by Carmen Julia Rodriguez
Peter N. Pero is an educator, in the Chicago Metropolitan Area, who has written several books for the Arcadia Publishing Company. These books relate to demographic changes in many neighborhoods. Two examples of his ethnic history books are Chicago Italians at Work (2009) and Chicago’s Pilsen Neighborhood (2011).
Carmen Julia: Thank you for granting this interview to Profiles in Catholicism.
Peter: I am delighted that you took the time to investigate my books and challenge some of the ideas I put forth. Your publication, Profiles in Catholicism, is a cutting-edge collection of pertinent issues
Carmen Julia: What is your current church parish? Please explain when and why you joined this church?
Peter: I am a member of the Holy Family-St. Ignatius Church in the University (UIC) Village of Chicago. I first visited the church about 30 years ago as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. I worked on a neighborhood research project for the Hull House Museum and interviewed a Jesuit priest at the church. I was enchanted by the old Gothic interior and the rich landscaping there (1869 vintage). I moved away from Chicago and taught at a junior college in Japan for four years. Then I moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and worked for Cardinal Stritch College. After about 20 years of living, working and traveling to other parts of the world, I found myself back, full circle, to Chicago. I revisited Holy Family Church. The priests had changed but the old chapel was the same as it was constructed about a 150 year ago. I decided to join Holy Family immediately and now I have been a member for about 8 years. I guess the conclusion of my long journey to Holy Family Church is to say “I came for the history, but stayed for the faith”.
Carmen Julia: In what ways did your religious experience change over time?
Peter: Well I was raised Catholic but in college I flirted with the Quaker idea of finding “inner light”. I investigated the Amish lifestyle and visited them in Pennsylvania and Indiana. In Japan I got fully immersed in Buddhism and when I returned to America I spend some years studying Unitarianism through the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller At the same time, I am enamored by the Catholic devotion to Mary, the works of St. Francis and the consciences of Maximilian Kolbe and Phillip Berrigan. All these people and ideas contributed to my religious formation.
Carmen Julia: I can relate to that experience. I will always be a member of Sagrados Corazones Parish in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. When away from home, I visit other parishes like Saint Therese or Saint Nicholas in Aurora, Illinois. It is a “catholic” – universal – church, but our home parish had a great influence on our spiritual development. Could you provide our readers with a background of your teaching career as well as subjects you have taught and where?
Peter: My first job was with the Head Start Early Childhood Program in 1974. It was in a low - income rural area. Next I moved to the Second Chance Alternative High School for teenage drop outs. This school ran out of funding so I moved into English as a Second Language, teaching in the inner city. It was gratifying work sponsored by the Church of the Brethren. Out of this experience I got the opportunity to teach English in Japan. That was a dream come true. I stayed at that Junior College in Tokyo for 4 years. World-wide education became an attraction for me. I taught short courses in Cost Rica and refined my Spanish in Mexico. Finally I decided to return to the USA and try my hand at college administration at the Cardinal Stritch College in Wisconsin, a Catholic University in Milwaukee. In the 1990s the Chicago Public Schools system was recruiting inner city teachers who could speak Spanish so I settled down to a school, grade level and a course load in English and history. I also settled down and got married. I have been blessed with a diverse career from pre - school level, to the teenage level, to adult college level plus work in a few schools around the world.
Carmen Julia: A major production of the musical, The King and I, was featured the Lyric Opera in Chicago in May, 2016 One of the best known songs in the musical is "Getting to Know You". The opening verses are: “It's a very ancient saying but a true and honest thought that if you become a teacher by your pupils you'll be taught”
This is exactly the way I feel every time I have the privilege to enter a classroom and “touch the future.” Could you share some of the lessons learned from your students our 24 years of teaching?
Peter: My students always teach me something at least once a day. Even the grade schoolers who have arrived in the USA from another country offer many insights. Their food-ways, street jargon, and respect for parent supremacy were nuggets of new information for me. The kids are often thrilled to teach me a new vocabulary word from their home language or offer a homemade treat prepared in mom’s kitchen the night before. Sometimes they teach me a homeland song during holiday seasons. This is the give - and - take part of cross-cultural education as I have experienced it for 24 years. It is a fair exchange.
