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Always A Bridesmaid. Never A Bride

Haresh Shah

When I first moved back to Chicago and needed a handyman to help me with installing my sliding shower door and the ceiling fans, I found Antonio Luna on Yellow Pages. Remember those brick heavy door stoppers? Though he tells me, now most of his new clients come from Yelp! Times they’re a changin’J. A Puerto Rican, he grew up in Humboldt Park  – practically right around the corner, though he now lives farther north of here in Roger’s Park. He remembers the early days of his countrymen occupying the near north-west neighborhoods of Chicago – containing of Wicker Park, West Town and pre-dominantly Puerto Rican, Humboldt Park – the area mainly sandwiched between the high flying Puerto Rican flags made of steel pipes, firmly posted on the east at North Artesian and on the west at North Mozart Avenues, arch over West Division Street aka Paseo Boricua (Puerto Rican Walk). The reason the flags are made of steel is to honor thousands of Puerto Ricans who came from the island between  1946 and 1966 to work at Chicago’s steel mills. The masts are 55 feet tall and the flags span 56 feet across Division Street. Each of them weighing 30 tons and can withstand 75 miles an hour winds.

When a couple of months ago I mentioned to Tonio about my Down Division project, I had no clue how Division Street has a history not only of the crime and the gang warfare, but that Paseo Boricua, mere five houses south from where I live was the hot bed of the political unrest and riots forty some years earlier. Tonio begins to reminisce about how he witnessed the riots of June 12 -14, 1966. The day when the Puerto Rican Day Parade that began on State Street downtown Chicago – all joyous and colorful, broke out into the devastating riot on Division Street at Damen Avenue, in reaction to the Chicago cop Thomas Munyon, having shot in the leg the Puerto Rican young man, Arcelis Cruz.

The years  that followed saw more of the unrest with the gang warfare and the political tensions over the U.S. control of Puerto Rico. The mid seventies saw a spike in violence with bombings and years of protests.

Something I could hardly begin to fathom, having watched the Puerto Rican Day Parades of the last ten years and how they all have been peaceful fun and frolicking. People milling around and dancing in their vibrant multi-colored outfits, dressed up in Puerto Rican motifs – hundreds of Puerto Rican flags flying, hoards of families watching the floats filled with celebrants draped in flamboyant folkloric costumes, followed by a large fleet of awesome vintage automobiles followed by hundreds of motor bikes vrooming their powerful machines. The happy noise and the revelry. Proud Puerto Ricans and other locals alike watching or marching in the parade, big happy smiles plastered over  everyone’s faces.

I mention to Tonio what I had heard about the gang the Latin Disciples and how they would disrupt and terrorize.

‘I may even have been one of those gang members.’

‘Were you a Disciple?’

‘No, I was a part o the rival gang, the Latin Kings.’

Seeing that I was still trying to process the information, he adds a disclaimer: You know, I was just in my teens and it was one of the things you just did when you’re that age – you know, when you’re that young, you want to belong. A brief pause later, he continues: Never participated in any of the riots or shoot outs. I was not that colorful a person in my teens. Always a bridesmaid never a bride.’ And I believe him because Antonio I know is a gentle soul and doubt if he could even kill a fly, let alone hurt innocent people!

And I got married at seventeen and had three children in the following six years – my oldest  son is fifty years old now. He refers to his wife of the time as “the mother of my children”. Since then he is very happily married to his current wife, Lucia.

He continues with a distance look in his eyes: I still remember the riots breaking out on Division Street during the Puerto Rican Parade. There were armies of police and shootings. The cars were turned over and burned. Forty five buildings on fire.

© 2018 Haresh Shah

Illustration: Mural on N. Campbell Street at Division




When I sailed back to the US in the fall of 1975, I drove cross country from New York to California. During my stop over in Chicago, I ordered a glass of white wine at a neighborhood bar. I almost fell off my chair when the bartender asked:  straight up or on the rocks? Who would have known that forty some years later, we would have a sophisticated neighborhood shop specializing in quality wines? Filled with the passion and the devotion of likes of Joe Dalton.


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