Last week’s trip to Chicago was great—we met lots of interesting people and had the chance to explore the city, complete with its stunning skyscrapers and views of a glittering Lake Michigan. I’ve been coming to Chicago for years because my father is from the city. My grandmother was from a Lithuanian family and my grandfather an Irish family. They settled in a working class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. My grandfather was a fireman and worked many other odd jobs and my grandmother stayed home to care for their eight children. This was a Catholic, immigrant neighborhood and my father’s best friend next door was Italian. The family lived in the same house from the 1940s until my grandmother moved out in 2000. When I was growing up I used to come to the house for family reunions. I would play catch behind the house in one of Chicago’s famous alleyways. Over the years more and more of the old European Catholics moved out to the suburbs, and more Mexicans began to move in.
Last week I decided to go back to the neighborhood where my father grew up to see how it had changed. What I found startled me. The neighborhood was now entirely Mexican and the signs were in Spanish. The contrast between this area and the hip leafy enclave of Lincoln Park where our team was staying could not have been starker. We found my family’s house boarded up with broken windows and trash strewn across the yard. Mexican children playing near the house next door told me it was the “gangsta” house. Most of the other houses on the block looked inhabited. Other than the children, who spoke to me in English, everyone else spoke only Spanish. This forced me to recall my limited Spanish, which made our conversations very amusing.
I asked people in the neighborhood what it meant to be American and most simply said America meant jobs and work. People were worried that the bad economy was making it difficult for the Mexicans to find jobs. For all these people their goal seemed to be to work and send money back home. Their sights and hearts seemed not in the US but in Mexico. They seemed to go back and forth between Mexico and the US constantly. When I asked six children playing on the steps of my family’s abandoned house if they wanted to move to Mexico or remain in America when they grew up, five out of six—in perfect English—replied that they wanted to move to Mexico. People said they had no problem with American culture but that the dominant white ethnic group “hated Mexicans,” in the words of one teenager. It was the young generation that was often mixing with different groups in school, while their parents stayed in their enclaves. While one person in suburban St. Louis had named “inefficient traffic lights” as the biggest threat to their community, Mexican teenagers on my family’s old block said “gangs.” We were clearly seeing different sides of America on this trip.
On one level, my family’s old neighborhood had certainly changed a lot, but on another it was still an immigrant working class neighborhood full of people trying to make a living. These new Mexican immigrants were seeking the same opportunities for work as my family had a hundred years ago. But are these immigrants “melting” into the American “pot”? What exactly does that mean anyway? These are some of the questions we’ve been asking during this trip as we discover America in all its diversity. I’m really looking forward to exploring these issues and meeting more people in our next segment, the Northeast.