Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenón comes to the 'hood.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to explore Chicago's diversity through the lens of my own immigrant heritage. I've come to realize that even though I am a third generation American with little overt connection to my Czech grandparents and the country that they came from, I still identify with that heritage. This is not exactly specific to that particular European background, but rather a recognition of how growing up in Chicago along with other sons and daughters of immigrants provides the lens through which I view the Chicago of today.

When I visit the southwest side neighborhood that I grew up in and see that it is now predominantly Mexican-American, it makes perfect sense. Then and now, it is a tidy neighborhood of modest houses occupied by working class people who are striving to make a better world for their children, but the signs on the storefronts are in a different language. I have a real affinity for these simple neighborhoods far from the glamour of downtown.

Hermosa is one such neighborhood, albeit one much older than the post World War II area that I lived in. In the early 20th century, Hermosa was full of manufacturing and warehouse jobs. Schwinn bicycles came from Hermosa. Walt Disney was born to a carpenter father there. It was and still remains a blue collar place.

It is also, like my childhood home, now predominantly Latino. The forces at work here are a little bit different, though, as many of these residents were displaced from neighboring Wicker Park, Humboldt Park and Logan Square by gentrification.

So was, in a sense, the place I was at last night. Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, and a little over 40 of those years were spent in Wicker Park. The current space opened in 2013. Their core focus is on Puerto Rican culture, but expands to include other Latino groups as well. Last night they hosted saxophonist and MacArthur Fellow Miguel Zenón in a free community event in conjunction with Zenón's Grammy nominated project Identities are Changeable, which is being presented live by the University of Chicago. Zenón was born in Puerto Rico, but by now he has lived over half of his life in the U.S. His heritage, though, remains the intellectual center of his work, so far spawning no less than five albums.

I wrote an appreciation of the event for Agúzate, an Afro-Latin journal that is kind enough to publish my work. You can read that HERE, but before you do, let me quote Miguel Zenón from an interview I did with him a few weeks ago.

“The Puerto Rican community in Chicago is one of the most important and historic communities outside of the island, so all of the ideas from the project would definitely apply there as well. But then again, I think that this is an idea that could apply to any immigrant community anywhere.”

Indeed. I am far from my grandparents immigrant experience, but I can imagine them negotiating life in a new country far from their place of birth. My parents grew up Americans, of course, but Czech was still spoken in their childhood homes. And now there is me, further removed, yet still connected by the same bloodline.

And I can relate.