• Alison Green
  • Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, in front of the three-flat on 17th Street in Pilsen where he lived in 1968 and 1969. “This block was a great microcosm of the city and the country.”

“I’m a neighborhoods guy,” Jesus Garcia said last week on Ken Davis’s show Chicago Newsroom. “I represent the average person in the city of Chicago.”

Garcia is running for mayor, and mayoral candidates routinely stress their bond with neighborhoods and their humble origins. In the case of “Chuy” Garcia, 58, it’s more than posturing. He’s always lived in places of modest means—he’s gone from a little village in Durango to Little Village in Chicago. But he says it was the four years in between, in Pilsen, that shaped many of his core beliefs.

Last Saturday, at my request, Garcia showed me where he used to live in Pilsen. He and his three siblings and their mother arrived in Chicago on a brisk February day in 1965, after the long ride from Mexico in his uncle’s station wagon. He was ten. He’d seen snow for the first time on the way, and found it “magical.” The ground was blanketed when the family pulled up near his uncle’s place, the three-flat at 1612 Allport. We stood in front of the building as Garcia recalled the day. “We got out of the car, and then that cold just cut through you. We were used to the wind and the cold in northern Mexico, because we were right by the mountains, but this was a special kind of cold, and a special wind.”

Garcia wasn’t thrilled about moving here. The family was joining Garcia’s father, who’d found work in a cold storage plant on the west side. His uncle had raved about the thrill of a big city. But Garcia loved his cozy Durango village, and was saddened to leave his friends and dog.

And Pilsen initially seemed as frigid as the weather had been his first day. The residents of the low-income, blue collar neighborhood were primarily a mix of white and Latino, but many of the Latino kids had grown up in the U.S. and were bilingual. “You see people pointing at you, and you know they’re saying, ‘He doesn’t speak English.'”

After a few weeks in his uncle’s building, Garcia’s family got their own apartment down the block. The first school he attended, for third grade, was Jirka elementary, on 17th Street near Laflin. (Today it’s named Pilsen Community Academy.) Jirka was huge compared to the one-story school he’d attended in Mexico, and the strong cleaning fluids the janitors used smelled intimidating. Garcia got pushed into snowbanks and pummeled with snowballs by classmates, and called a hick, a brazer, a wetback. “They embarrassed you if you had an accent,” he said. On some mornings, he told his parents he needed to stay home from school because his stomach hurt. “You’re not sick—you’re going,” his dad would respond.

It helped that his homeroom teacher was Puerto Rican and bilingual. “He taught me what to look out for,” Garcia said. “He taught me some key words, and told me don’t be afraid, don’t let them push you around.” He met other immigrant children, and made some friends, and by the time the school year ended, “I’d kind of gotten the hang of it.”

His parents transferred him to Saint Procopius for fourth grade. It was right across the street from the family’s Allport apartment, and his cousins went there. The school uniforms made it easier to blend in. But “You still got made fun of because you spoke funny.”

He was tutored in English in an after-school program at another Pilsen school. The tutor, Mrs. Fulton, was “kind, gentle, and very encouraging. I remember her telling me, ‘You’re really speaking well now, Jesse. Your pronunciation is getting much better.” He also remembers her reminding him regularly to “enunciate.” His precise diction today—he’s running for mayor, not runnin’ for mayor—is due to Mrs. Fulton. He also developed a positive impression of black people because of her—she was one of the first African-Americans he got to know.

After two years on Allport, the family moved to an apartment on 17th Street between Carpenter and Racine. We visited that block Saturday, too, and Garcia was clearly delighted to see his former home. An alley runs alongside the brick three-flat. The wrought-iron fence guarding the stone steps in front is new. “I used to hang out on these steps,” he said. “It was a popular hangout. There was always a radio playing. You could run through the alley over to 18th Street to get carnitas.

“This block was a great microcosm of the city and the country,” he went on. “You had Mexican immigrant kids like me, second-generation Mexican-Americans from Texas, Puerto Ricans, a couple of Native-American families. You had the old Bohemians, you had Polish kids, some Czech kids, an Irish family or two.”

He pointed down the street. “We used to hang out at that orange house—another group of Garcias lived there. We had like a club house in the basement. It had a dirt floor, but we were totally happy. We’d smoke there, listen to music, maybe drink a little beer.”

Black families lived a block away, on 16th Street. Garcia and a few friends sometimes went up the alley and hung out with them. “And everybody would listen to the same music, which was black music—soul music.”

The Maxwell Street Market was just a few blocks north. Garcia visited often and savored the blues and the multicultural atmosphere. “It was very cosmopolitan. There were Jewish merchants, Italians, Greeks, hustlers, Mexicans setting up shops, selling trinkets.”

In the block parties on 17th, the music was provided by racially-mixed bands comprised of neighborhood youth. Teens and grownups danced in the street and kids frolicked in the spray of an open fire hydrant.

“I remember sorting out the ABCs of color and race while I lived here,” Garcia said. “I was only 12 or 13, and I was listening to black radio, and they were talking about civil rights. I heard Dr. King’s sermons before he was killed, I listened to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference broadcasts. I heard black commentators talking about the black power movement, the War in Vietnam, Dr. King’s denunciation of the war.”

The boxy red-brick three-flat to the west of his former home is new; it replaced the frame house of a neighbor named Mr. Castillo, Garcia said. He recalled asking Mr. Castillo to explain the “Boycott grapes” bumper sticker on his station wagon. “He told me about Cesar Chavez and the movement for the rights of farm workers. That’s how I learned about the history and plight of the Mexican people in the southwest.”

By 1969, Garcia’s family had saved enough to buy their first home, and late that year they moved to 28th and Pulaski, in “the suburb of Little Village,” as Garcia put it with a chuckle. He’s been a Little Village resident ever since.

Living in Pilsen “was the most powerful civics lesson one could get,” he said. “That was where I became opposed to stereotypes and racism, and open to people who are different.”

Francesca Gattuso helped research this post.