple phrase.

Carlos chirps from the back asking for the radio and Araceli gladly turns it on

Internship: Araceli I

Wednesday, 22 July, 2009


Before I enter the mission, I stop a few moments to talk business with the kids standing

outside. It is church fundraising season and the kids of the Mission are stationed behind a little table, peddling soda and candy, water and orange or grape drink. I ask them what is selling well, and the reports are mixed. In the past four hours, they have made about twenty-six dollars. Nicely done, I say, secretly wondering if their own parents or siblings contributed the most to that total.


It starts with a tap and a jump. I tap the glass storefront window of the mission and the little, round-faced boy at the other side hops back with fright. A second later, a huge grin spreads across his face. A tiny, balled fist taps back. We begin a game where I splay my fingers on one side and he mirrors me on the other. Soon, his two sisters join in and we are laughing and smacking the glass. I feel terrible about the greasy paw prints we are marking the window with, but the giggles are just too pure, the fun too extreme. We play for a long time, until finally I pry myself away. Embarassingly enough, my interviewee is inside, waiting for me. I am in the process of apologizing when the kids I had just played with crowd around her. I learn that my new friends are her children. They dart back and forth from me to their mother, smacking my hands. In winning their trust, I win their mother’s trust, who smiles a weary, appreciative smile at me.


Gilded Mixed Income Homes

The small woman holding court in the living room had invited us in to see her new home. But it wasn’t a typical house viewing. Firstly, the audience crammed into the freshly painted living room was a forty-odd tour group. Secondly, the woman showing us her new home wasn’t proud—she was angry.

She had lived her whole life in Chicago’s notorious public housing units. Her new home was in one of the novel, brand-new mixed income developments that had sprung up in the empty lots the demolished projects left behind. Politicians, like Bill Clinton, touted the replacement of public housing with mixed income communities a great idea. But the greatness of the idea, just like the greatness of the house, only went just past the surface.

“Everything that glitters isn’t gold,” she said.

The woman provided evidence. The dishwasher never worked, the thermostat falls off the wall. The poor light fixture design means that it is impossible to change the light bulbs without calling in a handy man with tools and a ladder. The cement under the floor was poured hastily—stocking-ed feet can feel the bumps and ridges. The fluffy carpet was placed directly on top of the floor, meaning that when it rains, water begins to seep through the corners.

Once they made up their minds to do it, politicians were in a hurry to knock down the homes and a hurry to throw the next set up. The woman sighs.

“You want things quick,” she said. “Sometimes it’s good to take things slow.”

This new, fool’s gold home replaced the woman’s public housing residence. IT’s strange to remember that when the projects were first built, they were supposed to be niceBut that residence was a place she felt comfortable.

“I’d rather go back to the homes,” she said. 

INTERNSHIP:Night Tour with the Padre

The factory didn’t work out. However, as we wove through the streets of Little Village, the Padre began to casually comment on our surroundings. Soon, my enthusiasm coupled with his knack for teaching morphed our late night drive into a tour of Little Village and Pilsen through the eyes of the Padre. It was all the more fitting and intense because it was night and all the places we passed were dimly lit. We passed the corner café in Pilsen where anarchists meet. We passed sites of the immigration raids: quiet neighborhoods and shopping centers, chilling in the dark.  The Padre described one night time raid, when ICE henchmen stormed 300 homes in the area and helicopters buzzed over head. We drove down 26th Street; empty except for a few loiterers at the bus stop. A few years ago, Padre said, the area had boasted a busy night life. Now, policemen had started camping out down the street from clubs; waiting to pounce on late night revelers heading home. The Padre talked, too, about the gangs that plagued the neighborhood—the 26ers and the Latin Kings, among others.

We left Little Village, returning to Pilsen, where the Padre pointed out his favorite bars and restaurants, telling me a little bit about the management and cuisine of each. From there, we entered the newly gentrified lands of U of I- Chicago students: small art galleries, new condos and Starbucks.  Five years ago, it wasn’t like this, he said. I marveled once again at Chicago’s capacity for urban renewal, the rebuilding of spaces and the displacement of people.

The Padre drove me right to my doorstep. I thanked him, head still spinning from all that I had seen and heard.

INTERNSHIP:Waiting for the Padre

Thursday, 16 July, 2008

After the dinner, I changed from my fancy dress to leggings and a tee-shirt and sat outside of the Museum. I had finished up early, roughly 8.15, and the Padre wasn’t supposed to be here until nine. But I wasn’t worried at all. The air was cool and I had my book with me. I had just feasted on sumptious falafel, tomato salad and pita. My new acquaintances streamed past me, most asking if I needed a ride. I waved them on. The director came out, carrying a cardboard box and filling the air with the smell of fresh pita.

My thoughts drifted to what the Padre and I were about to do—visit a huge abandoned factory where he said that a bunch of men had been living for the past few months. We had tried to swing by one afternoon and no one had been there. We both agreed there was a better chance that the day-laborers would be home at night. So we had planned for him to pick me up after he finished his meeting and I finished my dinner. I trusted his word, but I hoped that the plan hadn’t changed. My phone had died. I checked my watch—9.15.


It got darker as I sat there, back against the wall. Joggers passed by me and we exchanged little hellos. Some junior high girls roller bladed past me. Several dogs sniffed my feet. An awkward little boy bounded over to me when his white terrier approached me. He and his dad had the same goofy grin. He launched into a speech about his terrier, named Brian, after family guy—did I watch that show? His dad bobbed his head and repeated in a strong Spanish accent asking me did I watch that show? I nodded I knew the show even though I hadn’t really ever sat and watched the show.

Oh! Said the little boy. What’s your name?

I was just alone enough that I decided to lie. “Sarah,” I said, then immediately felt crappy about it.

“That’s a pretty name!” he exclaimed. I smiled, wanting to tell him it was really my room mate’s name.

As he walked away, he almost tripped over awkward feet, turning around to yell back: “Have a nice night, Sarah! Take care, Sarah! Nice to meet you, Sarah!”

The newly named Sarah (me) glanced at her watch. It was inching ever later. But I was sure that the Padre would come.

I continued to read, back pressed against the wall, conscious of anyone around me the later it got. But my book was good and I soon lost track of time again.

Returned from his walk and going through his gate across the street from me, the little boy shouted: “Oh! Sarah—you’re still here! Well, have a nice night, Sarah! I’m going to bed now, Sarah! Oh! Sarah—this is my house.”

I waved.

“Aren’t you going to bed, too?”

“I’m waiting for a friend! Goodnight—sleep tight!”

“Goodnight, Sarah!” he hollered.

I checked my watch. It was ten to ten now. Damn my phone! I thought. I bet the tried to call me!

I decided to stay until ten. I felt pretty safe here, but I wasn’t about to take any chances. People were still jogging, still congregating on street corners, but I was starting to get jumpy. Cars were passing, but none of them were Padre’s. If they slowed down at all, I felt nervous.

Ten came, but I decided to finish up the section I was reading. At 10.15, I sadly decided that I had waited long enough. I packed up my bags and began walking to the train stop. It would be a long ride home.

