Jorge Prieto’s Harvest of Hope

Marc Zimmerman Publicado 2017-09-06 01:09:14

 

This essay was drafted with the help of notes compiled by graduate students in a seminar I gave on Chicago Latino writing at UIC in 2008.

 

In the past several years, Chicago Latino writers have published a series of autobiographies or testimonios, which have enriched our city’s literary production and our overall understanding of what it has been to grow up and be Latino in our city and, for those writers who have left, in the larger world beyond. In relation to Chicago Rican life, our earliest example is Clementina Souchet’s book in Spanish Clementina: Una historia sin fin, which she self-published in Mexico City with an introduction by writer Luis Spota in 1986. Seven years later, Félix Padilla’s collaboration with Lourdes Santiago led to Against the Wall: A Puerto Rican Woman’s Struggle (New Jersey. Rutgers U. Press 1993),a book which provided us the narrative of a young Puerto Rican woman who escaped neighborhood gang life through her Pentecostal life experience. Then in our new century, Reymundo Sánchez added two volumes on his life as a gang member, My Bloody Life and Once a King Always a King (Chicago Review Press 2000 and 2004 respectively).[1] And most recently, Chicago Congressman Luis Gutierrez, helped by Doug Scofield, has provided us a well-written and perceptive autobiography of his own life experience, Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill (New York. W.W. Norton 2013).

As for Chicago’s Mexican world, an early text we can point to is Gabriel Aguilera’s Gabriel’s Fire (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press 2000), a growing up story best known for its treatment of the love affair between a young mexicano/chicano and his Anglo teacher. Still another would by my own edition of José Gamaliel González’s autobiography, Bringing Aztlán to Mexican Chicago (Urbana. U. of Illinois Press 2010), one of the first accounts we have nationally of a Latino artist/activist. Then just a few years ago came Angel N’s Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant (Urbana: U. of Illinois Press 2014); and most recently, ex-alderman and state senator Juan Solíz, with Leda Santadomingo, gave us his memoriasinSin rencor y sin culpa (Chicago.Irresistible Publishing2016). To this small list, some might wish to consider Luis Rodríguez’s Always Running, written in Chicago and with a Chicago-centered introduction, but fundamentally about the author’s coming of age in Los Angeles. We might also wish to add Leonard Ramírez’s co-edited volume, The Chicanas of 18th Street: Narratives of a Movement from Latino Chicago (Urbana. U. of Illinois Press 2011); and probably we could add the most recent collections of personal essays by our two most famous Chicana writers, Sandra Cisneros’ A House of My Own (New York. Knopf 2015) and Ana Castillo’s Black Dove: Mamá, mi’jo and me (New York. Feminist Press 2016) — essays containing (but not primarily focused on) significant materials about their authors’ early Chicago life experience.

Of course, first person narratives primarily about migrating and/or growing up in Chicago can be found in the Charles Taylor papers at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, as well as in Edward Jackson Baur’s fascinating M.A. thesis, “Delinquency among Mexican Boys in South Chicago” (U. of Chicago 1938). More recently we have the perhaps questionable INS narratives Gabriela Arredondo used for her book, Mexican Chicago: Race, Identity and Nation, 1916-1939 (Urbana: U. of Illinois Press 2008); or in the Jesse Escalante Oral Histories and other materials Michael Innes-Jiménez used for his Steel Mill Barrio (New York. New York University Press 2013). Studs Terkel and other writers have provided us short Chicago Mexican narratives in relation to one larger project or another. However, I believe it can be safely argued that the first book-length Chicago Mexican autobiography to reach print is the one written by r. Jorge Prieto and published by Notre Dame University Press under the name, Harvest of Hope, in 1987.

 

Prieto as a Doctor and Community Figure

At Prieto’s death at 82, in 2001, many tributes were written in homage to his significant career as a doctor; however, perhaps the best obituary was written by James Janega, ChicagoTribune staff reporter, which is especially useful in placing Prieto and his Chicago autobiography in context.

According to Janega, Prieto was

an immigrant physician who became a household name by treating Chicago’s Mexican immigrants in the 1950s and pioneering Cook County’s practice of locating clinics in immigrants’ neighborhoods. … [A] quiet, unassuming man, [he] nonetheless found himself at the forefront of medical, immigrant and workers’ rights causes [and] … became an icon for a generation of Mexican-Americans living in a city that at the time barely recognized their existence, let alone provided for it.

