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How to eat at the table: Reflections from Chicago community leader Roberto ‘Bob’ Medina

Sitting down to eat with Bob Medina, we joke about how to eat at the table. “No elbows,” he says. Yo le digo, “and the other arm on the lap; I only eat with my left hand because I’m a lefty.” A friend of my Tia Ketty from their Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO) days in the 1990s, Bob Medina sparks fond memories for me, especially as I see photos of my cousins in the Puerto Rican and Mexican parades for which HDO mobilized and at the picnics HDO sponsored. A man who, in solidarity, once walked to school con los pies descalzos with a classmate whose family could not afford shoes leaves a mark on anyone. Conversations about etiquette are really reflections on how to survive in today’s society. The conversation about how to eat is a reminder of how, often in the transition Puerto Ricans make from working to middle class existence, the way we eat, the way we dress, the way we carry ourselves in a room has to and often dramatically changes either to infiltrate, integrate, or assimilate. Such is the process of creating identity. The conversation around etiquette, as Medina understood it, was really about a moment in his life where he wanted his peers to learn how to “survive in this society."   

To begin, it is important to understand where and how Medina’s attention to etiquette and difference started. For that, it is important to explain when and how he arrived in Chicago. He arrived in his teens, his parents looking for better opportunities in the United States. Looking for something to do after-school, Medina had limited options. Medina had started participating in the Duncan YMCA on Ashland and Monroe as it was one of the few places his parents would let him go after school. Back then, young men did not have many recreational choices in their neighborhood. Sociable by nature, Medina quickly made friends with his teammates; they would often go out to eat after games and practice. In one of those instances, he explains, “I remember inviting some of my friends, you know, they were about the same age I was…fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old and I invite this group of young people to go with me to a restaurant downtown…I remember they were intimidated.” From the way they acted on arriving and on eating at the table, he noted they did not know how to act nor react to being served by waiters. He was a ponceño who grew up in town, and he understood that living en el campo not many of his peers had chances to go out to eat at sit down places in Puerto Rico or on arriving in the states. Early on, he wanted to find a way to get them used to it without scaring them or shaming them. He continues to explain that, “they were totally out of their environment.” 

After a couple of days he came to the conclusion that he needed to hold banquets at the YMCA to acclimate them to formal eating. He spoke to then YMCA Director, Joe Tovolik, a Polish guy who “liked Ricans,” about his idea. Tovolik, who had been friendly to the Puerto Ricans use of the space, supported Medina’s project. Medina did not directly propose the banquet as etiquette classes. He likes teaching by example and by doing, not by telling people what to do. Like the boy who walked barefoot on his way to school, Medina wanted to introduce his peers to etiquette in a way that respected their humanity. He wanted them to “be able to go out [and eat] in public without being afraid.”  While Puerto Ricans are used to eating food like pork chops with their hands, he understood, there were times he recognized that it was important to know how to use a spoon, fork and knife. “In a very cautious way,” Medina explains, “[he] was teaching [his friends and peers] how to act in public. And most of these kids come from the mountains of Puerto Rico,” a background that had no reason of being a source of shame nor of being a defining and limiting factor of anyone’s existence. In talking with many older Puerto Ricans, whether friends, family or other participants in the 100 Notable Puerto Ricans Project, he is not the only one who, on changing environments, recognizes the difference between urban and campo youth from Puerto Rico. Still, acting to address the disparity at such a young age is rare, especially considering how recently he had arrived when he committed to being part of that change.

Bob Medina

As an alumna of a New England boarding school with formal meals, I note the internal transition of individuals, some of whom, like me, are recipients of need- and merit-based scholarships, who are introduced to environments completely unlike their own. Whether changing the way they dress, the way they fix their hair, or even their inflection of tone, they exercise strategies of resistance and strategic integration in an effort to stake a claim in spaces they/we are not expected to occupy. Hearing Medina’s story, his teenage self’s articulation of the necessity to find a strategic, humanizing and affirming ways to give his peers tools for social survival in the possibility of socio-economic movement, echoes the continued efforts of many. More than the etiquette classes afforded the few in fiction and telenovelas like María la del barrio, Medina’s childhood recollection is an example of ways that etiquette lessons from below can feed and sustain brotherhood among young men.

As we delve further into the story, he explains where he was coming from at that age, he recognizes that, for some, it may have been the insecurity as a result of their poverty or their lack of experience at formal restaurants. In articulating what they covered, he outlines what he attempted the banquets to review: “How to order a meal, it encompasses all of that [from walking in to sitting at the table, ordering and eating food].” He understood that he had to not only address table manners, but also their confidence in the environment.  When pressed about how others reacted to the etiquette they were being taught, he stresses, “I never told them how I felt and what I knew…I never told anybody,” reinforcing his belief that, “sometimes you gotta teach not by talking.”

Sitting with him over the past summer, whether reviewing his lengthy collection of articles on Latino political leaders or historic campaigns, he teaches a great deal about the need to not only preserve documentation of what leaders have done but also to contextualize that work in Latinos’ political progress of the moment. Although retired, he keeps contact with Puerto Rican community leaders, lending thoughtful advice or keeping track of what is happening in the community his work informed shaping. Whether talking about the current status of Latino political elected officials in city or state office or catching up on Puerto Rican-led campaigns, he continues to be a source of information and inspiration for many who want a better tomorrow for Latinos in Chicago.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 11 September 2015.