Saturday, August 08, 2015

Logan Square Cirque du So-Hip Moves into My Church (or When Truth is Stranger than Fellini)

The new look of the Big Top!
Yesterday, a childhood friend sent me this article, which details how the church where I grew up; where my Princeton and University of Chicago-educated, Colombian, minister father helped lead the Logan Square community toward education and faith, all with incredible humor and sensitivity; where I and countless others learned to become the best versions of ourselves, will become a circus training center. Yes, a circus training center.

When I heard the news, visions of bratty hipsters with overpaid brokers, spouting phrases like, "Oh, we can really do something with those high ceilings, and the stained glass will cast such a lovely glow over everything...," came into my head. I wanted to punch their smug faces and scream, "You know nothing of what has happened in this space! You cannot appreciate it and your petty talents will never come close to the grandeur of the viejitas who taught me everything I know here. Screw you and your stupid double-jointed, pelvic-bone-on-top-of-skull pseudo artistic acrobatics! Blah!" The article itself has the kind of troublesome phrases that most certainly belong in a Whit Stillman or Noah Baumbach screenplay, stuff like, "Chicago is sort of becoming a home and a mecca for the contemporary circus movement" [Seriously - are you listening to yourself? Why are we trying to elevate the circus?? Please keep it low, where it belongs!] and "Every time I see a church get turned into condos I'm like 'No!'....It could be something so cool." Yeah, cool, like a circus. That's what I think of when I think of cool.

Did anyone ever think that there could be a cool place where Latinos/as congregate and learn to become awesome people by discussing philosophy, helping the disenfranchised in the community with food and education, and making sure to dance and cook like it's nobody's business? Nah, that's not cool enough, right? Because who cares about what Latinos/as do to make their worlds incredible. Let's swing from trapezes, instead, and ensure a community center closes down. Granted, swinging from trapezes does sound like fun, but I never thought that someone would do it in the place that all of my childhood friends and I consider a Mecca of sorts. I never thought the place I consider holy would turn into marketplace (story sound familiar?). Somehow (read: SARCASM), it cheapens the space, kind of like how clown paint makes me think of cheap, like velvet paintings to glittery, watery spectacles called "cirques" that take place in the cheapest of all places, Vegas. I mention this because, apparently, the organization that bought my childhood home of contemplation trains Cirque du Soleil flying goofballs. Look, I love cheap. I'm not a John Waters fan for nothing - give me the kitsch and I'm there! - but I guess I needed this place to remain, perhaps, a historic landmark. That seems more fitting. White people get historic landmarks all the time; why not Latinos/as? People DO know that we have been a huge part of Logan Square's history, right??