I wasn’t mad in the least about it. I figured the Padre had some good excuse, even though I didn’t know him well. I trusted him.

I was walking around the corner when a car slowed. Someone called at me. I ignored them and kept walking.

“Brenna!” I heard. “Brenna!”

I stooped. Padre grinned up at me.

Whaddya know, I thought. But I am sure glad I waited this long.


Padre and I explained ourselves—I apologized for the death of my phone (“Oh,” he said, “I called you like five times!”) and he explained why he had been caught up (his meeting for the Anglican church on the matter of female bishops had run long.)

We were both relieved to see each other.

He began to drive slowly and we planned our adventure when I sat down. We agreed it was late and wondered aloud if it was safe to go to the factory. We agreed to stop by and at least see.

The Padre pulled up and we could see figures talking, laughing, drinking, silhouetted. He motioned for me to stay in the car. He called out to them in Spanish, through the fence. I opened the door and saw him give them his card.


INTERNSHIP: A Priestly Encounter

Today, I was blessed by a priest in a parking lot.

Overcome with my meeting with Father Dahm, I sat in the schoolyard of San Pius V. My butt was warmed by the sun-drenched asphalt, my back leaned against a pole in the chain link fence and my fingers flew across they key board when a round, portly man with a cane and a balding, head moved slowly in through a gap in the fence.

“Why, hello,” he said, voice gravelly. “Are you a student here? Or… no… a teacher?”

Oh, I’m a college student, I said, scrambling to my feet. Let me introduce myself.

Oh—you don’t have to do that, but I was up already, extending a hand. I’m Brenna, I said.

“Oh, he said. Oh. Well, i-- I am one of the the elder fathers here, he said. I am a Dominican priest. One of the old ones, about eighty-one, so you know, nearing my time, he said. His eyes wandered.

Do you like school?

I said, yes, indeed, I did I liked being a journalism major because I got to talk to people.

Oh yes, he said. You keep up on things.

Yes, I said. Have you been here long—what do you notice about here?

Well, let me tell you. I once did something. I was a teacher for many years here, see, and I once said to another Father, at one of the dinners—Well, what else can I do? I’m a priest. I didn’t mean it that way, of course, but that’s… wel, anyway, that’s what I am. And he said—well, why don’t you do hospital work. And so you know, for eighteen years now, I have been the chaplain at Holy Cross Hospital right over there. You see everything. Which, for a prieset is good. You need a little bit of reality—of real humanity—not just intellectual material. Not to be morbid or anything, but you need that reality, that human suffering. Makes you thankful for what you are, what you have. For me, I am a Dominican priest. Makes you thankful, that humanity. And so I did that for eighteen years.

“If you write a thesis one day, include that and, don’t cite me by name—I don’t mean anything by that—I’m Father Morris—but say, say I met this Dominican Father once. It’s something to carry with you. He paused.

Here, I’ll bless you. He made a cross on my forehead while I stood awkwardly, hoping not to break any rules, and then slowly walked away, disappearing as magically as he appeared.


INTERNSHIP: The Padre Needs to Sleep

Father Dahm was exhausted. As I spoke to him, his eyes closed, his mouth drooped open. He slouched in his chair. He shifted every few seconds, in an attempt to keep himself awake.

I kept expecting one of my questions to fall flat, for him to be snoring by the time it was his turn to speak. But somehow, he’d jolt awake and he’d answer one of my questions in a slow, careful voice. Worn out, but truthful.

His parish, one of the largest in Pilsen, is made up of a constituency that is 80% foreign-born. Of those, he estimates 50% are undocumented.  In Father Chuck’s twenty-three years as Parish Priest, he has built up a wealth of social services around the church. The church runs a thrift store, runs a food pantry, runs youth services. Human services are as big of a part of the church as religious services. But these days, the church is getting more pleas for assistance than it can deal with.

I guessed that that was what was exhausting Father Dahm—and I was partially right. He was also suffering from health problems which had left him weak. Still, he told me he had more and more people coming in, more and more people asking for help. And he just couldn’t provide that many people with assistance. The church has affordable housing, yes, but you need to make at least $20,000 to $22,000 a year to be able to qualify for the rent assistance. If you are making $250 a week, $1000 a month, there is no way you can afford rent like that. He talked about referring two or three men a week to a nearby men’s shelter—a shelter that has a waiting list, something Father Dahm called a joke—most of these men don’t even have phones.

I asked him what should be done and he just looked at me, sadly. I don’t know, he said, I don’t know. People need jobs, he said.

The more I talked to him, the more I realized that in these times, there were just too many people pleading for help from the church. People come, unable to find jobs, unable to pay their bills and he is powerless. Even if they get in to San Jose, they are soon out again. If they are looking for jobs, he tells them to make friends. What else can he do?

He was tired. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

INTERSHIP: Talking with Dulcidia and Joceline Blanco

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Over the next few weeks, I started hanging out at the Mission a lot. The fact that all I was doing was working my internship and exploring Chicago meant that I was uncharacteristically free. I could be flexible and wait around while someone completed their work. I could get to be friends with the kids. Each conversation ended up supplying me with practical knowledge about the people there or the neighborhood. I was relishing the art of hanging out with people and watching things happen. And moreover, people learned to like and trust me because I was always there.

On that first day of hanging out, the Padre returned to the Mission to make a phone call. When we walked in, he greeted a mother and daughter talking to friends at the front.

These are the Blancos, he said. You should talk to them. Marilu is helping them to get loan modifications.

And so, Dulcidia Blanco, her fourteen-year-old daughter Joceline and I sat on the wooden pews.

Dulcidia spoke ok English, but soon we moved into a rhythm where she spoke to Joceline in Spanish and Joceline translated. Sometimes, I asked interview questions, sometimes we chatted. It was in that way, in this relaxed, conversational style that I got their story.

Dulcidia and Luis had crossed into Mexico from Guatemala twenty-five years ago. They later crossed the rio to get into the united states. In the 1990ss, they received amnesty through a lottery. Dulcidia feels safer now, more free, less afraid.

They bought their house in the nineties and Joceline and her three brothers were raised there.

They told me about joining the church: “It helps out a lot of people, we like that a lot.” Luis drove supplies down on a mission trip to Tabasco. They never expected to be the recipients of aid.

They told me about last September, when Luis started getting less and less work as a trucker. Soon, he was only working 2 or 3 days a week at most.

Dulcidia had to go onto food stamps, something she has never done before.

She spoke of how they could no longer pay the mortgage. “The bank keeps pressuring me,” she said. “The first time they called was Christmas. They said we had lost the house. They keep calling and saying we have already lost the house when we haven’t. They once called my husband when he was driving and said the same thing. He almost crashed, so now I take all of the calls.”

“If they take the house away, what are we going to do?” she asked. “It’d be easy to rent another place but it’s been fifteen years there, I don’t want to leave.”

Joceline turned to me. “Mom gets really depressed. She cries a lot. Sometimes, I come into the room and she is just staring at the wall.”

Dulcidia adds: “Sometimes I want to just leave it all behind.”

