By: todd Gastelum
I was used to rebooting my life: CTL+ALT+DEL and voilà, tabula rasa.
About to turn thirty, it was time for me to move. Once again, I was leaving a boyfriend I’d taken up with in a previous life. Once again, it was me who fucked things up. Now I needed my own place. I was hoping for the top floor of a brick three-flat, preferably with hardwood floors, a bay window, and crown molding. Somewhere near the 18th Street stop on the Blue Line with a view of buckled chimneys, waltzing antennas and the Baroque twin towers of St. Adalbert’s.
That’s not the apartment I found.
My new place was the rear unit on the top floor of an architecturally featureless building, whose ground floor taquería would eventually add another ten pounds to my frame. The apartment had been recently remodeled with a coat of white matte and cheap beige linoleum that still reeked of glue. There were just three rooms: a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen/dining/living room too cramped to qualify as open concept. All the doors were standard-issue Home Depot as were the kitchen cabinets and bathroom fixtures. The tiny window over the kitchen sink gazed into a narrow air shaft, and the double-paned windows behind my futon framed an alley with a backbone of splintered utility poles and drooping cables. If I lived a dozen floors higher, I’d have been able to see the lake, but I didn’t and I couldn’t. I had no link to the natural world—only the constant rumbling of big rigs speeding toward the Stevenson Expressway.
I moved to the longest street within the city limits: Western Avenue. It cut a wide swath across a patchwork of urban neighborhoods that went from south to north affluent Black, middle-class Black, poor Black, working-class Black and Latino, poor Black, working-class Latino with white gentrification, middle-class mixed and, right before you cross into Evanston, working-class Indians and Pakistanis, with a spattering of Russian Jews. My stretch of Western sat in the middle, inside a tourniquet of railroad tracks amid derelict brick factories and social service agencies. My block was halfway between Flappers, an adult bookstore, and Fairplay, a dismal supermarket where shoppers bought dented cans and two-liter bottles of Faygo soda pop. My neighborhood also housed dollar stores, the city kill shelter, and Fun Wash, a 24-hour laundromat best avoided after 10 p.m. to prevent violent run-ins with bored teenagers.
It was neither a stylish apartment nor a great neighborhood, but none of that mattered. I was just happy to have moved to the barrio, Pilsen.
I’d come to Chicago in 1997 after an aborted attempt to live the good life in Nashville. My boyfriend Andrew was from Tennessee, and he’d sold me on the charms of the South. Said it was so much cheaper than Seattle, that we’d live like kings.
Instead, we became paupers on Music Row, where we rented a roach-infested apartment that could’ve doubled as a crematorium during the smokehouse summer. Just six months in, I was already plotting our escape north. I would’ve settled for any big city north of the 40th parallel, but a long weekend in Chicago sold me on the City of Big Shoulders.
I counted down the days to the end of our lease, drunk on bourbon while studying a map of Chicago. I spent hours analyzing statistics to find the best neighborhood, and since social scientists have been studying the city for generations, there were mountains of qualitative data I could play with. I used highlighters to color census tracts by poverty and homicide rates. Starved for diversity after a year among Nashville’s two-tone population and its perplexing racial codes, I established where immigrants clustered. I crossed out areas that were too far from El stops or that didn’t have a decent grocery. I plotted the locations of Starbucks—that poster child of late-90s gentrification—and made sure that there were no mermaids in any of the places I shortlisted.
The winning neighborhood was Logan Square.
It was unlike any other place I’d lived, and I fell for it the same way I’d fallen in love with Thai food a decade earlier. Why hadn’t it been a part of my life sooner? Andrew and I were elated to find a comfortable two-bedroom in a solid block of flats along a tree-lined boulevard, just a thirty-minute El ride from the Loop. Sure, the neighborhood was scruffy, with tagged storefronts up and down Milwaukee Avenue, litter blowing around the namesake square, and too few places for late-night eats—but none of that mattered. I fell in love with my new home because, for the first time in my life, I lived among Latinos.
