En mi barrio: A young Friend’s Neighborhood

Like the prince in an elaborate ballet he spins deftly and, with a practiced thrust, knocks his opponent’s épée to the grass. The opponent, who has probably known this was coming—one does not fence with a bodybuilding demigod and expect to win—takes his defeat without rancor. The winner turns and, panther-like, thrusts and parries with an imaginary foe while the young woman who was his audience all along drinks in his performance, her heart thrilling in her breast. They are the neighborhood’s power couple, and they are a mixed couple. This performance is a typical part of a typical day in my neighborhood, which is, for most of the country, not a typical neighborhood at all. It is a many-hued barrio, ¡mi bonito barrio favorito!

My neighborhood speaks a lot of Spanglish. My Spanglish, like my Spanish, has a heavy French accent; when I speak English I sound more like a Vermonter than a child of the Midwest. My Spanish-speaking neighborhood is itself a breathtakingly beautiful tapestry, and the people who make up its warp and weft are a diverse lot: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, American Indians, East Indians, Haitians, African Americans, whites, Asian Americans—we come in every color from brown to pale peach. The young man of the power couple is Puerto Rican. His young lady passes for white but has Native ancestry back a generation or two. Mi bello barrio favorito is mixed in another way too. Some of its denizens work for University of Chicago; others work for Ford. Some are teachers, others auto techs. Some are plumbers, others musicians from Northwestern University’s Graduate School of Music. Some are nurses, some construction workers, others welders. Mi barrio està bien de salud, mes amis.

We are a Ford neighborhood. I was born a Friend; I drive a Ford. Mi querido Focus gets gas mileage as good as a Corolla or an Accord and it costs a good deal less—very important, since my family is among the lower-middle-class familias del barrio. With my Ford, too, I know where my money is going. Someone I know made the car, welding it together with care. Now someone I know—a neighbor, a friend, the uncle of my man, or the youth himself—fixes it. It is nice to know these things.

We like to unfurl our World Series Champion Chicago White Sox banners in my neck of the woods. We scream for soccer too. We play sports, of course—football and baseball and basketball, softball and soccer and track (we’ve got a few javelin throwers and discus hurlers). My neighborhood has produced more than one sports star, and most of the finer youths, the ones parents wish their daughters knew, are bodybuilders. And, of course, we fence. Our home-run derbies can be viewed as Quakerly—there is little or no competition as batters crush one ball after another. (I am proud to say my brothers with their wooden bats are known as power hitters.)

Chicago-area Friends meetings are infernally early. I am, and will always be, a night owl; I don’t like to get up. Once, when I dragged myself in for the 10:30 meeting, I got a tongue-lashing I will never forget. After a great deal of soul-searching I had called an uneasy truce with the truth: I, a straight-A high school grad, had to attend a community college due to financial issues. In other words, we simply cannot afford a private school—even a public four-year will be hard. A member of meeting (a well-known peace activist) let me know in no uncertain terms that I was in arrears: I should have taken out a mortgage every year and attended Earlham, Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, or University of Chicago. I was depressed already; I needed no criticism. Now, however, I know my choice was a good one. I am getting a good education at Prairie State, and I am paying everything. An English professor, a Spanish professor, and the Art History prof who is an artist have all given me support and encouragement. My people, the neighbors who have enveloped me into their large and close-knit community, are there as well, many in the vocational programs. Their pride in me helps me to fly. I also have multiple chances to live my testimonies and follow my faith. By living my testimonies, I have become one of the more popular people around the college.

Here in Chicago’s Southland—which is not a vast holding pen for yokels but a chain of dynamic, lively communities filled with vibrant life and activities—I see other, sadder things on a daily basis. I am, as I know, lucky to be able to attend college at all. In my family it is a requirement, not an option, so come what may, I am expected to attend not only college but to achieve a graduate degree—preferably a PhD—as well. As I am well aware, graduate degrees from excellent institutions do not a rich man make. In fact, they often do nothing at all—most of the poverty-stricken single mothers I know have masters’ degrees or higher. The young man of the power couple would like very much to attend college more than the two years necessary for his welding and automotive technology certificates; he has the mind of a philosopher. But there is no money and he needs help and encouragement to realize that he, like so many others, can go through school part-time. For now he thinks his philosophic thoughts, another Eric Hoffer, and lovingly and patiently encourages his lady in her own pursuit of higher education. At least he is safe here at home: many young men have been claimed by the monster war. I said goodbye to one of my classmates the day classes ended, for the Marines pulled him out early—no finals for him. The war is painfully near to us here in the Southland. In a town 15 minutes away, there is a military funeral every week. Some people see less of the war than I do; others, more. I wish it would all go away, before I wake one morning to find in the casualty list the name of a guy I know.

Me encanta mi barrio mucho. I love my neighborhood a lot. I also think, odd as it may seem, that it helps me to be the Friend I am. I do not know any Friends my own age, which steals from me the religious community some are lucky enough to have. I do, however, have a wonderful, beautiful community—my people, who love me like a second family. They, who are reputed to be big and tough and rough, have never turned to physical intimidation of their enemies. Granted, since they are massive, they might not need to do such a thing—but they are also not the type of people who need to beat another person up. If someone from the outside walked through the neighborhood, they might not realize the girl in the power couple is a Friend. Maybe the person would look at the brilliant colors she wears, at the flashy earrings dripping from her ears, and think she was something else. Perhaps they’d look at her White Sox flag and her little Ford and assume she was a conservative, though nothing could be further from the truth. If she turned up with her young man in his massive truck, would anyone give them a chance? I hope so—I would like to think that in the world afuera de mi barrio, la gente quiere que nos conozca. We have so much to give, so much to offer, and so much yet to learn.

Caitlin Archer-Helke

Caitlin Archer-Helke is a member of Madison (Wis.) Meeting and also sporadically attends 57th Street Meeting in Chicago, Ill. A creative writer, she was homeschooled from infancy through high school and now is a college sophomore.