Prieto was the son of an ex-mayor of Mexico City, Jorge Prieto Laurens, whose politics forced him to take his family to the U.S. Southwest, where they lived during much of the 1920s and then into the first years of the Depression. In effect, the family went through a ten-year period of great instability as they moved from city to city, first in Texas and then California as Prieto Laurens struggled to make a living. He worked carrying sacks of potatoes and cement sacks, selling shoes or whatever. It is also true that he created a Texas Spanish-language newspaper called La Tribuna. But soon they were off to California as he kept seeking but rarely finding better opportunities. Finally in 1933, Prieto Laurens was granted permission to return from exile at a time when the Depression led many Mexicans to voluntary or forced repatriation. Returning to Mexico City the Prieto family soon began anew during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas. But the return led to a culture shock for the children, who had already grown used to U.S. ways, including the prevalence of English outside the home and in Jorge’s case, the attraction to U.S. as opposed to Mexican sports.

Driven by his family’s immigrant experience, as well as his own bouts of early illness, Prieto’s son Jorge continued his education in Mexico until 1943 when, developing an interest in science, he went to the University of Notre Dame to study bacteriology. Jorge’s Notre Dame field trips to migrant camps in Michigan led him to decide to become a physician for U.S.-based Mexican immigrants. To pursue this goal, he returned again to Mexico, studied medicine in Mexico City; and, after fulfilling an internship and social service requirements in Mexico, he came to Columbus Hospital in Chicago for a second internship.

Prieto was licensed to practice medicine in Illinois in 1953 and spent the next 25 years making house calls in Little Village, charging little and sometimes accepting food in return for his services. In 1966, he joined Cesar Chávez and the United Farm Workers on their march for a contract with California growers. As his political commitments deepened, he grew active in the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago Cardinal’s Committee for the Spanish Speaking. In the early 1970s, he served as director of community medicine at Cabrini Hospital; and in 1974, he became chair of the Cook County Hospital’s family practice department, where he stressed that physicians training there should serve disadvantaged communities.

While at County Hospital, he established the South Lawndale Health Center now part of Loyola Hospital and since renamed in his honor. In 1984, Mayor Harold Washington named him president of the Chicago Board of Health, a policy advisory board from which position Prieto promoted greater contact between doctors and the communities they served. That same year he became the first recipient of the Latino Institute Dr. Jorge Prieto Humanitarian Award—that is, an award named in his honor. Subsequently he delivered weekly commentaries on Latin American culture for Hispanic Television of Chicago until 1997, when he was inducted into the Chicago Senior Citizen Hall of Fame.

Janega cites Henry Martinez, founder and executive director of the Mexican Community Committee in Chicago:

Prieto was revered. … When you look at what health services were provided by the city many years ago, there weren’t these health clinics. But he came on the scene and said somebody’s got to serve these individuals. And he started providing. First as a neighborhood doctor, then as the founding chairman of family practice department at Cook County Hospital and later as president of the Chicago Board of Health in the mid-1980s, Prieto made medical services available to immigrants, both legal and undocumented.

Janega also quotes Dr. Bernard Turnock, former director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, as saying:

He championed the role the Chicago Department of Health needed to play in terms of providing access to primary care service and to coordinating that role with the County Hospital. … He clearly was one of the most important and compassionate public health leaders in the city.

And to top off his obit, Janega quotes Studs Terkel, as follows:

He was a doctor who carried a sense of history with him. In all the discussion we have about immigration, he represented the riches that are brought by immigrants, and he enriched our community very much.

 

Prieto as Writer

 Studs Terkel’s testimony to Prieto’s overall importance does all but alert us to his significance as a writer. And yet neither Studs, nor Janega nor any of the others whose Prieto obituaries I have read make reference to this writerly aspect of Prieto’s life which he himself told this commentator was a matter of great if modest pride to him.