The most precious part of the whole thing was the silence after we talked. I was able to share that with them, share the fact that discussing these things weighted us all down. I offered them a little hope, Well, if anyone can help you, it’ll be Padre, I said. I know, I know, said Dulcidia. 

INTERNSHIP: Padre and I visit the Factory, attempt one

Wednesday, 15 July, 2009

The Padre and I entered the factory the next day, wriggling through a tear in the fence around it. I stepped gingerly over stagnant puddles, broken glass and huge piles of trash. It reminded me of the camp I had seen in the desert last spring, the hidden cave covered in human garbage. It was isolated, a cave in a lonely ridge in the Sonora, yet it was packed with flies and discarded pieces of human existence. Once again, here was a place I couldn’t believe people live. And Chicago winters were for me comparable to desert summers. Neither place are liveable for humans exposed to the elements.

“See how much they drink,” said Padre, pointing at mounds of liquor bottles.

The next room, however, showed poignant humanity—overturned crates and a few chairs, one looking like a seat extracted from a mini van made a makeshift living room. Magazine pictures were tacked to the walls. I pushed on a door and it opened wide enough for me to see six mattresses, stacked with clothes and blankets and someone’s stored bicycle. Yep. People lived here for sure, though no one was there now.

Padre and I climbed upstairs to see more beds and piles of clothing but no one answered our calls. They were probably out working, seeking day labor at the Home Depot. We agreed to come back the next night and see if they were around. In the meantime, he had some other people I could talk to. 

INTERNSHIP: The Padre, ctnd.

Tuesday, 14 July, 2009

I was getting ready to leave the mission when Padre came in. “Do you need a ride?” he asked. “I am going now to play soccer.”

I agreed to the ride and was delighted that he played soccer. He just got better and better.

We piled into his old car, floor littered with coffee cups, banana peels and newpapers.

“Do you have time to see the factory?” he asked.

“Of course!” I said, astonished at my luck.

As we drove along, I marveled at the Padre and the conversation we were having. His accent was rollingly Central American—h’s before vowels and dropping the endings of other words. Still, he never missed a word. He had been living in the United States for more than twenty years now and I had the sense that he talked the same way in Spanish, too. Because it wasn’t the accent that made his speaking style unique.

The Padre has a way of interacting with you—a calm, slow way of looking at you intently and filling space with lots of repetitions—“Mmm-hmm, mm-hmmm, mmm-hmm” he says, nodding his head. He barely blinks when you are talking, yet his eyes twinkle when he is amused and he grins a lot.

We drove down shady streets of little houses, chatting merrily. I loved his slow sentences and the quirky phrases that came out and the grins that followed when I commented. Soon, we had reached the factory. It was a huge building and looked almost burned out. I couldn’t believe people lived there. He assured me they did.

“We going to go tomorrow,” he said.

Conversation shifted as we turned back towards the bus stop. I asked him about the park he was going to play soccer in; I asked him where he lived.

“Oh, I live on the north side,” he said. “I just moved. Y’see, I have two cats and a rabbit.”

This guy is out of this world I thought. I love everything he says.

“I used to have three cats, but one cat, she died on the road. She was like a daughter to me, so I moved.”

He continued on as we continued on, telling me about how the rabbit thought it was a cat and the cats thought they were rabbits. He had the sweetest, shyest grin as he talked about them. And every time I asked a question about them, he’d seem delighted to answer. We talked about his furry friends until we reached my bus stop.

“So I’ll see you tomorrow?” he asked.

“Yes!” I said, clambering out awkwardly.

“Ok,” he said, grinning upwards. “OK! We go to the factory tomorrow!”


INTERNSHIP: I first go to Our Lady of Guadeloupe Anglican Catholic Mission and meet Padre Jose Landaverde

Tuesday, 14 July, 2009

I walked into the church off of 26th Street and took off my sunglasses, blinking at the change in lighting. I was in a converted storefront, pews lined up behind a glass-covered case where colorful Our Lady of Guadalupe’s reigned. The receptionist was using the case as a desk. Grinning but speaking no English, he sent me back through lacy curtains into a type of waiting room. An older man and a younger man, chatting in the corner caught my attention. A few women waited dispersed in different seats, speaking quietly in Spanish to their children. A little boy ate fried chicken with greasy fingers and seemed to have run of the place—he even seemed to enter a closed room place where I assumed meetings with the lawyers were taking peace.  Yesterday, when I had met with Mujica, he had given me the basics of what went on here—lawyers came to give free consultations on immigration and housing issues to community members. So I was there, but Mujica wasn’t.

The old man and young man seemed interested in my plight. I texted Mujica and it seemed the older man was looking for him, too. He kept asking me if I had an appointment. It was a hard thing to convey—Mujica has recommended that I go, but had never totally said he’d be there. I sad on the plastic seats, staring at my phone and the hushed Spanish conversations happening around me.

I felt, not awkward exactly, but that I was acting awkwardly. I was the only non-Latino in the room and I was sitting alone.

Eventually, I went to talk to the young man, who was now seated behind a desk. He had a smooth face and a mild expression. He was wearing a peasant sort of shirt, white with a symbol of a chieftain outlined in blue on either side of his chest.

I decided to start from square one, admitting that I had no idea what was actually going on.

So, I said. What’s going on here?

In the first two minutes, I was ready to bow to Mujica. The young man and I spent those two minutes establishing points of connection—of which, I quickly learned, there were many. Our meeting seemed established not by Mujica, but by some unforeseen god of fortune.

We determined that I was a reporter working for StreetWise writing about Latino immigrant homeless. We established that he was the Father of the church here (a surprise to me considering his boyish looks). We learned that he had gone to the University of Chicago for theological seminary and that I was living in Hyde Park. Then, he said casually that he had worked as a vendor manager at StreetWise when he came to the city. Then, he had worked as a member of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless creating a task force on Latino homelessness and the plight of day-laborers.

His casually stated comments were gold, all of them insights on the community, the homeless and his life. As we chatted, another community member wandered up. Soon we were swapping stories and observations. The Padre printed out his research and then, in the same casual tone, offered to take me to an abandoned factory where he knew a bunch of homeless were camped out.

What are you doing tomorrow? He asked. I cannot go now, I am busy. If you come, one o’clock tomorrow, we can go.

With a mischievous smile, he added: It’s a lil’ bit dangerous so I’ll wear my priest stuff and we’ll be ok.

Two minutes later, he led me into the back room to meet Marilu. I was deposited in a warehouse-like room after following the Padre down what looked like a supply closet—I hesitated at first, was he leading me or stopping by to grab some supplies?

But he beckoned and the room opened up. Half of it has junk and clothes piled on tall shelves. The room was filled with salty smelling smoke which drifted in from an open door.

Gathered around a table were six women, speaking Spanish. Some of them had plates of half-eaten cake. Tortillas sat in packets, tomatoes sat washed and ready to be chopped.  The women were hanging out and looked up curiously when we approached.

This is Marilu, Padre said, pointing me to a round woman with a friendly face.

I sat down. With the help of the women around her, especially a young girl who translated, Marilu filled me in on what was happening in the community. I sat there for over an hour as they told me about their friends losing their homes, steep housing prices and a name, almost whispered with following nods: Herminia Corona, Herminia Corona. 

