El Puente

Seen from Cermak Road, the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge seems archaic, or perhaps apocalyptic, the remnant of a time that has long ceased to exist. It has on top of its large steel railing, directly at its center, what appears to be a tender, rusted house which hovers above the trains that  pass below. Though it was built to protect the bridges mechanics and house its motor and controls, I like to think of it as a watchtower, a sort of post in which a man used to keep watch, day and night, watching the traffic of not only of the barges, tugs and freighters transporting iron and steel coils along the river, but the 300 train conductors noisily steering their cars across the rails. 

I can imagine this man shouting ”w górę!”, as he waves his arm signaling to a patrol boat beneath, and I can see him blowing a whistle to signal the bridge’s chains to be pulled, its weights to counteract, splitting the goliath structure into two perfect parts as they are rise. I can imagine this man puffing his cigarette during the cold winters, his face chilled due to the wind, his cheeks red and his eyelids numb, but continuing his work, making sure the bridge is functioning perfectly so the boats have no problems passing through. And once the last freighter of the day has passed, he watches it disappearing onto the Lake Michigan, and shouts “w dół!” as he reverses handles and presses buttons to bring the bridge down.

I’m standing on the bridge, admiring it. I’m thinking of those who came before me, those who worked on the construction of most of the bridges along the Chicago and Calumet rivers, most of them Poles and Lithuanians, Hungarians and Czechs, and along with them, African Americans who came from the deep South seeking a better life. I’m thinking of them as a part of my life as a fellow immigrant that lives in this city, and in some ways feels like I do not belong here. I imagine some of them felt this way also. But deep down I know that I belong here and they did too, and this feeling has won out over my fears ever since I first arrived. 

The fact that you are an immigrant does not exclude you from the life and culture of Chicago. Just like many of those immigrants before, when I arrived from Mexico I did not speak English. I did not know how to move around the city. I did not know the customs and values of its inhabitants, and I held on to my Mexican traditions. But just like them, I worked hard until I was able to communicate in English, until I knew the history and the culture of the city, and most important, until I knew that I did not need to feel lesser or inferior because I am an immigrant. Just like anyone else in this city, I earned my right to belong to Chicago. This city has helped me find myself every time I crossed one of its bridges.

I’m reflecting on this while still standing on the bridge.  I’m thinking of the immigrants that today are an extension of those that preceded them, a continuation of their lives in which their dreams and hopes were the same, and their lives (my life included) have become one with this idea which we call America. 

When I think about America, I think of the people that have contributed to its making. The image of America is just an idea, but what caused this image to materialize is the presence of those who came here with a dream, its immigrants and foreigners that by accident or by fortune ended up here. While standing on this bridge I feel closer to them than I ever felt to the idea of America.

Some people say that everything good in life depends on how willing you are to cross a bridge, to take a risk to find out what awaits you on the other side. The implication of this metaphor is that you can gain a better understanding of your life if you think of the bridges that you have already crossed, consciously and unconsciously, because we all cross bridges in life, like it or not. Some of them we realize were mistakes. In those moments you ask yourself “Would it have been better to have stayed where I was before?”

 I’ve known people who regretted their decision to cross a bridge because they did not know what to expect and were not prepared for what they found. They did not anticipate the consequences of finding themselves in a different place. After crossing, they felt they lost what was familiar to them and no longer recognized themselves. Or they did not like what they found when forced to look inside themselves. 

A bridge does not just carry you to a new and better place. It carries you into a different reality in which you become the place, or more precisely, you are a reflection of the new place where you can explore within yourself, understand yourself, and assimilate to it in the same way you would with the physical place. And as long as you can find yourself, that is when you have found your home.

What is a bridge? It’s more than a metal structure with a motor that allows it to lift or swing; it’s more than a pathway for people to walk over water, or for cars and big trucks to pass from one side to another. It’s more than what it physically represents. 

