BETWEEN, AND BEHIND THE PICTURES
Excerpts from journal entries made between 1989 and 2002
For the three years I lived in Chicago, from 1985 to 1988, my way of making pictures was to pile into my Dodge Dart and drive around the city with my camera looking for anything worth getting out of the car for or, more importantly, anything worth returning to. I was fishing and Chicago was an ocean of potential photographs. The Summer of 1988, I accepted a teaching position at the Maine College of Art and, a few weeks before leaving, I made what I thought would be my last photographic excursion. I drove all the way down Halsted from the North-side to 18th street and took a right turn. It was the heart of a neighborhood I later learned was called Pilsen, an odd name, I thought, for a Mexican community. I’ve been coming back ever since. Though I loved my time in Maine, it was difficult photographing there. It became clear after looking at my contact sheets from the summer before, discovering pictures like “Girl with Lingerie Catalogue” (frontispiece), that my interest in making pictures was deeply rooted in some kind of urban experience. The day school ended, I headed back to Chicago for the summer. Thirteen years straight I left Maine (just when all the tourists were arriving from Boston and New York) for a sweltering, tree-less neighborhood made of concrete, bricks, and asphalt – a place that stayed hot well after the sun set and was relieved only when someone illegally opened a pump, borrowed a piece of the lake and flooded the street. I loved every minute and worked day and night knowing it would be a year before I could come back. Just about all of my time was spent in the neighborhood of Pilsen, occasionally in Little Village just to the west and, once in a while, in Back of the Yards further south.
During the time I photographed here, I kept a journal. I was never particularly disciplined about it, most often writing in the cracks between making pictures and sleeping, and only when I felt like it. I recently reread these journals and discovered that what I wrote about – sequences of events, dialogue, anecdotes, or about photography in general – were things my pictures didn’t describe. It was as if the photographs and the writing described separate but parallel realities, the life in front of the camera versus the life behind it. Like the pictures, I edited the writing to offer a sequence of moving verbal pictures to go with the non-moving visual ones.
First, an overview: Through the early ‘90s, I thought in fairly traditional documentary terms about photography and about what I was doing in Pilsen. That meant bearing witness to something that seemed socially significant, offering a transparent description of it, and being comprehensive – not just telling the truth but the whole truth. In the beginning, as an outsider, the only truth I had was the street. Part of the truth about Pilsen back then was street gangs. As a result, there are a number of journal entries that talk about my experiences with one gang in particular, La Raza. This is the only place where the amount of interesting stories far out-weighs the number of good pictures. It took me awhile, about three years, to realize that the kind of drama afforded by hanging out with a gang wasn’t the kind of drama that I wanted for my pictures. It was too narrow and sensationalistic and not nearly as complex and nuanced as the day to day life of the larger community. It occurs to me now that the gangs unwittingly functioned as sentinels for the neighborhood keeping outsiders at bay with their reputation for random violence. So it makes an odd kind of sense that I would have to go through them to get into the community through the back door. And that’s what happened. Because of my friendship with various la Razas, I got to know their families and was invited to weddings, quinceneras, house parties,or simply inside to eat.
As I abandoned photographing La Raza I also abandoned my documentary pretensions and assumptions. It seemed preposterous to me that I could ever say anything authoritatively about my subjects or the culture as a whole. Their experience wasn’t my experience – I could understand aspects of it, but I couldn’t speak for it. What I did know is that there are some places, not many, that have a kind of gravitational pull and I wanted to make pictures as close to the center as possible. It was at this point that the community opened up for me. I photographed on and off the street, letting the rhythm of each day dictate what I saw, trusting that I couldn’t take what the world wasn’t willing to give. In 1994 I received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. I moved to the middle of the neighborhood (18th place and Paulina) for a year, and the work spiraled inward. Though Pilsen was only about a square mile and Little Village not much larger, I would go for days without leaving my block. My son, Max, was born in May, 1995 and I brought him and Anne, my wife, back the following two summers. Anne, who is an artist, painted, and I photographed while Lupe and Sonia, sisters of my good friend Victor (Webek), looked after Max in the afternoon. As I ran out of things to look at near the end of the 90s, I began photographing in the various places where people in the community worked. This was one of the more challenging things I attempted as I learned how jittery the business community can be. But it rounded out the work and I thought it was a good place to end. In 2001, when I moved back to Chicago after being away for a few years, the neighborhood had already begun to irrevocably change. Maxwell street, the last barrier between Pilsen and the Loop, had been bulldozed and replaced by condos and soccer fields for University of Illinois. Latte shops and restaurants were springing up along 18th street, and tour buses made a loop through the neighborhood from Chinatown – two ethnic groups on one convenient bus ride. Though all of this was a bit shocking, I had to accept that for a Mexican neighborhood called Pilsen – a legacy of its Bohemian, Polish, German past – change is virtually encoded in its name. Over the next two years, I made the last pictures that were left for me to make and moved on.
