“Chicago: A city that talks the talk of the American dream, without having to shout it. It is, as a city, what happens when you get down to the truth of things….”
In a testament to life is about the yin and the yang, no good deed goes unpunished and other such clichés, on my return trip from a meeting downtown, life decided to play a funny trick on me, because you know, life is really
a bitch funny that way
The fifth in the “Defining Moments: Search for Identity Series.” This one comes to us from writer, Hector Luis Alamo, Jr. Read more of his personal blog, On the Contrary and follow him on Twitter, @HectorLuisAlamo
Now, here’s where things started to get confusing for me.
When I was younger, I thought Papi Two was an indigenous Puerto Rican, because I didn’t know Puerto Rican could be black, too. I also thought – and have no choice but to believe to this day – that Mami Two was Sicilian, because that’s what someone told me once upon a time.
It was not until I learned that people like Pedro Albizu Campos and Roberto Clemente were something called “Afro-Latinos,” and that very few indigenous Puerto Ricans have survived to the present day, that I began to suspect Papi Two wasn’t indigenous at all. Having inherited my grandfather’s coffee-bean complexion, I should’ve been tipped off sooner when the lighter-skinned members of my mother’s family began loving referring to me as “El Negrito” (which reminds me of something Orwell wrote: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle”).
Meanwhile, I was entirely oblivious to my mother’s family’s race and nationality. My maternal grandmother, Doña Blanca, owned a house just a few block from the park, and since my mom and younger aunt seemed to speak fluent boricua, I figured they were just light-skinned Puerto Ricans. The one anomaly was my grandma – whom I referred to as “Baca” when I was too young to pronounce her name. “Ita,” as I later called her, spoke a clear and enunciated Spanish, and my mom and her two sisters addressed each other as “vos” – though I first thought they were saying “boss” with an accent.
As you can tell, there were a lot of things I didn’t know growing up. No one bothers to tell a Latino kid anything. Los niños are treated like latecomers to a party that’s already in full swing.
It was only sometime after my mom gave up on trying to fix my dad and our family fled to the Northwest Suburbs that I learned my mom had been born in a faraway land called “Santa Lucía.” Whenever my mother’s family would get together – which was often, after the exodus – they would recount stories from the village they’d left behind more than a decade before I was even born. It was during these gatherings that I learned Santa Lucía was in a country called “Honduras,” which was in a place called “Central America,” which was south of Mexico but north of South America.
Ita’s maiden name was Lopez-Brooks. Her father was a civil servant in the capital city of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry. Her mother was the daughter of a well-to-do English capitalist by way of New York City — George W. Brooks was an engineer who came to Honduras before the turn of the century during the silver rush.
Much to my dismay, not much is known about my maternal grandfather, however. The two things I have of him are his name – Nikolai Silacci – and where he was from – the former Yugoslavia. I once worked as server in a restaurant that hired a lot of South Slavs, and when I asked them about the name I’d been given, they told me it was probably Croatian.
Anyway, back to the story.
As it turned out, my family had moved to a suburb with a strong Mexican enclave. I’m not sure I’d met a Mexican person before we moved there in the third grade, but my contact with Mexicans brought me to the realization that, not only were Honduras not like Puerto Ricans, they weren’t like Mexicans either. Mexicans spoke a Spanish I had trouble understanding – nothing like my grandma’s easy Spanish – and they ate strange foods, like mole and chilaquiles.
I remember being reprimanded by Ita for using my tortillas to make tacos from the meal she’d prepared. “We don’t do that,” she instructed. “We roll them in one hand and eat with the other.” (Ita later went on to become president of the Honduran Society of Chicago.)
And so, just as my mom had done in Humboldt Park decades earlier, I became a cultural mutt. But while my mom was a Honduran parading around as a Puerto Rican, I became a Honduran-Puerto Rican in Mexican clothing – quite literally. (I was, at one time, a full-blown cholo.)
Life carried on that way through high school, living like a chameleon, never fully belonging. A chameleon, after all, may be able to blend in with the leaves, but that doesn’t make it a leaf.
My true identity began to emerge during my late teens and early twenties. It was then that I discovered the power of ideas and recognized my ability to comprehend them. I’d always been a closeted nerd, embarrassed of my inner brainiac as something could spell social death for me if it were ever revealed.
And that’s how I’ve come to define myself, as a human being with a passion for people and their good ideas, no matter where they may exist.
The late Christopher Hitchens wrote, “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” I, as a Latino of a multifarious background, have given up trying to pinpoint whether I’m mostly Honduran, mostly Puerto Rican or mostly whatever, because clearly I’m not mostly either of those things. If I discovered today that I was mostly Honduran, only to discover tomorrow that I was in fact mostly Puerto Rican, I doubt the news would alter me one bit. And the same goes for my Latino-ness and European-ness.
I couldn’t care less what flag a person waves or what food they eat at home. I care most about how a person thinks and lives.
While my origins have shaped my perception by compelling me not to place so much emphasis on another person’s origins, I’m not defined by my family’s past. Where you’re born in this world merely affects how you view the world, but the view should not distract you from the fact that we’re all human. No matter what racial lens you may see the world through, the human lens must be your primary one.
Thus, as I’ve learned and continually learning, we are less where we come from and more where we are going. We are not what we were, but what we are becoming.
I was given the name “Hector Luis Alamo, Jr.” at birth, in a place called “Chicago,” in a land called “America,” of parents called “Honduran” and “Puerto Rican.” Yet none of these labels fully capture who I am. In fact, they don’t even approach my true essence.
I am what I do each day, and what I dream in the meantime.
I’m sitting up in bed, giving up on sleep for a little while longer as it’s currently denying me its comfort. It’s the kind of windy Chicago night that I love; the sound of the wind blowing both ferocious and familiar. Tonight it’s a little different though; I hear wind chimes too. I’m enthralled and look to where it’s coming from. Seeing as I’m accustomed to the sound of a symphony of sirens, loud music, and car alarms attempting to harmonize throughout the night, the wind chimes are an enchanting and welcome change.
They are a reminder that there is beauty in everything in this world; a reminder that there is hope, even in this neighborhood where abandoned buildings, empty lots, and new developments outnumber affordable housing.
But that’s life in the ‘hood now. In my younger days, there weren’t new developments in Humboldt Park or Logan Square; at least not anywhere near me. In my neighborhood, we were all poor and life was great. Sure, as children we wanted for things, but not having them fueled our imaginations and challenged our creativity, as we were forced to invent the games we played. We made up our own rules and played hide-and-seek ’till dusk or ’till Mami called us from the back porch door. The alleys were our playground and every day was an adventure.
The gang bangers respected the streets more and random acts of violence weren’t as much a part of our days as they are now. Somehow we were able to maintain our childhood innocence; somewhat clueless to the ugliness that surrounded us. Most of us dreamed of growing up to be the same things other kids wanted to be: teachers, doctors, lawyers, and such. We didn’t need wind chimes to remind us that there was still hope and beauty, we lived in hope and created our beauty.
It would be years before we saw limitations.
We grew up and began to see the truth of where we lived, the abject hopelessness of life. Some of us stayed and gave in to that hopelessness. Some of us moved on and left that life behind, choosing to pursue the dreams we had learned to believe in. And some, like me, made our way back, and tonight, I return to my childhood as the memories are brought to life by the curious sound of wind chimes in da ‘hood.