What are you? Being Ethnic in Chicago

by Carol A Westbrook

Green river"What are you? You're Polish, aren't you?" I asked a friend, whose blonde hair, blue eyes and broad face gave her away.

Only in Chicago would this question not be taken as an insult, but as an invitation to discuss one's ethnicity. Most everywhere else, " What are you?" would be met with a puzzled expression, and answered, "I'm an American."

Being "ethnic" has a specific meaning in Chicago. It refers to Americans descended from a limited group of nationalities who immigrated to the US during the late 19th to early 20th century. Their cheap labor was needed to work the mines, steel mills, and factories during the period of rapid industrial growth. They were white Europeans, mostly Catholics, primarily from Eastern Europe, the Balkans or the Mediterranean. There are only a few other similarly ethnic cities that were settled at the same time, primarily in the rust belt around the Great Lakes, or in the mines of Pennsylvania.

Chicago ethnics have stronger bonds with each other than with their home country. Most of us will never visit that home country, and know only a few words of the language. What we have kept, though, is a sense of tradition, including some of the unique customs, foods, and religious holidays–and our unpronounceable names.

That ethnic name is the best way to get elected to office in Chicago. Some aspiring political candidates were known to change their names, or add an "i" to their surnames to make them Polish! Or take the example of Rod Blagojevich, a shady politician whose Serbian name helped him get elected to local Chicago office, and eventually to governor of Illinois. He is now in prison for corruption, but would be probably be re-elected if he ran today.

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