ES CUESTION DE VIVIR: INTRODUCING A HERO

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Patricia Medina: “They’ve never been able to shut me up.” PHOTO / Claire O’Brien 2014

Comarada, entonces os he visto,  y mis ojos estan hasta ahora llenos de orgullo.

Comrade,  then I saw you – and my eyes are even now filled with pride.

Pablo Neruda

  ~.~.~.~.~.~.   

Almost ninety years ago, in 1924 or’25, a young girl left the Mexican border town of Agua Pieta, which sits on the northern edge of  Sonora facing Douglas, Arizona and walked a few miles into the United States.  Visibly pregnant, she travelled alone.  Otilla  Gallegos had just turned fourteen.

 She passed quickly through the small town, reaching a dusty highway as a bus appeared in the distance. Hours later, as evening began to fall over the southwestern mountains of New Mexico,  the bus pulled into Silver City, where Otilla joined two distant uncles. The men had found work at Arizona’s Santa Rita Mine, not far from the state line, and had agreed to provide several months of shelter until Otilla could get on her feet.

The two miners were actually Otilla’s second or third cousins ; thus, her family had been careful to make no claims on them.  The girl’s sudden adult status had been made very clear to her; still, it was not until Otilla climbed into her little mattress for her first night in America that she felt the full weight of complete and immediate responsibility

The large Gallegos family was essentially destitute; in fact barely surviving. Life was measured out in days, and days were calculated by small fistfuls of beans and corn.  Otilla  could see for herself that the two uncles, whom she barely knew, worked under terrible conditions to support their own desperate families back in Agua Pieta.

 Otilla understood all of this. Whatever she could not understand, she kept to herself.                                                                       .

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Today, the  Mexican border city of Agua Pieta  has a population of 200,000, but the poverty is just as crushing as it was in 1925. The US deports busloads of people to the city daily, leaving them  stranded thousands of miles from their original homes in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Panama. But Agua Pieta is also an old city, with a population of many generations, and a center of massive 16th century Spanish colonial structures. The city was one of Pancho Villa’s loyal strongholds during the Mexican Revolution. A few miles from the 450 year old palaces and cathedrals, the modest ranch houses of the much, much younger small town of Douglas, Arizona can be seen on the other side of the border fence

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This, then, was life, looking straight at  Ottilla Gallegos and telling her she had  no time to lose.  Early on the morning after her arrival, she went  looking  for a  job,  a slight, pretty fourteen-year old who couldn’t pass for  even fifteen, making her way along Silver City’s Main St preceded by her  protruding belly. It was 1924;  people looked at Otilla, and not kindly.

  She had a chance to cook and another to do laundry, so Otilla’s job choice surprised her uncles: she  hired on as part of a crew laying Silver City’s first concrete sidewalks.  People might have stared at her disapprovingly that first day, but  an obviously pregnant child performing heavy labor in public week after week was something else entirely.  They found themselves looking away, a fact of which Otilla took note. We know this because she made a point of telling the story, as I am telling it now, to each of her four children.

Otilla worked harder as her delivery date loomed ever closer –  until her boss and co-workers just couldn’t stand it,  begged  her to stop, and took up a collection to cover a week’s wages. Otilla took her money, went to her uncle’s apartment and got into bed.

Two days later, her daughter Lourdes was born.

Otilla’s children  passed this story down to their own children with the same care: in fact,  it’s one of the first things her  descendents will tell you about Otilla Gallegos. Like her, they have spent their lives laboring.