Carmen Julia: Your books document the diverse and ever changing cultural environment of Chicago neighborhoods. In what ways does the evolution of the social fabric influence educational practices?
Peter: Well there is a clear history of “ethnic succession” in Chicago; a sociological path or trajectory from the “Port of Entry” near the city’s core where housing stock is recycled, crime is a factor but mass transit is helpful for the newcomer. This was a Chicago pattern for more than 100 years. As one ethnic group got a tow hold on prosperity, many migrated west regarding immigrant groups I have studied. The Mexican enclave in Pilsen follow the traditional pattern of westward urban migration as did the Czechs, some Jews, and many Italians in my book. Today this old pattern has been scrambled. New arrivals from India, or the Mid-East now disembark at O'Hare Airport and migrate straight into “collar communities” like Stone Park, Addison, Skokie, Arlington Heights and, of course, your home area in Aurora, Carmen. The net gain is less crime and improved housing stock but of course the financial cost is high for the new family.
Now all this “evolution” does impact the educational fabric as you mentioned Carmen. Think about the property tax mil. rate on schools in, say Skokie over Chicago’s dwindling resources. It costs about $10k per child per year to provide ESL services and schooling for a new student arrival in Chicago but perhaps $14k per child is spent in Evanston on a student whose first language is not English, or perhaps has learning disabilities. This disparity is great.
The gap in school spending and resources is a much debated point in our national and state elections. One presidential candidate argues for subsidized college tuition for everyone. while a governor in our state prefers a kind of “slash and burn” policy of adding more charter schools, vouchers, and he tells state public colleges to raise their own operating costs through private sector solutions. This policy is “hit or miss” I believe. Our new school ideas for public/private partnerships usually create a net loss for the public schools but a gain for entrepreneurs. Possibly the students may gain if reading and math scores trend up longitudinally as many CPS students are. In this politically charged arena of schooling today, it is no wonder young teachers are balking at a career in education. Enrollment in teacher training programs in private universities and within our state colleges are down. Morale is low.
In regard to Catholic schooling, there are a couple parochial-styled schools in Chicago that are receiving city funding to operate but these schools must curb religious education to receive the funds. his is what I mean about private/public partnerships that are dubious.
Carmen Julia: Why did you write Chicago Italians at Work?
Peter: This was my first book which had been churning inside me since I actually grew in an Italian-American home. Where in Italy did my great grandmother come from and why couldn’t she speak English at the Christmas dinner table? What were these rosary beads she carried and why did great grandma always wear black clothing daily? With the men, why were they usually sunburned, carrying mud on their boots, distilling wine in the cellar, and eating out of lunch boxes. I was curious about their world that engaged them as truck farmers, milk delivery guys, barkeepers and deli managers. The Italians in my family who worked independently, surged ahead economically. They bought tracts of farm land in the New York State Finger Lakes region and grew grapes. Then they bought Florida land for tomatoes, green peppers, strawberries and built a national produce corporation. But other Italians in my family worked for factories, retail stores, and were dependent on big employers. These family members brought home a paycheck and very tired bodies. As I searched out this information, I realized these family stories were parallel to the lives of other Italian-American families in America. Their stories were my stories.
Carmen Julia: What inspired you to write Chicago’s Pilsen Neighborhood ?
Peter: Well I taught high school in the heart of Pilsen for 16 years at Benito Juarez Community Academy. Travelling to and from school daily offered me opportunities to view murals, working class cottages, and factories that once made beer and other products. I would ride my bicycle in spring and notice buildings engraved with German or Czech names on the stone facades like “Saint Paulus Kirche” or “Plzen Sokol”. My epiphany was realizing that this community was not just about Mexican people who have been so visible during the past 50 years. European migration from Germany, Poland, Ireland, Bohemia and Lithuania was a fact too. Now instead of having canal boats landing in Pilsen, as in the 1850s, the neighborhood now has helicopters landing near the old canal. Pilsen is too small and too dense for air traffic. The neighbors fought the old Edison Coal burning plant in Pilsen, now they need to fight sonic pollution.