Along the way I was often asked, usually by people outside of this community, what reason I had for going to a place that wasn’t my own or, more aggressively, where I didn’t belong. As I tried to answer that, going from predictable documentary explanations to more personal ones, the work evolved. I ignored, as much as I could, the critical discourse in the art world at the time that suggested it was somehow immoral to photograph outside one’s own race, class, or community. I hoped, as I say later, to photograph from the inside looking out instead of from the outside looking in. I tried to be a part of the community but in the end, of course, I wasn’t. But, oh man, did I have fun trying. I recognize now that all I did was redefine where I belong and take an inordinate amount of time to be in a place I loved. You can learn a lot when you are willing to be a stranger. Most of what I know about photography has come from doing this work. The following are some of the experiences that never would have occurred if I hadn’t taken that turn onto 18th Street and kept on driving.
The first time I drove through Pilsen I had no idea, of course, that I would return for the next fifteen years. But, as with anything truly important, my first impressions are as clear as day. I was simply driving around Chicago, cruising for images, and decided to swing south through this neighborhood because I knew a friend who lived near there. I knew that it was Mexican and I had heard that it was really poor and kind of rough. Back then, that’s all I needed. As I crossed Halsted to go down 18th Street, I clearly remember feeling like I had passed into something particular. I couldn’t say then what that was but I knew I had definitely left one world for another.
I had been to a lot of different neighborhoods in Chicago, but this one had an aura to it. It was dark and colorful, full of texture, energy. I was peering through the window of my car like I was watching something intense on TV; old buildings of brick and sandstone with winking neon lights that announced Bennys Taqueria or Titos Hacienda.
After a while I began dipping into some of the side streets. I was on 19th and Carpenter. Across an empty lot from where a house had been torn down, I saw a little girl emerging from the side door near the back of a long, narrow turquoise house, poised on the edge of the back stoop, pausing in the space between being inside and out. It was late in the afternoon. The light was soft and, next to all the cool tones of the house, she stood out like some kind of latina light bulb.
I remember the tug of war between wanting to make this picture, the first of the afternoon, and being unsure if it was safe to leave the security of the car. I pulled the car over, weighed these conflicting impulses, looked at this girl 150 yards away, thought nothing risked, nothing gained, and opened the door.
Though I couldn’t see anyone else around, I felt that I was being observed from every window and crevice that I couldn’t see back into. Even the bricks seemed to have eyes. To make matters worse, the light was low enough that I needed a tripod to make the picture. I was sure that I must have looked like a city surveyor with a huge bulls eye painted on my back. After a few frames, the girl noticed me and went inside. I returned to the safety of the car and drove away. It was a stupid picture with way too much space. I had stood in a place that had been determined by caution instead of desire. I thought about that every time I passed by that corner.
Chicago, late June, 1989
I’ve been to Pilsen a lot now. I’ve reached the edge of what is comfortable to photograph here and I’m restless making the same kind of pictures: women and children in the streets, open fire hydrants, and graffiti. This is only the first layer and, if the pictures are going to evolve, this layer needs to be peeled back to reveal something else. I guess I don’t come to this point very often because I’m always going from one place to another, like a bird skimming the surface of a pond looking for anything appetizing.
So I’ve decided to work with some of the gangs. I asked this guy that everyone calls Mouse, where to go. I had photographed him before and he had given me an authoritative explanation of what some gang mural had meant. He suggested some guys called La Raza who tend to hang down the end of the street at Loomis and Cullerton. I ask, You think you could introduce me? He suddenly looks real nervous and says No way, don’t even tell ‘em I told you. This doesn’t do a lot for my confidence, but he says Just go around sunset and you’ll see em out there.
