Omar Garcia wants to work. If he could he'd work all the time--except on Saturdays. He interprets the Bible literally, and the Bible says that Saturday is the Sabbath. Saturday is also the day Garcia gets the most job offers, but, he says, "If you're gonna believe in God, the God of Abraham, you can't take Saturday off unless God tells you to. I lose a lot of money on the Sabbath. I sometimes wish God would move it to Sundays."
Garcia works out of a storefront at the corner of 21st Place and Damen in the middle of the 25th Ward, where he has a desk, several work tables, and a file cabinet full of invoices. Numerous hand-painted signs on and around the storefront indicate that he is, among other things, a carpenter, a plumber, a sign painter, and a house cleaner. He fixes and paints furniture and buys and sells used vans. He tries to organize musicians to play at parties, though he says he gets beaten down by their vanity. He says he'll do any kind of work at all, as long as he gets paid. And he'll provide as much employment for his friends as he can, though he points out that after all of his costs as a contractor are figured in he rarely can pay them more than $7 an hour.
"I am in the survival business," he says. "I am the last salvation. I get the lousiest jobs in Chicago. The scraps of the jobs. The jobs that no other sane contractor would want. If I fall there's nobody that will take care of me. I'll be a handyman. If you need sweeping I'll go sweeping. Anything to pay this damn rent." He's $2,000 behind.
Garcia's storefront, a former bar, includes the apartment where he, his wife, and five of his nine children live. The office is decorated with, among other things, a pinball game, a wooden mallet, a four-foot-high ceramic hand that doubles as a plant stand, an ancient television, a doll made of bowls and blocks of wood, several guitars and shovels, and a velvet painting of Emiliano Zapata. Hanging behind Garcia's desk is a hand-painted banner that reads:
Who Came to America 1st?
Europeans. Africans. Asian.
or Mexicans (the Real Ones)
Native Americans Should Manage
The Immigration Dept.
On the front of the building a hand-painted sign announces that the storefront is the headquarters of Tlaltocan, an organization dedicated to serving the needs of the Mayan people that Garcia, who's part Mayan, founded. He says he helps out Mayan immigrants "in any way I can. Translating or in other ways. I'm not a rich man, so I ain't forkin' out nothing."
On a recent Saturday Garcia is moping around the storefront, playing pinball with his kids and pondering the effects of the recent welfare-reform bill. "I'm preparing for the worst. The government is going to take away a lot of assistance. We are going to have to be a lot like the Hindus. Making our own baskets. If we find rags we're going to have to make our own clothes."
He looks around for something to do and ends up loading pieces of a broken stained-glass window into a metal milk crate. "Here we are in Chicago, and people don't even have the money to get clothes from the Salvation Army store. You'll have to get your clothes from the garbage can. That's how America is going. When we were Indians we used to be able to go up into the hills and grab a deer or a rabbit and get our own dinner. Or even a goddamn turtle if we had to. Where are the wheat fields? Where are the cornfields? Where are poor people going to get their food?"
A friend named Fred, who's wearing a painter's cap and paint-splattered clothes, stops by. "You got work for me tomorrow, Omar?"
"I sure do."
"What time you want me here?"
"Well, maybe I don't have anything," Garcia says. "Not until this guy gives me money for this sign I painted. He owes me $200. I haven't done nothing for two weeks."
"Yeah, I've been by here, seen you sitting around."
"Busy doing nothing. It gets dry sometimes. It's not like city business. You've got no guarantee. Nobody says, 'Hey, Omar, you're going to get $400 today.' Sometimes they don't pay me at all for doing work. Business is a jungle. Especially microscopic business."
"It's a jungle, Omar. Especially with you. This man goes out into the jungle and takes his whole family with him. When he first started out, guys from the neighborhood said he wasn't gonna make it. He's surprising them."
"We're slugging it out. Everyone should have a good-paying job so they can get their children fed. That's what's right for us. This is America."
"So, Omar, you got work for me?"
"Come by at nine. We'll see what we can do."
Garcia is short with a potbelly and a wild beard. Ten years ago he developed cancer of the jaw, and the surgery caved in the right side of his face. He admits that cancer makes life difficult for him sometimes, but he remains philosophical about it. "Cancer is never out, so you deal with it. It's like a pimple that won't go away. You gotta get to it every chance you can."