A bridge is a connection, perhaps a prolongation, or even more so, it’s a link to something or to someone or to the world around you, to the water underneath you and the sky above you. And it’s especially a connection to the others that walk alongside you when you cross bridges like the Cermak Road bridge, or the one on Canal Street, or the one on Halsted Street. Bridges are links to the people that cross it not only today but to those  who were here before. In the same way that my imaginary watchmen existed in another time, immigrants and foreigners crossed every bridge in Chicago, and they inadvertently connected their lives with their city. Through their hard work, their love and hate and joy and despair, and their will to survive, they eventually become one with the city, past and present.

For some people a bridge goes even further. It becomes an internal action between themselves and the exterior. I remember my aunt and the days when she used to cross the Torrence Avenue and the 95th Street bridges every time she picked up her boyfriend from the Ford Assembly Plant, in Hegewisch. 

To her, every place she went was not only new and different, it was a conduit between her emotions and her reality. Every time she crossed those metal structures that connected her from one place to another she thought and felt as though she was creating a connection with the banks of the Calumet River and the quietly pushing tugboats moving upstream. She even felt a connection with the people that she saw hanging out along the river, their rods in the water trying to fish for good luck. For my aunt, the bridge was more than a physical reality, it was a  metaphor in which she started conceiving the idea of belonging to something else. Even though at that time she thought she belonged only to her boyfriend, before she knew it he cheated on her and abandoned her, and left her with only $300, she knew it was the notion of crossing a bridge that was transcendental in her life. Perhaps it was what saved her from forgetting who she was once she suddenly found herself alone in this country. The bridge became a leap from what her life had been in Defe, her former hometown, a place she left with some remorse, and her new home where she hoped she could turn her life around. 

Every time she crossed the Torrence Avenue and the 95th Street bridges she felt as though part of her old life was staying behind and she was free to live her new life with her daughter and boyfriend. Even though it did not turn out the way she had imagined, by the time she and her boyfriend had split, she was more than an immigrant, she was a survivor. I see my aunt as an exceptional woman who has not only endured many difficulties, but learned how to find herself in a different place simply because she had made the decision to cross a bridge and find out what was on the other side.

But a bridge does not always connect people. It can also separate people and places and realities. Sometimes you walk across bridges and you get the impression that you are walking into a different city, or a city within the city. It’s as though the neighborhoods that surround the rivers have become fragments of the city that are separate from the rest of the city. Perhaps it is only a figment of the imagination and not a real depiction of reality, but it appears as a contradiction of Chicago’s history, an incomprehensible reality for a city that on one hand brags about its cultural diversity and tolerance, but on the other hand ruthlessly slaps us in the face with its racial lines that are drawn with the bridges and viaducts that separate neighboring residents and make Chicago one of the most segregated cities in the country.

As much as some people do not like to acknowledge it, segregation in Chicago is one of those paradoxes that that seems impossible to resolve due to the immensity of our political red tape and the powerful people who block all solutions. It is a stain on the identity of the City of Big Shoulders.

What, exactly, is Chicago? A once swampy land that was the home of Algonquians, Mascoutens and Miami tribes before Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet took a keen interest in it. It was the home of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the first rebel that crossed the cultural bridge between the original owners of this land, the first slaves and the first Caucasian settlers, (or invaders depending on who you ask).  du Sable was the perfect representation of what Chicago should strive to be, the land of people of all types, who bridged the gaps between race and culture. His vision has lost out to racial exclusion fear of others.

Who are we, as immigrants, then? Where do we fit into the city now?  I look at the house atop the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge and think that we are part of the river, strong and content. I see us not merely as immigrants but as an unlimited stream that moves along the water. At the same time I know we are “the” bridge on which everyone is welcome, a bridge that connects us all. And we are not only the bridge that people cross every day, from the East and the West, from the North and the South, everywhere. As long as we are willing to cross the bridge, we should be open to finding what lies on the other side.