8th graders at Emiliano Zapata Academy pen down letters to kids at Amundsen High School.
8th graders at Emiliano Zapata Academy pen down letters to kids at Amundsen High School. Courtesy of 826CHI

Collected in a new book, a series of dispatches between Chicago teens spotlights conversations that look beyond their differences.

Once you’ve settled into a city, it can be pretty comfortable (and easy) to stick within certain nooks and corners. A neighborhood café, playground, or bookstore can become personalized constants—and sometimes, you can live your whole life in a city without stepping beyond familiar landmarks. It’s a pattern of living, and, less whimsically, a common symptom of segregation—one that runs through the city of Chicago. For an intimate perspective, you may want to chat with some of the city’s kids.

P.S. You Sound Like Someone I Can Trust is a new book that renders the lived experiences of 8th-grade and 10th-grade students who live in different parts of the city. A collaboration between 826CHI, a youth tutoring nonprofit, and two Chicago public schools, the book is an anthology of correspondence between 62 teenage students—one stack of letters sent from Amundsen High, up north, and the other from the Emiliano Zapata Academy in Little Village.

“We were deliberate in the schools we picked,” says Maria Villarreal, Director of Programs at 826CHI.“We wanted to introduce a different part of Chicago to the students, and have them connect with each other,” says Villarreal. “Many of them hadn’t been to the neighborhood their letters were being sent to, and didn’t think they had anything in common with each other.” Over the course of 149 letters, these kids pushed past geographical and demographic differences to find similar ground.

When Jazmine Rodriguez wrote to her pen-pal, she would try to find some quiet in her classroom—a corner table away from her friends, so that she could really think about her words. A 15-year-old at Amundsen High, she had never really ventured out to Little Village, on the city’s south side, where her letters headed every other week. Little Village is often dubbed the “Mexican Capital of the Midwest,” and is home to one of Chicago’s largest populations of immigrants without legal status. “When you hear about the area [Little Village], it’s not always positive,” says Rodriguez, “and you automatically make judgments.” In her letters to Vanessa Cruz, an 8th grader on the South Side, she found a kindred spirit in another community. “I want to tell you a story about myself. I don’t have a father figure in my life. I grew up missing that part, just like you,” Rodriguez wrote to Cruz. “I found that you can really connect with someone and their story through these letters,” she says. “It was an eye-opening experience.”

It’s an awfully endearing read. The letters passed back and forth are punctuated with discussions of hope and loss, politics and culture; the book resonates brightly with a sense of collective trust.

Another exchange tackles the anxiety of a Trump presidency—“Serious question: how do you feel about Trump becoming president?” asks Mauricio Munõz in his letters to Ivan Perez. Other letters give readers a peek of Chicago scenery through students’ eyes. In his correspondence with Lizbeth Morales, Javier Trujillo recounts his favorite pastime in the city. He writes:

P.S. During my bike rides I usually witness the east shore of Chicago like the Lake Michigan scenery. For example, I rode out with a friend this Saturday night on the Lakefront Trail, down past the Bean and the Willis Tower. After riding to the Bean, we cruised downtown. We were just enjoying the view and trying to take as many pictures as we could. The Lakeshore Trail is my favorite route. It’s lengthy, but it’s a lot of fun. You get to witness nature, the lake, the Chicago skyline, and it extends way down to the South Side. I just love it.

It’s remarkable to see how the letters between the students develop. Easy rapports goes from small talk (“Netflix is life, to be honest”) to deeper secrets and observations. In one exchange, a student writes that she sometimes sprays herself with her father’s perfume as a way to be close to him since his death. In another, Monserrat Garcia opens up about race, writing:

Being Mexican American has its pros and cons. The con is that people (some) will judge you for your race. The pros are that our family is big and we have a great bond, not to mention the food.

The form of the letter didn’t necessarily come easy for the students: As one kid aptly describes in the book, “I’m realizing now how hard it is to write this letter without any emojis.” That’s part of what made the anecdotes affectionate and intimate. “Letters are an archaic form of communication now, when students have easy access to social media and texting,” says Villarreal. Through letter-writing, students learned how to really lay it all out there, Villarreal points out. “With a letter, there’s no immediacy in response, so you write more, and ask more—this made the interactions meaningful.”

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