Margarita Byler

Transcription of Margarita Byler
Interviewee: Margarita Byler
Interviewer: Sarah Altinbasak
Date: February 2, 2014
Place: Chicago, Illinois
Transcriber: Sarah Altinbasak
Total Time: 26:01

Copyright © 2014 Edgewater Historical Society

SA: So why don’t you tell me a little bit about uh, where you’re from?

MB: Ok, I was born in Argentina in a little town in the Pampas – the Buenos Aires pampas province in Buenos Aires – on a little… that’s on the western railroad that leads from Buenos Aires out of west. And my parents were Mennonite missionaries. And that’s how I ended up being born in this little town in the middle of nowhere… pretty much, very small town. I mean, I doubt it had just a couple thousand people living there. So I had my childhood in Argentina, and we moved around because dad was a pastor. And so we had to go to different churches because he was doing his work. We lived in a town of *** which was an Indian name that means something lake, except there was no lake by the town when we got there. And then another small, another bigger city called ***. And between those three towns, cities, I spent my growing up years in Argentina. And when I was fifteen we moved to Montevideo Uruguay. But then we came back. I went back to live in Argentina this young married mother of one…And my second son was born in Argentina. So that’s where I’m from.

SA: Ok. Uh, what was it like growing up there?

MB: Uh, it was great. I had a very happy childhood. I started school when I was 5. I started kindergarten an. One of my little friends had decided that she was going to actually take a test to skip first grade and start right into second grade. Now those days Argentina had 7 years of grade school and they were called first inferior and first superior you know.

SA: Ok.

MB: You know lower first and upper first and then you went to second grade. My parents had all the family had come to the states on trips that they did every six or seven years to visit family and do church related things here. And so by coming to the states I had come back and I was a year older than my other little friends that were going to start 1st grade. So I decided I also wanted to skip 1st grade and they let me do it. And I had to take a test. I had to have a private teacher that taught me how to read and write and do basic arithmetic. Spanish is my first language, although my parents spoke English. But they had a rule that they never spoke English if there was a non-English speaker around. And there were always non-English speakers around. I mean there were never English speakers around. So between the two of them they might have spoken English but we grew up speaking Spanish at home, and it’s my first language. I didn’t really learn English till I was in fifth grade in the states. And then just I knew how to speak it, but reading and writing I didn’t learn till I was about ten. And I was a very kind of typical small town kid growing up, you know. There wasn’t a whole lot to do but for kids. All I needed was some swings and a doll and a tea set and I was set. I have two younger brothers and a younger sister and an older brother. So I was the first oldest daughter. I am the oldest daughter. So I played with my brothers and sisters which mainly consisted of me bossing them around and telling them what to do. And I played with friends from school and went to friends’ house. We didn’t really do sleepovers that I remember. But I remember a lot playing with kids. I had piano lessons which my mom started all of us on fairly early. And we went to this teacher’s home and she taught us piano lessons. Um, what else did we do? We lived close to a Mennonite church camp ground that was basically a huge eucalyptus grove. Eucalyptuses aren’t indigenous to Argentina just like they are to California. For example, they were brought over and because they grow really really quickly so you can….It was an attempt at forestation that later it turns out killed the indigenous flora. But you know but in those years that’s what they were doing. And this was a huge group of eucalyptus, and they planted them all in straight rows.

So I remember playing hide and seek or tag basically skipping from tree to tree. And if you got it right, you could see, or you could maybe see, a diagonal. Or you could see down these rows of tress. There was an old cattle trough like a big old tank with kind of poor gated tin sides that was for cattle to drink. We would clean it out every summer and fill it with cane water. And we would swim in it. This was the pampas that have water. There are lakes but there isn’t a lot of water. There are underground railroads that caused severe flooding in recent years. But in those days, this part of the pampas were very dry.