While his limited literary fame rests with Prieto’s own account of his life experience as a doctor and activist, Harvest of Hope was hardly his only experience in writing. For the fact is that throughout much of his life, Prieto wrote poetry, almost all of it uncollected and unstudied. While his brother became a regular columnist for the Chicago Tribune’s Exito, which flourished in the 1990s, Prieto also wrote frequent columns mainly dealing with medical questions but with other themes as well. However, beyond this, we have another, almost forgotten autobiographical text of his, published after Harvest of Hope but dealing with his prior fight in childhood and adolescence against illness in the Southwest and Mexico, The Quarterback Who Almost Wasn’t (Houston. Arte Público Press1994).

More than just a story of achievement in sports, The Quarterback is the autobiography of a young man whose love of football helps him to overcome a potentially disabling heart disease. This is the tale of a teenager whose triumphs as an athlete also send him toward a career in medicine. Marketed for young adults, the book underlines Prieto’s love for and success in the gringo sport. At times he seems to be launched on an assimilationist path. But his decision to become a doctor, clearly affected by his own run-in with illness, ultimately turned him toward and not away from his Mexican roots, and made possible the experiences set forth in his Chicago autobiography. Arte Público Editor Nick Kanellos puts it well in his blurb for the football book: “As a doctor, he [would be] able to further the high ideals and altruism inherited from both of his parents, as well as the tenacity, leadership and commitment that he developed as an athlete.”

 

Harvest of Hope

In Harvest of Hope, Dr. Prieto describes his life in Mexico and his immigration and settling in the United States and eventually the Midwest and Chicago. What he portrays is what a student of this commentator has described as “a constant transnational process of networking/interaction with people and family units within the Chicago’s inner-city neighborhoods,” extending to Mexican and Latino communities throughout the city, as well as to those in other U.S. urban centers and on to and from Mexican cities and rural pueblos. Prieto’s book describes his education and experience in medicine, his family life, his settling in Chicago, and his dreams of helping his ethnic group and others.

Four things should be noted as we begin to explore this text. First, it is one of the few autobiographies about a Mexican community doctor in the U.S.; second, it is one of the few full, first hand accounts we have about Chicago Mexican life from the 1950s through the 1960s; third, Prieto’s work as a Chicago Mexican writer-doctor places him in a lineage headed by F. González-Crussi, but also featuring Aaron Kerlow (see Kerlow, The Great Little Circus of our Small World [Chicago: LACASA 2014]); fourth he is clearly also one of several Latin American doctor-writers so prevalent in the U.S. and throughout Latin America and most famously represented by William Carlos Williams in the U.S. and Mariano Azuela in Mexico (internationally, Chekhov remains the prime representative).

In the first part of Chapter 1, Prieto tells how his family had to leave Mexico because of the opposition of his father to the system of presidential succession enunciated by then President Álvaro Obregón. What Prieto’s father fought against was the consolidation of the Mexican Revolution in function of what would become the Partido Revolucionario Institucional.

Chapter 1 goes on to recount how Prieto deals with his situation through a growing fascination with the wonders of science, first seeing living cells in a microscope in 1934. But the following year, at age 16, he develops rheumatic fever, leading him to drop out of school. Hearing from one of his doctors that his illness may be more psychological than physical (perhaps the result of immigration trauma), he does what will become the basis of The Quarterback—turning to his U.S.-found love of football as a means of overcoming his condition.

Eventually Jorge makes his way back to the U.S., only this time to Notre Dame University, where at age 24, he works three jobs to help pay for his education. Two of his mentors, Fathers Peter Forrestal and Father Cunningham, take him to visit a migrant labor camp in nearby Niles, Michigan; and he learns of the need for medical care for Mexican migrant workers and it finally becomes clear to him that what he wants to do for the rest of his life. It is on the basis of this experience and commitment that he returns to Mexico City and enters the UNAM’s School of Medicine. In 1949, he completes his medical class work, and at marries his long time novia Luz María Dávila, and readies himself to serve his year of social service required before he can receive his medical degree.

In chapter 2, “A Tale of Two Villages,” Prieto describes that year of service in two impoverished villages in Mexico, San Martín and Tierra Colorado in the north-central state of Zacatecas. San Martín becomes the first town which teaches the young doctor about extreme poverty. Although he mentions seeing poverty in the U.S. during the depression, it is in San Martín that he actually sees a famished patient eat a farm mouse for dinner. The heavy drinking of impoverished workers becomes a major concern, as he diagnoses case after case of people suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. It is not easy to treat people who are addicted to the very cause of their worsening condition; it is especially difficult when people who wish to feel better in spite of their addiction seek help from curanderas rather than from the ambassadors of modern medical practice.