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Main Street, Silver City, New Mexico / Suzanne Van Hulst

  “She passed the torch to our parents and they passed it to us. She worked harder than anyone  I have ever met, she gave her life away in labor to the Anglos, yet she was treated as if she were nothing – as if her labor belonged to them,” Patricia Medina told me as she whacked the dust out of a rug with an old broom last week. Medina is one of Gallegos’ many grandchildren, and is herself a grandmother. She recently lost her  home in Las Lunas after forty years of labor and moved to a  public housing project two hours south. At age  55, she is back at work as a housekeeper, unable to live on the disability payments she had thought would allow her to retire early.  But on the day I met her, Medina’s primary concern about the job was not its impact on her injured spine, knees and neck . Her hope was for more assigned work hours, leading to a full-time position. “I come from a long line of poor people,” Medina said. ” We expect to be called lazy, we expect people to point to us and say we haven’t made  progress in three or four generations like good Latinos should.  We never expect justice. But that doesn’t mean we accept injustice!  Oh no.  No, no. We fight the battles we have a chance of winning.  If not, we do what needs to be done.  That is how we remain free.” We were draping her heavy rug over a fence that seperates the housing project from a gravel pit, but Medina paused for a moment to peer at me. . ” Don’t ever, ever let anyone rob you of that, because when they can make you ashamed — that’s when they own you: when they can make you believe the lie that Latino families who don’t make it up the ladder are lazy and don’t work hard.”

She waved a hand in a gesture that managed to be both dismissive and polite.

” These Anglos don’t know what hard work is,” Medina said, and gave the rug a huge, final whack. She tosses the broom into the back of her  rattling grey van.

“Come with me to the Dollar Store, chica,” she said as she climbed in.

“¿Hacer enchiladas esta noche?” I asked hopefully,” Yo compre la avcado.”

“No enchiladas for you, gringa loco,” Medina said. “For you there will only be very, very hot chiles. And nothing at all to drink.”

“Ha, ha,” I said. “That gets funnier every time you say it. And your engine light is on again.”

Medina cursed as we peeled out of the Projects parking lot. Her son has been warning her that her van will die “any minute now Mom.” But she still drives like a maniac. silver-city-new-mexico-jack-pumphrey

Life in Silver City was not easy for Latino people. Almost all who flocked to work the mines of the mountain town  were of Mexican descent, but at least half of them had never been south of the Rio Grande.  Their roots were deep in  New Mexico.  As for Mexican nationals, they saw themselves in the same nation so many lives had been lost to free.

Anglos didn’t care about such distinctions, they just knew a Mexican when they saw one, and lumped everyone together. Juggling this surreal and frankly traumatic contradiction  was part of the price of dealing with Anglos.  Essentially,  Latinos were allowed to live and work in their own land because they were cheap labor – and they were reminded of that every day in countless ways.

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   Each of  Ortilla’s children grew up fast and had  large families – Medina has 30 cousins – and all of them struggled. Her  uncles  worked in the mines, and 26 years after their mother had laid her first slab of concrete,  there was still no electricity or water in the shacks that were their homes. The mining company housing was intended to keep Latinos out of Silver City proper as much as possible, and they were segregated when they did make the short trip in.

White miners lived in  seperate housing  equipped with plumbing and electricity. They worked in separate crews doing the best jobs during the best hours, and received almost twice the pay of Latino miners. They were even provided a separate pay window so that they wouldn’t have to stand in line with Latino miners.

Something had to give. And it  did.

In 1953, the Latino miners of Silver City astonished both the mining industry and the labor movement by striking. Latino workers had long been viewed as too passive to pose a threat to the former nor to play a leading role in the latter.

Not only did they strike, but they won – and they did it during a period when most of the Left was, well,  hiding out.

Not only did they win, but they did that by relying upon Silver City’s Latino women. Another gripe the labor movement had with Latino workers was the hopelessly traditional gender roles from which they could never be budged.

Ha!. Yet another stereotype smashed.

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Just  a few months after the miner’s victory in early 1954, a trio of filmmakers arrived in Silver City. They had been blacklisted by Hollywood’s shameless capitulation to the McCarthy Era’s communist witch hunts, but their supporters had secretly raised enough money to fund a modest budget – and they aimed to spend it on a film about the Empire Zinc Mine. The name of the film was The Salt of the Eartb.