Saturday, July 18, 2009

INTERNSHIP: I am doing EXACTLY as I dreamed of doing

18 July 2009

My entries about Jorge Mujica and Marcos have been part of the incredible journey of writing my cover piece for StreetWise. It began with the vague statement from Suzanne that won my decision to join StreetWise staff—and we’d like to have a story on the immigrant homeless.

Suzanne’s initial idea was one about the Polish immigrant community. I expanded that—What about a series? I asked. One on each of the three largest immigrant groups in Chicago and how they deal with their homeless?

And Suzanne gave me the ok and I began researching the situation of homeless immigrants in the Latino, Polish and Indian immigrant communities in Chicago.

I have visited a shelter for Polish immigrants and it will be an amazing tale to tell. However, the story that has won my heart is the story on homelessness in the Latino community. Of course, those of you who know me know that I am already deeply involved in the immigration reform debates—a passion which began with my volunteer experience with undocumented migrants crossing the desert in Arizona. It was there that I decided on my idiosyncratic dream—to be a reporter coving issues of immigration.

For this story, I started with a discrepancy in numbers and facts. I began with a statistic—that the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless states that only 6% of the homeless in the city are Latino. This doesn’t mesh with other statistics. Chicago’s population is 25% Latino and studies show that both increased raids by border officials and the recession have impacted Latino families. Latino families are often poor and the parents are often working minimum-wage, low-skill jobs. So I was sure that there was something that the survey had missed.

Well, turns out, there are a lot of factors about the Latino community that the survey didn’t take into account. I learned these facts from my own observation and from talking to many people, many of them participants in the first forum on Latino homelessness entitled Todos Contamos, an under-noticed symposium held in April.

This is what I have learned. For the most part, Latinos in Chicago form a close-knit community that has learned to support each other when they can’t count on others. Often, when one family loses a home, instead of going to a homeless shelter, the family (or individual) simply moves in with another family. Though they are homeless, these displaced people aren’t counted in surveys. Homes across the community, however, are overcrowded by this “doubling up” causing safety hazards, increased stress, child abuse and increased domestic violence. And even if they are  out on the streets, most Latinos are mistrustful of government services—expecting that they do not qualify for aid, that the service will not have appropriate cultural and lingustic sensitivities and worst of all, terrified that they will be turned in. So instead, people are turning to churches and family members for help.

Chasing down this story has brought me to know the streets of Pilsen and Little Village, the Mexican communities of Chicago. Walking down them now involves waving to passersby and stopping in at my favorite places. I now know where ICE raids happened, where the activists hang out, and where gangs convene and where reform happens. The stories are being written with the help of an incredible cast of characters. Some are the angels who help the downtrodden in these communities and some are those who are homeless, struggling or losing their homes. Some are looking at the future with hope; others with trepidation. All of them have let me into their worlds.

I want to tell you there stories. In my article, they will be reduced to mere sentences or paragraphs. But here, in this forum, I can bring people to life.  I can introduce you to the dapper Puerto Rican who runs San Jose Obrero Mission or the quiet, yet radical priest from El Salvador who runs Our Lady of Guadelupe Anglican Catholic Mission on 26th Street. I can introduce you to the people who are uncounted—the family with four children who have been receiving foreclosure notices and the man who loves America, yet lives in a downtown shelter. 

CONTRACTED OPTION 2: Shabbot Shalom and Aaaaah-mein!

18 July 2009

It was the rabbi’s thunderous voice that brought us into Friday night service at Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation on South Kedzie Avenue. I had heard Rabbi Capers Funnye speak at a benefit for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs the night before. This heavy-set, regal-looking African American man had overwhelmed the room with his powerful, gospel voice, singing out across the tables and filling the room with it’s rich tones. I knew then that I wanted to go to his service. And so, we found ourselves heading into the far South side this cool Friday night to attend a rather remarkable service. Since coming into Chicago, I have become absolutely unfazed by discovering myself in remarkable situations. But as far as diversity goes, this one perhaps took the cake.

The Congregation was historic, I learned from a quick perusal of its website. It was founded as the Ethiopian Hebrew Association in 1915. When Martin Luther King Jr. was in Chicago during the Civil Rights Movement, he found shelter at the temple. It is still operating today, with one of the most diverse congregations around.

The website told me that much but as I walked down South Kedzie, I learned from Curtis a little bit about the neighborhood the congregation now sits in. Curtis works at the Southwest Youth Collaborative; a community center on Kedzie for youth growing up just South of 63rd Street, one of the three most dangerous streets in the nation. Though today the SWYC building is covered in bright murals and has become a safe haven for kids in the neighborhood; its past tells a different story. There are photos of people throwing rocks at Dr. King Jr. from the roof of the building. The KKK used to have its center in the neighborhood and racial tensions still run high. For Curtis, a pretty preppy white kid, it’s been hard to win trust in the kids he works with. When he first started, another worker told him—“I’m brown and it took six months to get them to like me.”

We didn’t know what to expect when we arrived at the temple but what we did meet was locked doors. We wandered around a little bit hopelessly before ringing the doorbell and being let in by the Rabbi himself. We were ushered upstairs and handed over to a beautiful African-American woman wearing a sky blue skirt set with tiny mosaic mirrors. She  explained that men and women in the congregation sat separately and that head covers are expected for both men and women. Curtis donned a yarmulke and the girls wrapped their hair in lacy scarves. We were offered seats and I spent the next few minutes studying the people around me.

The crowd around me was absolutely impossible to fit into any mold. In front of me sat the beautiful woman who had welcomed us and her neighbor, a tan woman with dark locks escaping from her gypsy-style black and white scarf. There was a red-headed white woman visiting from New York and an awkward looking girl with brown hair who was looking at the University of Chicago. Behind us was a Latino family—an eleven-year-old daughter, mother and grandmother.  The men’s side was predominantly African-American but also included Curtis, the husbands of the middle-aged Latina and the red-haired visitor and the father of the girl at the University of Chicago. My favorite in the entire crowd may have been the Rabbi’s grandson—a tall, lanky, pants-sagging yet tallis-wearing guy.  I’m sure that their belief systems and reasons for coming were even more diverse than their appearances, but the surface-level differences were wide-ranging enough for books.

Rabbi Funnye entered and raised his hands and then his voice. I melted into the noise. I didn’t understand a word of the Hebrew that he spoke but I knew that the inflection was different from any other I have ever heard—the Hebrew rose and fell in African rhythms, Gospel tones.

I could have listened to the Rabbi for an eternity, but unfortunately, the congregation was often invited in. When that happened, I strained to avoid the out of tune chorus that rose around me and focus on his voice. 

The room was brightly colored with purplish walls and misty paintings of the creation. Out of a huge window, the sunset glowed pink and purple.  The Rabbi finally beckoned us forward and I rose when the congregants rose and then shared in ritual grape juice and raisin-spiced challah bread. Throughout the rest of the service, whenever a congregant was hungry, he or she would rise, walk to the front and snag a piece to munch on.

The service took a turn after bread was broken. Moving forward to sit on the edge of the altar, the Rabbi spoke in English, asking the congregants to raise any questions they might have.