He was born 48 years ago in Brownsville, Texas, but grew up in Phoenix. He was baptized into the Mormon church, an affiliation he's since denounced, and he became an Eagle Scout, which he says still helps him. "It stops you from getting depressed. It teaches your mind not to get complexed or something. Don't let a little knot get you down. Keep trying to untie it. It's just a knot. Be prepared. Loyal. Brave."
Garcia has moved around a lot. "I wanted to see all the oceans, man. I've seen all the oceans all over America. I've only seen this big Lake Michigan though. I want to go north. See the northern lakes." He ended up in Chicago 18 years ago, though for a while he spent half his time in Florida as a migrant worker. After the cancer developed he settled in Chicago for keeps. "It's colder than hell, but it's nice."
When he's not working or worrying about not working, he spends much of his free time playing chess at Cafe Jumping Bean on 18th Street. Politics takes up the rest of his attention.
He has registered people to vote and worked on numerous campaigns, including that of now-jailed 25th Ward alderman Ambrosio Medrano. But he isn't married to one party and will campaign for whatever candidate he believes is right; he chose Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan, George Bush over Bill Clinton. A couple of months ago he founded Hispanics for Perot, which at the moment has five members--Garcia and four of his friends. He says the organization is a "protest vote" but admits that support isn't growing as fast as he would like. "I'm not getting funded by nobody," he says.
He's also involved in Project Chapultepec, a community effort to plant flowers all over Pilsen and Little Village. "I'm working to try and make it better for Hispanics. When people come by our places I don't want them to think like Royko does, that we don't give nothing back to our community. We aren't working together to destroy. We're working together to build. All the Hispanics are trying to improve their houses, make this a nice place to live. If all the Mexicans were to get pissed off and go south, Chicago would be a lonely place."
Around 4 PM Garcia decides he may as well go out to eat at Nuevo Leon. He gets into the rusted-out 1974 kelly green Ford a friend gave him, which he calls the Green Hornet. It's missing its passenger-side window, so he's covered the seat with newspapers in an attempt to keep it dry. "This is your reward for your participation in the American dream," he says.
As he drives he takes up the theme of the current state of America again. "We're going into a very computerized society where everything is figured out except for the basic things. We're going to be a cannibal society, I think. I don't know how poor people are going to eat. It's sad, very sad. They're going to turn the United States into Mexico, and the people are going to rise up, just like the peasants did. And before you know it, there goes the army, killing them. But I love Chicago. Chicago has the spirit. Isn't it amazing? All the tribes of man meet here, for business, for politics, for Christian issues--for everything. The spirit of the lake is with us. In the old days all the tribes would meet here with their clothes and their food. This was a big convention area, even before Columbus. That's the spirit that exists here, the spirit of camaraderie.
"Look around us here in the 25th Ward. We have Little Italy, we have Chinatown, we have little Greece, little Vietnam, Poland, Puerto Rico, Mexico. When you're afraid of other countries you lose. We have neighborhoods where there are Pakistanis, Arabs, and Jews all living together--all those people from that region where they are killing each other. You don't hear about the Arabs shooting the Jews in Chicago. Where it's an all-black neighborhood, an all-white neighborhood, an all-Mexican neighborhood, it's not exciting. When we're all together, that's what makes things vibrant around here. We're all intertwined--Irish, Polish, Lithuanians, Mexicans--and now we're intermixing by choice, not by need. God only knows what that's going to bring. Something good, I hope."
He turns back to his own problems. Nothing, he says, would make him happier than getting rid of his debts, but life is tough out there and getting tougher. "There are a lot of guys like me who are on the verge of discontinuing. I finally got a bid for a high contract OK'd. It's a $36,000 contract, but to get to it I have to make sure there's insurance--and it comes out to $1,275 out of my pocket. Which makes it difficult for us microscopic businesses. The cost of living is high. Here I am doing nothing. I don't want to sit around watching the boob tube."
He pulls into a parking place on 18th, gets out of the car, and looks up and down the street. "Is there any work for me out here? Maybe. I don't think so. It gets interesting, like a raft. Financial surfing, man. Rough, man. Like surfing in a hurricane. Microscopic businesses. Survival businesses. That's the way they are. But that's the beauty of Chicago."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Lloyd DeGrane.