Roving Notes (Chicago): A Forgotten Gift / El Tata


after packing up and double, triple-scanning the hotel room to make sure I got all stray earrings and socks, I headed back to my dear friend Arturo‘s in Pilsen neighborhood.


We shared delicious leftovers from the Thai restaurant I ate at last night with friends, then I milked his brain and photography experience for ideas on why my new lens is driving me nuts.

Post-soup fatigue hit in, right around the time he pulled down his acoustic and began playing… it struck me how myopic I get sometimes about people and what defines them–with Arturo, for so long I’ve thought of him according to how we first met — at a music video debut for a video he’d directed. It had blown me away, and since then I always thought of his gifts as director/videographer and grassroots events organizer.

But, he’s also passionate about and talented in music… something I discovered during a previous visit, when I asked him what he really gets excited about–his answer was not his video work or the film festivals he’d organized in his neighborhood to display the talents of local young filmmakers.  Rather, it was music, and the thought of getting his band back together.

I remember being struck in that moment by how many layers there are to learning about someone and discovering what makes them tick…  and how off we can be when just going on superficial assumptions about what we think that is for someone, unwittingly stretching the film of our own assumptions or projections onto someone as I did with Arturo.  I’d seen Arturo play in a band years ago, but for whatever reason, that never stuck. And even now, having already had that conversation about his passion for music, I realized I’d managed to forget about Arturo the Musician and cling to my original belief about him.

Somehow today, sitting on his futon as the snow wafted around outside, I felt his musician spirit with total purity. Maybe it was because, tired from a long week of conferencing, hard thinking and being with people nonstop, I needed that sound. Maybe it was because that’s exactly how he presented it — “You are tired? Here is something to help you relax.”

This moment reminded me that the key to relationships, building community, and really, any emergent process, lies first and always in observation.

 *  *  *


Later, Arturo and I struck out on a quest for internet across a snowy Pilsen–part virgin, sparkling snow dunes, part criss-crossed sludgy streets and walkways.  When we reached the library (a trip lengthened my photo-snapping habit and our shared tendency to poke around interesting places), Arturo firmly greeted an older man who stood outside, smoking a cigarette.  The man had a colorful scarf, knit winter hat, sparkling eyes and a ready grin opening from his curly white beard.  Arturo introduced him to me briefly as something I couldn’t quite make out–“(something) Tata.”


Once inside, I asked, “Who was that?”

“That is El Tata–a legenda (‘leyenda’). A walking legend in this neighborhood.”  I had to restrain myself from punching Arturo’s arm–“Why didn’t you tell me?! Do you think I could go take his picture?  Why is he a legend?”

Arturo looked back outside. “Well, if you want to find out, you’d better go out there now before he leaves, and I can explain it to you after.”

I went back to catch El Tata still finishing his hand-rolled cigarette.  In the best Spanish I could muster, I asked him–“My friend tells me that you’re a legend. Why?”

El Tata smiled sweetly and, without skipping a beat, told me in Spanish. I did my best to follow.

A muralist, artist, writer, activist, El Tata collaborates with other artists and musicians, especially young people in the neighborhood, on local events and projects.

From my short interaction with him, I felt incredible wisdom, love, courage and strength…  I was especially moved by how he ended many of his sentences to me with, “mi amor” (“my love.”). Terms of endearance (sp?) ALWAYS get to me, but when coming from such a humble fighter as this, got me even deeper.



El Tata also imparted on me this thought–as writers, musicians, artists, “Tenemos que ser mesengeros del tiempo” — “we have to be mensajeros of the times.”writes, murals, organizes shows, works with young people, and acts as a “Mensajeros del Tiempo” — “messenger of the times”

Finally, I found such a spirit of friendship and community which I think must make El Tata so adored and legendary — when he told me that he does murals (“murales”), I excitedly said, “Me too!”  (“Yo soy artista tambien.” — “I’m also an artist.”)  His eyes lit up to match mine and he said, “Great! We can work together.”  It wasn’t till we finished talking that I informed him that I live in Indianapolis, but gave him my card and he happily promised to call me when a chance to work together comes up.

This remained one of my favorite experiences during my trip to Chicago.  The trip was packed with insights, moments with old and new friends during the TASH Conference around inclusion of people with disabilities, and my own personal visioning “PATH” process.

Yet, it was this coming-upon a new friend, potential collaborator, and “walking legend” out in that snowy street that thrilled me the most. Perhaps it’s because it was a reminder that, while there’s immense value in gatherings of peers and colleagues in whatever field we choose, our greatest teachers, friends and collaborators are often right around us as we move through public places or social spaces–unstructured, open and free-flowing.


Like El Tata, they often look like someone we’ve been told cannot offer or teach us anything–to many people, El Tata might seem a homeless man with nothing but needs.  And, for all I know, he might be homeless.  But, what I learned was a different story, and one that serves me much better than what my socially-trained eye would have made me see.


There is such abundance all around us… especially in the places where we’re told it’s not.  The only thing we need to do is look for it.


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