Pilsen is only 2 miles x 2 miles in area size, yet about 45,000 people managed to live side by side in this Euro-Latino “village”. They search for jobs, progress and maybe some USA cash remittances to mail to families in the old country. In the Pilsen neighborhood (a village of sorts) there are 9 churches, 4 CTA train stations and a heavy layer of truck traffic from the two interstate highways a few blocks from the heart of Pilsen. This whole parade of humanity in Pilsen has families working one or two jobs, six days per week and a little relaxation on Sunday. Let us hope there is some time for church worship in order to keep a perspective on the meaning of life.
Carmen Julia: Gordon Nary recently reviewed your most recent book Soul Survivors: Historic Catholic High Schools in Chicago. How did you research the history behind this book and why did you choose to document the Soul Survivors’ stories through photographs?
Peter: The photographs in my book provide visual evidence of sacrifice, creativity, and faith. There are priests and parishioners who built churches and schools. Parishioners who paid for it out of pocket and diocesan help.. I think we all recognize our responsibility to nurture schools for our children. It is human capital development and the process in which educated citizens help the uneducated to complete an education is called “social reciprocity”. The Christian Brothers of De Lasalle specialized in this kind of effort for more than 400 years.
I think all readers share an understanding of the schooling experience. It is formative, and constantly additive from grade to grade. We teachers sometimes don’t credit parents as teachers because we are trained in formalized instruction and moms and dads don’t use textbooks. Still they teach life lessons. I also give credit to children who thrive on “discovery learning” and just “figuring things out”, (as my wife says). To search for patterns, make educated judgments, form conclusions. That is a beautiful thing to witness in a classroom community.
Carmen Julia: What initially attracted you to study, teach, and write about history?
Peter: Catholic schools need to be commended for more than 100 years of character building in Chicagoland. Yet financial tidal waves now threaten many schools in the metropolitan area. The region once held hundreds of Catholic High Schools but now maintain less than one hundred high schools in Cook County and the collar counties. No book I know documents or commends the schools that have survived. But in my history book, many high school graduates contributed scrapbook photos, administrators and teachers opened yearbook archives, and alumni purchased books. The interest is keen.
Carmen Julia: If history is the story of men - and women I might add – we could argue that religion is the narration of humanity's spiritual evolution. In what ways has your religious faith influenced your teaching experience?
Peter: Well at times I wonder if Christ is with me. America is a society sometimes more preoccupied with cash settlements and class action suits than human morality. I believe that virtue and justice should prevail. Many cultures settle internecine issues “within the village” but in contemporary American society we get surrogates to act for us like lawyers and state agencies. They are actually disconnected from the Christian “conversation”. I would hope that Catholic parents, teachers and students can do a better job of settling differences and promoting love.
Carmen Julia: We have seen a growing consolidation of Catholic churches and schools around the world, but especially in Chicago. Based on your experience, how will this consolidation effect Catholics in the parishes of Chicago?
Peter: Yes Carmen, already in Pilsen there is a consolidation of six churches into about three if the Cupich Plan works. Some old Lithuanian and Polish churches are being rolled into Hispanic churches and this is a test of Catholic liberalism. Can everyone get along and transcend the ethnic lines that created some of these historic churches in the first place? I think these new consolidated churches will evolve with lots of naves and mini altars dedicated to national patron saints like Saint Adalbert for the Poles of Pilsen, Our Lady of Guadalupe for the Mexican residents and maybe a nook for St Francis Cabrini to represent the Italians. All three of them are inspiring "profiles" in Catholicism, as your publication is titled Carmen.
Carmen Julia: Chicago neighborhoods are being overwhelmed by violence and murder; much of it involving gang members whose average age is 16 to 19 years - with some members as young as 13 years. What can the churches do to help reduce gang membership and violence in Chicago?
Peter: I admire the work of Fr. Michael Phleger at St. Sabina’s parish in Chicago. He walks the walk. The boycott and protesting of gun stores with parishioners is a good and peaceful start. I believe free enterprise for gun store owners stops at the barrel of an automatic weapon.
Carmen Julia: Again, thank you for this interview and for your service.
Peter: Thank you too, Ms. Rodriquez and Gordon Nary for the efforts you give to publishing Profiles in Catholicism.