Monday, October 31, 2022

Dance of Death

From "The Immortal Plena" by Antonio Martorell

     It's Monday, but I don't have a column in the paper today because the column I wrote, involving an unexpected mix of Judaism, Mexico and baked goods, is also keyed to the Day of the Dead, Dia de Muertos, which begins tomorrow (The holiday really should be called "Days of the Dead" since it continues Wednesday, two days, but it's not my holiday, so I shouldn't nitpick). 
      Speaking of which, my editors,  in that earnest, direct manner that comes from continually creating a mass market product intended to be readily grasped by the distracted general public, thought it should run tomorrow, on the actual beginning of the holiday.
     Okay, it was my idea, but they embraced it. Teamwork.
     Solving their problem created one for me, what should go here instead. Luckily. I have something to share with you. Tomorrow's column required me to drive to East Garfield Park last Thursday, and on my way home I took Kedzie north and spied an improbable melange of turrets and gables, a brick structure with a reddish brown tile roof. I pulled into the parking lot of the building — originally a stable, and then the office of Jens Jensen, who designed Humboldt Park.
     Now, I don't want to suggest that I'd never seen the building before, or had no idea it existed. That would be crazy, and, more important, would go against my brand as the all-seeing-eye, the omniopticon of Chicago. Particularly if you skipped around the structure as a child and knew about it intimately for your entire life and hold in lip-curled contempt anyone who has been pinballing around the city for 40 years yet somehow didn't know it was there until last Thursday. Really, to admit that would be to risk a taunting note from Lee Bey, assuming he cared enough about what I know or don't know about Chicago architecture to do that, which, spoiler alert, he doesn't. 
     So yes, certainly, I have much experience with the building, so much that it took on a weight and mass of its own and sank into my subconscious, unretrievable, so that seeing it again struck me as a fresh discovery, as did the fact that it holds the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture.
     Having ballyhooed the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, it seemed only fair that I go in and see what the Puerto Ricans have going.   
     There I met Elias Carmona-Rivera, the manager of visitor experience, who greatly enhanced my experience visiting by leaping up and showing me the museum: one the ground floor, "The Immortal Plena," a show of the colorfully morbid celebration of the danse macabre by artist Antonio Martorell, which seems very apt to share today, it being Halloween.
     And upstairs, "Nostalgia for My Island," works of artists in America celebrating their homeland.
     As we walked, I showed off the fact that I actually know something about the Puerto Rican community — that it really was the first ethnic group to immigrate to the United States entirely by air. That the great majority of Puerto Rican immigrants came to Chicago from small villages, so had the triple challenge of adjusting to a new country, a foreign language, and the challenges of city life. As with every immigrant group that ever came to Chicago, their more-established countrymen alternated between helping them and ripping them off.
     This I know thanks to my new book, "Every Goddamn Day," which, among its wonders, spotlights the enormous growth of the Puerto Rican community in the 1950s. In 1950, there were 255 Puerto Ricans living in Chicago. By 1960, there were 32,371. 
     Funny, when Amazon rated my book as the No. 1 best-seller in immigration history, I thought, "Huh? How so?" But now that I think of it, related to not only Puerto Ricans, but Jews, Germans, Poles, Mexicans, Japanese, Chinese ... quite a long list ... I do go into details about a number of immigrant groups. I guess I just thought of it as Chicago history, not immigrant history. The two are inseparable. 
     The day I feature related to Puerto Ricans is June 20, 1966 when, after a riot on the near northwest side that awoke greater Chicagoans to their presence, the Daily News decided to focus on a single, anonymous Puerto Rican immigrant, "Jose Cruz," to see what his life was like. The unrest also prompted the newspaper to run an editorial on its front page, in Spanish. Puerto Ricans must not be strangers in our midst,” it said, translated. “Their culture — the oldest in the Western hemisphere — and their language — revered in world literature — must become part of the life in Chicago. This cannot be done by violence.”
     Much better to do it with institutions such as the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, and I was pleased to see a school group attentively listening to a guide while I was there. The Martorell show runs through the end of December, and is a spooky delight. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.  to 5 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is free.


  1. I'm sure Mr. Carmona- Rivera was relieved that you weren't there to inquire about the unpermitted cinder block monstrosity recently constructed adjacent to the architecturally significant main building.
    I do drive by that corner fairly often and have never been inside. So your one up on me Mr S

  2. I know about Red Lining when it comes to Black residents but I wonder if that were true of other racial/ethnic/cultural groups.
    As with most major cities, historically, people of the same or similar cultures tended to live near others of similar backgrounds.
    The majority of Black residents live near each other in areas that were essentially "provided" for them. Many Puerto Ricans, Ukrainians, etc. to my knowledge live near each other in an area of their choice that was established many years ago.
    As I learn more about Chicago it seems that sometimes different areas undergo demographic changes.
    Our son lives near Humboldt Park. We'll take in this museum in May.

    1. Ethnic groups succeed one another in big cities. A century ago, Humboldt Park was Polish and Jewish. I heard too many stories from my father about being bullied and chased home from school by Polish kids from the Catholic schools. After WWII, the area became more and more Hispanic, when Puerto Ricans were gentrified out of areas closer to the lakefront.

      I remember the Division Street Riots. Puerto Ricans in 1960s Chicago faced the same systematic oppression experienced by other ethnic minorities in other places in other times...racial discrimination, class-related hardships, and living in a city that only valued them for their cheap labor.

      Most Puerto Ricans came to American cities from rural communities. They were the first immigrants not to arrive by boat. Nearly all of them came by plane. They had to deal with not only adjusting to a new country and a new language but with living in an urban environment as well.

      In Chicago, there were also deep feelings of resentment about the behavior of the police. The Division Street Riots were the first of their kind by Puerto Ricans in the United States. Apparently, not much changed after the 1966 riots, because another one took place in June of '77, following a parade and rally in Humboldt Park. This time, three people were killed.

      I remember that riot very well. I was miles away, entering through the turnstiles at Comiskey Park, when I was grabbed by the cops, frisked, and given a hard time. They apparently mistook me for some wanted Northwest Side gangbanger. I don't look at all Hispanic. I've always been told I look Italian. But, hey, that's Chicago...


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.