Lisa Alvarado grew up in Albany Park in the 60s. "We were the only people who weren't German or Polish. Our neighbors stood in their yards and stared when we had our housewarming in the yard. It was definite culture shock. I had to defend my little sisters all the time."
Yet her parents insisted that she and her three sisters, third-generation Chicanas, learn to be American. "My parents didn't speak Spanish to us. I had to sneak off and make my grandfather speak Spanish to me. My father was half Italian, and he identified himself as Italian. My mother had been a model for Maybelline, but they only did tight shots of her from the nose up because she looked so Latino."
As a senior at the all-girls Alvernia High School, Alvarado became a feminist, reading books such as Sisterhood Is Powerful and The Feminine Mystique and changing her last name to her mother's maiden name. She also started writing for the school newspaper and writing poetry on the side. As a student at Northeastern Illinois University she became an activist but couldn't decide what she wanted to study. "By my third year I couldn't figure out what I was doing there. I had gone from sociology to criminal justice to women's studies."
She dropped out and started doing factory work, becoming a union organizer in 1978. To prove herself in the union "boys clubs" she started drinking heavily.
But she also kept writing, and in 1979 did her first reading, at the Jane Addams Bookstore. A couple of years later she took a job at the Chicago Women's Health Center as a health worker, eventually becoming director of outreach and training. But her drinking was getting worse. "I went from the cute girl that could drink everyone under the table to the reclusive alcoholic. I was drinking about a gallon a day." In 1985 she joined a 12-step program. "It saved my life. I've been sober ever since."
Yet by 1992 she knew something was still wrong. "I had this sense of spiritual dissatisfaction. Something was missing. I realized I was a creative person, but I had fought it." She signed up for a retreat called "Women of Passion," not realizing that it was for a group of nuns who were using saints' lives as examples of passion. "It was horrible. I stayed in my room and wrote. When I saw the word on the page I said, "This is it. This is what I have to do.' I wrote six poems in two days."
No publisher was interested in her manuscript, so she decided to form her own press, La Onda Negra Press ("The Black Wave Press"), which published her chapbook Reclamo in 1994. "I founded La Onda Negra because I saw how difficult it was to find an outlet for women of color and for a range of realities and experiences. I write a lot of different stuff. Not everybody writes "I came across the border to work in a factory' or "I'm a drug addict looking for Mr. Goodbar."'
Alvarado, who completed a Ragdale literary fellowship last month, is now working on an anthology of poetry by Chicago-area women of color titled Dark Water Speaking. "I feel like it's time, as Virginia Woolf said, to have a room of our own. But that doesn't mean that we aren't going to be in the rest of the house."
To help cover the printing costs of the anthology Alvarado has organized a benefit at the Guild Complex, 1543 W. Division. She, Paula Amann, and M. Eliza Hamilton will read their poetry, and saxophonist Ernest Dawkins will provide the music. It starts at 7:30 PM Wednesday, March 27; tickets are $20. Call 523-5957.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.