There were huge windstorms, and the pompero is the name of the wind that blows across the pampas. And the dust that it would blow was so fine. I remember it getting into our eyes – even with your eyes closed – and in your lips and the cracks in your lips. And when we drove places, like if we drove to another town and it was hot – and of course the cars didn’t have air conditioning. We drove with the windows down and when we’d get to where we were going….There were some pictures – not some of the ones that I brought – but where we just looked like we had masks on. Basically you’d see a little white around our eyes. And where we’d lick the dust off our lips, it’d be a little bit of red and the rest of it would be like caked in this white fine dust. And it would creep in the windows. And anyway it must have been hell to clean up, but I had a lot of fun with it. So my childhood revolved around my little friends and birthdays parties and kids and toys and school and church. Of course cuz that’s the big thing, growing up as a pastor’s daughter.

Uh, yes it was good. It was good. There were good times to be growing in those small towns. There were no issues about safety. There were no concerns. So basically we ran around and would show up in the evening – kind of your typical, you know, I would say…. I would walk to a friend’s house. At the age from the age of seven on, I could walk around or I could ride my bike. We pretty much rode our bikes everywhere. And it was great!


SA: That sounds great.

MB: Yes.

SA: So when did you come to Chicago or when did you come to the Unites States?

MB: Well I’ve been back and forth because of the fact that my dad and mom would come back for church related work. So I was in the states for three years of college years. And I graduated from college in the states in ’69. And in ‘70 I went back to Uruguay, because as I said I was fifteen. My dad was transferred to Montevideo, and I went to high school in Montevideo. And then I came to the States and then married an old high school friend. I moved back to Uruguay in ‘71 and lived in Uruguay form ‘71-‘74 and then went to Argentina lived there till the end of ‘79. So the whole decade of the 70’s I wasn’t in the states. I was inUruguay and Argentina and there were politically very tough years. They were very….There was a lot of political unrest: two extremely repressive military dictatorships in both countries. We left Uruguay to avoid the one in Uruguay and then arrived in Argentina. And a year later there was a coup in Argentina. So we kind of did it all over again. And those were really rough years. My husband and I were very progressive politically and we were involved in some political activism. Not anything major but we were active in organizing protests and things like that. And so it became clear that we should leave Uruguay. And then in Argentina, even though there was a dictatorship, we were not involved in politics. I had two little kids at home, and my husband was studying and working.

But in at the end of ’79, I decided that I wanted to go back to school. And because of the agreements between countries about how you can validate your school degrees, it turned out that the only place that I could do graduate studies was in the U.S. because my high school degree was in Uruguay. But because when I transferred from Argentina to Uruguay when I was fifteen, I wasn’t formally registered in the Uruguayan system. It’s a very long story. Anyway, the only place I could go to graduate school was in the states and I really wanted to study. I had a degree in sociology. And I then I had a teaching as a second language certificate from Montevideo from the … It was a program ran by the U.S. embassy and U.S. yeah consulate. And so we came to the states again in ‘79 and went to live in New Mexico. And that’s where I went to graduate school and my husband did his degree. And we came for two years and we were going to go back.

And two years later the situation in Argentina just did not improve politically. We had two sons and there’s compulsory military service. And it was a military that was extremely abusive and cruel to its own people. And we did not want to take our sons there – or they could have been conscientious objectors, which of course is the Mennonites, which is a traditional peace church. But in those days in Argentina that would’ve meant imprisonment as opposed to not going into military service. So we decided to stay here a little longer and the rest is history. Our kids went to school, grade school in Albuquerque. And then we moved to Chicago in ‘88 when I took a job here with Amnesty International, a national human rights organization as director of their Midwest region. And my husband got a job first. He’s a mathematician, first teaching in ***Indiana and now since ‘89 he’s been teaching at Northeastern Illinois University. So that’s when we came to the states.


SA: So when you came to Chicago did you come straight to Edgewater?

