Mondragon, 37, is a public-interest attorney running for state senate in the First District, which covers largely Latino southwest-side communities.
My parents met in Mexico. They grew up in Pomoca, a little hamlet in Mexico. My dad emigrated here in I think 1970. My mother emigrated in ’73 and I was the first born here. You can say I was the anchor baby.
They settled in the Back of the Yards because my dad had an uncle there. My parents didn’t speak English when they came. But over the course of the years they learned.
They moved to an apartment at 1718 West 44th Street, one of those old tenement buildings. By the time my parents got there most of the Lithuanian and Polish people who had lived there were gone. My dad his whole life worked as a punch press machine operator at a steel manufacturing company. My mom worked on the assembly line cutting chickens in a poultry-processing place. She gets up at three, one of the hardest working people I know.
My neighborhood school, Seward, was like 99 percent Mexican kids. Pretty much everybody else I grew up with looked exactly like me and had a similar background. The only other ethnicities I saw were characters on TV.
I had great teachers—old-school teachers who really cared about their kids. They saw that I was a good student and they looked after me. My eighth grade teacher, Miss Cavanaugh, introduced me to high school-level literature. She gave me a Webster hardbound dictionary for my eighth grade graduation. To this day I have that dictionary.
I was always into music. When I was really young, I listened to whatever my folks liked—mariachi, that sort of thing. But as I got older I started listening to other stuff, like house music. Around the sixth grade, I discovered the oldies stations, Elvis and Buddy Holly, and then I discovered classical, which I think is a key point in my life. I had this very cool attitude—”Oh yeah, I listen to house music.” When I discovered classical, I was like, “Oh, that’s for rich people.” But somebody told me classical music is in my favorite cartoons. So I went to the library and found this record, Hooked on Classics. I listened to it and I thought, “That’s the Lone Ranger theme,” or “That’s from Tom and Jerry.”
I started buying classical music using the money I made from selling beer and soda in Douglas Park. I convinced my parents to buy me soda and beer and I would sell it to people who were watching the softball games. I would give most of the money to my folks, and they’d give some back to me, which I used to buy these classical music tapes that I found in catalogs. I kid you not, I ordered 100 cassettes. I still have them, all the famous composers—Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn. Nothing too heavy. I didn’t discover Mahler until high school.
By the time I got to high school, I knew about 100 classical pieces by heart. Discovering that music made me appreciate all the other music. It opened up the world to me. Music was my first window to the world outside me.
My neighborhood high school was Kelly, but I went to Curie, which was a magnet school. At Curie, it was a completely different world—1,200 students in my freshman class, and not only Hispanic kids but black kids and Polish kids and Asian kids. It was a little culture shock, but it’s cool. I liked meeting new people from outside of the neighborhood.
I was a good student, but I remember my first year I was ranked 400-and-something. I’m like, “What the hell happened?” I used to be the top dog. So I worked my ass off in high school. I did chess club and the Latino club. I was in the Filipino club ’cause I liked the girls. But basically I spent my time studying. When I finally graduated, my official rank was two. I still wish I was number one.
In my junior year I applied to DePaul, U. of I., Northwestern, U. of C., Georgetown, Harvard, and Yale. I got into all of them except Harvard.
I didn’t know much about Yale. We didn’t have enough money to send me all the way out to New Haven to visit. I just looked at the pictures in the catalog and thought, “This looks like a nice place to go.” My dad dropped me off for the start of my freshman year. We took a Greyhound bus—a flight was too expensive. There I am with all of my earthly possessions and my dad on the Greyhound. We changed buses in New York City. When we got off the bus, this dude picked up my bags and ran away with them. So I run after him. But it was just this dude taking my bags to the next bus. He was trying to pick up some extra cash.
I was a tough guy from a tough neighborhood. I had all that teenage angst and attitude. But when my dad left me at Yale, I was crying like a little baby. It was like, “Damn, what have I done?” I felt all alone.
I think the second day I was there I met Ivan Nieves, this half-Puerto Rican/half-Mexican guy from Blue Island. He became my best friend. He was like me, almost a carbon copy.
Then I met all these people. Just fell in. Friends and connections I’ll have my whole life. Everyone was friendly—even the kids from Exeter. It wasn’t cutthroat. Nobody asked what your SAT scores were. They assumed if you were there, you belonged there. I majored in political science and graduated in 1996.
I could have gone anywhere, but I came back. I got my law degree from the University of Chicago—took three classes with a professor called Barack Obama. Chicago’s a great city. Chicago’s my home.
I live in Brighton Park, not far away from where I grew up. When I reflect upon this journey from Back of the Yards to Yale back to Chicago, I think it’s the journey that’s one of the things I love about this country. It gives you more opportunities than any other country in the world. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll make it. But you can go far. —As told to Ben Joravsky