It was the only film that has ever been banned by and from the United States . While it circled the globe winning one award after another, Americans remained generally unaware of it. Those who did learn about the film were remarkably uninterested, as the nation was absorbed with backyard bomb shelters, electrocuting Jewish spies, and hunting down the terrorist wave of  TV and  movie writers hiding out in Hollywood’s labyrinth of secret communist cells.

 

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The Salt of the Earth made history in more ways than one. The miners wrote much of the script, rejected whatever they believed did not represent them, acted, and coordinated publicity efforts.

Only three professional actors were used. The leading lady was deported to Mexico before shooting was completed and the leading man was a Latino miner. The production crew was shot at, and government helicopters hovered over the set. The filmmakers finally had to make a run for it in the middle of the night.

The Salt of the Earth also became a proud part of the Gallegos-Medina family history. Two of  Otilla’s sons and a daughter acted in the film and worked on the script. And although Patricia Medina wasn’t born until 1959, she traces a direct line straight from her grandmother, uncles and aunt to a lettuce field in northern California in 1973 –  and a strong fourteen-year-old girl marching beside Cesar Chavez.

END OF PART ONE

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LOOK FOR PART TWO SOON:

♦ How the strike was won

♦ How the film was made

Salt of the Earth

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When Otille Gallegos was growing  up in Augua Pieta,  the city was defended by its greatest heroes :  Revolutionay  Mexican soldiers like those shown above, whose fiery courage and passion for freedom  brought down a major world power. Mexicans still sing  the songs written by their great-grandfathers  to  honor the women

 

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WAITING FOR THE PARADE: A MAP OF AMERICA

I can’t remember how many times I’ve stood on a street corner in an American town, waiting for a parade.

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The parades I go to have never marched in River City. They would have nowhere to put 76 trombones. They assemble along hundreds of Main Streets, far away from important places, throughout the constellation of small towns that dot America’s vast interior.  These are parades that march for their own communities, which very often feel invisible to the nation, and very often are.  But that’s not the defining story of these towns!  They know they’re not invisible.  Ha!  Far from it.

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 Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, Arkansas, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah… not only do towns in these regions have parades, they have a lot of parades. There is always the  Fourth of July, Homecoming, some kind of Fall Harvest, a Christmas Lights Parade, and various high school, county fair, Volunteer Fire Dept. and Chamber of Commerce  events.   Finally, add the word ‘Festval’  to any of the following:  Apple, Potato, Walnut, Soap Carving, Corn, Tomato, Soybean, Cigar Box, Wheat, Pumpkin, Pickle, Fishing, Cheese,  Green Chile,   Pork , Crochet, Cake, Sunflower, Dairy, Squash, Bingo, Radish, Pie and  Tractor.  ETC.

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People show up early. Waiting is part of these parades. The marchers won’t make a move until the crowd has been in place for long enough to make the first drum roll count.  As well, at least one member of every family in the crowd is in the parade, and at least one other has something to open, hitch up, block off, screw in, attach, tighten, loosen or drop off. Everyone else goes off to get a good seat, even though you can usually get a good seat if you show up late. It’s considered impolite to point this out by showing up late.

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But in a few small towns (that I know of), Grade A seats are snapped up so quickly that they must be essentialy reserved. In Murphysboro, Illinois, people leave chairs on the sidewalk the night before. They don’t mark them in any way, since you’re expected to know whether or not a chair is yours. I’ve seen peope remain standing next to an empty chair for the duration of a Murphysboro parade – even when the last float is in sight and the heat index is 102: it’s not their chair.

 Forgotten chairs, many of them quite nice, line Walnut St. in ever-dwindling numbers for three or four days before the last of them are retrieved. I’m  not the only person who  amused myself by waving graciously at the chairs as I drove by.

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I watched these parades long before any editor assigned me to cover them. I was a stranger to these small places, but something about the huge landscape and their place within it made more sense to me than either the coast I grew up on (East) or the other one.