Let me explain. I cannot speak for the current leaders and current congregation that has allowed this travesty to take place, nor can I speak for the United Church of Christ which, apparently, doesn't give a f*** about its Latino/a community centers, but I can speak for First Spanish United Church of Christ, where my father was the leader from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s. Here's some of the stuff that took place, because of my father's work and the incredible work of the congregation that supported his vision: 1) Dad brought an extension of Elmhurst College to the church, and that branch educated countless Latinos/as and non-Latinos/as in the Logan Square area who could not attend college otherwise; 2) First Spanish had a day care, La Progresiva, where tons of little kids got excellent nutrition and care while their parents worked all day - many of these parents could not have afforded daycare, otherwise; 3) Dad, who also worked for Lutheran General Hospital, as a therapist, brought a branch to the Logan Square area and he helped countless families and single folks get their lives back on track (normally, therapists at that time charged a minimum of $80 per session, but Dad regularly gave sessions to folks for $20 because he knew they couldn't afford more; he also was not a Woody Allen-esque infinite analyst who took advantage of patients - Dad's patients had goals and there was a set date they had to meet them by, so the sessions definitely came to an end); 4) we, of course, had a food kitchen and regularly fed folks who didn't have food; 5) we had a ton of donated clothes which we gave away to the needy and, on occasion when we had too much, we sold for about twenty-five cents an item - people LOVED our penny sales for the 1960s dresses and perfectly kept kitchen appliances; 6) we worked with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in order to make several events take place, the best being the Logan Square Festival, where all the area churches and organizations put on a neighborhood-wide party with games, contests, music, dancing, and food - there was NOTHING better than the Festival day/night, which kept us busy with laughter and friendship among a wide array of ethnicities, including but not limited to Polish, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Korean; other events included the Logan Square Olympics, which had kids from all over competing for trophies, and the Logan Square Summer Camp, which gave kids arts, sports, and educational activities during the school-free summer months; 7) Papi (that means Dad!) also made sure to have a service every year that celebrated anyone who graduated at any level, so us young people saw education, from kindergarten to doctoral studies, being honored on a regular basis - that left an incredible impact and definitely encouraged us all to strive to be well-informed people; 8) our pulpit was a place where the unexpected took place: El Reverendo (that's Dad!) quoted people like Martin Luther AND Juan Luis Guerra, he often wore Hawaiian shirts and leis (simply because he loved them), and his sermons could include analyses of world politics, the latest Susan Sarandon film, or how his penis made him feel awkward when he was a kid - totally not joking and yes, my face was red during that one - Papi was an EXCELLENT writer and educator and if there is anything that everyone remembers about First Spanish, it is his love and his sermons; 9) the congregation regularly went on camping trips to UCC locales, like Tower Hill, in Sawyer, Michigan, and Pleasant Valley, in Woodstock, Illinois, and as a result, many of us had a wonderful exposure to the natural elements not found in the city, which often reminded us of our countries of origin, or if we were born here, gave us knowledge of non-urban spaces; these places also exposed us to racism on a regular basis, because non-Latino/a UCC churches, also there, treated us like mierda, but that strengthened our character, too; 10) we all cared for each other, everyone's mom or dad being everyone else's mom or dad.

For that last number, 10, I have a set of things I want to add which cannot fit in my awkwardly punctuated, run-on paragraph. At First Spanish, when I got into an argument with my mom, Gladys took me aside and helped me make up with her. At First Spanish, when I was having trouble in college, Reimundo took me aside and reassured me, told me I could do it. At First Spanish, when I decided to spike my hair up and wear black lipstick, my mom said, "Wear what you want! (Just try to include a bra, please!)." At First Spanish, when my closest friend, Nancy, and I had a huge falling out, our families got together and sat around and talked about it, all so that we could remain friends. She is still my oldest friend to this day. At First Spanish, whenever anyone had a baby or a wedding, everyone was ready to gather to celebrate with that person. At First Spanish, whenever anyone had a divorce, or a drug/alcohol problem, they were not shunned from the church (at least not by the best members); everyone gathered to help that person keep moving forward, in love. At First Spanish, whenever illness took over, we could stand up and ask others to keep our worries in mind, and they all did, and they often visited bed-ridden members with food, or just to keep them company. At First Spanish, my dad put our HOME NUMBER on the front of the program that everyone would get at each service, and whenever our phone rang, he answered, any time of day or night, and no matter how small or big the problem, Papi was there for that person. At First Spanish, everyone cared about everyone else. Punto.

This did not go unrecognized. Between 1975 and the early 2000s, you could not go anywhere in Chicago with my father, Rev. Dr. Samuel Acosta, without someone recognizing him. Papi even received a commendation, for his exceptional efforts, from the now retired Mayor Daley. The document has faded under sun exposure, but it's still there. Papi cannot remember much of what he contributed to, as he has Alzheimer's disease now, but his incoherent ramblings always have a specific subject: First Spanish. He goes on and on about helping the children, helping the young people, doing things in the community. He may not remember our names, but he remembers his mission, the congregation's mission. And so do I.

Hip acrobatics cannot erase what took place there. When I look at that building, I will always feel what Logan Square was, what it should still be - a community. I find it incredible how people can look at something and not wonder anything about what was once there, what it has been, where it comes from. It's kind of like meeting a person and never asking him/her what his/her influences have been, and just imposing what you want right now. But I guess history can be incredibly inconvenient because it just might make you adjust your vision, and for that, we'd have to be flexible, kind of like an acrobat.

*I am currently writing a creative non-fiction memoir called First Spanish: Logan Square in the 1970s to 1990s, and I recently worked on it in June 2015, at a residency in Spain, at Can Serrat. I hope to publish it soon.