Unpacking Racism: Taking Risks To Let Strangers Become Neighbors

RaceConvo4This article is part of a series of posts based on the 2020 Laity Convocation of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Go to the Lead Post in this series.  Below is the presentation of JUDY SIABA, who moved from Mexico with her mother and three siblings to join her father, who had come months earlier with six other airplane mechanics for a job in Lansing, IL.  A Methodist pastor helped him find a place for his family in Chicago’s Hegewisch neighborhood.


“Living in a mostly Polish neighborhood at the beginning meant that the kids on the block at first did not play with us. Our landlady was Polish and would start speaking to my mom in English and switch to Polish without realizing it. This at the beginning didn’t matter to my mother because she spoke very little English. I did not have the privilege of going to a school with ESL classes. It was learning English through immersion and help from my older brothers who had been attending an English school in Mexico. I don’t know if you lived in the late 1950s but if you did you might recall the cowboy TV programs and movies and how Mexicans were depicted. Well, it was not in a very good light. Even in the Lone Ranger, his partner who was Native American was given the name of Tonto, which in Spanish means silly, fool, stupid, idiot, moron, dummy. It took us a while for the neighbors to see we were like them in many ways. We had the same needs, (home, love, food, friends) we worked hard, helped others. By the time we moved to Rockford we had become part of the community. Our neighbors risked and got to know us and developed a different view of Mexicans.

“In Rockford I was blessed to attend schools that were integrated. My sixth-grade class consisted of students with Lithuanian, Italian, African American, Mexican and Caucasian backgrounds. It was a different world than Hegewich. The church we attended in Rockford was Broadway MC. This congregation was special in that it welcomed a Japanese/American family and my family. During my years there they also welcomed with Sabia-Fearopen arms a Filipino pastor and an African American pastor. It was during my years there that we had a very progressive pastor who provided us with racial experiences. He took the senior high youth into Chicago to attend an Operation Breadbasket gathering. He also took us in to Newberry Center in the Maxwell Street area in Chicago to spend the night with kids from the center there and experience their changing neighborhood. Later several of those kids came and spent a weekend in our homes and worshiped with us. Another memorable evening was when Rev. Shive had three Black Panthers come for a potluck and share with us their work in the neighborhoods in Chicago to make it a better place. I was learning that we are all God’s children and that the church was working at bringing God’s children together. I was being exposed to many different cultures and justice issues. My church was being God’s hands and feet.

“I had learned about racism all around me, but it had not hit me until right before I was married, a pastor parish committee was ready to stop the student appointment of my then Fiancé soon to be husband,  just because of his name. Fernando. They had not met us yet but were ready to tell the D.S. that we were not welcomed. Being singled out or turned away by society is one thing, but when the body of Christ turns you away, that’s when it really hurts. I need to explain a bit about this one-year appointment. The congregation was a small Norwegian American congregation of mostly older members. Their kids had moved to the suburbs but always returned to an annual homecoming concert. Their neighborhood was changing as more and more Puerto Ricans were moving in. They were afraid of change. They did not know the culture or language of the new neighbors. Fear can keep us very isolated. Shortly after we had left the church trustees rented the apartment that had been empty for several years to a Hispanic man. The congregation had experienced a different culture through us, and their fears had subsided…

“I was raised to always be proud of who I am and whose I am. Because of that I have also taken advantage of my ethnicity when it has provided opportunities to serve beyond the local church.

Unfortunately, the Northern Illinois Conference is not given the opportunity when electing General Conference and Jurisdiction delegates to be truly inclusive.

“It might be interesting to look back and see the order of election of the delegates. Who are the first ones elected and who are the last. Please take note that this has been the experience of a Mexican woman. I know that if I was male some of my experiences would have been different.”


