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The Literary Adventures of Humboldt Park

June’s full moon reached its peak at 6:51 AM this morning. Historically, Algonquin tribes would celebrate this Strawberry Moon as the time to gather ripening strawberries. But perhaps the alternate name, Hot Moon, is more befitting today’s 100 degree heat.

Tonight’s as good of a night as any to slow down and enjoy Humboldt Park’s broad and deep literary tradition of the past several decades. Notably, the neighborhood around Sandra Cisneros’ childhood home at 1525 N. Campbell Avenue inspired her work The House on Mango Street. L. Frank Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz while living at 1667 N. Humboldt Boulevard, where a yellow brick sidewalk commemorates him today. And Saul Bellow, whose epic Adventures of Augie March is widely considered a classic as it crosses the wide range of Depression-era American experience, moved to 2629 W. Augusta Boulevard when he was nine.

Amongst works closely tethered to the “place” of Humboldt Park, Xenia Ruiz’ self-published Humboldt Park Days captures the spirit of the neighborhood’s prominent Puerto Rican lineage.

“In the mornings, Pop’s whistle wakes us up like an alarm clock. He whistles all day long- when he’s in the shower, dressing or driving. He says, In Puerto Rico, there are little frogs called coquis that whistle like this- coqui, coqui. We look at him confused; we thought frogs “ribbit” not whistle. Ay, ustedes no saben na’ deso, he says shaking his head like, too bad, so sad.”

Recounting childhood memories- burning a forgotten pot of rice while watching “Batman” in the next room, playing chicken with a fence while bicycling to the bottom of the Christiana Avenue “hill”- Ruiz weaves together short stories with recurring themes and characters of her childhood. Her sense of literary rhythm becomes literal in the book’s closing story. “Girls don’t play congas,” her neighbor Papo taunts her. Her mother says the same, adding, “it messes up your hands.” But nevertheless she and her sister learn. On the last night of summer they impress neighbors with a front stoop jam. Tutun-TAK, tutun-TAK, Tutun-TAK.  

Despite some geographical overlap with Ruiz, Reymundo Sanchez’ My Bloody Life: The Making of a Latin King recounts childhood much less fondly. Writing under a pseudonym, Sanchez reflects on an abusive childhood home and desire to belong that drove him into allegiance with the Latin Kings. Initially seeking acceptance by girls and access to parties, he learned to be “as cold-blooded as anybody else.” Traversing familiar local settings such as the former Tuley High School, Maplewood Park, and local gang headquarters at Kedzie & Armitage, he ultimately escapes a violent teenage existence. Once outside, he reflects on the world he stepped outside of.

“The Latin Kings was not just a street gang run by local thugs; they were a drug empire run by adults who were rarely seen. These people were getting rich while kids were being shot on street corners thinking they were fighting for some honorable cause.”

If Sanchez’ gangs threatened the colorful and idyllic childhoods recounted by Ruiz, John Guzlowski remembers a mother tough enough to fend off the threat. In the poem Friends in America: Murdertown in Echoes of Tattered Tongues, his mom successfully fends off a gang member trying to steal her groceries.

He pleaded with his homeboys
to come save him from my mom
They wouldn’t come.
They were afraid.

Finally my mom stopped kicking the gang boy,
and she let him crawl away.

My mother had survived three years
of life in a concentration camp,
and she knew how to get by
in the streets of Chicago
in our old neighborhood

On a lighter, but no less real note, Guzlowski’s Ten Things I See from the Division Street Bus 1967 from True Confessions presents a cast of characters. This includes a singing man with a necklace of plastic baby dolls, a school girl running dizzying circles around her brother, a man with an A & P shopping bag, a teenage girl keeping a dark secret. If these characters no longer carry on their lives along Division Street a half century later, they’ve surely been replaced by a new cast of characters along the #70 bus.

The list of Humboldt-Park-connected authors goes on and on. Local storyteller Lily Be contributed a story set near Blast! Fitness to the Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook, and played MC for a would-be-state-representative’s campaign launch. Poet Eduardo Arocho has guided tours through the neighborhood for decades. And Marisel Vera, whose historical fiction Taste of Sugar documents a young couple’s disillusionment as migrant Puerto Rican laborers in Hawaii, promises a forthcoming childhood-inspired novel The Girls of Humboldt Park.

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