But then again, the practice is less than modern, especially when a town is too poor to possess adequate medical equipment or supplies. Soin one case, treating a child who is alarmingly thin and has a huge neck, he suddenly recalls one of his professors mentioning that these are symptoms of diphtheria which require an anti-toxin to reverse the progress of the illness. But where is he to find the anti-toxin? What is he to do? And he begins to understand why the people cling to their traditional healers and herbs. Indeed, sometimes his practice is not so different from that of the curanderas, so that, when he is off attending other patients, it falls to his wife Luz María to provide whatever she can find to relieve those who come seeking help.

In short, it is in Zacatecas, that Prieto learnsmuch about the people he would serve for years to come—above all, what it is to live in scarcity and the fact that his scientific knowledge alone cannot help him cure starvation, pollution and poverty. He learns the value that traditional medicine has in relation to the latest advances. He also sees how for many of the rural residents the only solution they can find is to leave for urban areas in Mexico or, ultimately for the United States. The Revolution his father had so much believed in has failed. From what he can see, the landless starving peasants who fought in the revolution 40 years before are still starving. He now understands that Mexico’s poor stand alone against bureaucracies which rarely serve their needs, and that it is important for educated Mexican professionals to fight for the rights of those whom they claim to serve.

After his first two chapters, Prieto writes about his internship in the United States. In 1950, he arrives with great expectations at Chicago’s Columbus Hospital. His own situation is difficult, since his salary is not enough to send for Luz María. And in the midst of his problems, he encounters the indifference and coldness of the established doctors toward foreign interns. On the other hand, he can only admire the nuns who administer the hospital and in many ways show their concern for the well-being of clients who often don’t have insurance to cover for their expenses.

All in all, Prieto learns much from his internship in obstetrics and family practice; and his learning is not just about medicine. So when he goes to see Archbishop Bernard James Sheil for financial assistance, Sheil, an “outspoken advocate of social justice in the underprivileged and marginalized sectors of the community,” (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_James_Sheil) tells the young intern, “Remember to care not only for Mexicans, take good care of my Puerto Ricans too.” Leaving aside Sheil’s reference to “his” Puerto Ricans, the priest is certainly right in pointing to needs of the thousands of Puerto Ricans beginning to come into the city; and we can understand the way Prieto takes the core of the Bishop’s message to heart—that his mission has to extend to other Latinos, and even further, to all who are poor and in need.

In the subsequent chapters describing his first years of medical practice in Chicago, Prieto writes of the more common medical challenges he encounters in the city’s impoverished Latino communities. He writes tellingly of cancer, TB, stomach disorders, and other illnesses which he relates to the pollution and working conditions immigrant workers have faced in the city. He speaks of complicated child deliveries and abortions, of alcoholism, drug abuse, alarmingly poor diets and depression as matters related to conditions of povery and exploitation. Readers can follow his growing consciousness in some of the most striking passages in the book, as Prieto recounts hearing woman after woman suffering from mental and physical abuse; and as he comes to understand too how many of them suffer from being separated and not able to receive comfort or support from family members left behind in Mexico.

In Chapter 4, we can follow Prieto as he learns how he has to adjust to the needs of those he serves. Family planning soon becomes a key part of his practice after seeing the poverty many families have to deal with, as well as the many abortions gone wrong. Perhaps most disturbing is his treatment of Latino gangs, and his conflating those gangs with those Chicago Mexicans who start calling themselves Chicanos and, in some cases, are joining the Brown Berets.

So, Prieto notes how when he tries to first establish a dependable clinic in Pilsen, he encounters problems with the Brown Berets who have set up a clinic of their own with federal aid program monies. According to Prieto, the Berets are misusing federal funds; and when he opens his own clinic, the federal program stops funding the Berets who then blame him for destroying their community project. Confronting this group, Prieto is surprised and overjoyed to see so many friends from the community standing by his side. He is not alone, as former patients, colleagues and community activists stand with him and reinforce his faith in those he serves and in his mission of service.

