Salsa and Guacamole by Lily Martínez.
I moved to Chicago from the south suburbs when I was approaching 18. My first legit apartment was in the uppity neighborhood of Lincoln Park, I lived on Clark Street. My street was busy day in and day out, but no one stopped to say hello.
I worked for a high-end brand at the time. We were required to be perfectly manicured and appear as successful young women. I decided to get a side job next door to my apartment at a French restaurant. This turned out to be a very good choice, my co-workers became my mentors as well as my friends.
I eventually quit the fashionable job, you could say I was reverting back to my roots. I enjoyed working with middle class people who were honest about having real problems.
I’d say this is around the time when I began to know. In the back of the French restaurant we had a dish washer named Gabriel. He had a round middle area that reminded me of my papa and this smile made of gold teeth that lit up my heart.
I knew I had a soft spot for him by the way I would run into the kitchen before my shifts and shout out “Hola Gabriel!” I’d roll my “r” from the “b” in his name just how I imagined my grandparents would have. He would turn around and show me his dazzling and genuine smile, saying “Hola Liliana” and then turn back towards the sink. He must have known I was Mexican, because everyone just calls me Lily.
One day I stopped at the Walgreens on the corner before work and saw Gabriel sitting there sleeping. Week after week I’d see him sleeping there surrounded by what appeared to be homeless men taking naps.
I mentioned it to the waiter, Marc, who I should add worked at La Creperie when he was my age. He took many leaps of fate in his life but didn’t quite make it out with a decent career, so he ended up working back at the restaurant. Now closer to 50 years old, he had the same boss from 30 years before and was working with his wife Kate.
Marc and I went out for a cigarette after one of my shifts as we often did and l began to blab away to him. I told him how sweet I thought Gabriel was and how often I saw him sleeping at Walgreens. He told me Gabriel works doubles here most days. He has been married a long time and lives with his wife. He sends most of the money he makes back to Mexico to put his children through school.
Yeah, I’d say that’s when I began to know. I began to notice the oppression on Mexican immigrants from a demographic perspective. No longer did I view my relatives as people who worked less than middle class jobs, but as a group of individuals who have no choice but to work within limits. To be bound to only a certain degree of success.
One year later I was searching for another apartment and wound up in Little Village. I remember waiting for the landlord and seeing all the neighbors outside. They approached my boyfriend and I with welcoming arms as if we were already living there. The woman across the street warned me of the neighborhood while she smoked a cigarette and watched her small dog poop. Her brother in law, who was living with her while on house arrest, told me all about the block. I briefly met her husband, who later would get shot in the throat but survive. Then a very special woman appeared. Walking out of my apartment building was an elderly lady with white hair, dressed in all black. She wore a beanie and decorated each finger with rings. Thin and frail, she was raising two young men and represented the strength I had been longing to see.
My apartment is beautiful, but that isn’t what sold me. Walking to the train after viewing it I repeatedly told my boyfriend I felt at home here, then I approached Cermak Road.
In the distance there was the unlit Apollo sign and men on trucks selling fruit. I got a small tear in my eye, not from the poverty, but because of the rich culture that had been built and the community that was formed.
Most people think because I can afford not to live here, I shouldn’t. I’ve lived in many different places but have never felt so at home. I love watching the little women who share my ancestry waddle down the streets carrying many bags in each arm. I like watching the old men sit on their porches with cowboy hats on. I like asking young men who appear up to no good, what the hell they are doing walking up and down my block.
Gaining a sense of culture that my very Americanized mother hid from me will be a gift, but being a strong Mexican woman who is proud of her heritage is my gift back to my ancestors who crossed the border to make my life here possible.
Lily Martínez is a writer and artist. Much of her work speaks on behalf of social issues especially surrounding Chicanos. She teaches yoga and is currently enrolled at the Harold Washington.