I should have felt lost as I drove west across the Oklahoma Panhandle for the first time, nearly fourteen years ago. I  on my way to Las Cruces, New Mexico and my first job on a ‘big’ newspaper. I drove for hours without coming to a town. But I didn’t feel lonely. Not at all. I drove into numerous tiny towns, each with a huge grain elevator looming over a deserted main street, and in each one, I found that people want to tell a stranger a story.

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However, you’re not going to find a parade in a town that small. But you will discover that it sends a contingent to the parades of a larger town, perhaps an hour away. And by the time you reach the end of the Panhandle, you’ll realize that everyone in every town knows everyone in every other town along the 180 mile strip.

These kinds of American parades are like that strip for me. One could say that the parades know one another. When I first began driving around this huge interior, they formed a kind of connective tissue of familiarity that became my map. Whether I was wondering if anyone still lived in North Dakota, crossing the high plains of Kansas, or driving the endless expanse of west Texas, I’ve never felt lost following that map.  It turned out to be the road home.

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KJ8J0456I think I hear the parade coming. Tune in soon for the huge inflatable dollar bill.

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All photos except number five (row of chairs) by Claire O’Brien 2010

Row of Chairs / Google Images

TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT THE DEVIL – HOW I INFILTRATED A CELL OF IRAQIS

THIS IS  A  STORY  I  WROTE  A  FEW  YEARS  AGO  FOR  THE  FREEPORT (IL) JOURNAL- STANDARD  NEWSPAPER. I THINK IT’S WORTH RE-VISITING

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                                                                       UntitledThese are the faces I see when I think of Iraq. And when I think of a nuclear attack on that ancient place that was once Mesoptamia, then Persia, then part of the Ottoman Empire (which welcomed the  Jewish victims of the Spanish Inquisition) I think of these faces, twisted in agony as they imagine their families being evaporated, or turned into virtual charcoal to die an agonizing death.
These men represent a very small community of Iraqis who blew a little breeze of joy into my days when I wrote for the Journal-Standard. I lived a block away from their little store, so I saw them every morning (coffee) and every night (whatever). They were interested, kind, generous, earnest, and full of news to share.  They believed in being cheerful, and in fact did seem to find something humorous in every situation – the word that comes to mind is ‘merry’.
After the newspaper’s higher-ups (not my great editor) killed follow-up coverage of the Iraqis, I was free to hang out and talk with them on a level more personal than a continued professional relationship would have permitted. Nevertheless, we all maintained a restraint that stopped short of friendship: I wanted the option of writing about them to remain open, should it become a possibility. And they, of course, had numerous reasons to limit anything they said to an American – or any other – reporter.
That left us plenty of room. They were genuinely emotionally expressive – all of them – and in a manner that clearly showed this to be cultural. The men would reminisce about their mothers and cry freely; they also  spoke unself-consciously of broken hearts, that is, “hearts broken by grief’. Since I come from a family that rejects broken hearts as strategic hyperbole, I recognized a rare opportunity to tell a broken heart story of my own.
They listened respectfully, nodded soberly, and reiterated that a broken heart is an unbearable experience.
 
The Iraqi men of Freeport immediately recognized the racism directed against the African-Americans who comprised the neighborhood,  and were quick to express their allegiance. They didn’t win the good will of the Black community overnight. They persevered.
Years later, when I arrived and asked to hear that story, the Iraqis told me, over and over, how much people need to feel respected. THIS is something the Iraqii people – and all Arabic, Mideastern peoples – evidently don’t have to be taught.
 
 
Could it be that there are some clues here? I wonder what there is about being:
A)   Black in southside Chicago,
and
B) Arabic in the Mid East
that drives people
C) right over the cliff  –
When the same two factors of:
1.America
and
2.respect
are introduced
 
 
 
 
 
 

MI PUEBLITO / PART TWO

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A long afternoon with folding chairs.

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There are a lot of alleys in my town. Not streets, not sidewalks, not driveways, just…places you go down to get to where people are.  Oye, no parking there!

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Every sunset is one you swear you’ll remember … but you don’t.

