When I first came to Cuenca in the summer of 2010, I often heard expats who had lived here for a time say that Cuenca is like living in the United States in the 1950’s. One couple in their 70’s compared Cuenca with living back home in the 1940’s. I had always wanted to explore in what ways modern day Cuenca compares with the United States or Canada back in the 40’s and 50’s, but I never found or made the time until now to do so. Obviously, I can reflect back to what I remember of that time period, and also, keep in mind, that I am writing from the perspective of my experiences as a young boy.
I was born in 1946, which was the first year of the beginning of the onslaught of the baby-boomers. The oldest of three boys, my life began by living in an apartment above my paternal grandparents, both of whom were immigrants from Sicily. My dad’s sister and her family lived next door in a home also owned by my grandparents. My dad’s oldest sister lived a block down from my grandparents, and his youngest brother and sister were living at home with my grandparents and were in their mid and late teens at the time of my birth. My dad’s youngest brother lived at home with his parents until he married in his 30’s. My dad’s youngest sister would never marry, and lived at home taking care of my grandmother until her passing in 1970. My dad’s two married sisters both wedded men who were born in Italy. My dad and his two brothers, on the other hand, all married non-Italian girls. His older brother, Tony was the only sibling who when I was born did not live in the Italian neighborhood, but lived on the other side of town in the Polish neighborhood, which was the ethnic background of his wife, Julie.
Like in Ecuador today strong family ties and close-by living proximity of parents and their adult offspring was typical and expected. My grandparents took that proximity a step further, because there were two sets of Molas. We were the Olcott Mola’s, because we lived on Olcott Avenue. Then there were the Todd Avenue Mola’s who lived on the opposite side of the block across the alley from my grandparents. My grandmother’s sister and my grandfather’s brother were also married to each other and they constituted the Todd Avenue Molas. Each time my grandmother’s sister had a child, then when my grandmother had a child, my grandmother would give the same sex child the same name. Therefore, the Molas had two Jimmy’s, two Rosies, two Carmelas, etc. Since I was named after my father that made three Jimmys, and yes as I grew older all the same names at times became confusing for people.
Living in an industrialized satellite city of Chicago, all the ethnic neighborhoods were staunchly Catholic and life was centered around the church. The Italians built their church during the depression, and they built it themselves. They named it the Immaculate Conception. The pastor of the church was from the old country, and while the Italians were late comers to other ethnic groups in the city to building their own grade school, by 1952 they had opened a new school and the Pastor had brought nuns from an order in Italy to the United States to staff the new facility.
What I remember most about the church, which made it unique not only to Catholic churches in Cuenca, but also to Catholic churches in the United States was the fact that when the church was built the parishioners also built a bowling alley behind the sanctuary. The alleys had pin boys whose job it was to remove the bowling pins that had been knocked over in the previous roll. From what I can remember, the pin boys would brace themselves above the pins with both feet on side beams, and after the roll they would jump down, and clear the felled pins. I imagine that although not exactly the Italian lawn bowling game known as Bocce, which originated with the Romans, there were cultural carryovers that led to the church’s construction of the bowling alleys.
On an occasional Sunday morning, at the age of four or five, I would sneak into mass by myself. I would look back and up at the choir loft, and wave to my aunt who sang in the choir. There was a round stain glass window above the choir loft, and I remember on a sunny day the eastern sun radiating through the glass and into the church. When my mother found out from my aunt that I had been to church, my mother scolded me because I was dirty from playing, and from wearing only my play clothes, which were not exactly the proper “going-to-church on Sunday” attire. I guess my mom was concerned about what the neighbors would think. I think God was just glad to see me in Church,
Some of the immigrant Italians made efforts to learn English, and some like my grandparents chose not to. Unlike Ecuadorian homes here in Ecuador where grandkids can communicate with their grandparents without a problem. I was rarely close to my Italian grandparents in part because of language barriers. A mixture of English and Italian was always used in my grandparent’s home. My uncles and aunts used Italian to communicate with their parents, and they used it with one another when they didn’t want us kids to understand what they were talking about.
Whenever my grandmother would talk to me, I would hope my dad or one of my Italian uncles or aunts would be close by to translate for me. However, when the occasions arose as they inevitably would when I was on my own with my grandmother, all I could do was smile and nod my head and say yes to whatever she appeared to be asking me. My grandmother would smile and whatever I was agreeing to was certainly making her happy, and she would grab me by my cheek (sometimes both cheeks) as she continued in Italian. I was always nervous because I knew it would just be a matter of time when I would respond to something with yes when I should have responded with a no. Nana’s smile would disappear, the tone of her voice would change, and here it comes, the slap across the face.
