From Mexican Theater Performer to Chicago Nanny

Eduardo Hernandez was born on November 7, 1922 in Mexico to Juan and Rosita Hernandez.  Eduardo says that he was the youngest of seven children and that his mother died giving birth to him.  His father worked as some type of laborer and, according to Eduardo, was a drunk who beat him and his siblings for even the smallest infraction.  He was particularly hard on Eduardo, whom he constantly blamed for Rosita’s death.

Eduardo did not go to school and spent most of his time roaming the streets and looking for work, though jobs were almost impossible to fine.  His family was “very, very poor,” Eduardo says, and adds that “Mexico was terrible then.  You can’t imagine.”

Eventually, when Eduardo was thirteen or fourteen, he could no longer stand his father’s beatings, so he ran off with a theater group, where he spent many years dancing, singing and performing with them.  He lived a nomadic life, never having any money, but at least with the theater group, he had a place to stay, usually in tents, and a little bit of food.  He repeatedly tried to find a more stable job, but there were very few of those.  Finally, when he was in his early forties, he decided to try his luck in America.

Eduardo made it to San Antonio, where he found work in a kitchen.  He didn’t like the work, but he did not have a lot of choices, he says, not only because he could he not speak English, but because he had never been to school and was ignorant of the most basic things.  He worked in San Antonio for a long time and then made his way north to Chicago, where he again found work in various restaurants.  On his days off, he would walk up and down State Street, marveling at the buildings and the people, and enjoyed taking everything in.  One day he saw a “help wanted” sign in the window of a small hotel, so he went in and applied.  The owner was a man named Robert Neilson, who would go on to become Eduardo’s lifelong friend.

After only three months of working in the kitchen of Robert’s hotel, Robert’s wife, Cathy, gave birth to a little girl, Amanda.  The nanny that they had arranged to babysit her quit at the last minute, so the Neilsons asked Eduardo to fill in until they could hire someone new.  Time passed, however, and soon the Neilsons and Amanda had grown attached to Eduardo, so they had him move in with them to their home in Park Ridge to become Amanda’s full-time nanny.  Eduardo did this for the next ten years until Amanda didn’t really need a nanny anymore.

Eduardo moved out, then, and found an apartment over a restaurant in the city, where he had found a job, again working in the kitchens.  He never got married, he says, because he didn’t have enough money or a good enough job.  For many years, he continued to visit the Neilsons, though, whom he says were like a family to him, and sometimes did odd jobs for Robert while there.  Meanwhile, Eduardo met another Mexican man at the restaurant by the name of Enrique Garcia.  Enrique and Eduardo became good friends, and before long, Enrique offered to have Eduardo move in with him and his wife, Emily.   Eduardo accepted and lived with the Garcia’s for about five years until he had a sort of stroke and was hospitalized.

From the hospital, he was discharged to a nursing home, but was told, as was Enrique and Emily, that it would be a temporary arrangement until he was well enough to go home.  As the weeks progressed, however, Eduardo began to suspect that he was expected to permanently stay at the nursing home and, agitated, tried to walk out of the facility in an attempt to get back to Enrique’s apartment, telling the staff that Enrique was his son.  When the staff tried to stop him, they claim he became violent and thus sent him to the psychiatric ward of a nearby hospital.

The hospital staff were eventually able to track down Robert Neilson, who then got involved in Eduardo’s plan of care.  He helped the discharge staff to arrange for him to be released to a different nursing home.  Robert says that he has a hard time believing that Eduardo became violent and is trying to help him to make a better transition to this current facility.  He says that Eduardo “is a good man at heart; he’s just a little crazy now.”  He says he has spoken to Enrique, who also says Eduardo is a good man, but that it was becoming too much for him and his wife to continue caring for him.  They felt guilty but relieved when he was admitted to a nursing home after his stroke.  Robert has now listed himself as Eduardo’s official contact and says he is committed to visiting him and making sure Eduardo is adjusting.

Eduardo is making a relatively smooth transition.  He does not exhibit any problem behaviors, but he seems depressed a lot.  He speaks little English, so it is difficult for him to interact with the other residents.  He spends most of his time in the day rooms watching TV or talking to any staff members who speak Spanish.  They have asked him, from time to time, to sing some songs from his performing days, but Eduardo waves them away, saying that all that is past now.  “I don’t remember,” he says.

The only time he perks up is when Robert comes to visit.  Recently, Robert surprised Eduardo by also bringing Amanda and her two children to the home to visit with him.  Eduardo was delighted and spent the afternoon showing them around and introducing Amanda to the staff and calling her “his girl.”

(Originally written: March 1996)

Showing 2 comments
  • Wanda White

    Thank you for posting the old newspaper stories about Chicago.I love them.

    • Michelle

      Thank you so much for reading and enjoying them, Wanda! I love hearing this – it inspires me to keep writing them!

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