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I will tell you this kid’s story, but can’t identify her. Like a ton of kids here (and across America), her mom is a meth addict. So, ‘Maria’ raised herself, basically, until around 7th or 8th grade, when her aunt and uncle moved her in with them.

“A lot of people in town kind of looked out for me. I was good in school and I dreamed of doing computer animation,”Maria told me. “When I graduated, some local businesses gave me a partial scholarship to a private art college in Pheonix. I got financial aid and a big loan.”

She paused with real pride when she mentioned the scholarship.

                          “I guess they thought I’d do okay in life,” Maria said finally.

She remembers that year as if it were spent in heaven.

“I loved it all -everything about it. I was good at everything they taught us,”she said, as she rang up my burrito one evening. We were alone in the store. “But the tuition was so high, and the next year they said I wasn’t eligible for financial aid.There was no way I could pay all that, so I had to drop out – and right away they wanted the loan payments. I don’t think I’d figured it all out. I was just a kid.”

That’s right. And she still is just a kid.

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Maria earns $800 a month. She gives the bank $400. I practically stood on my head for two weeks, trying to persuade her that the bank CAN’T take HALF her pay check. She just won’t listen. The fact is, she knows a lot of people with more credibility than I have.

“I’d rather pay it back as soon as I can,” she said. “I’m young. I make things work.”

She does that, and very gracefully too. Maria lives alone with her dog (“and that’s how I like it!”) in a relative’s RV, paying mainly utilities, which are considerable: anyone who’s lived in a small RV during a desert summer can tell you that. As for right now, it’s about 37  degrees  here – pretty nippy.

Maria’s never been able to take her dog to the vet, so she figures out how to keep “Romero” healthy on her own.

“He broke a bone in his paw, so I made a splint with Popsicle sticks, cotton bandages, and duct tape,” she recalled once.  “I gave him half an aspirin three times a day. The swelling went down and in a couple of weeks, Romero was running around like always.”

I really admire that.

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“I can cook. I mean, I really can. People drop stuff off. My manager gives me food to take home,” she told me. “I know how to do stuff – sew, take care of my clothes and furniture, fix stuff that breaks. People give me rides. If they don’t, I walk. If I can’t walk, I don’t go.”

Maria hasn’t been outside the town limits for three years. She’s 24 years old. “I like peace. I like knowing what I’ll be doing every day. I’m not interested in adventures”, she said a bit testily, after I pretended to pass out (fall to the floor) at the news. I offered to drive her anywhere in New Mexico or…Arizona, maybe? – she wanted to visit.

Maria gave me a fishy look and told me she’d figure out a way to get to wherever she wanted to go.

“Anyway, the thing is, this is my town. Everyone here knows me…” she trailed off, having made her crucial point. Her mother may be in jail, but everyone DOES know Maria. Some of their mothers are in jail, too as a matter of fact. Every night, one of the sheriff’s deputies shows up and waits outside to be sure Maria is safe while she closes up. Then, he or she helps her feed the explicitly illegal colony of feral cats that lives in the neighboring junk-yard.

Then, John Law drives Maria home. If not, hey, she can walk it herself, you know.

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One of Maria’s comic strips is taped high on the wall, perpendicular to the clock.It’s funny and cool.

I’m certain you’ll see it some day.

HEY, WHERE’S THAT FORT YOU PROMISED? AND WHAT’S THAT THING – A GAS PUMP?

Two days late, O’Brien inexplicably attempted to pacify her readers with photos of a gas pump bearing absolutely no resemblence to a 19th century adobe military fort.

IT’S COMING, I PROMISE. LIKE TOMORROW AT THE LATEST. I MEAN, I HAD TO STORM THE FORT WITH JUST  A MUSKET, AND THEN THERE WAS THE MOAT, THE TURRETS, THE DRAWBRIDGE…I BUMPED MY THUMB AND THEN SHOT MYSELF IN THE BIG TOE BY MISTAKE…I TELL YOU, BLOGGING CAN BE HELL OUT IN THE TRENCHES….