MB: I didn’t. We lived for our first twelve years in Chicago. We lived in Beverly, because when we moved her, I worked in the loop. I had a job in the loop and my husband had a job in ***** . And we thought that that was a ten year track position, but I turned out it wasn’t. So a year later he was teaching at Northeastern where Edgewater wouldn’t have made a ton of sense. But our kids were already going to school in Beverly and we didn’t want to change have them change schools again. We had already changed in ‘88 and they had a really rough adjustment especially for our youngest who was twelve at the time. And so we decided to stay put on the south side and loved it. Um, I really liked Beverly. I think it’s a great neighborhood. But then my husband’s brother who lives in Chicago, who lived in Pilsen, re-married a woman who lived in Evanston. And he didn’t want to live in Evanston and she didn’t want to live in Pilsen where he lived. And so he said, “How about we go together and get a two flat or a three flat somewhere close to Northeastern?” And I wasn’t too excited about moving and I said, “Yeah you guys look for something. All I want is sun to come in the front room and a fireplace.”

Well, they found this building and we came to look at it and it did have a fireplace. But it was one of those old 1920 gas connection that had been closed up and sealed and of course there’s no fire. But the sun does come in the front room. So we bought this three flat with my brother-in-law. And initially between my brother and sister in law they had three sons. She had a son and a daughter. And so the boys lived on the third floor. They lived on the second floor with their daughter and we lived on the first floor. And we turned the basement into bedrooms for our sons who would come and visit because they had left Chicago.

So we came to Edgewater and we love it. It’s… I mean there’s just… everything is here, I just love it. Every time I just discover new things about it like the Historical Society [Edgewater Historical Society]. I mean I always have seen that building. I always thought we should go sometime but now I’m going to go obviously. I have an obligation but you know there’s everything from restaurants to shops to the library, the kinds of things like good transportation downtown. I do most of my stuff walking and driving. And we try not to use the car if we don’t need to and so do a lot of public transportation. And I think it’s ideal.


SA: What year was it that you came to Edgewater?

MB: It was 2000, so it’s been thirteen years.

SA: Do you feel at home here?

MB: Very much, very much. I think one of the things, well you know, it’s interesting. I’ve had the fortune maybe because I grew up like in in different towns and moving a lot. And then we come to the States and they pluck us down in some town where we had relatives that we really didn’t know. So we had to get to know these relatives but then we’d be gone for like six years. And yeah we just we didn’t keep in touch. So it it’s it takes me about four years to feel at home someplace. But I’ve never not felt at home anywhere that I’ve lived. And I suppose that’s you know part of the real privilege of growing up bilingual, and bicultural and bi-national… and what that means in terms of the ease with which you know I can navigate the different worlds. But I find the diversity in Edgewater particularly appealing. You know, I like the fact that there’s a lot of African communities and that I’ve never lived around in a place that has communities from Africa. I just I just love yeah, the mix of people. It feels very cosmopolitan in the sense of it’s just like a….Yeah, so, yes I feel very much at home in Edgewater and I like the community a lot.

SA: Is there one culture or place or anything that you would identify most with?

MB: Yeah that’s a good question. I mean when I’m asked where I’m from I say, “I’m from Argentina. That’s obviously not the case with all children who are born from or have parents who are Americans living overseas. That’s not the case with everybody. But I went to public school and I got a really good education with public schools in Argentina. And so I think and now I lost track of the question which was…

SA: Um, what do you feel…identify most as…

MB: What do I feel? So I think at my core I feel Argentinean. I feel Argentinean. I feel like the daughter of immigrants like a lot of my friends were. Now most of my friends had Italian or Spanish immigrant grandparents or parents. In some cases, I had some Jewish friends also immigrants from Poland mainly. S you know, I kind of understood myself as a kid growing up as the daughter of immigrants. So my parents spoke very very good Spanish. You know once in awhile they got it wrong, and I would tease them just like kids tease their parents. Cuz they can’t speak the language right. That’s kind of very much at the core but….And I’ve gone through times in my life when in order to kind of make peace with this whole bilingual and cultural thing, I’ve picked one and said, ‘Now, I’m just Argentinean.” And that’s kind of how I felt in the 70s partly because of the politics of the year too. You know, the U.S. was involved in a lot of stuff and that was objectionable. And I didn’t want any part of that and I identified very strongly as Argentinean. But I’ve also come to uh re-value the richness of my father’s family’s history in the U.S. And my mother’s Canadian and so that the Canadian side of the family also. |So, you know, I’m a mix. I’m, you know, a bit….And I’ve made an identity of myself kind of as this as a mongrel, as someone who has a lot of bits in me. But at my core, and I can tell…You know, with the Spanish at the core, like when I’m really scared its really easy for me to start talking in Spanish or when I…


