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Mex Texts

A homegrown historian makes the city his classroom.

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This place ain't open all the time because I gotta work," says Bill Luna, owner of Libreria Mexchicana on 18th Street, where the rumbling of the nearby el drowns out the occasional banda-booming car and boisterous kids yelling in Spanish. "I can't sell books to live. People don't buy books--they'd rather buy a six-pack! Our people don't read that much."

A customer who's browsing says, "Hey, I read!"

"Well, most people," says Luna, who's 60. "But when I grew up, in my house we read a lot and worked real hard. There was no alcohol or tobacco, not even any coffee. We read the Book of Mormon every day and went to church twice on Sundays. I mean this was discipline! Today kids aren't getting that. They go straight from school to the prisons or don't even finish school. Thing is, we don't have enough people rolling up their sleeves and doing something about it. We got a lot of people talking but not doing anything themselves."

Luna--who's given to long, rambling monologues on subjects that range from Aztec science to Mexican aeronautics to contemporary Latino technological innovations ("The Mexican airline is the oldest on this continent") to Chicago politics--is constantly lecturing Latinos about the need to work in their community. "I tell all these young people it's OK to march like they did on Royko downtown--and I was there too. But I asked some of the college students, 'Are you helping tutor our kids?' But that means real work--marching is being glamorous in front of a camera." He demonstrates with a little dance, hand on hip. "Get out of the cafes, talking about how Mexican you are, and try tutoring our kids and educating them about our positive cultural contributions so people can't spread disinformation about us! I mean, you can call Royko a fool, whatever. But instead of beating him up, I'm going to tell people what Mexicans have done throughout history. I invite Royko to come take one of my classes so he can learn more about Mexican culture and history."

Luna will tell you he's spent much of his life helping his own community. His bookstore--which opened on Mexican Independence Day, September 16, 1994--is only his latest effort. Part retail store, part museum, part classroom, it's the first step toward his dream of a full-fledged museum and community center. He says his storefront once housed a tavern. "We have more taverns in the 25th and 22nd wards than anywhere else in the city. We need to close more cantinas and open more community centers--don't get me started!"

Luna named his store Libreria Mexchicana to demonstrate the linguistic and cultural continuity between Mexican and Chicano communities. The small one-room space is cluttered with prints of Aztec codices, maps of Mexico, vintage and contemporary movie posters, political propaganda, United Farm Workers flags, pre-Columbian-style pottery, blankets, and musical instruments. In the middle of the room is a long table covered with multicolored Mexican cloth and circled by old metal chairs with "LUNA" scrawled on their backs. Pictures at the head of the table show Luna with his foster mother, his granddaughters, and his son in a navy uniform. More pictures decorate Luna's work desk: shots of him with boxer Julio Cesar Chavez and yellowed photos of Mexican pilots from World War II. The shelves that line the walls hold books in no clear order that suggest various topics--history, literature, art. Unlike most booksellers, Luna has only one copy of each book in stock; when a customer buys a book he has to order another copy. But he also has a section of books that aren't for sale, which includes reference books from the Mexican consulate on principal cities in each Mexican state. "Kids can come in, tell me what state their parents are from, and I can tell them a little something about their background."

Luna has no formal training in history, though he has a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Indiana University and a master's in adult education from Northern Illinois University. "I got those degrees pretty much because that's what this society expects you to have, but I didn't learn anything of what I offer here in school. Some people out there get PhDs on Mexicans in Chicago, and the last thing they ever do is publish a book, put the diploma on their shelf--and then they're 'experts.' I don't have that piece of paper, but I got a doctorate up here"--he points to his head--"because I study it every day out here in the neighborhood."

Luna's vocation as a self-taught historian began with his upbringing in East Chicago, Indiana. Orphaned, he was taken in by a Mexican curandera and raised as a Mormon. "She was a relative of my dad from San Luis Potosi, where my family's from, and she took me, my two sisters, and my brother out of the orphanage. She was very proud of being Mexican--our curtains at home were red, white, and green. She used to make tortillas on a metate, and we had nopales [cactus] to eat every day. She didn't speak any English, but she converted a lot of people to the faith just by being a good example, visiting the sick in the hospital every day. She died when she was 96, buried in Laredo, Texas. But she wasn't sick a day of her life, had all her teeth when she died, because she knew how to cure people with yerbas [herbs] and the laying on of hands."

While she instilled a deep appreciation for Mexican culture, East Chicago and its steel mills taught Luna working-class values. "I learned black music there; Polish, Italian, Lithuanian, and my own Mexican culture at the movie house and at home. I'm very fortunate to have come out of a community like that and to have learned the richness of different people. There were no class differences--our families were all steelworkers."

The community had clear rites of passage. "After high school you either went to the steel mill and then to the military, or the other way around. But you went into the service one way or another. We had families in Indiana where four or five sons in a family went to World War II." Luna served from 1955 to 1961 as a paratrooper and Green Beret--and boxed on the armed forces teams--then went into the reserves, eventually retiring in 1989 as a lieutenant colonel. He also worked at the steel mill from 1961 to 1971.

While he was in the reserves, a local man who was in the marines in Vietnam, Lance Corporal Emilio de la Garza Jr., was given the Congressional Medal of Honor, but no one in East Chicago seemed to notice. So Luna founded an American Legion post in his honor. "I got the city to open a public-school career center in his name too. This is all stuff I did on my own, otherwise nobody else would have done a thing, and we would have lost an important piece of history."