So the rest of the afternoon I’m thinking about this. Gang graffiti covers the neighborhood and I`ve always heard that Pilsen is supposed to have one of the highest rates of gang activity in the city. So I’m wondering how long I can ignore this and if I have the nuts to go through with this.
Later that evening I decide that I should at least drive by the corner to see what’s going on. I go by once, see some teenagers that look too young to be in a gang and, a little relieved, I decide to drive around and come back later. Later, I see a few more and recognize a kid I photographed a few days a go. I figure I can talk to him. When he sees me he says, loudly, to the other guys, Hey this is the guy I told you took my picture the other day. I get him aside a little bit and ask him, feeling like some dorky anthropologist, You know any La Razas round here? He laughs and says loud enough for everyone else to hear, Man we’re LA RAZA! It turns out he’s called Joker. He’s kind of round and always laughing, like the Friar Tuck of the gang.
About 1:30, nothing happening. Hanging with various Razas in the parking lot down from the corner and I have the 35mm and flash this time, trying to be less intrusive. I’m about to call it a night but decide to take a piss first and go into the alley. I try a flash picture and a van parked in the alley starts its engine and comes toward me. I have a sec to decide between ducking out of the way or toughing it out, like, you know, Hey I’m with La Raza. They stop, recognize me, and say, You want to hop in. I say Sure and we drive around, drink beer, and wind up in the parking lot again, away from everyone else. I try some pictures in the van. The driver, Martenin, turns to me and says, You want to get high the Mexican way? I say What’s that? And he pulls out a plastic bag and a can of silver spray paint. I say No thanks and I get a few pictures of him sniffing spray.
We get low on beer and there’s just enough time to get some more at the bar. We double park in front of Tito’s and there’s an empty police car double parked on the other side of the street. Martenin says, you want to get a picture of me doing some graffiti on the cop car? He hardly talks but whenever he does it’s a trip. This is pretty funny, but then I look through the window of the bar and see the cop on the phone, so I tell him he’s fuckin’ nuts. The guy with the beer comes back, tells us that both cops are in there drinking. So I turn to Martenin and say go for it. He jumps out, sprays La Raza all over the side of the car so it looks like it says La Raza police. I manage two pictures before he scurries back and we blast off, just rolling on the floor.
Back in the parking lot, more spray paint and a car pulls up and this guy wants to do coke in the van. I make a couple of pictures but decline the coke. This guy eventually gets out, hops into in his car, and does this macho power reverse thing to make a lot of dust and slams right into a telephone pole. He looks at us, we look at him – - – the back is all dented in – - -and we burst into laughter. He puts it in drive and splits. I love the sequence: roar, dust, crash, silence, then laughter .
I just want to be looking at things that knock me out, instead of trying to figure out how to make something that is thinly interesting into a good picture. I want to be in situations that get my blood going and make me forget everything else, situations in which I have to choose quickly between a number of ways this can look in a photograph. My imagination goes wild and it’s as if I see all the possibilities at once. I don’t mean situations where all I have to do is put a frame around it – - – not journalistic situations. My subject isn’t that sensational. It’s more like: this is truly a privilege to see – - - and I know that I have to concentrate like hell because I know I’ll never get an opportunity like this again. I live for these situations where I feel a kind of profund sense of emotioal resonance. It takes a lot of looking, clarity and luck. In the meantime, I find myself filling out the day with pictures that are the result of a few strategies: describing space/light – the “place” of Pilsen. And abstract reductive, hopefully symbolic, constructions – the “tecture” of Pilsen – color, surfaces, graffitti.
Remember: If you aren’t moving your feet, you aren’t thinking.
A Revolution (kind of) , ‘91
Early Sunday afternoon, the day after a long night with Grenas and Nano. Hot, humid, and hung over. I stayed at Cullerton and Troop all day because I had an appointment to photograph inside someone’s apartment at 2:00. I saw Nano again and hung with him and simply waited for the pictures to come to me, no driving around. I felt like I blended right in the scene, like I was simply a part of what usually goes on there. I put my wallet and film in a mailbox, gave someone my camera, and walked into the pump with Nano and Grenas’ father who lives right across the street. When we eventually came out I was handed a taco with banana peppers. Hot as hell. Now, since I was soaking wet, I was hot on the inside and cool on the out. I spent the whole afternoon just hanging out. I didn’t force anything, just waited for the pictures to make themselves available, photographing from the inside out instead of from the outside looking in.