The neighborhood was home to an established Puerto Rican community, and the corner bodegas sold jíbarito sandwiches and stocked yuca, plantains, and every Goya product known to humankind. But there was more to the neighborhood than Boricua pride—it was a microcosm of all of Latin America’s people and commerce. Cubans sold stringy ropa vieja in a dancehall-cum-restaurant that attracted middle-aged men in fedoras. Guatemalans sold long-distance phone cards in tiny storefronts blasting techno-cumbia remixes of the Spice Girls. Colombians sold bandejas paisas piled high with fried pork, beans, and eggs served on broad wooden platters. Mexicans sold everything else: fruit, second-hand clothing, pan dulce, cell phone accessories, garish chrome rims, tamales, pirated DVDs, and pink cushioned toilet seats.
Logan Square’s in-your-face ethnicity mocked my non-identity. My Latino-ness rose to the surface, emerging from my skin like a cicada crawling from the earth after a lengthy slumber. Until now, I looked into a mirror and saw nothing more than short black hair atop a freckled face.
I never saw Latino.
I never saw Hispanic.
I never saw Mexican-American.
But Logan Square swapped out my mirror while I slept, and when I awoke, my reflection was dried beans and corn husks.
Home was suburban California, and although my mother was Mexican-American, I’d never applied that label to myself. After all, Dad was a blend of English and German. I identified more with the natural environment of my home state—poppies and sourgrass, lizards and toads, sycamores and coyotes—than with a marginalized ethnic group. Me Mexican? Not a chance.
What are you? The interrogation begins. I’m eight years old.
American, I reply. God, I hate this schoolyard question, but those of us with black hair, dark skin, or almond eyes are used to this game.
No, you know what I mean. Where are you from?
California, I say. I’m from San Jose.
Your family. He presses on. Where’s your family from?
I think for a minute. I can continue, explaining that my family’s lived in the United States for generations, or I can end the interrogation and tell him what I know he wants to hear.
My great-grandparents are from Germany, England, and Mexico.
This slur never wounded me; it only left me perplexed. God knows my mother tried to cultivate a strong ethnic identity in me, but it never germinated. It’s not that I was ashamed of my Mexican ancestry; it simply seemed irrelevant. Though my childhood friends mirrored the Benetton rainbow, none were Mexican.
Besides, I was just a half-breed who didn’t understand Spanish, let alone speak it. Mom’s forebears were pioneer settlers from a beach town barrio near San Diego, but I’d never lived there. And while I loved the flour tortillas Grammy made from scratch, there was nothing particularly exotic about Mexican food. This was California after all, where my junior high school served tacos, burritos, and churros in the cafeteria; it was hard to find anyone who didn’t douse their food with hot sauce.
All I knew about Mexico was what I’d gleaned from my family’s road trips to Baja. My dad behind the steering wheel of our boxy Volvo, we passed the exit for Camino de la Plaza —LAST USA EXIT—and crossed into Mexico without ever having to speak to customs officials. It seemed a land with no rules. We traced the border fence, driving past Tijuana’s vertical shantytowns until we reached the security of the coastal toll highway that would deliver us to the beach rental where we’d rendezvous with the Wojtkowskis. We’d spend the weekend eating homemade pierogies and guacamole, us kids buzzing from chugging Mexican Cokes out of chipped glass bottles while our parents surrendered themselves to blender margaritas the color of disinfectant.
The white walls wouldn’t do. My new apartment screamed for an extreme makeover. Inspired by a coffee-table book on hacienda interiors, undeterred by clashing color palettes, I painted my apartment the most garish, tropical colors I could find. I splashed the walls of the main room with sunflower yellow, which brightened the dark shoe box. My turquoise bedroom suggested the Sea of Cortez, whereas the bathroom screamed lime and cilantro. I delighted in my home improvement efforts, though I never did like looking into the bathroom mirror because the green walls appeared to reflect pond scum onto my face.
