Only in Chicago. As a declaration, I realize that's likely not true. I know there are other cities around the globe where immigrants and the descendents of immigrants make up the bulk of the population. And while it is often said that Chicago is the most segregated city in the United States, I find that in the circles in which I move, that is not quite the case.
One of those weekends is coming up that remind me that I indeed live in a startlingly diverse city, even if the communities in which any given population resides tend to lean one way or the other. In a way, that's good. My life is enriched by the fact that I can spend time in neighborhoods that are heavily Mexican, African-American, Indian, Puerto Rican or Polish, knowing that they will be filled with businesses that cater to local residents and bring delight to me. Or, I can go to Albany Park, where the Middle Eastern, Central American and Korean storefronts are lined up one after another.
Ethnic enclaves are a treasure. It is only when economics and politics force people into one setting and discourage movement to another that it becomes problematic. That sort of thing brews distrust and fear and has a way of insuring that undeserved communities remain that way. But I digress. Sometimes I sit down to write one thing, and another emerges. I'll get back on point now.
I'll be running around a lot this weekend in a way that makes me glad I live in Chicago.
Tonight, a band I first heard at a street festival in my neighborhood less than two years ago celebrates the release of their first single and full length CD with a show at Martyrs' in the North Center neighborhood. Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orchestra started out as a electric cumbia band, modelling their sound and attitude around chicha, a variant of the Colombian music once it reached Peru in the 1970s and adapted by an indigenous urbanized population. That sound is still at the heart of the band, but it has taken a trip around the rest of Latin America as well, not surprising when you consider that its members hail from Texas (yes, I'm calling Texas Latin America - more on that later), Mexico, Panama and Puerto Rico. Each of them is something of a folkloric specialist in their respective traditions, but together they are a hard charging rock band with a fat, danceable groove. In something of an odd twist, they have invited a popular mambo orchestra to open for them. If I have the story right, the uncle of Dos Santos' Puerto Rican conga player is a trombone player in the mambo group. All in the family. It will be a long night. I'll wear comfortable shoes.
Tomorrow night, though, is when I'll really get a workout.
First I'll be running out to the Hermosa neighborhood where the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (I've
written about SRBCC before - you can check that here.) is presenting a big band tribute to perhaps the greatest of all Puerto
Rican songwriters, Rafael Hernández, who passed away in 1965. Humboldt Park born Puerto Rican bandleader Edwin Sánchez has put together a 14 piece orchestra of crack Chicago musicians to handle these classic songs. That's only half of it. The center is bringing in the son of Rafael Hernández, Alejandro "Chali" Hernández, to sing his father's songs. In the process, two, perhaps even three generations of Puerto Ricans, island and mainland born, will come together for one historic event. Tradition and cultural identity handed down, from generation to generation.
That, however, is not the last historic musical event of the night, nor is it the only one with strong cultural significance. I'll end my night in Lincoln Square at the Old Town School of Folk Music where two of Chicago's prominent ethnic communities, the Irish and the Mexicans, come together for something of a musical history lesson. The Mexican folkloric group Sones de México and the Irish Music School of Chicago will tell the story of the St. Patrick's Battalion (Los San Patricios). The battalion was a group of largely Irish immigrants who, stung by discrimination, found themselves sympathizing and then siding with Mexico during what we call the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Mexicans view it differently and call it the unjust invasion of Mexico by North America. It was a land grab, plain and simple, and Mexico lost. As a result, most of California, all of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and much of Texas became the United States, and Mexico became much smaller.
There I go digressing again.
Anyway, the St. Patrick's Battalion fought bravely but lost, and many of them were hanged as deserters. The concert, then, will combine Mexican son and Irish jigs to tell their story. There will be songs both lively and lamenting. There will be dancing from both a Mexican dance company and Irish dancers. It's all not as incongruent as it sounds. Both traditions utilize 6/8 time, fiddles, harps, accordions and toe tapping. Both are handed down generation to generation, lest they be lost. And both are, at heart, ballad forms that tell stories. This will be quite a story. Chances are if you grew up in the U.S. you know nothing about this, but in Mexico Los San Patricios are heroes.
I'm not saying Chicago is the only place this can happen. But we uniquely situated in the middle of the country, and wave after wave of immigrants (including my grandparents) have been arriving and building lives here since before the city was incorporated.
¡Todos somos inmigrantes!