Dancing with Rosa
Last Saturday, I’m driving down 17th and I notice a wedding going on at the old Polish church. So I turn into the parking lot and change quickly into my spare jacket, shirt, and pants that I keep in the back. The bride is beautiful and I can’t stop looking at the face of the maid of honor, like looking into a conundrum. Serious and open as if she’s seeing everything from some vantage point that’s not even in Chicago, much less this church. I keep trying to work her into all these reception configurations and eventually make her uncomfortable. I talk to some of the groom dudes and manage an invitation to the reception that night somewhere up Ashland Avenue.
When I arrive, I discover that the reception is in a featureless function-hall located in the basement of a strange, dark, soot-encrusted factory. I’m working the room and I realize that now it’s the maid of honor who keeps looking at me. I ask her her name, which I forget, but after that she’s sitting by herself at the head table while everyone else is dancing. She smiles at me and suddenly I get the feeling that she wants me to ask her to dance. This is dicey because I don’t know any of these Mexican dances, but I’m also thinking I’m tired of always being at the edge of these events, the dweeb with the camera. What do I have to lose? Dignity? Definitely. Somehow it seems easier to be invisible as the only white guy in the room holding a camera than the only white guy attempting a dance that he’s never tried before that night.
Before I can figure out what to do, I feel a tap on my shoulder. A pretty girl in a bright pink dress asks me in English if I would dance with her. I go sure, put my camera down on the stage, and think: this is wild, a girl doing the asking. Very awkward at first, but she smiles a lot and gives me a few pointers. I ask her her name and she says Rosa. By the third dance I think I’m starting to get this merengue thing going. We’re having fun so we decide to dance another one (too many). Half way through our feet lock for an instant and she starts to go down. I catch her before she lands but it is too late, the mood is broken and I can tell that she is a little upset. When I walk her back to where she’s sitting, all her friends, about four of them, are smirking. I left wondering if they had gotten her to ask me on a dare and she had proved them wrong for exactly three and a half dances. Later when I saw the maid of honor I also wondered if I hadn’t paid some kind of cosmic price for not asking her in the first place. When I saw Rosa in the street a couple of days after that, she smiled politely but would hardly talk to me.
I’ve been asked this so many times and I‘ve answered this question in as many different ways. When I’m asked, I often feel that it is shorter form of something longer like: what’s a white guy like you doing in a poor Mexican neighborhood like this? The tone varies too from simple incomprehension to what business does a white…
The people who ask this of me or of anyone interested in the world, trying to understand it, and perhaps photograph it have boundries in mind that are completely artificial. They are constructs of their own thinking which sees small differnces and weight them so much more heavily than all the similarities that we all have in common. I guess I’ve always been interested in crossing these lines, these imagined barriers. Even when I was a landscape photographer, I trespassed with impunity because I was deeply suspicious of this notion of pivate property, another completely artificail boundry. If it’s the camera that allows one to do this, to be with Mexicans today and who knows what tomorrow, then hallelujah.
But still the question “why Pilsen?” versus anywhere else is a good one for me to consider. I think the nature of my attraction has been the same from the first day I drove down 18th Street. I’ve simply been trying to awkwardly squeeze that feeling into different shaped explanations. At first it was a kind of predictable documentary answer: urban neighborhood, Latino culture, etc.. Then it became a little more personal as I saw the hood as a kind of metaphor for immigration itself and a contemporary expression of what my father’s neighborhood might have been like in Boston at the turn of the century. After my gang experiences I became disenchanted with the whole documentary approach to life. I was also getting fed up with the so-called political correctness implicit in the question. So my answer to that question became more belligerent: I was only doing this for myself, I don’t care about Mexican culture, which photographically I don’t, and would you ask this of a Latino photographer photographing white suburbia? Man, I would get so furious over this “photographing the other” crap. All this from “critics” lording from on high who haven’t a fuckin’ clue about making work. Judge the pictures, (remember the pictures? the things that you can see?) but don’t dare tell me where I can go or what I have a right to be interested in.
