Division Street is a patchwork of sights and sounds the third weekend of every June.
It’s splashes of red, white, blue. It’s salsa beats coming from bars, from flag-waving cars, from storefronts and restaurants along the street. People camped on the sidewalk sell everything from balloon hammers to baby turtles.
It’s Puerto Rican Fest in Humboldt Park.
I was walking to meet friends in the park itself on a weekend Humboldt goes even more Puerto Rican than usual. Division past Western is always straddled with a giant metal Puerto Rican flag so passers-by know what’s up. It’s always a walk past botanicas and taquerias and abogados’ offices and stores and bars where everything’s in Spanish.
It always smells like cooking pork.
But Puerto Rican Fest ups the ante. It four, five, sixes the normal number of people walking around with children, calling to friends they see in a mix of Spanish and Inglés. The motorcycle clubs come out. So do the cruiser bicycles. The streets are a mess of food trash and spent bottle rockets from the noisy night before.
The Cricket store had a sign saying “Free Phones.” The bakery next to it had one that said “Free Oscar López Rivera.”
The fest itself was a deeper blast of color, people and food. Little girls ran around the park wearing Puerto Rican flags like Superman capes as a woman on a stage yelled to thousands, all in Spanish save the words “Homeland Security” and “I’m sorry, my English is not so good-looking.”
Old men in linen shirts. Scary looking tattoo dudes. Beautiful women laughing. On-duty cops wandering around taking pictures and eating Italian ice. Packed by the thousands in one of Chicago’s biggest parks.
I saw a cop shove a black kid, just push him out of the way and walk on without even looking back. This was the officer’s response when he wanted to be on the other side of someone. He somehow thought that was fine.
The kid — teens or so — had an angry, hurt glare for the next few minutes.
My friends and I ate empanadas and skewers on the grass, taking it all in, asking each other what a Finnish cultural fest would be like. Lots of coffee and vodka, we decided.
It seemed like glorious chaos to me, but I kept wondering if there was an order alien I just couldn’t see. I saw the broad strokes — spicy pork and more clothing based off flags than you see outside WWII-era comic books — but I couldn’t help wondering what codes and social cues I was missing and always would miss.
It wasn’t a sad thought. I like mysteries, especially ones that involve spicy pork.
Written in June 2012