Going Home Again

By Clorinda Valenti

As a young girl growing up in Chicago’s Puerto Rican neighborhoods, Professor Mérida Rúa took ”field trips” every Sunday after church to study her family’s history. Her father steered their Buick through the struggling neighborhoods of his 1950s childhood to the “places of his aspirations”—the skyline of Lake Shore Drive and the imposing walls of the University of Chicago. Rúa and her mother, two sisters and grandmother listened, rapt, to his stories, which spoke to the larger Puerto Rican experience in Chicago.

Today, as a researcher and associate professor of Latino/a studies and chair of American studies, Rúa has returned to her home city to explore the impact of postwar Puerto Rican migration on Chicago and on Puerto Rican identity. She discussed her research—the basis of her book A Grounded Identidad: Making New Lives in Chicago’s Puerto Rican Neighborhoods (Oxford University Press, 2012)—in February, during the college’s annual Faculty Lecture Series. A winter tradition now more than 100 years old, the series gives faculty an opportunity to explore “big ideas” that transcend disciplinary boundaries.

”My research blends history and ethnography—using the past to tell the story of the present,” Rúa says. At her lecture, she focused on her experience living above Chicago’s first Puerto Rican-owned funeral home while researching her book. Listening to and recording stories told about the deceased at wakes and services, Rúa discovered a novel lens through which to view the history of Puerto Ricans in Chicago and the neighborhoods they lost. ”They were hopeful stories of resiliency and strong connection to community despite obstacles and struggles,” she says.

Scenes of Puerto Rican life in Chicago, including the Caribe Funeral Home (bottom) that Mérida Rúa lived above while researching her book.

 

Other “big ideas” from the Faculty Lecture Series

“When Pretty Good is Good Enough: A Tour of Approximation Algorithms,” Brent Heeringa, associate professor of computer science

“Participatory Memory and Casablanca’s Forgotten Neighborhoods: Interventions in the Representation of Terrorism and the Urban Poor at the Community Museum in Ben M’Sik,” Katarzyna Pieprzak, associate professor of French language and Francophone and comparative literature

“Insuring the Uninsured Before and After the Affordable Care Act,” Lara Shore-Sheppard, professor of economics and chair of political economy

“The Sea Is Not A Place: Putting the World Back in World Literature,” Christian Thorne, associate professor of English

“Why Does Nature Like the Square Root of Negative One?” William Wootters, Barclay Jermain Professor of Natural Philosophy