01/30/2012 01:41 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

Cracked Sidewalks

There are two truths to growing up and living in Chicago. The first truth was given to me, that being that Chicago is a very diverse city. I do not argue with this fact because I see it in the variety of neighborhoods that we have and the people that populate them. The second truth is that Chicago is a very segregated city. This truth I have lived, and although it is refuted by some as a dying issue, I continue to witness the vitality of segregation in my commute and interactions with others.

I grew up in a small neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago called Hermosa. Hermosa is Spanish for beautiful. While I have come to love the neighborhood I grew up in -- a place my parents still call home -- I remember thinking Hermosa was quite the opposite of beautiful in my teens. Although any and possibly every street in Chicago is littered and aged through both use and misuse, the flaws of my neighborhood were presented to me as a teenager through one of my first overt encounters with race and class.

I went to a high school where I was a racial and economic minority, a familiar story for many I'm sure. To some extent my high school did provide a sense of diversity, given the fact that my elementary school primarily consisted of Latinos, few African Americans and some Polish Americans. By attending a high school outside of my community I was able to meet and befriend relatively wealthy people of different white and Asian ethnic groups that you would be pressed to find in Hermosa. The downside of these new encounters as a racial "other" is that I was charged with the duty to "educate" my friends and classmates on Latinos and what they thought was our homogenous culture while simultaneously defending Latinos and my culture from stereotypes generated through years of racism and ignorance. When I think back on my identity politics at the age of 14 I cringe. How can an angsty, then self-proclaimed nonconformist band geek battle with hormones, ace classes and carefully ponder over the nexus of race and class? This balance between self-expression, expectations and racial and economic consciousness is something that many young people and Chicagoans of various marginalized groups have to grapple with in their daily lives. Needless to say, as a 14-year-old I could not carefully balance self-expression, expectations and consciousness and chose to sacrifice racial and economic consciousness rather than to integrate it as part of my self expression.

For a very short while I was able to get by without fully giving any credence to race and class -- which is really central to who I am now and how the geography of our city is shaped. However, every time I would return from school to my home in Hermosa I was unable to conceal it. The connection between race and class is reflected in our neighborhoods, it brings to light the businesses in our communities or lack thereof, it drapes our streets with visual indicators of lavishness or thrift and it normalizes the idea of segregation through its pervasiveness in our city. Although I wanted to present myself to others as an individual, Hermosa did not allow me to communicate to my friends who I was but rather what I am in the eyes of privileged children. I can clearly remember one of the first remarks about my neighborhood being "ghetto" and that therefore I am "ghetto," Mexican and therefore I must be an immigrant (both of which I am not), unsafe and thus I was not to be trusted. The negative impact that Hermosa had on my classmates during a first visit was so strong that most would refuse to hang out with me in my neighborhoods again despite the fact that under my parent's tight supervision it was always safe.

As a freshman in high school, I felt as though where I lived destroyed any chances of acceptance and individuality in my new environment yet it was precisely exposing where I lived that made any true form of acceptance possible. What is pure acceptance other than the recognition of someone or something different and the admission of that difference? I would like to say that the minute my 'friends' insulted me and where I came from that I immediately spoke up for myself and my community, but the truth is that I didn't. It took some time for me to get comfortable with who I was and how others perceive me. Now when I revisit Hermosa I don't notice the dingy houses or cracked pavement, I see the families that have come and gone and the neighborhood that has helped shape me and awaken my racial and economic consciousness.