Feature photo by valeriebb

I have always loved my neighborhood, its streets and alleys, the nosy next-door neighbor, the makeshift restaurant out of the woman’s kitchen down the street, the too-many kids running up and down on the tiny patches of city grass. I even like the corner church where people try to save me every time I walk by: “The world is going to end! Can’t you see all the signs are there! Salvation can only be found in Jesus!” It all makes me smile and makes me feel at home somehow. After a decade of always moving and four years in a university where I was often the only Latina in my classes, living in La Villita is the first time I feel I can claim a neighborhood as mine.

I moved into La Villita on purpose. I say this because most of the people I knew who were leaving college to move back to Chicago always seemed to think Chicago meant the North Side and everything else was the ghetto. I always defend my neighborhood against everyone who speaks ill of it. This includes an argument with a stranger who, after replying to a “roommate wanted” ad, told me he changed his mind when he drove around and thought the neighborhood looked dangerous. I defy anyone to find better tamales than those from El Milagro, a more delicious vegetarian Mexican restaurant than El Faro, or more eloteros and paleteros per block anywhere else in Chicago. Nothing has ever changed my love of La Villita.

Until a couple weeks ago. I was walking down the street to get some coffee with my girlfriend. It was one of those annoyingly cute moments in a budding relationship where my hand would tentatively reach for hers and then pull back and we go back and forth until our fingers interlace for the first time. All I wanted to do was hold her hand, but for the first time I felt my heart beating for completely un-cute reasons. All I could think, with her fingers interlaced in mine, was what if we cross the wrong person? What if my father, the only person in my life I am not out to, is driving down the street? What if one of those men looking at us in that way she doesn’t notice sees me and remembers me next time I’m walking home alone at night? I held her hand and I held my breath.

Nothing happened. No strangers in dark hoods leapt out of corners. The women of my ancestral line did not spring up to yell “Malinche!” and curse me for betraying them. At worse some people would frown as if confused by what they were seeing. Most people just kept their distance. Part of me wonders if maybe the fear I felt was nothing more than lingering Catholic guilt, but the realist in me has to acknowledge that the danger is always there, that I could come across people who feel they need to voice their disapproval in violent ways. I suppose I could move out. I could find some other queer-friendly place where I hear it is possible to kiss in public without fearing repercussion. However if I did, I know a part of me would feel like I was somehow betraying a piece of the Latina in me. I would once again, every day, feel like the only Latina in the room.

If I could just find the Mexican-American, queer, female, poetry-loving, writing, sometimes politically-active neighborhood, I think I would be in heaven–or find something less depressing to complain about.

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