Act Two: The Goats I Loved
OTF contributor Robert Suarez is back with the second installment in his series of memoirs charting a Chicago fútbol life…
My father, El Sifon, loved las Chivas all his life. It was only natural, as he came from a small village near the city of Guadalajara. He even took me to see them play once when we vacationed there. So it’s no wonder that I also grew to love those goats, but with a slight variation: I was raised in the haze of Indiana Harbor’s steel mills.
I was a “harbor hood.” Yes, that was the term used to describe the little thugs that roamed the gritty industrial streets of Indiana Harbor back in the 1950’s. It wasn’t exactly a harsh derogatory term, just one akin to calling someone a punk. I suppose that is exactly what my little friends and I were. Not bad kids, just punks.
We enjoyed running the streets and alleys of our neighborhood. We delighted in throwing rocks through windows and stealing candy. There was always mischief to get into, and we found all kinds of great fun in our neighborhood alleys everyday; not the least of which was ganging up on kids we caught on our turf and finding a reason to give them a good, if not mild, beating.
Sometimes really cool things would happen without us looking for it. One such occasion comes to mind when our Puerto Rican neighbors, the Rincon family, brought home a goat.
Los Rincones lived a few doors north of our rental home in a building on Parrish Street. Quite a few of them shared a first floor apartment. The oldest of the Rincon sons had found work in Michigan, so a few of them were returning after having been gone for a month or so. I considered these guys to be “grown ups” then, but now, looking back, I suspect they were only 18 or 19 years old.
My brothers and I were friends with the youngest of the Rincon clan, so we were excited to know the older boys were expected home at anytime. Naturally, we all hung around the back of the building playing and behaving pretty much like the miscreants we were. We knew there was going to be a celebratory cake, a pinata, music, and free food – a real pachanga!
In short order, we greeted the Rincon boys as they arrived in style, driving their own car. We were impressed, to say the least. They were dressed in fancy clothes (with pointy shoes) and their shiny car had really cool big fins. Even cooler were the fuzzy dice hanging on the rear view mirror.
Everyone was so thrilled to see how well the Rincon boys had done. Then, they surprised us all by pulling a goat out of the car. Yes, a chivo – a real live goat. We could scarcely believe our good luck. A pet goat had arrived!
We squealed with delight. In the Harbor we seldom saw farm animals (or any animal for that matter, with the possible exception of an occasional alley rat).
I suppose for sake of accuracy I should mention there was a small zoo in the Harbor during those years that provided children with the opportunity to see some real animals. It was located in Washington Park near St. Catherine’s Hospital and Block Stadium. The zoo, whose existence is a largely forgotten footnote, housed a black bear or two, a lion, a few small farm animals, and perhaps an eagle. Pretty lame by today’s standards and surprisingly, also lame in the 1950s. I digress.
The Rincon family greeted each other with hugs, kisses, and the familiar cries of joy that accompanies the reunion of separated loved ones. As the Salsa music wafted through the back yard, la familia Rincon talked, laughed, and downed cold cervezas. All the while the kids, including me, petted and hugged “Mr. Chivo.” He was tied up in the back near the garage. We grabbed his horns, looked into his devilish goat eyes, and laughed gregariously when he belted out a loud “Baaahh!”
After we had our fun, I thought it was cute when one of the men tied the goat down on a sled. “He must be going for a ride,” I thought. A couple of the men were sharpening some knives, but that didn’t seem odd to me. After all, they were Puerto Ricans.
A pot was strategically placed by the sled and one of the men gently, ever so gently, slit Mr. Chivo’s throat. I was not stunned, but instead mesmerized by what played out before my eyes. The big pot was soon filled with goat blood and after a few more agonizingly long minutes, Mr. Chivo was gutted then his black & white pelt hung near the pinata. Then, all the adults quickly disappeared into the house.
The yard party was a little more subdued for the next hour while we waited for something I knew nothing of. Then, the women came out and put an old table cloth on the picnic table to set the table for a feast. As was the custom, we kids took up places wherever we could fit. I sat in the garage doorway.
