Sladjana grew up in the East Side of Chicago. Studs Terkel, in the prefatory notes to Division Street: America, doesn’t give that part of the city much thought. “There isn’t much East Side,” he wrote in the section titled “An ABC Guideline for Non-Chicagoans,” in 1967. He goes on to describe the city in broad strokes—an act I’ll emulate as necessary in the months to come. But broad strokes can’t get at the details, and for a young girl who immigrated to Chicago from Eastern Europe without knowing the language, the details mattered.
I’ve been in Chicago since 1975. I moved here when I was 6—just about to turn 7. I moved here from then Yugoslavia, now Serbia. My mom came first. I had an aunt who made papers for my mom and then she came and was working on papers for me and my dad and my sister. You have to have a green card to get here, legally, I guess. And so my aunt made a green card for my mom to come. I don’t know what the term was, but my aunt applied for one for my mom because they were sisters. Then once she got official status, then she waited for papers for the rest of us. So we could all have green cards, too. She had to wait 15 months, so we were 15 months living with my dad and my grandparents. Then we came in ’75.
It was shocking to me. I was 6. I was like, what the hell did you all do? We moved to 96th and Avenue M. It’s the East Side. If you’re from there, it’s called the East Side. But it was just this land of the concrete, after I had been up in the mountains. It was beautiful where we were. I was like, What did you all do? It’s ugly here, there’s nowhere to run. There’s no cows. There’s no mountains. I thought they were nuts.
I guess it was economics. I mean, we were just living in the village. I guess my dad was bringing in money. Everyone was working the land. My mom felt like she couldn’t buy us all the things she wanted to buy us, like shoes—lots of shoes. I never felt like we were super poor. But we were all peasants. I never felt impoverished when I was there, because we were never hungry or anything. We lived off the land.
My mom was just so much more of a materialist than the rest of us. She just felt like—she wanted to go shopping, she wanted to be able to buy clothes for school, or shoes for school. I guess the expenses were about to mount. My sister was five years older. She was 12 when she came, so it was a lot harder for her. We didn’t speak the language.
I hated it here for years. I got my dad to send me back within a year of coming here because I missed it so much. And then when I went back, I was like Oh, OK. You know, I just had to readjust. I didn’t like it at all. I felt like I had to become a different person, with a different personality.