The Mexican handicrafts emporium on Ashland became the depository for most of my paycheck. Desperate to purchase my identity, I bought Talavera pottery, punched tin frames, tiled mirrors, hand-woven serapes, and jeweled pendant lamps that reflected a galaxy of tiny stars onto the ceiling. I pinned a massive street map of Mexico City above the TV. I hung antique photos of my immigrant ancestors from Sonora and Guanajuato, while purposefully ignoring those who hailed from Illinois and Pennsylvania.
Even my pantry shelves screamed Mexico, laden as they were with bags of dried masa, cans of pickled jalapeños, and tetra paks of Doña Maria mole. I blasted Café Tacuba singing roc en español while downing shot after shot of cut-rate tequila. My Anglo inhibitions on the floor, I’d dance alone beside the dining table, mistaking my drunkenness for Mexican pride.
I felt proud almost every night in the faux-fiesta atmosphere of my Pilsen apartment.
He approached me with a flyer in his hand.
Oye, he said as he handed me the paper. Soy Oscar. Quiero invitarte a una party el próximo sábado. ¿Te gusta la música house?
Um, I stammered. ¿Qué?
Oh, you speak English.
Well, I’m Oscar. He smiled.
Yeah, I got that.
I never seen you around here. What’s your name?
I loved that he first spoke to me in Spanish. It made me feel authentically Mexican instead of the North Side poseur I was, with my white boyfriend and white-collar job. He was striking—his shaved head topped by a backward Sox cap above cocoa eyes. An Ecko jersey drooped over his sagging khakis. He was street, and I was smitten.
Imma give you my number in case you want to come. You got a cell phone?
I passed him my Nokia, and he punched in his name and number. Then he disappeared into the shadows of the bar just as the first notes of a Selena song began. It raised cheers from the crowd.
Girl! What the fuck? Armando had been watching the whole thing go down, and he was thrilled to have caught me in the act of flirting with a random guy. Now, I know you didn’t just give your number to that thug. You tell him you have a boyfriend?
No, I said. He’s cute. Why the hell would I tell him about Andrew?
Don’t go cheatin’ on your man just ’cause you want to get a taste of some verga mexicana. Whore, you know that all dick tastes the same.
He invited me to a party. I’m never gonna see him again so just chill. I need another beer.
My friend Armando had brought me to the Chesterfield, a South Side bar where you got frisked at the door. I’d never been to a gay bar like it. The clientele was 100% Latino—working-class Mexicans drinking buck-fifty MGDs in a dank cavern an hour’s drive south of the phony glamour of Boystown. There were construction workers and meat cutters, coked-out drag queens and scowling chola dykes with painted eyebrows ready to throw down. No one spoke English it seemed. Why hadn’t I come here before?
Though my apartment was on a shitty stretch of Western, I was only a ten-minute walk from 18th Street. I’d set out with my backpack and Discman as I headed into Pilsen’s bustling commercial heart. My feet took me past revolutionary murals, record shops blaring tubas and accordions, and fruterías atomizing papaya, mango, and lime onto the sidewalk. The foreignness of the neighborhood mesmerized me, and I could spend all afternoon wandering, taking photos and notes to document everything I encountered.
I was in my second year of college, and I’d switched my major from sociology to geography. This was a natural progression from childhood, when I poured over back issues of National Geographic and never missed an episode of Big Blue Marble, a PBS program that featured biopic shorts about real children in exotic places, like Bophuthatswana and Prince Edward Island. The show promoted the utopian ideal of world peace and understanding, which I believed to be perfectly attainable. Together is a word we must learn to understand, went the theme song, if we ever want to get to know each other better.
There was no better place for fieldwork than Chicago. The cliché was true—it was a city of neighborhoods, most of them as distinct from one another as the Midwestern seasons. On Saturdays, I’d ride the El to distant stations, where I’d surrender my feet to the pavement, melting the rubber from my soles as I walked five, six, seven miles through ethnic fiefdoms that transformed with every major arterial, viaduct, or bridge. My curiosity led me to Georgian bakeries, Vietnamese supermarkets, and Pakistani gift shops that sold plastic mosque alarm clocks that chimed five times a day.