Since then my explanation has taken a more romantic turn. It is a kind of visual love affair and, like any love, the reasons are complicated. With any love there are a lot of positive qualities and even some negative. You love (someone, some place, anything) because it makes you a better person. I don’t know about the better person part, but my love for Pilsen has certainly made me a better photographer. I’ve thought of lots of reasons to explain my outside interest in a Mexican neighborhood, but it all boils down to a kind of visceral attraction. And there’s only so much analysis that can take.
In the end, I think it is interesting simply because I am so interested. People should be more interested in the world outside their own lives anyway and simply go out and have their own experiences. Its amazing what one can learn when they are young and willing to get into trouble. (Garrison Kiellor) or as I would say: willing to be a stranger.
Ultimately, part of me distrusts all of these explanations. If the pictures don’t justify my time in Pilsen, then nothing I say will.
Gerardo at the Fiesta, 94
Saturday night, the biggest night of the Fiesta del Sol, and Gerardo and I stroll through the crowds up what is usually Blue Island Avenue. Gerardo, who always looks pretty slick, is definitely dressed for the occasion:
“Man, I don’t know what’s the matter, all these girls are just ignoring me. Couple years ago they’d be checking me out – - – like heeey, who’s that guy with the goatee hangin’ with those gangbangers? Now they go for these guys with the big pants – - – it’s stupid! I go up to them and it’s like I don’t even know what to say.”
I can see he is genuinely worried, like somehow, somewhere, he’s lost his touch with the chulas, so I say, Hey man, you’re married (just a couple of months ago, to Grenas’ sister even), you got a kid. He just moans like I’m not even getting it.
Aurora and Her Mom, ‘94
I met Aurora a few days ago while awkwardly trying to make a picture of a few kids in front of what turned out to be the building she lived in. She goes, Take me a picture, then hits an exaggerated pose: one hand behind her head, the other on her hip – all angles and very cute. A little later she comes up to me and asks if I would take a picture of her and her mom. When I suggest indoors, she hesitates at first, saying she has to ask her mom and then returns. We arrange it for the next day at 3:30.
I show up, unnecessarily punctual as usual, and have to send someone up to get her because she lives on the top floor and there are no doorbells. When she comes down she explains that they’re not ready. Should I come back? She says I could but then blurts out: Wanna come to the store with me? Very cute. We cut through a really bombed out alley, around Nappi’s house to 18th Street. I ask her what she needs and she tells me that they need to get something to offer me. I tell her that isn’t really necessary, but she insists and eventually says that it’s the Mexican way. I say it’s the white way to politely refuse. It becomes clear that it doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it does have to be something. The reason that Aurora and her mom weren’t ready wasn’t because they needed to dress or clean, but because they didn’t have something to offer me. Clearly it was better to ask me to come back than to be empty handed.
We buy a six of Coke and I get some sunflower seeds because I haven’t eaten all day and I’m starving. When we get to the apartment Aurora very proudly introduces her mom to me by saying, See, this is my mom. Her mom is very handsome and beautifully dressed, which is made even more dramatic by the shabby condition of the apartment. They quickly fix me up with a Coke, then see that I’m eating sunflower seeds. Mom asks if she can get me anything to eat and I, of course, say No, I’m fine. Aurora says that her mom is a great cook and says there’s mole left over. I tell them No, really…but her mom asks a few more times and has this expression that suggests that she would feel a lot better if I would simply say yes. In fact, I’m beginning to think that I would feel a lot better, too. Finally mom (I never got her name) offers huevos Mexicanos, which sounds simple and quick, so I agree. Happily, mom goes right to work. Chile? Si, pocito, etc. Aurora disappears to change and I’m left with mom who speaks no English, but keeps trying to teach me phrases and the names of things in the kitchen because Aurora told her that I was trying to learn Spanish. So there I am, sitting at the kitchen table, eating lunch at 4:30, it’s sweltering inside because it’s 90 outside and none of the windows in the apartment open. I can’t believe how good the eggs taste. Aurora’s mom keeps heating tortillas on the gas stove and giving them to me to eat the eggs with. As soon as the conversation lags they get the photo album and I get a crash course on the family history. I find out that mom is single now and that Aurora is the youngest of three girls; the other two are gone, one is in the burbs, and they are all from Michoacan.