IF ANY REAL PHOTOGS DROP BY, CAN YOU GIVE ME YOUR HONEST OPINION, ESPECIALLY RE. THE LAST PIC – DAVID G., SETH, LEANN, STEFAN, ETC…(YOU PEOPLE KNOW WHO YOU ARE 🙂  THANKS!

‘Legacy of Conquest’: a military fort on the Camino Real

Barracks, Fort Selton, Radium Springs, New Mexico / CLAIRE O’BRIEN 2012

  PREVIEW:    A great historian, Patricia Limerick, characterized the political culture of the American West in particular, and the United States in general, as a “legacy of conquest”. All the issues, from passionate to pragmatic, that informed the conquest of the West are, she wrote ” back on the streets and looking for trouble’. *

Tune into Electrica in the Desert tomorrow for a great look at a crumbling 140 – year-old adobe military fort built by African-American soldiers and the Latino people recruited and/or drafted to help them do it. The Colored Regiments were recently enslaved Civil War heros, termed ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ by the Apache peoples they had been sent to subdue.

So, be here tomorrow – or we’ll come looking for you.

* Limerick, Patricia.  Legacy of Conquest

Heritage as a commodity:Anglos buying up historic Latino neighborhoods

Your house is the last before the infinite, whoever you are.
R.M.Rilke

First, paint one wall red.  / CLAIRE O’BRIEN 2011

It’s sometimes possibe to pay an affordable rent for the various little outbuildings that line the back yards of expensive adobe neighborhoods in El Paso and Las Cruces. Last year I lived for six months in half of an old carriage house in  Las Cruces’ Historic District, across from  the perfectly proportioned “Historic Pioneer Park”. I had only two small rooms, but there’s something about adobe that makes every space feel  exactly the right size.

The Historic Neighborhood is overwhelmingly Anglo; in fact, I don’t think I met one Latino homeowner. New Mexico State University faculty line up (after tenure) to buy those houses, along with various other progressive-type transplants from both coasts. If they feel a disconnect between their vigorous presence and the quiet curves of those old earthen walls, today’s Anglo homeowners don’t reveal it.

In fact, their Neighborhood  Society seems to regard itself without irony as the only body sufficiently appreciative of  “our” (the city’s) heritage to be entrusted with the bulk of it – ie, the houses themselves. In these Anglo homeowner’s  hands, “heritage” becomes conflated with ‘culture’ which is then reduced to little more than the preservation of their property values.

The primary focus of the neighborhood association’s civic duties appears to be keeping everyone else out of the park. It’s a logical and reasonable place for homeless people to hang out – and BTW, I’ve never witnessed a better-mannered emphasis on litter control than that practiced by this particular group of homeless people – as well as Latino teenagers from a nearby alternative school.

“The Problem” is both the first thing residents speak to a newcomer about, and the topic into which they natually fall within minutes of most encounters.  After a few tense conversations  about the meaning of the word “public”, I was no longer privy to the details of the master plan, which seemed premised on sleep deprivation – after forcing homeless people to leave the park at nightfall, the neighborhood association moved on to stage two, which prevented people from napping on the park’s hallowed ground during the day.

One day, shortly before I left Las Cruces’ Historic District for more modest accommodations, I heard the loud screech of a mircophone coming from the park. This was followed by what sounded like nothing less than a revolutionary speech – in Pioneer Park!

Wondering if I had finally been driven mad by the evening news, I went up my alley and crossed the street into the park.

A sea of brown faces appeared to be, well, cheering for the crowd of mostly Anglo homeless men, who, a beaming guy told me, had been invited to the park. Tables were piled high with sleeping bags, coats, mittens, hats, socks and knapsacks.  Huge servings of enchiladas, refried beans, and melon slices were being handed out.

“You’re as worthy and good as any man! Don’t allow the sinners who profit from human suffering  to touch your spirit,” a young priest said loudly into the mic. “There’s really only one way to love God –  and that’s by living for one another. By serving one another.”