Soon, I was served a big hearty bowl of Mr. Chivo stew. I hesitated for a moment, but hunger overcame my confused, sentimental feelings for Mr. Chivo. Eventually, I dove into the hot, steamy bowl. Of course, it was delicious. Before I knew it, I was gnawing goat bones and wondering whether I was some kind of evil spawn for having eaten Mr. Chivo.
Later, I asked my parents if I had done something wrong. They didn’t seem to care, except to say that I should have washed my hands and asked for an extra serving so they could have enjoyed some Mr. Chivo too!
That scene was typical in the Harbor in the 1950’s. People of all kinds were crowding into our lives. There were blacks from Mississippi, rural white folk from Kentucky, Poles, Greeks, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans – all living, working, playing, and praying together. Somehow, the poor people in the Harbor found common bonds and formed the first community I knew.
My father’s fútbol life, at this time, was centered on the Atlas team he helped form. I know this team as “Atlas” because they wore the classic black & red kit of the Mexican professional club of the same name. However, the team was officially known as club “Azteca.” They used the Atlas “A” logo and hijacked it to stand for Azteca. Because of this, it was not uncommon for local folks to mistakenly refer to the team as “Atlas.”
Regardless, El Sifon’s friend Abraham Olivo took charge of handling all the organizational issues and left him in charge of finding talent and fielding a side. My father would bring in a good player, Mr. Olivo would get him a job, and voilà: amateur fútbol at it’s best!
One of the men my father brought to the club was named Carlos Garcia, aka El Chavira. Carlos was a friend of my father’s and a professional player from their hometown of Juanacatlan, Jalisco. El Chavira had played left wing for las Chivas of Guadalajara and for Oro, both big time clubs in the Mexican 1st division. When he arrived, Atlas developed a large and loyal fútbol following almost overnight. El Chavira instantly became a fixture on the Atlas side. He was like family to us.
Even I, a young boy, could see that Chavira was different from most of the other players. He was faster, smarter, and scored a lot of goals. More importantly though, he was nicer. Chavira was always friendly to me and my brothers and always made us feel welcome at the games. Most of the players would ignore us little kids hanging around the pitch, but El Chavira always made it a point to smile and kick the ball around with us.
After a few years of getting to know him, I learned on short notice that El Chavira was moving to Los Angeles. The club had a big going away bash after his last match, and in an instant he was gone. El Chavira, like Mr. Chivo, was no more.
His sudden departure must have been a traumatic experience for me, though I scarcely remember it. I must admit I feel a sense of sadness and loss when I recall this episode of my life. Even decades after his departure I would still occasionally wonder what fate had befallen El Chavira.
Overall, my childhood world seemed wonderful. Television was new and exciting. We had theaters with color films and air conditioning. We had cool cars, cool street gangs, and cool guys, who I recall looked conspicuously like “da Fonz.” I thought the world revolved around Indiana Harbor.
But the Harbor, even back then, was a dirty, tough, violent, and difficult place to raise a child. Reality however, takes a back seat to perception in a child’s world. At least it should when a child is blessed enough to have loving, caring parents and family. I was so blessed.
I was the beneficiary of a stable, typical 1950s-era lifestyle, but we did not live a middle class existence – not by a long shot. My family fell into the “working poor” category. I suppose it could be said, in fútbol parlance, that we were firmly entrenched in the third division of life but moved slowly, steadily toward promotion.
My mother Raquel, like most mothers, was a stay-at-home mom. She cooked, she cleaned, and she nurtured her brood of three rambunctious boys, of which I was the eldest. In addition, by mid-decade the stork somehow goofed up and left us a sister for fun.
My father labored at the Standard Forgings plant located mere blocks from our home. Later in life, I toured the facility to see first-hand where my father helped stamp railroad car axles out of glowing white-hot slabs of iron. It was a place that would have made Vulcan proud.
I’ve never forgotten the images of fire, smoke, flying sparks, and embers, to say nothing of the dust, dirt, and deafening noise. But that was not the most unnerving part. Instead, it was the never-ending, earth-shaking “ka-booms” that emanated from deep in the bowels of that industrial behemoth.