SA: I was actually talking about that the other day with my friend. I said, “Did you ever notice when someone is bilingual and they’re very upset or afraid they’ll go right back to their original language?”

MB: Yeah it’s like a comfort zone. Now when I’m angry and I wanna cuss somebody out. Oh the Spanish is very rich and fluent.

SA: It sounds better.

MB: It does uh, and math you know. Not math but you know arithmetic. Like when I start counting or when I do the ABC’s or I do multiplication tables, it’s all in Spanish.

SA: Interesting.

MB: I get totally sidetracked if I start mixing with English. Now dreams it depends, it’s kind of like, if I dream I’m in Argentina, it will be in Spanish. But if I dream that I’m here, it’ll be in English.

SA: Really?

MB: But then if like Argentine friends had been visiting, and we’ve been speaking Spanish, then I can speak. Then I can dream in Spanish. Or Ill switch I’ll do the Spanglish thing like we sometimes do with my sister and brothers and with a lot of Latinos. You know, we’ll just mix words. We’d pick an English word and say it in Spanish. Or we pick a Spanish word and say it in English um….So yeah the identity fundamentally is Argentinian.

SA: Ok. Is there anything that I haven’t mentioned so far that you think is important about who you are or where you’re from?

MB: Well I think you know there are a lot of similarities about…. I don’t know what time it is or how much time you have. But I think about growing up, there are a lot of similarities with stories that my friends tell me about growing up here. You know, they’ll tell me a story about growing up in a Midwest town or a California town or a New Mexico town, You know, the kids ran around. You know it was safe to run. And you know there’s a whole different sense of community built around this small town identity. It’s always interesting for me to find those parallels and to find how much the history of the 20th century is actually a similar history across the Americas especially for middle class families – you know who had um…. I think in places for indigenous people from, for example Bolivia Ecuador, Peru, um Mexico, Brazil, you name it, it would be very different. Argentina much like the U.S. exterminated all the native peoples. They had campaigns like we did here to actually get rid of the native people. And so it’s mainly a European based uh, country uh…

SA: The United States…

MB: No, Argentina.

SA: Oh, ok.

MB: Argentina has very small um, indigenous. They’re now called reservations, but they’re similar. They are areas, protected areas for indigenous peoples. And it’s taken a long time for people to kind of admit the value the cultural value of those. So that’s why Argentina is a very unique country. Because it’s very European. And Argentineans are considered by a lot of people in Latin America to be **** and a little stuck up. Because a lot of Argentineans grew up with the idea that they were kind of the Europeans of Latin America. And the same with Uruguay. It’s exactly the same story in Uruguay. And so coming from those two countries gives me a unique Latin American perspective that is very different than a story you’d hear somebody middle class from Chile or Mexico or Venezuela. So um, in that sense I think there a lot of similarities culturally, also huge differences.

SA: Sure. Um, so if there’s nothing else, is there anything else you would wanna mention about you or anything? That you would want people to know?

MB: Well, I worked for 23 years with Amnesty International. And that was a very interesting career cuz you know paying attention to human rights abuses internationally and in the U.S. really allowed me as an adult to visit a lot of Latin America and to really understand a lot of Latin American history in a way I didn’t know growing up. I grew up studying European history and then some Latin American history, but it’s been it’s been a real privilege as an adult to be able to reconnect with the richness of Latin American history and another person overall because I got to travel. But that should be it.

SA: Ok. Thank you.

MB: You’re welcome.