I should have known that the Latino churches would fight back. These are not your father’s Catholics, let me tell you.

As the priest went on to describe the circumstances under which land ownership becomes a sin, I felt a swell of pride for every Catholic who’s remained a stubborn thorn in the side of Rome.  I chose a spot in the middle of the crowd and sat down,  just one of many, not important, not unimportant. Just holding one another up.

I don’t know what happened after that, because I hit the road a few weeks later. I just know things are starting to look up a little in the Historic District – for everyone.

Before I left, I took some pics of my little adobe place.

It turns out that none of us belong in those houses. We can’t buy our way in, nor even rent a temporary right to be there – and the people who do belong there will never forget that they do.

” The last before the infinite”, eh? Well, I DO recall a lot of cat hair.   C.O’BRIEN 2011

 A century later, it had become a kitchen shelf  /  C.O'BRIEN 2011

A sixth century Korean sun panel protects priceless family heirlooms from solar damage…um, I meant this blind never stayed up / O’Brien 2011

Just to be on the safe side, get to Confession – quick, before you get run over by a truck!

MISSING FREEPORT, ILLINOIS: A FREEPORT BEAT REPORTER LOOKS BACK

MY JAW DROPPED WHEN I TURNED ON THE TV AND SAW FREEPORT, ILLINOIS PROTESTING ON MSNBC. SOMETIMES I HAVE TO TAKE A BREAK FROM THE NEWS FOR A COUPLE OF DAYS, SO I’D MANAGED TO MISS THE HEADLINES. I WORKED FOR THE JOURNAL-STANDARD NEWSPAPER IN FREEPORT IN 2008 AND 2009 – IT’S THE KIND OF SPUNKY TOWN A REPORTER CAN FALL IN LOVE WITH. FREEPORT HASN’T LOST JUST ONE FACTORY. IT USED TO BE A PROSPEROUS MANUFACTURING CENTER: IT’S LOST A BUNCH OF FACTORIES. I FELT SAD THAT THE WORLD GOT TO WITNESS ONLY THE LOSS OF THE LAST ONE.

I DECIDED TO SHARE THE KIND OF FREEPORT DAY I USED TO LOVE BY POSTING ONE OF THE STORIES I WROTE FOR THE JOURNAL-STANDARD. I LIKED TO JUST POKE AROUND, STICKING MY HEAD INTO VARIOUS SCHOOLS TO SEE WHAT PEOPLE WERE UP TO. SORRY ABOUT THE CAPS IN THE FIRST GRAPH – BLOGPRESS SOMETIMES TAKES OVER FORMATTING DECISIONS. THE DAMN UNIONS ARE PROBABLY BEHIND IT…

THE GREAT FOURTH GRADE OUTDOOR ADVENTURE

BY CLAIRE O’BRIEN, JOURNAL-STANDARD

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Photo Claire O’Brien / The Journal-Standard

Freeport, Ill — The day was cold and blustery, but the campers were prepared. They had pitched tents, built a campfire, lugged in sleeping bags and stocked up enough food for everyone. They wore warm coats, and carried notebooks and pens, ready to take notes and collect data.

Most importantly, the adventurers stacked a pile of newly sharpened roasting forks near the campfire, ready for marshmallows, S’mores and any other culinary option that might become available.

Although the fire provided enough smoke for distress signals, this strategy would not become necessary – because the campsite was surrounded by the familiar houses of the neighborhood surrounding Lincoln-Douglas School.

In fact, the campsite was right there in the rear of the schoolyard, within shouting, if not throwing, distance of the back door. Even if you closed your eyes, you just knew you were in school – mainly because there was school work to do. And that was the whole point of the great Lincoln-Douglas School camp out.

Teachers wanted to show the students – specifically, the fourth grade – that reading is a part of the whole of life, and doesn’t exist solely in the special sphere of school and library. You need words and language and reading everywhere you go in the world, even in the unlikeliest places – like a campground.