Pilsen was as foreign to me as Little India or that stretch of Milwaukee Avenue that smelled of kielbasa and kolacky. I approached the neighborhood as a geographer, as I’d done with Chicago’s other immigrant enclaves—the only difference was that here, it looked as if I should speak the neighborhood’s lingua franca. My newly purchased Aztec calendar T-shirt, and primitive Spanish language skills, however, weren’t enough to grant me insider status, though I hoped that with time, I’d crack the Pilsen code. I had Mexican blood, so, wasn’t it my birthright to claim Pilsen as my own?
In the beginning, the fact that he smelled of potato chips was a plus. He arrived at my apartment in his blue work shirt, name embroidered upon his chest. He wasn’t fat—not exactly—but a diet of junk food and pop filled out his short frame. I could taste the salt, the rancid oil, and his sweat as he wrapped his arms around me and placed his fat lips on mine. I loved that he was a forklift driver at the potato chip factory. A union forklift driver. It was so authentic, so unlike my prissy legal secretary job in the Sears Tower.
Him: Hey, Papi.
Me: Butter in a hot skillet.
In the beginning, I lapped up his smell—pure South Side—and I’d tell him to fuck me before he showered. He pulled away, embarrassed by the fact that he smelled of hard work, but I’d always get my way. I’d strip off his uniform and surrender to the fantasy that exists only in the minds of white middle-class gay men. Naked, he’d pummel away at my ass, shaking his head back and forth as he tried to delay his orgasm.
Oh, Papi! he’d scream as he tensed his muscles and lubricated my insides.
I was somebody’s Papi.
He lived with his mother in a brick bungalow in the East Side, a city neighborhood so far south it hugged the Indiana state line. He spent his Sundays with her at a floating casino, where the poor flushed their earnings into Lake Michigan. He smoked Newports and drove a blue Pontiac Sunfire with a massive dent on the passenger side. He’d bought the car new with money he’d won in an insurance settlement from yet another car accident. In Oscar’s world, lawsuits, like gambling, were a toehold to the middle class.
In the beginning, I thought we could bridge our class differences. I spoke Standard American English and was raised by parents who understood the power of reading and education. Oscar spoke a vernacular language, with muddled verb tenses and rough slang that would have felt unnatural in my own throat. He believed more in social capital than saving money and relied on a long list of friends he’d hit up for cash whenever one paycheck didn’t make it to the next.
After a few months, his conjugation, like his greasy scent, grated on my nerves. It was a constant reminder that our differences were tangible and irreconcilable. The class divide was real. I wanted to move forward in life. He wanted to keep it real.
Not that I left him.
Being desired by a tough from the wrong side of the tracks was too delicious a sensation to throw away. I may have considered myself a progressive Mexican-American, but I was no different from those despicable colonialist white boys who wanted to fuck an exotic trophy.
It’s midnight when I step off the bus at Western and Blue Island just a few blocks from home. The abandoned railroad viaduct casts a shadow onto the cracked asphalt and the corner of a Hennessey billboard flaps in the warm wind. June often brings strange weather to the Midwest. Just a few hours earlier, the moist air now embracing me collided with a cold front over Wisconsin, causing an outbreak of deadly tornados. There are no storms predicted for Chicago, but it feels like it could rain at any moment. My anxiety rattles as I move past the adult bookstore and walk down the alley away from these crossroads of post-industrial blight.
White people won’t come here after dark. The men who cruise the alleys are Mexican immigrants who don’t speak English. They work jobs I’d never do and live in too-small quarters in neighborhoods worse than mine. I crave sex with these men. They offer me something I need—a link to my Mexican identity. I’m not even Catholic, yet I view the act of taking their bodies into my mouth as a sort of Holy Communion. I may be imperfect yet they love me. I know their love is real because they flood my throat with their cum. I don’t believe in God, yet here I am, again surrendering to desire—the only higher power I know.