Jewish people, he said, have always initiated conversations with God. They always question Him.  Even when they are called by God, they say: ‘Why me?’

 He was an intimidating presence but the woman in blue soon spoke up with a question about a Hebrew word. The conversation continued and soon, we were on the role of women. (Earlier, he had read a prayer of praise for one’s wife. I thought it was a nice gesture, though I felt like some of the things in the prayer were a little dated—while it complemented the woman; it did so for her dedication to hard work, running the house, etc.) I had also thought a little bit about the separation between men and women in the Congregation and surprisingly; I liked it. It made me feel special, mysterious, and feminine— like when women pray, there is a magic utterly different from what men experience. It was a surprising conclusion for me to come to, but true. However, the discussion was a lot more conservative than I expected. Women in the audience were talking about deferring to their husbands and while the Rabbi was emphatic in saying that that didn’t happen anymore, his definition of women’s rights were a little weird. He said, for example, that he never touches his wife’s income. She has worked for twenty years but as a man, he still believes it is his income that should pay for everything in the house. He believes that is his responsibility. Several other questions (put forward by his tall, lanky, pants-sagging yet tallis-wearing grandson) were shot down by the Rabbi.

It was after nine pm when we shook hands with those around us and wished a universal Shabbot Shalom. It was the typical Chicago center adventure: the kind where you suddenly find yourself in another world, but one that welcomes you. 

Friday, July 17, 2009

Correction at the Corner Cafe

15 July 2009

The Corner Cafe

Once, in class, Scott told us about a book called Slim’s Table. It’s a book about the culture of a group of African Americans who meet at a café located not two steps from the Chicago Center. When Scott’s son Lane was assigned to read the book in college, the professor began the lecture by talking about how the café was in the middle of the ghetto in a dangerous area on the Southside. When Lane politely protested, saying he often went there for breakfast and it was actually in a safe, college town environment, the professor refused to believe him. He had a mental idea of where this café was and instead of asking the locals about it, he formed his own, misconstrued image of it.

Well, my friends, I am ashamed to say that I am guilty of the same thing. I began this blog, really and truly, with my entries about Verbal Balance, a spoken word poetry evening held at a Southside café. Someone had told me that the café was on the far Southside (“Danger!” my mind filled in). When we pulled up, we parked to the side and it did look to me like it was in an industrial wasteland. People had told me that it was a culture shock to go and I flat out believed them. I really did sit in the café, nervous about the outside, perceiving it to be a scary, unwelcome place.

Well, I was chastised by Scott for creating my own reality in my entries about the Corner Café. And it’s true; when we returned for the Verbal Balance event held last Wednesday; I saw the area in a whole new light. We drove in on another street and it looked pretty normal; some houses and some apartments. When we parked, I didn’t feel like we were at the end of the earth as I had on our first trip. In viewing the environment a second time, I saw normality that before I had let hide itself in the dark night.

Inside, I sat on a big, padded couch next to a big, padded woman who called herself “Earth” (I accidentally called her “Erf” for the first five minutes until she explained the origins of her name and I finally realized by pronouncing it with her accent I had made a fool of myself—as in, “Erf—what an interesting name. Where does it come from?”). Earth told me the neighborhood was ok, there are good parts and some bad parts. It go block by block. Some places, you could raise kids; others no. But, yeah, it’s really ok.

This discovery does make me nervous, very nervous. I had the fortune to visit this place a second time and the flexibility to add this note to my blog. But I am a journalist by profession and there will be times when I am expected to write about things which I will not have the chance to revisit. How can I trust myself when I realize my lens is hopelessly screwed?

Well, Solution Part A is that I will try to always visit a place more than once (something I have tried to practice, especially as a journalist because each time you visit a place or speak to a person, you learn something new.)

Solution Part B: Now that I am aware of certain blinders I wear, I can be on guard for them. 

INTERNSHIP: Pilsen, through Jorge's eyes


A little fat boy comes to our table with candy, he is asking if we sell it. No, darling, he says.

No, I say, shaking my head.

I smile as Tubby walks away but Jorge leaps into a comment.

That’s child labor, he says. That kid must pay his dues to his family, pay his keep. It gets worse during the school holidays.

We watch him go from person to person, showing his pitiful ware, almost tripping on a step.

That’s horrible, I say, horrible.

Our eyes wander out the window when the little boy goes outside, no doubt to meet a padre watching from the corner.

The theater across the street is where we led the debates for the 1986 immigration reform bill (Which granted amnesty to thousands of undocumented, permanent across the county). But it was crap by the time it was done. We got that through and started working on the next one the next day. That was twenty-two years ago. And we’re still working. How old are you? A lifetime ago. A whole lifetime.

Obama came here, to this café, on his “Tour of a Latino Neighborhood”. We have  a picture. I met with him right here. 

INTERNSHIP: Writing about Jorge

Jorge drives me to the red line in china town, telling me about January fifteenth when he walked the 11 miles to Hyde Park to protest immigration reform for Obama. It was 1 degree that day.

He invited me to his organization tomorrow. Four pm is when the lawyers come, six pm is a kids program.

I’ll see you soon, I say. I walk to a park in China Town and sit by a big plant container. My view: a mural and the highway. Sun on my back, sitting on the ground, smell of piss saturates my nose. It’s gross but it feels good to be outside and good to tell this story, so carefully entrusted to me.  My fingers fly on the key board. 

INTERSHIP: Jorge's Community Anecdote

I’ll tell you a story, Jorge said. I’ll give you some numbers that will blow your mind.

Ok, so in 2007, there was a heat wave in Chicago. It was bad, real bad. In our neighborhood, we lost eight, nine hundred people. People dying in closed up apartments. So many that grocery stores were lending the morgues their refrigerated trucks. It was horrible. But, guess, out of those, how many would you guess were Latino?

No idea, I shook my head.

Two, he said. Two. Do you know why?

Something clicked. Yeah, I said, yeah. The people who died were white, elderly alone in their apartments.

Exactly, exactly, he said, excitedly. Because we don’t do that. For Latinos, our grandparents live with us. We take care of them. We say, m’ijo, go fan Grandma, ask her if she needs a glass of water. We don’t leave them like that. 

INTERNSHIP: what Jorge sees daily

13 July 2009

Conversations in the Car between Pilsen and Little Village (Chicago)


This what we are seeing, he said. In the city of Chicago, one hundred men are deported each week. These are young, working men with families. The family has a traditional set-up so usually the wife doesn’t work. Small kids. Well, then he is gone and suddenly we have these mothers, these kids becoming homeless. That’s why if you come to our office right now, it is like a daycare center.

What do you do? I asked.

Well, we try to find someone to take them in, maybe someone who used to be in the same situation.

That’s how the community is. We open up our homes. The other day, my wife and I were counting how many people we had had to stay. It’s been thirty-four in the past six years. Some stay for days, some for weeks or months; I think this one guy stayed for years. Yeah, he was in the basement for about a year and a half. That’s just how we are.