JUDY SIABA is a member of Euclid Avenue UMC in Oak Park.  Born in Mexico in a Methodist family, she’s been a lifelong Methodist/United Methodist whose passion is seeking and advocating for God’s justice for all people.  As a young adult she joined the United Methodist Women and was mentored by many women in the Northern Illinois Conference (NIC) and North Central Jurisdiction, who helped her develop leadership skills and discover her gifts for mission.  She has served as national vice-president of the UMW, Conference Secretary for Global Ministries, Aurora District Lay Leader, and director of the General Board of Global Ministries, where she first heard of Justice for Our Neighbors.  She has just concluded seven years on the board of Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors, including two years as president.  A music educator in the public schools, as well as in private lessons, she was also employed as administrative assistant to the director of Congregational Development of the NIC, and is currently archivist for the World Federation of Methodist and United Church Women.  She has served as presidet of the North America Area and the Caribbean of this body, and as a delegate to three UMC General and Jurisdictional Conferences.  Married to Rev. Fernando Siaba for 43 years, she and her husband have three daughters and six grandchildren.

  Go to the TEACHING DIVERSITY main page.  For another article focused on knowing your neighbor go to “We Ignore Our Neighbor’s Potential at Our Own Peril.”

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A.K. Ramanujan: A Country You Can’t Reach

RamanujanBorn in Mysore, India, Attippat Krishnaswami Ramanujan (1929-1994) is considered by many to be India’s finest modern poet writing in English, though he went far beyond English, his other writings as poet, scholar, playwright, philologist, folklorist, and translator ranging over five languages: English, Kannada, Teluga, Tamil, and Sanskrit. His books of original poetry in English are The Striders (1966), Selected Poems (1976, Second Sight (1986), and The Black Hen: Complete Poems (1995). His Collected Poems (1995) won India’s highest literary award, the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1999. In 1976 the Indian government honored him with the title Padma Shri, its fourth highest civilian award, and in 1983 he received a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “Genius Grant.”  Though he taught at Harvard, Wisconsin, Berkeley, Carleton, and Michigan, his home base was the University of Chicago, where he helped develop the South Asian Studies Program and became the William E. Colvin Professor in the departments of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, Linguistics, and the Committee for Social Thought.

Elliptical and intellectual, his poetry resists easy interpretation, but is carefully crafted and full of startling imagery.  David Starkey and I included five of his poems in our 1999 book Smokestacks and Skyscrapers: An Anthology of Chicago Writing, and David commented that like a strider (the water bug in the poem “The Striders”) his poems “often seem to walk on water while drowning in their ‘tiny strip / of sky.’”

A sardonic observer of his own foibles as well as those of his homeland and adopted country, he found fascinating ways of incorporating elements of East and West in his work and, naturally—given the global dimensions of his life—often explored hybridity and themes of travel, migration, and even transmigration.  The poem “In March” begins: “In March I traveled / not by train or bus or plane / but through the bloodstream / warm as the ocean currents / that took Aztecs to Mexico.”  Do such global flows, however, ever allow you to feel truly at home, or even to truly reach that other country you’re aiming for.  Tidy2His wonderful “Sonnet” begins: “Time moves in and out of me / a stream of sound, a breeze,” but is also like “an electric current / that seeks the ground….” And this movement also comes with “misplaced leases and passports,” while “excuses and blame swirl through the night / and take me far away from home.” The excerpt from “Chicago Zen” at left brings you face to face with “what you always knew: / the country cannot be reached.”  Not by jet, and not even, as the poem says near its end, “with a clean valid passport, / no, not even by transmigrating / without any passport at all….”  And even if you kind of get “there,” fear and paranoia might rule the day, so that in his poem “Take Care” he advises people to “Smudge your windows / Draw the blinds” because “All tall buildings / use telescopes.”  “In Chicago,” the poem ends, “do not walk slow, / Find no time / to stand and stare. / Down there, blacks look black. / And whites, they look blacker.”  As much as travel and migration give us freedom to move, they also restrict our feelings of being at home, feeling rooted and secure. And in a poem like “Death and the Good Citizen” the speaker wishes to be truly “biodegradable,” thus participating in the flow of life into death into life, but cultural customs themselves interdict this flow making it a “struggle to be naturalized,” especially “Abroad”—in a strange land, that is—“where they’ll lay me out in a funeral / parlor, embalm me in pesticide, / bury me in a steel trap, lock / me so out of nature / til I’m oxidized by left- / over air….”  We long for free travel, free migration, free flow in the proverbial circle of life, but find restrictions, walls, blockades everywhere: in the material world, in culture, politics, and in our own minds.