In Cuenca, I can see cows grazing on open lots; walk pass goats grazing in front yards; or occasionally observe goats being herded along the streets to possibly other grazing lands, or to market, or possibly to shelter. I may spot chickens in the front yards of Cuencano homes, sometimes of breeds unfamiliar to me in the states, or I listen to the howl of dogs at night and the crow of roosters in the morning. Not all of this domestic animal excitement existed in my Italian grandparent’s community. However, my grandmother and I would go down to the next block and enter a store filled with live chickens each in its separate cage stacked upon one another--just stack after stack of live hens. My grandmother would buy one chicken, take it home and feed it until it became nice and plump. Although her next action was never done in front of me, my grandmother would make the hen an offer it must have refused; because suddenly in typical Italian style, my grandmother would ring its neck, pick the feathers, gut the bird, clean the chicken, cook it, and serve it for dinner.
One time, my grandmother bought a goose, which she kept in the basement. I being only four or five years old was scared to death of the bird. It was as big as me. I thought it was an ostrich, and if I so much as entered the basement that goose would take after me hissing. I’m embarrassed to admit how old I was before a relative enlightened me that that bird was no ostrich.
My grandparents had a small back yard, which was used exclusively for growing garden vegetables and fresh herbs. There was also either one or two cherry trees, which radiantly blossomed in the spring, and were resplendent with cherries in the summer. When my grandparents were not working in the garden, my grandmother would be busy working in the kitchen; baking, peeling potatoes, making sauces, doing the myriad of things that was required for her to feed her family for each of the three meals per day. She particularly would be busy preparing for the Sunday meals when all of the family would generally be present. Like any good Italian mother, she took delight in her family enjoying what she had prepared. Much of life and celebration was centered around food. No matter how much one ate, Nana, was always there to encourage everyone to eat more. To say no, to her solicitations, would bring out of her one of those rare phrases of English, "What, you no like"? I was an adult before it was finally explained to me that in an Italian home one never completely clears one's dish. Always leave a small portion on the plate to indicate you are finished eating. Somehow I'm not sure if that practice would have stopped my grandmother from encouraging more, "You like? Have some more."
My grandmother developed stomach cancer in the summer of 1970. In the final months she lied in bed as family members would take turns staying with her. On a few occasions, I was with my grandmother, just the two of us. The barrier of language could not stand in the way of empathy that existed in her last months. That little lady, who had endured so much during her life, would continuously rise off of her bed and stacked pillows with a hacking cough from the cancer. Yet she would still be able to smile at me and say to me whatever she would be saying in Italian. It didn’t matter what it was or that I didn’t understand hardly a word. Just the tone in her voice denoted to me that whatever she had to say was pleasing. It was at these times when I was closest to my grandmother. We buried her on New Year’s Eve, 1970.
The primary point of interest in my grandfather’s basement was the fact that he had his own wine cellar. I can still till this day remember the aroma of the wine, the vats and kegs, and how the aroma had permeated itself into the very wood of the structures. My grandfather died at the age of 76 in 1958, so if there was any chance of learning how to make my own wine the old fashion way, it died with him.
My grandfather’s generation of men, most of whom worked in the brickyards of the railroads, spoke little if any English. They would gather outside the local corner grocery store of Mr. Morelli’s. I would hang out with them, running about, listening to all the conversation swirling about me in Italian and never understanding a word, except the occasional word of English, or "capish" (you understand) and “you son-of-a-bitch” (pronounced "you son of a beech"); which believe me when the appropriate emphasis is placed upon the vowels as only Italians can do, and the fingers come together on the one hand, raised, and shaking in the direction of the intended, the latter becomes a very Italian word.
There was only one day a week during the warm seasons when the old Italian men, each in their caps that distinguished them from their sons’ generation, would abandon the corner. That was the one day each week when the Salvation Army band came to play and sing praises to the Lord on the corner. These “Onward Christian Soldiers”, the men in their military style uniforms, and the women with their long skirts and blue bonnets that tied into a bow along the side of their faces would play music with their drum, guitars, bass, and brass horns. The sound of this band and the singing of the “old time religious hymns” had to be so foreign to the ears of this Italian community that was cultured in the pop music of the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney, and Julius LaRosa, on one hand; and Gregorian Chant, and Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza on the other. Yet in a sense that Salvation Army band was a part of that community just by the fact that it was faithfully there on that corner in front of Mr. Morelli’s store that one day a week, week after week, and year after year during the warm seasonal months performing what they felt called to do.
