The richest forms of culture aren’t in the tourist trap destinations, but in the quiet streets where real people live, love and labor. I’ve traveled to over two-dozen countries where I’ve had the opportunity to step away from the tourist attractions and work my way into the backstreets where the nationals let go of their commercial facades and live their normal life.
With the great diversity in the Chicagoland area, I’ve also stumbled upon pockets of people living richly in the heritage of their family culture. Those moments are precious to me because I get a glimpse of what they face in their day-to-day lives.
A couple weeks ago, I finished work in Addison’s industrial area. The fastest way home for the weekend was driving past the older and more run down warehouses. Some of the buildings had boarded up windows and none had seen a fresh coat of paint within the past decade.
I was three blocks from a street that would take me back to my life’s reality when I noticed high-tension power lines overhead. To my left, underneath the lines, was a vacant lot with old rusty semi-trailers flanking the far side. The area looked dormant and unkempt with the exception of the lively soccer game being played by dark olive and lighter skinned Mexicans.
The contrast between the energetic players in the dilapidated surroundings compelled me to stop the car. I hopped out and hustled to the side of the lot with my video camera in hand. The tan and brownish grass perfectly matched the color palette of the rusty trailers. Bare trees and spindly gray bushes helped to confine the outer areas of play. The multi-shades of brown bricks at the neighboring warehouse where spectators watched the game framed my footage.
Within seconds the players and those sitting against the neighboring building turned their heads toward me. I acknowledged everyone with a nod and continued filming. A few guys played harder with the presence of the camera and a couple moved out of frame. There was only one woman on the field, and she displayed a great deal of frustration every time the guys passed the ball around her.
The youngest man was in his late teens and the oldest looked like he was pushing 70 something. The sidelines were filled with family members and injured players from a previous game. A beautiful woman surrounded by a few kids stood up and called out to me, “Would you like to play?” What a generous person to make an offer for my inclusion.
“No thanks, I’m filming,” I said and then turned back to shoot an incredible battle for a loose ball and an attempted score. The ball hit off of the makeshift goal, which looked like dirty yellow pipes bent in the approximate shape of a giant croquet hoop to satisfy any arguments of what was considered in or out of the would-be net area.
When the guys took a beer break, an eight-year-old girl ran up to me. She was inquisitive and filled with joy. I showed her how the camera worked and she took me over to meet her family. It was no surprise to learn that her mother was the one who invited me to participate.
The mom’s nickname was Chellie and she was a beautiful woman with a classy, yet effervescent personality. She spoke English eloquently, while humbly suggesting that her vocabulary was small. Chellie introduced me to her three daughters, son and husband. Her husband, who was injured and not able to play, took care of the little guy.
One of her girls shared an interest in becoming a doctor and our conversation revealed her ability to become whatever she desired in life. Our discussion meandered through several more topics as we all enjoyed getting to know each other.
I was surprised to learn that Chellie was a driver for the same company where her husband, brother and father worked. Based on how well she spoke English and how she carried herself, I would’ve expected to hear about a professional career. But then again, I come across very different than the stereotype of my job.
The best part of the conversation was sharing our cultural differences and similarities. And, thanks to a few Spanish classes at church, I attempted to say a thing or two without murdering Chellie’s language. Thankfully she was gracious and enjoyed practicing English because she speaks Spanish at home and work.
When I asked how often the guys played, she answered, “Every Friday after work.”
“For how long?” I asked.
“They usually play until 9 or 10 at night.”
“It sounds like a ritual.”
“Well, there is no changing it.”
“So, do you go home and make dinner or something?”
“Oh no, I never make dinner of Friday nights,” she said with a smile. “We go out.”
“I suppose that makes sense if you’re here watching them play all night.”
“Oh yes. Nobody here cooks on Friday night.”
My time was running short, so I excused myself and headed toward the car. I thought about returning to the vacant lot in the near future to check in with my new friends. It would give me a chance to share the final short film I cut together.
I hopped in my car, started the engine and reflected back on the various topics we discussed. I had gained a lot by listening to their perspective on life. I also felt a longing in my heart to create a story that could give the kids hope in a future that they currently perceive as bleak.
As I drove away, my heart ached for funding to create stories that might touch the lives of those kids. I need a miracle and I’m waiting for an answer. After all, everyone in the area deserves someone interjecting hope into his or her life.