For 37 years, Alfredo Jacinto literally had a window into Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, where immigrants have arrived and built their lives for more than a century.
He became a fixture and a self-proclaimed advisor in the Southwest Side community during his nearly four decades as a window clerk at the Cesar Chavez Post Office at 1859 S. Ashland Ave. He retired last Friday.
“Every day is different at the window,” Jacinto said on his last day of work a week ago. “I love it.”
Jacinto worked for the U.S. Postal Service since 1967 and at the Pilsen location since 1982.
He’s sort of exactly how you’d want your local post office clerk to be. For work, Jacinto would don a neat sweater vest and a stamp pin on his chest. He’s mild-mannered, patient, and he took pride in helping his customers, particularly the Spanish-speaking ones.
“Sometimes, they’ll wait two or three [hours] for me,” Jacinto said. “They’re just happy to talk with me in our language.”
Jacinto, the son of Mexican immigrants, was raised in Pilsen and used his last day to reflect on all he’s seen since coming to work the window there in the early ‘80s.
He saw the back mailroom — once brimming with hand-written letters — change to being heaped with packages from Amazon and Target. And he watched as the types of people coming in changed, too.
“When I got here, it was mostly a Polish neighborhood. And then, it changed to Mexican,” he said.
Now, Jacinto describes Pilsen as a hodge-podge of Mexicans, Asian Americans, Middle Eastern families, lots of artists and hip young millennials.
“Pecking on their phones and texting and talking on the phone coming up to the window,” Jacinto said through a chuckle.
Recent census data shows Pilsen is still a majority Hispanic neighborhood. But a 2016 study shows the area’s lost more than 10,000 Hispanic residents over the past 20 years, as rents have risen.
While breweries or art studios have replaced some traditional community spaces like laundromats or barber shops, Jacinto says he’s been holding it down for his customers at the post office.
“I’m sort of like a counselor. They always ask for advice about their personal lives — situations they’re in like immigration, or there’s quite of few that have a lot of health issues,” Jacinto said. “I just wish them the best of luck and then I light a candle for them at [Shrine of St. Jude Thaddeus church], which is across the street.”
Jacinto said he plans to give his sweater vest to his daughter, who’s also built a lifelong career at a Chicago post office. Then, he’ll hang up the rest of his uniform for the last time. But he said he still sends bills by mail, so he’ll be back at Cesar Chavez Post Office as a customer.
He hopes to see a Spanish-speaking replacement at his former window.
Mariah Woelfel is a producer at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter at @MariahWoelfel.