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Dream House

Every addition to Ernesto Serrano's home is a little piece of his mind.

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Ernesto Serrano says that some of his neighbors think he's crazy, and maybe they're right. Why else would he have 16 full-size wagon wheels welded to his fence? In the yard of his house at 20th Place and May, a menagerie of figurines sprouts from posts: a beaver, a gnome, an elf. Up on the roof a monkey shows its rear end to a mad bull held back by the lasso of a ranchero who looks like he once did duty as a bookend. Around the corner, a lineup of roosters faces out toward Dvorak Park like family crests.

There's too much to take in at a glance, or even a few glances. A circular bas-relief of a conquistador holds steady among the wagon wheels, while a miniature horse-drawn carriage bears down on a white lawn jockey. This is no random display of lawn junk, however. Effects such as the legs from a dress mannequin wheeling crazily out of the top of a rain spout (suggesting the rest of the mannequin has gone down the drain) are too obviously planned. The stuff seems thematically linked by something, but what? Neighborhood kids sometimes speculate on what it all means. They also say the house moves, but only when nobody's looking.

The neighbors' bewilderment is no surprise, but over time Serrano has gained more respect than derision for his strange house. Some years ago area gangs used his garage as a message board, but that stopped after he painted the flags of Mexico and the U.S. on its door. For 15 years he's been working on his house and the two houses just to the south--which he also owns--under the watchful eyes of his children. "Everything here has a weekend in it," says Pablo, the oldest of Ernesto and Gerarda Serrano's three sons. "And every weekend there was an element of surprise for the neighbors and for us: what is my dad doing today?"

Pablo's father, who has worked at the Newly Weds Foods factory in Logan Square for 21 years, was pulling down $125 a week when he bought the three houses back in 1987. Somehow he'd managed to put a little away for the down payment. The houses were wrecks: the roofs leaked straight through to the dirt floors in the basement. He started going to Maxwell Street to find cheap building materials, but he always brought home something at least slightly more fanciful than, say, the sea green tile he used to pave the basement floor. Soon he was at the flea market every weekend, buying stuff to fix up and put up on display. He'd take his last penny, go without food, but he always found another piece for his collection.

Ernesto hadn't had much formal education; he'd been pulled out of school in the third grade to help support his family in Saltillo, Mexico. But as an adult he taught himself how to build. He welded horseshoes to the fence ("he was so happy to find them," Pablo recalls), connected a series of fountains in the yard, and constructed a spiral staircase to the patio out of wooden slats.

For the kids on the block, the houses were great places to play hide-and-seek; there were a thousand places to hide. As Ernesto's collection grew, objects like rhino heads and antique toy tractors began to cover every surface, inside and out. As they grew older the Serrano children played games testing their powers of observation. One would say something like, "I'm a polar bear chilling under a stair," and the others would have to find the bear somewhere on one of three staircases.

When Pablo returned from college a year ago, he says, he saw the house with new eyes: "This is more than a hobby; this is a passion." He considered several theories to explain it. One: Certain male birds build nests to attract females. Perhaps his father was still feathering the nest for his mother? Or all the wheels could have something to do with Ernesto's earlier career as a competitive bicycle racer. A third possibility: taken together with the other two houses, his family's house constituted a kind of a vecindad, which in Mexico, Pablo explains, is "a small community for everybody to partake, and enjoy, and limit their sorrow."

Home from work at the factory one afternoon in early summer, Ernesto Serrano heads to his garden. He says hello to the turtle sitting on a rock in a bathtub, which is in turn the receptacle for water from three fountains connected to a source by a small thicket of tubing. He greets Pablo, who's getting some sun on a day off from his job teaching art at Farragut High School. Ernesto won't be working on his house and garden this weekend. Tomorrow, he and Gerarda are leaving for Mexico.

Ernesto was 33 when hard times in Mexico forced his move to the United States. Before Pablo was even born he'd crossed the Rio Grande seven times, secure in his mother's belly. She and Ernesto were caught in the U.S. and returned to Mexico six times before their final and successful foray across the river and under the streets of El Paso. When they reached the designated spot under the right manhole they climbed a ladder to the street, where "coyotes" then transported them to Phoenix and put them on a plane for Chicago. Gerarda gave birth to Pablo three weeks later.

Now 55 and legal, Ernesto can drive across the border. Though his trip this week will keep him from working on the house, he's not wasting his vacation going to the beach. He's taking a video camera with him so he can work on the short film he's making about Pedro Infante.

"You've heard of Elvis?" he asks. "Pedro Infante was the Elvis Presley of Mexico. I listened to him all the time when I was a kid. When I was shining shoes in the cantinas, he was my idol. He died in a plane crash on April 15, 1957."

Ernesto plans to document Infante's birthplace, the club in Mexico City where he became famous, the spot where the plane crashed, and his tomb. Whipping out a Sharpie, he draws an outline of Mexico on his left hand, from the top of his palm to just below the wrist, then adds four dots representing the places. The dots descend the length of the outline. Ernesto says he'll drive it in a week. "It's a documentary for myself. I'm not doing it for money." Infante's widow is still alive, he says. "Maybe I'll give a copy to her."

Before he gets packed, he has something to show to Pablo. During a break at the factory, he wrote the beginnings of a song. "I don't waste time at work," he says. Pablo reads the lyrics aloud in Spanish, then translates them into English. The song, as yet untitled, begins like this: "Like an old tree that is drying up / Little by little it feels itself die / That is how my body is / It feels tired because it has worked to survive.

"Like drops of water the years came / And slowly broke down the strong rock / Today, the stone has eroded / Slowly and in tranquility it waits for its death."

In spite of the lyrics, Ernesto doesn't look or act spent and wasted, broken or dying. He's still creating and collecting. Even he is unsure why. "My wife has more education than me," he explains, "and she says it's because I never had a toy when I was a kid." He laughs--it's an old joke between them.

There is a theme to his assemblage, he says, and he's surprised that more people haven't figured it out. He points to a three-legged bench hanging off a beam and asks if we see it. Can we see the saddles, and the horse mosaic up at the top of the house? Now that they're pointed out, sure. Wagon wheels, roosters, they're all part of the theme. "My father, my uncles, my grandfather, all grew up on the farm," he says. Ernesto, who grew up in the city, was born in the country. The collection is a fanciful tribute to his family's life on the ranches and farms of central Mexico.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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