When I’m done eating we get to work. I’m expecting something stiff because they’re dressed for a formal portrait, and think maybe it will lead to something later. Instead we are all laughing and joking around, and having a lot of fun. I’m especially struck by how unselfconsciously affectionate they are with each other. I’m sure they have their days because Aurora is 12, but I have rarely seen such a clear expression of love between a young girl and her mom. It’s as if they are each other’s best friend, which is good because right now they are a family that has been narrowed down to two. But, from what I can see, what they have is a lot. Mom tries to give me money for the pictures, and I explain how it’s they who are doing me the favor.
Back in the street, Aurora tells me that her mom had a boyfriend for a while but that she left him when she discovered that he had been sleeping with another woman. At this point I was getting the feeling that Aurora would’ve loved it if I was going out with her mom or, more precisely, because she had found someone to make her mom happy. A pickup loaded with corn drives by and Aurora yells for it stop. She says her mom would probably want some for tonight. I tell her I’ll get it just so she won’t have to run all the way to the third floor again for money. She refuses, I insist, back and forth until she says Oh, you’re so kind. Which is embarrassing because I didn’t want to ingratiate myself to them. It’s just that I felt that those two hours had been among the sweetest that I had experienced in Pilsen. I’ll never forget the way Aurora said Mom when she had asked if I wanted to take a picture of her and her mom, like I was really going to love this because her mom was just so great.
18th Place Apartment, ‘95
The scene on Halsted was truly getting old. I finally have a year here to make pictures thanks to the Guggenheim and I was living with roommates in an apartment along the white fringe of the hood and dealing with crap I haven’t experienced since college. A bit of a misstep but now I’m out. It took a while to find this place here and a few days after that to move in because the heat still wasn’t connected. It was cold as hell too, as low as 30 below, made colder still knowing that Anne sits comfortably back in Maine four months pregnant. Funny timing. But here I sit surrounded by the few things I scrounge from friends: a bed, a TV, cooking stuff, a refrigerator, chairs, etc.. The first night I slept in the living room because that’s where the gas heater is and every other room was like a walk-in freezer. It was strange lying on a mattress in the middle of the room watching the light dance around the walls from a contraption that’s like some demonic fireplace from the birth of the industrial revolution. Out my window I could see the top of the Sears Tower, just barely rising over the rooftops of the hood. Otherwise it was difficult knowing what century I was in. The next day, after I put plastic over all the windows facing north and puttied all the others, I was able to move my bed into one of the tiny bedrooms while relegating the other as a walk-in cooler for my film.
The first weekend was great. I got reunited with the Flores family and before I knew it I was at a family birthday party, doing shots of tequila with Gumby, Teyo, Carlos, and Willy. Then a Rave the next night with Victor, Claudia, and Rocio, who fainted, and then a baby shower for Lala and Gumby that Sunday afternoon. It felt great to be working again. The apartment is in a really great location, too. Just a few houses up the street is a church with a plaza surrounded by murals. Just past that the “L” slices over the street and then, eight house away, is the Flores house. At the end of the block is Harrison Park. I’m living right in the middle of the hood and now I feel like an idiot for not doing this years ago. Another curious thing about the place is that there’s no doorbell and I’m on the third floor in the back. The only way to get me is to yell up the two-foot wide gangway that separates my building from the one next door just outside my kitchen window. I’m always hearing Victor yelling Tuckerurrrrrr.
El Club – - – at the corner of 18th Place and Wood, just up the street from me.
From the outside you can tell there used to be a bar here, like a lot of these hole-in-the-wall joints shoehorned into every other block in the hood. The large plate-glass windows are cracked or only have pieces of the former window left with fragments of words remaining like “The Alc____.” Now all of the windows are painted black from the inside or boarded up so that it’s impossible to see in and now the place looks abandoned. Only last December did I realize that there is actually a private bar/club here when Rocio took me over to introduce me to her cousin Teyo. I wanted to watch the Chavez fight and all of the other bars I checked out earlier wouldn’t let me take my camera in. They were all packed and it seemed that the crowds were so combustible that one flash might’ve been the spark that set them off. At this point El Club was my last chance because the fight was only being shown on pay-per-view.