The alley is lit harshly to stave off perverts like me. I see him standing in a shadow under the eaves of a vinyl-sided garage. He’s attractive enough, but that doesn’t matter. As long as he fits the profile—dark eyes, black hair, nut-colored skin—I’ll suck his dick. I walk past him two times, returning his stare, but I don’t linger. On the third pass, he nods and mutters ¿Qué onda? We both know why we’re here, so I move into his shadow and lay my hand on the buckled crotch of his jeans. There’s no need for small talk or games.
I drop to my knees and take his cock in my mouth.
The body of Christ. Amen.
When I’m especially anxious or horny, I set out sober from my apartment. Usually, though, I’ve numbed my senses with tequila and weed before stumbling downstairs to prowl for Mexican dick. Sometimes I drag my prey into my home. Sometimes I suck them off against an alley dumpster. Sometimes we fuck among the broken glass and cinder blocks of the abandoned factory across the street.
I should probably fear for my safety.
I never do.
It’s not about love. It’s not about desire. I’ll have sex with anyone—even the homeless. All that matters is that they speak to me in Spanish.
I lived in that apartment on Western Avenue for two years. I felt certain that living in a real Mexican neighborhood would help me find my true identity—the one I’d backshelved my entire life. Instead, I faced surging anxiety while pursuing a life of drinking, drugs, and risky sex with strangers. By the time I left, I didn’t feel particularly Mexican. I hadn’t even learned how to speak Spanish. Chupé tanta pinche verga, pero aún no podía hablar español.
A year after I left Pilsen, I went to Toronto for a month-long teacher training course. I loved being out of Chicago and in a foreign metropolis, with new neighborhoods and immigrant enclaves to explore. One evening, I arranged to meet up with a guy I’d met online at a gay bar on Church Street. His name was Iksandr, and he was a Sudanese physicist who’d been in the city for a couple of years. As we drank our pints, Iksandr poured a small puddle of ale onto the table and began to explain the principles of fluid mechanics.
Look at the pattern of the splash, he said, still holding his glass. See the coronet? Tell me what you see when the droplet of beer hits the surface.
Aside from diving cannonballs into our backyard swimming pool as a kid, I’d never thought about splashes or drop impact, but his discussion held me rapt as I dabbed at the edge of the puddle with my index finger. He was intelligent and engaging—so unlike my unlettered boyfriend back in Chicago. Several pints later and our conversation paused when we brought our faces together to chew on each other’s hoppy lips.
Arm in unsteady arm, we left the bar and were making our way to College Street when his cell phone rang.
Walaykom alsalam, he answered. He spoke quickly in Arabic—a series of raspy consonants and glottal stops.
When he finished his call, Iksandr apologized, explaining, That was my brother. He wanted to know where I am.
What do you mean? I asked.
I honestly didn’t get it. Here was a grown man living in Canada, choosing to report his whereabouts to his older brother. He saw that I found this confusing and a bit unsettling.
This is Canada! You can do whatever you want here!
You don’t understand, he told me. You can take a man out of Sudan and put him in liberal Canada, but he does not stop being Sudanese. You inhabit a different city than I do. When I go home to the apartment I share here with my brother and mother, I am not in Toronto—I am in Khartoum. Our identities are not as fluid as you think.
Our identities are not as fluid as you think.
His words have stuck with me to this day.
As for my old apartment on Western, it was destroyed in an electrical fire just a couple of months after I’d moved out. Faulty renovation. My past erased. I was free to try and reinvent myself once again.
Todd Gastelum writes memoir and nonfiction that explores place, ethnicity, sexuality, social class and mental health. He was a 2015 Lambda Literary fellow in nonfiction and has published essays in Lumina, The James Franco Review, and Emerge: 2015 Lambda Literary Anthology. He lives and works in Mexico City, where you can usually find him walking the streets and dodging traffic, in his kitchen, or making comics.