We’re used to overcrowding. You know, if a young, undocumented man comes here they afford the rent by living maybe 12, 14 to a house. People aren’t there together, you know, eight are sleeping while eight are working and so on. You see it in the grocery store; you see two skinny guys with the two carts loaded up with beans, tortillas and you think, how can they eat that? Well, they are buying for all the guys.


Here is something else. We are seeing all these families who are being foreclosed on. You see, if you are an undocumented permanent resident than you can’t get any of the stimulus package money to get loans to keep your house. So we tell them, don’t keep paying your mortgage—don’t try to keep your house as long as possible. If it looks like it is going to happen, it is going to happen. So we tell them, stop paying. If it’s two thousand a month, and you don’t pay for three months than you have six thousand you can put down on an apartment when you loose your house. That’s what we tell them.

Me: Wait. So are there a lot of people like this? Permanent, undocumented residents who have bought houses? How does that work?

That’s the housing boom for you. You could go to the bank and get a loan, granted, they didn’t get good interest rates, they weren’t eligible since they weren’t documented.

Me: Wait, I say. They’d loan to undocumented people? Don’t you need a SS number?

Nope. You need what’s called an IT number, which you can get if you go to any number of places. It’s an Income Tax number and you get it when you register to pay taxes. All you need is your W-2s. So these people would go in with this. They’d get a loan to put down the deposit and then they’d get a loan to help pay for the rest of it. But then they’d have crazy mortgages—like $4,000 a month. But they were so happy, this was America—they had a house. But now, they lose their jobs and they can’t pay the $4,000 anymore.

Me: I get it. So these are the people who arrived after they gave out amnesty in 1986. So they were buying houses in the nineties... oh yeah, right in the middle of the housing bubble.

Exactly, exactly!



13 July 2009

Home Depot Lot, Little Village Chicago

Marcos was shy, but once he started talking his voice flowed forth. Though he never spoke rapidly, he never paused, acting as if the words were almost tumbling out. Sometimes, when people tell me their stories, I can hear the way they build themselves up as we go along. But with Marcos, I heard more and more truth and honesty the longer he spoke and I listened. Sometimes he looked away, sometimes I heard shame when he dropped his already quiet voice, but he kept talking.
We started by talking about his life.
He was from Houston, up here to work. He told me about the jobs, the occasional employers who fucked you over—giving you too little for difficult work. If that happened, he and his friends would leave, hiking back to the Home Depot lot to farm themselves out to someone with a little more integrity. If it got to 2 or 3 and he still hadn’t found work, he’d give up for the day: find a park and maybe drink (he indicated this to me with the shy hint of a hand motion, bottle to mouth but so subtle I might have missed it.)
Most employers are good though, he assured me. They offer you water; help you out a little.
Looking around at the others in the lot, he told me there were more guys than ever who had lost their jobs. He told me about how he at least had a skill—sometimes people who bring him along just to translate.
Where do you stay? I asked.
He stayed in the mission—a homeless shelter down town. He didn’t like it. They were too strict. And religion? Well, don’t get me wrong, he said. I love god. I do, I really do. But I get a note to say I am working so I don’t have to do that stuff. I like going to church, I do, I really do. But…their services…
They just don’t speak to you? I offered.
Yeah! You know.


Eventually, we wound around to the rest of his story, a part I was desperate to hear. By now, we had been chatting for a long time. The sun was hot. Cars drove in and out of the lot and the workers around us shifted as people took work and left it. Jorge was talking animatedly to the workers around, laughing and waving his hands. When a driver rolled down the window and asked for a plumber, Jorge took a break from talking to run around to clumps of workers, calling out for the plumber. Marcos and I continued to talk.

I made a lot of mistakes, he said. You know, when you’re young, you mess up.
He stopped looking at me except to glance. He rubbed the back of his sunburnt neck and twisted his arm behind his bag, still clutching the half eaten burger, poppyseeds on top.
He continued.
Marcos: My parents were from El Salvador. But I was born in Belize. They were refugees there. I was born there and two sisters were, too.
Me: How did they get over… to the US, I mean?
Marcos: They did what a lot of people did, they got into the country, then…it was different for El Salvadorans then because there was a war there. They did what Cubans do today.
Me: They applied for amnesty.
Marcos: Yeah…
Well, I was making a lot of poor decisions. I, he stopped, still pained at the closeness of it all. I had my green card pending.
It was new years and I went over the border with friends, to party. On new years, lots of people were coming back and forth, they were busy. But when it came my turn, I was.. I was intox… I was drunk and high on drugs.
He strung the last words together, barely audible, ashamed.
I was. And uh, I tried to cross the bridge but I was alone. I walked that long way alone, you know and not with a lot of people, so the lady asked me a lot of questions. And it was all cool until she asked for my card and I gave it to her and she put it in her computer and she said, you’re not in the system and then, they imprisoned me, detained me for seven months.
I was sent to Belize. I wasn’t from there. I hadn’t been there since I was six. Everybody heard the way I talked, said: ‘where you from, man?’

It was horrible. I am used to here where they say, ‘ah man, you want some water?’ There, they make you work, they mean. They drive you and the work is hard and you make no money. Nothing. Like twenty five cents. And then I lost my job. I lived there for a year and a half and I was like, ah man, I gotta get back.
Me: How did you do it?
Marcos: Well, Mexico’s got real strict borders, real strict you know. I got into Mexico because I speak Mexican Spanish—and Spanish from Belize. They are two different like dialects, you know? I grew my hair long, was all shaven. So I did that. And then, when I was North, I called my parents and they paid for me to cross the other border.
Me: How?
Marcos: By… uh… boat. They took me across the river.
I can’t complain, man. It was all, all was inside I could feel the fear inside me. But I’m lucky. He touched his round face. I never suffered, no one ever beat me. And then I come here and man, America is great. Man, I so lucky to be here man. So lucky. And all of that. It’s like a bad dream. Like a bad dream, seems so long ago. After seeing what it was like over there, I’m just happy to be here. It’s so much better.
I wasn’t sure what to say. Here was a shy and sweet man, living in a homeless shelter in Chicago, standing in a hot parking lot waiting for day labor jobs that aren’t coming and he is telling me America is great?

Oh man, I real shy.
Marcos looked bashfully at the ground and rocked from foot to foot. He didn’t want his picture taken until I convinced him that the reason I wanted his picture was because we talked. I could take a picture of any guest worker anywhere, but I wanted his because I knew his story, because he had shared it with me.
You do? He asked.
We compromised. A picture from the back was ok. He checked it out on my camera.
Me: Is Markos with a “c” or a “k”?
Marcos: With a “c”, but I like Mark.
Me: Can I ask you your last name? Do you feel comfortable…? I asked.
Marcos: Martinez. Yeah sure, and here. I’ll give you my cell phone number. I like what you do. A lot. I—how do you say it—uh, support what you doing, he said. I really do. Your helping all these people. That’s why I want to help.
His faith in my work was almost disconcerting. Who was I—this young kid, this girl— he had entrusted his story to?
Me: It’s people like you two who tell me your stories, I said.
He wrote his name on a receipt in blue ink. Tell me when it comes out, I’d like to see it.
It’ll be out August 7th, I said. You can get a copy… I stopped. Did he even have two dollars to spare? Why would I make him pay when I’d send a copy to someone I interviewed who had an address?
Absolutely, I said. I will give you a call. Absolutely.
It’s a promise I am not going to break.
You hit the golden nugget with that guy. Jorge says, as we get into the car. I am a little shocked.
Yeah, I say. I know.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

INTERNSHIP: Jorge Mujica, community organizer and a journalist's best friend

13 July 2009

The Jumping Bean (Pilsen) to 26th Street (Little Village)

This is how I became famous during the immigration reform debates, Jorge Mujica said to me as we bumped along in his dilapidated greenish van, back windows curtain with moldy green curtains to match. I am always doing this kind of things for journalists. I may not be the person leading the press conference but they come to me, they say Jorge, what’s going on? And I tell them.