Following Directions

Reading directions, processing them and carrying them out in sequence is a skill campers need to have, and the Lincoln-Douglas fourth graders jumped right in.
Even though the students hadn’t actually put up those tents themselves (a few dads had done that the day before) teachers made sure the kids knew that the often tricky procedure required a careful reading of the instructions – followed by an application of them in the correct sequence.
Now that the fourth grade had trekked across the remote tundra of the Lincoln-Douglas playground, it had more sequence reading to do –  recipes.

The young chefs crowded around a picnic table, where teachers passed out recipe cards. The children read the instructions intently. S’mores have to assembled in a specific sequence, and campers had to know that their marshmallows would disintegrate if they were allowed to burn too long. They could burn them, but only very briefly. Things really did go a lot better at the campfire if you read the instructions.

Of course, it helped that principal Deb Kleckner is a Girl Scout, and was prepared – as only a Girl Scout can be – to solve any problem that might arise.

roasting a marshmallow

roasting a marshmallow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kleckner manned the campfire like a pro, adjusting sticks and logs, moving stray embers and insuring an adequete oxygen supply.

The same hardy dads who had erected the tents had built the campfire.
“But I could have done it,” Kleckner said. “I’m not a Girl Scout for nothing. And the kids did learn how important sequencing is to a campfire. We talked about the formation of the wood and kindling, what steps have to come first, how to leave room for oxygen – oh, it was nothing but sequencing!”

Dear Mom and Dad

After stuffing themselves with as much graham cracker, chocolate and marshmallow as supplies and teachers allowed, one hardy band of campers settled into a nearby tent, their writing supplies at hand.

Student teacher Cassie Busker filled the children in on their next assignment.
The entire fourth grade – all three classes – have been reading a book called “Firestorm.” The novel’s hero, a young boy named Axel, gets caught in a forest fire caused by a bolt of lightning while camping with his aunt and uncle.

Axel is a resourceful fellow, not unlike the Lincoln-Douglas fourth graders, and he directs his relatives to that part of the forest that has already burnt down.

Here, in relative safety, the family waits for the surrounding fire to move on. The fourth grade assignment: pretend that you have just been through Axel’s ordeal and you have found a way to get a postcard home to your parents. What will you write?

The children considered the question for a few moments, then hunkered down to write.
“Dear Mom and Dad” everyone began – and then the tent was quiet, save for the faint sounds of children breathing and the wispy rustling of paper.

Trouble in Forest Park

Letters home completed, the adventurers left their cozy tent and moved on through the wilderness, eventually arriving at a very large camper.

Encouraged by the welcoming sight, the travellers knocked on the door, which was immediately opened by … a teacher! No stranger to the fourth grade, Ms. Swalve ushered the children in with another book about camping.

Soon enough, the camper was filled with reading children, sprawled hither and yon, all following the adventures of the protagonist of “Trouble in Forest Park.”
The novel is designed as a “leveled reader,” one of three books using the same vocabulary words, but written at a different skill levels.

Camp Old Indian - aerial view 1985

Camp Old Indian – aerial view 1985 (Photo credit: linkerjpatrick)

For a good chunk of time, pages turned and noses periodically sniffled, as the Lincoln-Douglas wilderness readers learned how one intrepid girl proved to the boys that she was just as good at camping as they were – maybe better.

Eventually, the fourth grade sojourn in the big camper came to its inevitable conclusion, as all good things must. The children put away “Trouble in Forest Park” and trooped down the steps, heading toward the school.

Far away, they could make out their teacher, Mrs. Ludwig, beckoning them back to class. Their fourth grade room seemed strangely far away after so much time in the woods. Yet, there was the school, as familiar to the children as their own houses, with their classroom just down the hall.

And Mrs. Ludwig was suddenly right in front of them, telling them to step on it – they had fourth grade business waiting for them inside.

GO, PRETZELS!!

by claire o’brien/co’brien@journalstandard.com

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