Standard Forging proudly boasted that it was the home of the western hemisphere’s second largest “hammer.” This monstrous industrial tool could stamp, or form, a whole rail car axle in one thunderous stroke. The power of that one stroke shook the ground throughout East Chicago.
In the good times of my youth, the hammer could be heard and felt every 10 or 15 seconds, 24 hours a day, everyday of the year. In retrospect, the hammer provided, in a strangely consoling way, a much-needed sense of security, an industrial heartbeat.
Nostalgia aside, it was the smoke, the noise, the smell, and the labor that produced the means for someone like my father to have the time and money to enjoy sports. For the most part, play time was a luxury unknown to earlier generations – especially in the industrialized Calumet region.
Before the 1950s, sports were a diversion generally limited to high school boys and the well-to-do. But the post-war economy (and perhaps more importantly the rise of labor unions) allowed many working-class men the time and resources to take part in various organized sports and recreational activities.
Consequently, El Sifon was blessed with the opportunity to continue to play fútbol. It provided him with a well-earned respite from the hardships of industrial work and afforded him the game of his youth. It also provided him healthy connections to a social life, community, friends, beer, and some occasional fresh air. However, that “fresh air” was usually the consequence of road games. Clean air was pretty much non-existent in East Chicago back then.
But it would be unfair, even untrue to suggest that fútbol was my father’s only sports interest. Yes, his first love was las Chivas de Guadalajara, but he also came to love baseball and followed it faithfully. He was especially proud of the first Hispanic players who broke into Major League Baseball. He knew all their names and followed their exploits through Spanish-language publications. And when Monterrey won the Little League World Series in 1957, my father and his friends could not contain their pride.
But fútbol was always more than just a game. My father’s life, as well as ours, revolved around it during the warm weather months. During some years, the fútbol calendar also included “indoor” at the Chicago Armory.
Still, fútbol didn’t dominate, nor was it the center of my childhood. Of course, I went to all the games on Sundays, but the rest of the week was taken up by child’s play. In the Harbor, that meant running the streets for hours on end. We would fight and play war, often getting hurt – or preferably, hurt others in the process.
Truth be told, fútbol wasn’t even the first sport I learned to play and enjoy. In a peculiar and unexplainable twist of events, it was Cricket. I do not completely understand how that came to be, but in the mid to late 1950s the most common sport in our neighborhood alleys was an urban version of the other British ball game. Alas, that is a story unto itself.
As much as I enjoyed the grown-up scene with my father, there were no organized fútbol options for children. As a result, I never had the opportunity to play as a youngster. Later in life, that experience drove me to do whatever I could to help teach children the beautiful game once the opportunity arose.
As the 1950s drew to a close, El Sifon headed off to play and coach “Los Tanners” on the north side of Chicago. My father went there because the team was founded and organized by transplants from his hometown of Juanacatlan. Besides, the Atlas club began to decline immediately after the departure of El Chavira. By the end of the decade it would cease to exist.
In the ensuing years I met many of El Sifon’s friends and teammates from the old country. But for as long as my father lived, I never again saw nor heard anything about the fate of El Chavira.
But this sad story has a strange, if not happy ending. At my father’s funeral in the spring of 1990, I ran into an old man sitting alone in the vestibule of the funeral home. We soon started talking and reminiscing about El Sifon and the Atlas fútbol club. Then, the old goat introduced himself. It was El Chavira.
It had been nearly forty years since I had last seen him play for Atlas. We laughed and hugged and I finally found some deeply needed closure to a sad chapter in my life. The old goat, El Chavira, had returned. I felt content and at peace.
It’s been decades since I’ve visited the Harbor. The places and haunts I once knew now only exist in old black and white photographs and in my fading memory. The little “harbor hood” no longer exists either.
But what hasn’t changed is that I still cheer for las Chivas. I still feel proud and fortunate to have seen El Chavira play. And yes, I occasionally recall Mr. Chivo too, because like my father El Sifon, I still love those goats.
OTF contributor Robert Suarez is older than dirt, but slightly smarter. Coach Bob mans his “Bobservation Post” high above a rural Indiana corn field, from where he proudly dispatches missives of futbol insight, experience, and opinions via his telegraph (with enhanced morse code, version 2.5). Follow Bob @rxs225