  Go to a list of Chicago Writers on this site, and to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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Neil Tesser: Out of Season

ComiskeyWith everything on hold this year, including baseball, I’m re-reading Neil Tesser’s piece “Out of Season” with greater than average nostalgia.  David Starkey and I put this piece in our 1999 book Smokestacks and Skyscrapers: An Anthology of Chicago Writing.  The Chicago White Sox’s old Comiskey Park, says Tesser, “…seems out of place with the dry snap of the frozen air…A ballpark has no place in winter.”  This year’s “off season” will probably extend into mid-summer at the very least, so that this year we’ll be saying that an empty ballpark seems out of place in summer.

NTesserWhat Tesser describes in “Out of Season” are the people behind the scenes, people for whom the winter off season is one of the busiest times of the year.  Take Roger Bossard, for instance, who joined the White Sox in 1967 working as an assistant to his father, Gene Bossard, and becoming the official head groundskeeper when his father retired in 1983. He’s famously known as the Sod Father.  Tesser describes the tricks Bossard uses to get the grass growing and greening for opening day.  “But perhaps the important step,” Tesser writes, “is the one Bossard doesn’t take, back when the old ball yard seems packed up and sealed for the fall. ‘The conventional wisdom is to cut the grass for the last time in mid-November,’ he explains. ‘But I don’t cut it then; I leave it a little longer. You see, during the winter, when the grass goes dormant, the top three-quarters of the plant goes brown. But because I’ve left it a little longer, when I then cut it in the spring, the green part is a little higher and consequently more visible.  It goes against the book on agronomy—but then the book on agronomy doesn’t need green on April 4th.’”

Snow3“Out of Season” begins and ends with Brossard but in between there’s Tim Buzard (VP for Finance), Don Esposito (Purchasing), Paul Reis (Community Relations), Dan Fabian (Broadcast Coordinator), Chuck Bizzell (Minor League Administrator)—each with their own trials to work through.  “You can’t save a cent on baseballs,” Tesser says of one of Esposito’s major buying responsibilities.  “They’re available only from Rawlings, they’re all manufactured in Haiti, and they cost $38.50 per dozen…This is a shame, since the White Sox buy eighteen hundred dozen baseballs each year.”

“Out of Season” is a wonderful piece describing this rush towards Opening Day, a rush now perhaps slowed to a simpler brisk walk.


I need to end this baseball nostalgia with more about what Neil Tesser is most known for: being a jazz writer, who in 2015 received the Lifetime Achievement Award in Jazz Journalism from the Jazz Journalists Association. Though the Playboy Guide to Jazz (1998) was his first book, he had by then written and done broadcast commentaries on jazz for nearly 30 years.  His articles have appeared in the Chicago Daily News, USA Today, the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and Coltrane-ABImore.  He’s done radio shows for several Chicago stations and NPR, as well as scripts for NPR’s award-winning Jazz from Lincoln Center.  Perhaps most of all, though, he’s written the liner notes to over 350 jazz albums.  His liner notes for the five-disc Stan Getz-The Girl From Ipanema-The Bossa Nova Years was nominated for a Grammy in 1985, and he won the Grammy in 2014 for his liner notes to Concord’s remastered and expanded reissue of John Coltrane’s Afro-Blue Impressions, originally released as a double LP in 1977, though it was recorded live during a European tour in 1963. The music finds Coltrane in a period of transition.  Tesser writes that his music is “free of harmonic constraints, often thrilling in its harmonic sweep and its incantatory power, and refusing to conform to the clock. (The performance of a single tune could run 25 to 30 minutes.)…These tracks brim with the wonder and the power of discovery.”  During his acceptance speech Tesser said, “So many of us learned so much of what we first learned about music from well-written liner notes… and everybody who’s over the age of 35, there’s a couple of key phrases that they’ll never forget that they read on their first Duke Ellington album, their first Miles Davis album, that stuck in their mind forever. So when I say those hallowed words, ‘I’d like to thank the academy,’ it’s not just for this award. It’s for keeping this category in the Grammys all this time. So thank you for that.”

  Go to my history of jazz: Voices and Freedoms, and to a list of Chicago Writers on this site.

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