His hand holding the pipe was on the windowsill and the smell of sweet tobacco surrounded us as he continued: I used to be a reporter myself, so I understand, he said.

I was joining the ranks then, of journalists who couldn’t believe their luck at meeting Jorge Mujica. Himself a former undocumented immigrant, he has spent the past twenty years as a community leader in Latino Chicago and at the forefront of both Chicago and national immigration debates. He knew everything there is to know about the community and as we sat in a small Pilsen café over coffee and mint tea, he had to stop periodically to kiss old friends who wandered in and launch into jovial conversations in Spanish about their lives. He was just as friendly and open with me, his acquaintance of an hour- an intern who was questioning him about homelessness in the community for her StreetWise story. It was obvious why journalists loved him—he answered all my questions, peppering them with statistics and anecdotes. And he was willing to have an adventure like the one we were having right now.

Two minutes before, we had still been in that café. We were laughing, getting along well and talking about Obama’s visit to the same café on his “tour of a Chicago, Latino neighborhood”, when Jorge said, suddenly. What are you doing now? Want to go to 26th street? C’mon, I’ll take you there.

Twenty-sixth Street, he told me, had the second largest economy in Chicago after Michigan Avenue and it was the Mexican shopping district of the Midwest. As we bumped along, he and I both knew why he was so popular with journalists. He didn’t just know about everyone and everything at the Jumping Bean; he also knew about everyone and everything in all of Pilsen and Little Village, Chicago’s Mexican areas.

We jolted down residential streets and talked about the labor unions he organized. He threw his slogan at me—We don’t want to be poor and documented any more than we want to be poor and undocumented. We need unions to fight for our rights.

As part of his community organizing, he had organized strikes against many of the buildings we passed. One was a tortilla factory. While striking there, he saw evidence of the huge market for the Mexican businesses in this area. We had trucks coming from all over: Iowa, Idaho, Ohio, he said. They could trust the tortillas in this factory and were buying them to bring them back to little Mexican restaurants and stores all over.

Shortly after our entrance through the historic Mexican arch that marked the beginning of 26th Street commerce, I saw a tasty looking restaurant. Jorge casually said, oh we picketed that place for months.

Why? I asked.

They used a commercial Laundromat we were protesting, he said. They got so mad. We protested all these restaurants all over the city that used that service. One was Ditka's—a restaurant owned by the Bear’s manager. He was so mad—he was so mad I thought he’d shoot us.

He pointed out street vendors on every corner, peddling colorful wares. I thought them atmospheric.

We started seeing a bunch of them this last winter, he said. More and more. It’s a sign of how hard it is to find jobs. Used to be there’d be one every two or three blocks, now there are a couple selling things on every corner. Balloons, shaved ice, you name it.. what’s the word in English? You get the ice and put the stuff on top…

I think it’s SnoCone in English, I said, feeling a little ridiculous.

And right here, you see how the economy has hit this place. Two years ago, there was a waiting list to get a business here, maybe eighty business long. And now? Look—you see. He pointed out a particularly empty block. Three out of six stores stood vacant.

I know! he said.

Back to the vendors, he pointed at a cart selling hats and balloons outside of a barber shop.

You see, probably, that shop belongs to his cousin. And so he says, ok, ok, you can sell here. You see that all along. People selling everything—tamales, corn, shoes… look, there’s shoes.

He pointed to the man pushing a handcart with bells and ice cream. That’s more traditional, but there’s more of them, too, these days. 

We continued along the street until the small commerce ended—so no more prom dress stores, supermercados, or piñata-filled windows. We were in an industrial area. The pea green van squealed into a parking lot, to turn around, I assumed. But no, he turned in to home depot. Something clicked.

Is this the home depot where…? I began

Yes, he said. Look, over there.

We drove the ridiculous van straight towards a group of three men standing by a stop sign. It was hot, sun beating on them, their backpacks and their beers, though a cool breeze from the lake offered relief.

Are they waiting for work? I asked. But it’s so late in the day. It was already past four.

Jorge squealed up next to them and parked with a jolt.

How’s your Spanish? he asked.

Minimal, I said.

So, you speak like three words? he laughed his horsey laugh. Ola and amigo and…

… and gracias, I finished.

He laughed again and undeterred, he leapt out of the car speaking rapid and friendly Spanish, arms waving. He introduced me as the journalist--  ne habla espagnol.

Immediately a chubby man with a sweet, baby face switched to English, his language almost unaccented. I introduced myself.

I’m Brenna, I said.

Mark, he said. Marcos.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Something serious to consider.

Chicago Center Director's Critique, read 12 July, 2009.

Great start to the journal—some great reflections and analysis, Scott wrote. Your descriptions, while dramatic, tend to lead the analysis by crating the reality you then respond to. Race difference, as constructed in your journal through dialect, appearance, caricatures, and encounter, dominate in a way that threatens to diminish or obscure the human connection and to concede the race an absolute that historically has functioned in the interest of Euro-Caucasians. Consider your own relationships to race is a necessary starting point. 

In explanation: I suppose I do seek to make a story out of my life. I let myself be affected by images and instances. Sometimes, I suppose, my viewing lens is blurred—colored by my emotionalism and my Caucasian understanding of the world. It's a disconcerting situation to be in-- to learn that the reality one truly sees is one's own creation in some ways. I no longer trust my gut feelings for the same reason-- because my gut feels in a racially preconditioned way. 

This tendency that Scott describes is something for a journalist to fear. My own embedded prejudices and naivete are nakedly apparent when I seek to tell these stories. I cannot seek to fill predetermined roles in my head when I see the world. Not if I seek the truth. How to escape these confines? But here, in my journal, I record life and life is made only of impressions. You can’t live life over again and take a more candid, more analytical look at what you see. What must change is the sharpening of that lens. 

INTERNSHIP 6: In the Office with Ben

Most week days from June 18-July 3rd, 2008

The StreetWise office soon feels like home. I share an office with Ben, a former Chicago Center student himself; he interned at StreetWise, got a job after a summer of work here and has now moved on to running the magazine. He writes articles, takes photos and most importantly designs the entirety of the magazine: managing content, finding photos, doing layout, editing stories to make them fit, designing a cover and each subsequent page. He is the one that gets the magazine to press each week and makes sure it’s good. While other people handle the selling of ads and the vendor aspect of the publication, Ben is the reason that there is a magazine to sell each week.