That marked the beginning of Luna's obsession with preserving military history. In his storefront window he now has a display of military paraphernalia from his time in the service--a tidy collection of knives, rations, and uniforms. "Part of what I'm doing here with this exhibit and the books is to tell the story of our military contributions for all our people that died in 'Nam." At his house he has a collection of more than 100 posters he put together from photos and news clippings that chart Latino military contributions from the American Revolution to Somalia, and in 1982 he cowrote a book for the Defense Department chronicling that history. "People don't know that Mexicans have just as much a reason to celebrate the Fourth of July as anyone else in this country. We have participated in every conflict from the very start--man, don't get me started!"

After Luna quit the steel mill he had a string of jobs working with Latinos, but he also gave a lot of his free time to their causes. In 1972 he founded the Association of Professional Resources to Involve Spanish Americans to provide social services for Hispanics in East Chicago, and a little later he started the Northwest Indiana Latin Chamber of Commerce to promote economic development and help small businesses. In 1974 he began commuting to Chicago to work for a bolt manufacturer as a training coordinator in a program that helped adults learn English and job skills, then moved on to work as manager of the Hispanic employment program at the federal Office of Personnel Management. While he was there he pushed for the federal agencies in Chicago to start observing Hispanic Heritage Week.

In 1983 he began working in the McDonald's corporate offices as an affirmative-action manager, and that same year he started a scholarship program for ROTC cadets in Chicago's public schools, which he named after Richard Cavazos, the first minority four-star general in the army. As a member of Chicago's Latino Committee on the Media, Luna lobbied to have the city start observing Hispanic Heritage Month, which it did in 1991. In 1993 he was employed by the Board of Education to evaluate bilingual programs, the same year that he opened a school, Image de Chicago Learning Center, to teach ESL, GED, citizenship, and literacy classes.

Luna now works part-time as assistant director of outreach for Columbia College's Community Science Project; coaches young boxers at the Mexican American Youth Athletic Association; is drafting plans for a river walk linking Pilsen, downtown, and Chinatown; cohosts the annual Mexican parade on Channel Seven; and leads a Boy Scout troop. "I got eight little kids I'm trying to keep out of the gangs. If everybody just took eight kids and helped 'em out we'd be better off. Everybody can make a difference, but that means you gotta give up your time at the Jumping Bean and put some time in the community."

But Luna wanted to do something more to raise the profile of his community and culture. "The more you learn about your culture, the more frustrated you get. You get infuriated that our culture's not getting portrayed on TV, that it's not in the media." He angrily lists some Latino achievements that have been overlooked: the Mexican composers who wrote hits in the 40s; the Mexican baseball teams that went head-to-head with Negro League teams; the vaqueros who changed ranching in Hawaii. So he opened his storefront and six months later started offering classes on Aztec, Mayan, Chicano, Mexican, and Native American culture.

Open to the general public, the courses also provide continuing-education credit to schoolteachers. "If I teach the teachers, they can develop an appreciation for the kids' culture and help them learn about it--because I can't do it all by myself. I go to some of these schools where there are lots of Mexican kids, and they got Bulls posters all over the place. Do you think these kids are gonna forget who the Bulls are? How 'bout their own culture? Why not put up posters of Benito Juarez, Ignacio Zaragoza, Emiliano Zapata?"

So far he's had more than 100 teachers come through his door. "I've had some good feedback, though some teachers come in here with an attitude like, I'm not going to change the way they think." He chuckles remembering the time he was called a communist and anti-American on an evaluation form. "Now I start off my class saying, 'Listen, there's nobody more American than I am in this class, and I love this country, and I'll never leave this country. I've served as an officer and a gentleman, and I was born in Indiana by the name of William, so I'm very American. But I'm going to say some things that the U.S. has done wrong to a lot of groups in this country.' When I'm done with 'em, I got 'em singing the Mexican national anthem--in Spanish and English."

The Board of Education wanted Luna to offer the classes downtown, but he resisted. "They gotta come here to the barrio, where they can't find any parking and hopefully they'll still have hubcaps when they leave. You gotta come here to feel the culture. You're in little Mexico right here, and you're going to have to drink tamarindo and eat pan dulce. When they leave this place they all wanna be Mexicans!"

The door of the storefront opens, letting in a gust of cold. A tiny space heater and an old gas stove struggle to keep the temperature from dropping. Two teens in leather jackets and hoodies enter and excitedly ask in Spanish if the army knives in the window are for sale.

"No, that's all my stuff from when I was in the army," says Luna. "But the books are for sale."

The teens take in the place for a few seconds, say thanks, and then leave with jealous backward glances at the military display.

Luna says he loses about $500 a month keeping the bookstore open, but he believes he has to keep it open if he's ever going to build a culture museum. "It's a shame that one or two organizations are picked as the cultural representatives for our communities--because they get all the grant money and yet they don't really do anything to help our community. We need a museum that shows our culture and history on a permanent basis, like the DuSable or Field Museum. We don't have nothing like that! That stuff at the Mexican Fine Arts Center is for the yuppies and the muppies. I mean, people in this neighborhood don't even know it's there. Instead of a glorified visual-arts gallery with high-priced speakers and events every now and then, why not full historical archives on permanent display? This stuff here in my store is just my little collection--this is just a glimpse. Imagine how much is out there that we could put together!

"We need more people knowledgeable about our culture. I ask these college kids what they're doing for our community, but they don't want to hear that. They want to go to the march in D.C.--which I told them was a waste of time. All these people here out on the street, they're not going to a march all the way across the country. They're all working, they'd rather sell elotes [corn] at their pushcarts. Why not have a moratorium day instead, where we all work in our community and volunteer to tutor, clean the streets, something?"

He says his mother once told him, "'This life is very short, but it's your responsibility to make this world better for the next generation.' Because you're not going to find the big solution to everything all at once--you gotta pick your project. Everybody's got to work real hard in your little piece of the world and do something, and then we'll be better off."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos by Randy Tunnell.

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