To get in you have to bang on the window on Wood Street, then walk around the corner to the door on 18th Place and wait for someone to open the door, check you out, and then decide if they’re going to let you in. Rocio says she needs to see Teyo (apparently all her cousins hang here) and we walk in. To get to the bar we have to pass through a small function hall where there was a strangely somber birthday party for a little girl. The room is lit by a single fluorescent strip in the middle of the ceiling. Then we enter the bar on the right. Nothing on the outside prepared me for what I saw. The place is jammed and just about everyone is dressed like avaquero. A sea of cowboy hats form an arc radiating out from a TV suspended from the ceiling at the end of the bar. Spanish spills from the set and all the hats soak it in like rain in the desert. The States seemed like a distant memory, like crossing the border in Nogales; see you later U.S., hello Mexico, hello Third World.
The next day I got the low-down. It used to be a real bar until about a year ago when their license was revoked after three guys had been killed on the premises in various skirmishes. All three were white, Gumby tells me with a twinkle in his eye, until I get the joke and then he laughs. Now it’s a “private” club and you only get in if you know someone. They seemed so worried my first time there that it really made me suspect the place is way outside the law. I love that you have to bang on the window and then go around the corner to be let in. Inside it’s all Spanish, which is why Victor calls it a brazer bar. Everyone else calls it Alcatraz because of the “Alc____ ,” the only cryptic piece of the bar’s former name left on a shard of the main window.
I arrive a couple of days before Anne and Max, born just two months ago, so I can get everything squared away: the apartment, day care with Lupe and Sonja, etc. I’m also telling anyone who cares – - – Victor’s family, Junior’s family – - – that my wife (finally) and our new baby are going to be in the hood this summer. The first day they get here, I proudly bring them over to Victor’s house. Lala sees us drive up and comes to greet us, takes one look at Max, and starts laughing: That’s the whitest baby I’ve ever seen! Everyone comes out to ogle his whiteness; the girls – - – Lupe, Sonja, Claudia, and Rocio – - – are also real curious about Anne. Victor sees Max, he starts laughing, too, and says, Let’s call him Casper. Max isn’t in the hood a minute and he already has a nickname.
A couple of weeks later, Victor and I are in his kitchen with three friends and I say, I gotta go cause I have to get my kid from Victor’s sister Lupe. One of them, Nappi, I think, says, Dang you got a kid? Victor says, Does he gotta kid? You should see this kid. He’s soo white, if that nigga were any whiter he’d be invisible! Everyone is laughing, I say, Webek, nigger?, whiter? He says, It’s just an expression. ‘
Day before the Grito, Sept. 15, 1997
This whole trip has been so focused on workers that, when I’ve occasionally been back in the street, it’s a relief. It feels fresh, full of light, and anything (and nothing) can happen.
Saturday back at Loomis and Cullerton, my last weekend, and I’ve hardly been by here all summer. Rueben is already blown and it’s only early afternoon. I greet Junior, also totally blown, who turns, sees me, gives me a huge bear hug, and says, Man, you’re going to live forever. I really have this feeling…
The street’s been closed off for one of those faux let-the-folks-in-the-hood-have-a-day deals. So I’m just hangin’, folks are drinking, and some people are trying feebly to make things more festive by dragging speakers out their front door onto the sidewalk and blasting banda music. A bunch of us try to get enough to play some touch football in the street. Three on three: my team, which includes Johnny Boy, I have to say, kicks their ass. Afterward the standard absolution in the pump. I’m completely soaked, sneakers are squishing, and I’m retrieving my camera from Gordo when I see Grenas. He is looking real slick like a total cholo. His hair is slicked all the way back, a goatee that looks like it was trimmed seconds ago, a muscle shirt with a caricature of a guy weight lifting, and, for the coup-de-grace, a set of these little rectangular shades like the Byrds used to wear back in the 60s. In spite of all this, it’s like seeing a very old friend. When he finally sees me, his expression goes from being completely hostile to a wide grin, and he says, Hey man wha’sup? He offers me a beer and when I say no thanks he gives me this look like I’ve just insulted his whole family but then holds it long enough to give me a second chance. I accept, of course, and make some kind of gesture as if to say, Stupid guerro, what was I thinking.