At first, the office was quiet. We smiled at each other, he got me set up with an internet hook up and gave me a few directions. It was peaceful. Often, besides Ryan, the desk attendant, we were the only two in the office so early. I enjoyed his presence as I spent my mornings researching. But one day we started talking and after that, we never wanted to stop.

Since then, Ben has become my unofficial guide to the city, to StreetWise, to working with the homeless, to the Chicago Center, to life in college and after college. He gives me the inside scoop on the dealings and the people at StreetWise. I have started to him each time I formulate a suspicion or an observation. I begin my sentences with “I have noticed Grace…” or “I was talking to the vendor…” or “When I am on the bus, I feel…” Inevitably, Ben has an explanation and has stories and understands completely where I am coming from. Yes, our backgrounds are similar. He, like me, is from Kansas and remember, he first came to StreetWise as an intern with the Chicago center. I have began to trust him like no other to understand where I am coming from and to explain what I am seeing.  When I mentioned to him one of my worst realizations in Chicago—that I am prone to revert to close minded stereotypes about people—he even had a name for it: Oh, he said, like it was utterly natural, something we all went through, you are just Caucasian-ing out.

That’s it, I thought, so simple and so true.

With him, I also have the remarkable friendship that I have with other journalists—friendships that I have found with my good friend Sonya, another journalism student, or John, a photographer. It is a friendship of people who love people, love their stories and are incredibly eager to share them. Ben wants to know about everyone that I have met and tells me incredible stories about the woman with the cigar store he wrote a story about once or the vendor who began to tell him about seeing Jesus in a cemetery. I return to the office bursting with new information and experiences and know that Ben will love to hear it all.

He and I also share a loving way of noticing other people’s quirks and loving the stories they create. He uses this loving sense of humor to let me know how to deal with the people around me. We laugh together when Suzanne, our editor, arrives in at two pm (Ben has been there since 8.15 am but accepts that Suzanne is just like that), when Greg talks about StreetWise TV (the weekly public access edition that has about two viewers but Greg adores), when Grace arrives with her perfectly coordinated outfit and perfectly portioned yuppie sack lunch or when I engage in a long, winding conversation with a vendor who normally does that, according to Ben.

Ben’s friendship with his restaurant recommendations, 411 on the workings of StreetWise, brilliant sense of humor and ear ready to listen has been an incredible part of my summer in Chicago. Yes, it has meant hours of office time spent in conversation and not necessarily in research. But at the same time, the knowledge I have accumulated could not be found anywhere.

INTERNSHIP 5: A Routine is Born

Or, The Self Indulgent Part you would probably skim in my autobiography where I record the minute details of my daily life that I will revel in reading in later years and will bore you to tears presently (You may skip this entry).

Most week days from June 18-July 3rd, 2009

My first few weeks at Streetwise were spent in easy rhythm. While I love to explore and love adventure, there is a wonderful feeling to establishing a routine—especially one that makes you excited to get up every day.  I’d get up at six and pound along the lakeside, then loop behind the museum, through the ivied University of Chicago campus, then up shady residential streets back to Blackstone. A shower, the making of tea, the spreading of peanut butter on a banana, the frantic reading of as many news stories as I could fit in before I inevitably ran for the bus, clutching my pink mug, spilling hot tea and banging my laptop painfully against my hip. Sometimes I’d run, and just barely catch it. Sometimes I’d run and then wait for what seemed like hours and once was upward of twenty-five minutes. I used to question each bus driver—is their a scheduled time you come to this stop? No, was the general consensus.

The bus was usually pretty full and demographically consisted of entirely African-American passengers and me and maybe one other white person (usually a weird looking University of Chicago student or one of my fellow classmates at the Chicago Center headed to their respective internships.) At the 51st Street Greenline stop, I’d hop off and ride the shaky escalator up to the platform.

I soon learned to stand pretty far down on the platform, because trains are shorter than you might think and I’d have to run for the very last car. There was another reason too—my first few days, I’d run to the last door of the car and it would open to reveal an emerging man-- a mountain of a man, slobbery and strange looking, in an electric wheelchair. He would rant loudly as he bumped onto the platform, looking like he might pitch forward and be left beached on the platform. I’d watch, breathless, hoping he wouldn’t fall until it got too disturbing for me. I haven’t seen him since, but then again, I make sure to stand farther up to platform. It may be a cruel choice but I was too disturbed by his angry talk and precarious bulk.

The ride is always smooth and lovely. I read my book—Always Running by Luis Rodriguez (a tale of barrio gang life in LA), The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama. Each one of those touches Chicago in a major way and in haunting prose helps me to understand my surroundings. My train passes Bronzeville—which is Chicago’s own version of the Harlem of New York and birthed and nutured such figures as Gwendolyn Brooks. I then enter the loop; tall buildings springing up on either side of me. The tea is finished, banana is consumed and I have moved on to scrawling in my journal when the train pulls into Ashland.

As I hop off onto the platform, I call my mom (it’s routine) and chat with her as I walk the four blocks, once sketchy which have now become familiar. I pass a park often filled with yelling children enrolled in summer sport’s camps, then enter a desolate stretch of warehouses populated by a strange assortment of people. I see dogs bathing in a pool in a dog daycare. I see the occasional business professional. I see a place to buy wholesale meats and outside of it is a truck where a Chicano couple sell breakfast to the workers there. Our conversations are often interrupted by a speeding train going over head. I have learned to keep talking

Soon, I arrive at the StreetWise Office (or warehouse), give my mom love, and buzz to be let in. 

INTERNSHIP 4: On the Beat at StreetWise

Working at StreetWise equals fulfillment of my own idiosyncratic dream: I am their immigration beat reporter. My editor let me develop my own series on homeless immigrants and the stories that I am writing now will become cover issues in the next month. Everything is self-initiated; I can call whomever, go wherever. I have the freedom to research and really know my topics and the freedom to travel the city and interview people from all different organizations and walks of life I have the press pass of being with an actual magazine. I only have to check-in occasionally with my editor. I have utter support from my editor and my co-workers and StreetWise is a base of incredible knowledgeable people from which to work.

I spend most of my time in pursuit of the stories I am writing, but when I am not doing that, I am taking the amazing assignments and opportunities handed to me by my editor. My third day, my editor had me connected to a phone conference with national advocates from immigration reform. I researched each participant beforehand and took frantic and voracious notes as I listened to them speak. After they spoke, the floor was opened for questions. The first question came from a reporter from NPR. I couldn’t believe it: I was in the same phone conference as NPR. The story I wrote about Obama’s meeting on immigration reform was spiced with quotes from these experts and was turned in the next day, for publication in the issue going to print early the next week. 

And my stories, oh my stories. I have traveled the city, uncovering truths and hearing people’s stories. I am writing about what happens to the homeless in the three largest immigrant communities in Chicago—Mexican (Chicago is the third largest Mexican city after Mexico City and LA), Polish and Indian. The more I discover, the more important these stories seem to me.

Yes, she trails off… it is a dream come true. And now that you all have the basics of what I am doing down, I can start describing the experiences I have had there.