If this encounter with the Brown Berets may leave some readers doubtful about Prieto’s politics, we should note that it takes place during a period when Prieto’s relatively conservative Catholic view has in fact expanded, as he has become caught up in the César Chávez’s struggle to unionize farm labor. In spite of the controversy over Chávez’s politics, still, Prieto’s intense involvement with this cause clearly marks the deepening of his solidarity with the poor and exploited. Seen in this light, his struggle with the Berets seems to have been based in his belief, that the Berets, purposely or not, were betraying the community they were claiming to serve.

Without bragging, Prieto notes the many ways he helps the latino communities as a physician, counselor, community leader and friend. He describes the times that many of his poorest patients paid what they could, often inviting him and his family to baptisms, birthday, and other celebrations. For him Chicago mexicanos and Latinos partake of a giving culture deserving of much more than they get. More than ever his dream of helping immigrants is a goal that becomes a way of life. It is from this viewpoint, that readers might best see his ire with the Berets and his active support of the Farmworkers movement.

Finally, as his book draws to a close, Prieto describes how, in March, 1974, he takes advantage of a great opportunity to better family medical practice, when he is appointed, Head of the Department of Family Practice at Cook County Hospital. In accepting this position, he does so with the stipulation that he be able to direct a program which requires interns and residents to train at the clinics he has helped establish in Pilsen and South Lawndale neighborhoods; he seeks to develop local services for other areas as well. Some of the most striking final passages of his book, detail his many struggles and achievements at Cook County Hospital, and the service he is able to render there before and during the mayorality of Harold Washington. Indeed, his book ends while Washington is still alive.

 

Concluding Thoughts

In sum, Harvest of Hope is about a Mexican American immigrant who struggles for the improved health and life of a community which comes to include Chicago Mexicans, Latinos and others to and to which he is totally committed. The book is very brief and matter-of-fact—one senses that there could and should have been more about given cases and situations, especially with respect to the author’s Cook County service but also his role and that of his daughter with respect to Centro de la Causa and Mujeres Latinas en Acción.[2] Indeed, as Prieto informed this commentator, the published version is a result of severe cuts required by the powers that be at Notre Dame Press. One might wonder if the original version might have more fully described important community matters; one might also wonder if the original might also have represented Prieto’s personal, poetic and literary qualities, and if his editors didn’t simpy urge him to excise what they might have considered as irrelevant matters marked by “purple prose.”

In the text we have, Prieto perhaps writes most lyrically when describing how, even as he develops his practice among the poor, he is taken with the beauty of Chicago’s lake-front and the happiness he often finds with his wife in raising his first child in this city. Above all, he writes movingly about the cultural practices retained by Latinos thanks to the continued inflow of immigrants, which prevent the children of earlier immgrants from becoming more completely at the mercy of the dominant culture. However he is most lyrical in describing the sense of unity and solidarity he finds among countless Latinos and Mexicanos; he is also quite firm and unlyrical in pointing to questions of drugs, gangs and abuse of women which he understands as results of poverty and marginalization, but which must be rooted out if people in the communities to which he has dedicated his life are to improve their lives.

Looking at the book as it is, we can readily see that Prieto, without any poetic or literary pretensions, provides us with one of our most important portrayals of a key and understudied dimension of Chicago and indeed U.S. Mexican life, that of health services. He provides this and much more in writing the first detailed autobiography to emerge out of the Chicago Mexican experience.

 _______________________________

[1] For a brief discussion of these books, see my Defending their own in the Cold (2011): 83 and 86.

[2] For brief references, see Lilia Fernández Brown in the Windy City (Chicago, U. of Chicago Press. 2012: 231, 253-54).

 

Marc Zimmerman. Professor Emeritus of the University of Houston and the University of Illinois at Chicago, has written and edited over thirty books on Latin American, Latino and other themes. Director of LACASA Chicago and the Chicago Latino Artists Project (CLAS), he is currently publishing research on Chicago Latino art and literature in El BeiSMan, and has recently published his third and fourth books of fictionLa penisola non trovata (a version to appear in English as The Italian Daze and Lines on the Border). Moorpark, CA. Floricanto Press 2017.

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