I remember the sticky fly paper strips hanging from the ceiling on our enclosed sun porch at the back of the apartment. The small screens that opened horizontally and were placed between the open window and the window ledge to let in whatever breeze could be found among homes that were only a few feet apart from one another, and which did a poor job of keeping out the mosquitoes. The closeness of the homes in the summer also made family arguments the neighbor’s business whether neighbors chose to listen or not. I remember my mother heating water on the stove in a huge galvanized bucket, so we could have hot water for bathing, and how the sunlight reflected off the water and onto the ceiling and bounced about the ceiling as the water came to a boil. I remember the junk man coming down the alley with his buckboard and horse to accumulate whatever junk people had for him. I remember the milkman daily delivering milk in reusable glass bottles, the mail man who everybody knew by name, and the insurance man who came to personally collect his monthly premium. I remember the knife man, who came to the corner with his knife sharpening cart which had one wheel that allowed him to lift his cart like a wheel barrel and move it from place to place, clanging a bell to get the neighborhood’s attention that the knife man was ready to ply his trade. He would pedal, and the straps and grinders began to move as he held the knife handles and their blades in place for sharpening. The iceman would arrive to bring the large blocks of ice for the iceboxes of neighbors who had yet to own a refrigerator. I remember the occasional visits of the coal man. The back of his truck filled with coal as he cranked it up, and the coal would slide down the shoot into a huge pile on the basement floor. I remember my grandfather shoveling coal into the roaring fire of the monstrous furnace during the winter months. I also remember the lickings I would get when I was covered with coal dust from playing in the pile.
Many of these jobs may not exist in Cuenca today, but there are many comparable jobs that allow Cuecanos to have jobs in this society—jobs that could quickly disappear in Ecuador as they already have over the generations in the United States as technological change not only altered employment shifts, but also made the need particularly for massive numbers of unskilled labor obsolete. In the 50’s in the United States all a man needed was a strong back. He could find gainful employment, and with that the dignity of being a breadwinner for his family. It appears to still be that way in Cuenca.
The sense of community was also there in the 1950s. People knew their mailman, the milkman, their insurance man, their doctor. These were people who came into their homes on a regular basis, and in a sense became an extension of the family, and definitely were a part of the community.
As I see Cuencanos make their way to the cabinas, the local barber or beautician, the little neighborhood family-owned stores and bakeries, or just watching neighborhood women gathering to chat; I see the kind of community that once existed in the United States. Today, the local folks have their amuerozo (mid-day meal and usually the main meal of the day) and cena (supper) in the small local neighborhood restaurants or at home. The midday breaks from school and work offer families the opportunity to be together for a couple of hours, as many Ecuadorian businesses close for about three hours in the afternoon. A tradition that for the most part still continues to a large extent throughout Ecuador. I watch as the mothers pick up their young ones from school or meet them at the bus; and it reminds me of living in a community as a child where we could walk home for lunch, our mother there to greet us and have lunch ready, talking with family, and as we got older maybe some T.V. watching before a return to school.
The local ice cream man who bicycles his ice cream carriage through the current neighborhood where I live in Zona Rosa is reminiscent of the ice cream boys who bicycled down the streets without the built-in umbrellas the Cuenca bicyclers have today. The boys would pedal and while pedaling would ring by hand the bells built into their handles. I always marveled as a kid as to how the inside of the casing was cold and all this smoke would come out of the casing that held the stored ice cream, and yet it didn’t melt the ice cream. Later, I would come to understand the phenomena of dry ice.
Like most families in the 1950’s we were a one car family. When my mother wanted to go shopping to larger business districts than our local downtown; the bus, just like in Cuenca, was the main means of transportation. The buses were often very crowded especially during rush hours, and it was not unusual to find ourselves standing during much of the trip, particularly when homeward bound from a day of shopping. And just like in Cuenca, the bus left behind its calling card of exhaust fumes. Disembarked passengers or those waiting for a different numbered bus may shrivel their noses in a pinched-type manner or look away in the aftermath of the fumes. However, no one in the 1950’s and 60’s expected it to be any other way. Exhaust fumes were just something you endured.
As I observe kids play in the neighborhoods and out on the streets of Cuenca. Sometimes I have been surprised at how much they can be on their own with little supervision. Yet that was exactly the way it was for me growing up. I had the run of the neighborhood. My mother often did not know where I was as she was in the upstairs apartment. This is no criticism of my mother. She was and is a wonderful mom. It was just the way it was for most kids in the neighborhood. We could be gone for hours on our bikes as we became older and no one worried. One day in Cuenca I saw a little guy who didn’t look any older than four years old standing behind a parked pickup truck on Avenue of the Americas, a very busy street. The adults were talking and obviously loss sight of him. Yet, it reminded me of when I was that age and would walk one block over to a street as busy as Avenue of America. The neighbor lady would call my mother and inform her of my whereabouts. Everybody knew everybody in the neighborhood, and everybody felt a responsibility for everyone, particularly for the kids in the neighborhood. Crime was so low that people did not lock their cars and often did not lock their homes when they were away. Why, one could grab hold of the lip on the ignition and start the car without a key. I know. I did it many times.