I hang as long as I can but have to go because Leti is making a going-away dinner for her family and me. I say good-bye to Johnny Boy, who’s still got a little six-inch Mexican flag stuck behind his ear, and he pulls me aside and says, in this post-6-pack -I’m-going-to-let-you-in-on-a-little-secret sort of way, You know everyone hear really loves you. He and Grenas walk me part way back to my truck. As I’m pulling away from the curb, Grenas turns for no apparent reason, to look back from across the corner, so I hold up my hand, he does the same, and then for a loaded couple of seconds, hands down, we simply keep looking, holding at bay for a moment the forces that are forever pulling us in opposite directions. It’s as if we both were aware that we were looking at each other from across the universe, that this might be the last time we see each other, and it’s really a miracle that we knew each other at all.
Grand Baile, San Pio
A perfectly flawed scene. These things, events, and places in the hood, and the hood itself, are perfectly imperfect. The girl with the cute body and a head that’s a little too big, the handsome faux vaqueros dancing awkwardly with pogo stick jerkiness, the guy who’ll forever be 5’- 0” with one eye slightly larger than the other, all the girls whose clothes don’t quite fit the way they’re suppose to (Should she be wearing leather pants?), all the guys wearing straw cowboy hats with inscriptions in black marker from some band from Mexico passing through town. The band is a bunch of young guys in kinda coordinated outfits all cranking away at the same volume. It’s hot as hell, the speakers buzz, and everyone is drinking, sweating, and bobbing as one to this incessant oompa, oompa beat.
I had come off the street and down the steps into a church basement and it was like walking into a Fellini movie. Standing in the middle of this, I remember thinking: Is this really so strange ? Perhaps everything is precisely as it should be and the only thing odd abut it is that I walked into it.
Maybe it’s because I haven’t been in a situation like this in a few years. Maybe it’s because I left home to come here and I understand their homesickness a little better. Perhaps it’s because I’ve photographed the border in the interim or because I’m engrossed in Cormac McCarthy’s Crossing right now, but for the first time I think I get the fact that, though these people are physically here, they have the “space” of Mexico in their heart and soul. That’s what they truly know and why they feel a little constrained by this place. Which is why the band always yells, and you can count on it, the names of the various states of Mexico: Durangooo, Jaliscooo, Zacatecaaaas…. The various responses to each name give an instant demographic profile of the crowd.
I used to think it was so hokey and predictable, but if I had moved to Mexico, spoke no Spanish, and felt a little stuck and some quero band started yelling out “Massachussettssss, Illionoissss, Maaaaaaine” I’d probably yell the same way in response.
Ever since I’ve been back, Pilsen has felt different. Initially I couldn’t tell if it was me or the neighborhood, but after this summer it’s clear that change is in the air. Usually this is the time when the place jumps, and even though I’ve had some great days/nights, it’s not like it used to be when you could just walk down the street and feel the energy in the bricks. Clearly, a kind of sea change has been occurring while I’ve been away. The place just feels more subdued and less colorful – - – figuratively and literally. There’s brown paint everywhere like some infectious skin disease covering anything that’s ever been unofficially written on the walls and garage doors. If someone furtively writes anything, even if it’s not gang related, it’s covered by this butt ugly brown paint the very next day. It’s crazy. Where do these assholes come from and how do they know? I imagine them scouring the hood every night, looking for anything out of place and pulling a big brush out of their butts and going over anything that might affect the property values. Maybe they use a nozzle and bend over and let ‘er rip like a big-ass spray can. Either way, it makes me sad as I drive around to think of the years of cool stuff under this relentless brown. I know it’s not as if someone went into the Sistine Chapel with a roller, but all of this graff’, some of which was truly beautiful, was a direct reflection of the life of the place. When I heard that the property values in Pilsen have just about tripled in the last three years, that explained everything. I wonder, is gentrification the sociological equivalent of the color brown? Everything changes, of course, and in truth this neighborhood was Polish and Slovakian fifty years ago. And it was something else before that. Shit, I wish I had had the cake to buy a building three years ago. This hood is too close to the Loop and the newly expanded U.I.C. to stay this way forever. It was probably always doomed or destined for this, and as soon as they bulldozed Maxwell Street, the last barrier fell. Anyone who thinks he can stop this is fooling himself. All I know is, what once was will never be again. I’m just glad I was here for so much of it before it ended. It’s like, for once, I was in the right place at the right time.