When I was on the street, I was everywhere in the neighborhood. I was across the street from my grandparent’s visiting with Frank the shoemaker, or upstairs above the shoe shop visiting with my baby-sitter, Jean, and her dad, who made a living hanging wall paper. I might be down the block talking to one of the parish priests with whatever conversation a four or five year old had on his mind. There were my frequent trips to Mr. Morelli’s store talking with him and his wife, and buying some penny candy. I might be down the block at my uncle’s bar and restaurant. My Uncle Al was always good for an eight ounce bottle of coke, and my favorite, Hershey bar with almonds. The booze was off limits to me. Above his bar and restaurant lived my Uncle Mike and Aunt Carmela and my three cousins. My uncle and aunt had at one time owned the restaurant below. I can still remember one day of studiously focusing my attention on the picture of the mammy on the box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix, as my aunt went about her business making me a stack of pancakes. Why that image would become imprinted on my little mind, I have no idea. I would hang out at the Ricardi’s. My parents would tease me that the Ricardi’s youngest daughter, Catherine, who was much older than I, was my girl friend; because I spent so much time with her. Catherine’s younger brother, Joey, who after returning from one of his local fishing expeditions would bring the fish home—blue gills, bass, sun fish. He couldn’t get me to gut them, but I would try to help Joey scrape the scales off the fish with a knife. Just in living everyday as a kid, there was so much to learn from the adults and older kids around us. Like osmosis, I took in the culture around me without ever thinking of it as learning. I was just simply being.
I don’t know what kind of festivals and processions my grandparents left behind in Italy in the early part of the twentieth century. Nor do I know to what extent these events are as prevalent in Italy today as they are in Ecuador. I do know that our Italian neighborhood, outside of the annual church carnival and rides that are so prevalent in Catholic churches even today in the United States of any ethnic background or none at all, did not have the festivities and religious processions so common in Ecuador.
However, holidays like Christmas and Easter were big celebrations. The family gathered at my grandparent’s. The tree covered in lights, ornaments, and silver metallic ice cycles. Typical of a distinctively Italian flavor was the large Nativity scenes of stable, manger, and statues of all the characters of the Nativity story that were portrayed prominently in the home.
Of course while turkey and dressing were served, an Italian Christmas dinner would not be complete without pasta, a huge platter of meats that had simmered in the sauce, and no one made meatballs better than my grandmother, and there was still the Italian bread, and Italian-styled potatoes and all the trimmings.
The dining room buffet was enshrouded from one end to the other with Italian cookies and pastries. All made fresh by my Italian aunts—hard as rock genuine, Italian style biscotti (twice-baked cookies), which were made for dunking in hot beverages or in wine; an incredible assortment of cookies and cakes of various kinds, cannoli (stuffed with ricotta cheese), chocolate and vanilla pudding- filled cream puffs that my Aunt Rose would make, and which were always one of my favorites. Carbs and sugar were definitely the hallmark of the day of feasting.
Of course, those meat dishes of my childhood were the prosperous years of the post-war era. My father would remind me that gourmet meals of simple pasta cooked in garlic and olive oil, which had become a rage in restaurants in the 1990’s, and for which people were paying big bucks, were the depression meals upon which my dad and his siblings grew up and were glad to have.
At the age of five as I was about ready to begin school, my parents moved from the apartment above my grandparent’s home, and bought their first home on the other side of town in the very heavily Irish neighborhood. Although we were only a mile from my grandparents, and my other aunts and uncles had or would also leave the old neighborhood in search of their own homes, which eventually would lead to the movement out into the suburbs. A movement that began in the 50’s, but would accelerate in the 60’s. By the end of the 70’s the old timers had passed on, and the younger generation had moved on to be replaced by new waves of immigrant groups. Today, the Catholic church is still a church, but no longer Catholic. The school was closed in the 90’s, and two years ago the last family associated with the old neighborhood finally moved away. A neighborhood which was once so safe is now so dangerous.
The people living in this once Italian neighborhood today have no inkling of the life and community of people that once lived there. Nor would they care. This vibrant community of my early childhood exists today only in the memories of a dwindling number of souls, and in the cemeteries where one can see so many of the Italian names of those who once lived their lives out in this diminutive neighborhood of a by-gone era. I wonder how much longer, the aspects and values of Cuenca that are similar to that time period in my early childhood neighborhood will endure in Cuenca, itself?