“Pierogies are the Eastern European version of empanadas, you know?”

An oral history story from an interview with Nicole Martinez-LeGrand, Multicultural Collections Coordinator, Library and Archives Division, Indiana Historical Society.

Transcript for Cross Connect

When I was growing up, ethnicity was kind of static. And I didn’t really come to understand what “ethnicity” meant until I went to college, till I came down here in Indianapolis. A lot of people here in Indianapolis have German heritage. So, I went to a small Catholic college here in the city and so a lot of people at that time were from Indianapolis, surrounding Indianapolis, or rural areas. And so, the roll call, when they would say their names! Going to, you know, high school and hearing the roll call, you know, you have, you know, “Cichocki,” “Szczepanski,” “Ramirez,” “Gonzalez,” “Hernandez.” I mean, just like a mix of Eastern European and Latino last names. And so, I just kind of realized, like, “I am – Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” And then, also, it didn’t really help that the summer before my twin sister and I started college the Latin explosion happened. J.Lo and Ricky Martin became mainstream. A lot of those folks that I went to school with, their entry point in understanding Latino culture. So everybody would say, “Oh, you look like J.Lo!” No, I don’t. And at the time – my natural hair is very curly – and so, I’m like, “One, I have curly hair. Two, I look nothing like her. Three, I’m Mexican; I’m not Puerto Rican.” And so, people just didn’t understand that, so that didn’t really help things. But I think it made people more curious and able to talk about it, so that’s when I kind of understood culture.

I was born in 1980. I was born at Munster Community Hospital but I grew up in Hessville in Hammond, Indiana – that neighborhood in Hammond. I actually grew up right across the street from what is now Purdue Northwest. Back then it was Purdue University Calumet. I have a twin sister so I wasn’t born alone, so I always had a playmate. So, I just remember running up and down the block and then actually, like, riding my bike through Purdue’s campus before they closed in the streets on, I think, Wicker and I can’t remember what the other side street was. So, terrorizing the students there in the late 80s as well as – there’s a street called Knickerbocker and it’s just, like, this one continuous loop. I think it’s about two miles and so that was always kind of a thrill to roller skate or, later, roller blade in the 90s and ride my bike around. So just a lot of just being outside and playing. And then there was a deli a couple blocks down. I remember going there and buying candy, getting in trouble. I stole my mother’s checkbook once and wrote, like, 000.1 and tried to buy some candy, and it had my mother’s telephone number on it, and they called her. So, we were very sneaky and very imaginative children.

In terms of, like, the ethnicity of my neighborhood, mostly at that time – mostly white. And there was another Latino family that lived down the street, somebody that my parents went to high school with. They went to East Chicago Washington. And so, there was the Morales family, so there was Maria, Jose, and Pablo. Jose and Pablo were the younger brothers and Maria and I were the same age. So, we played with her but I mostly played with this Polish family, the Cichockis who lived just across the alley. And so, my backyard and their backyard kind of looked at each other. We both had sisters named “Kelly.” So, she had a little sister named Kelly so it was “Baby Kelly.” So, I grew up before going to school thinking everybody had a sister, and everybody had a sister named Kelly.

So now that I look at it as an adult, a lot of Eastern European: tight-knit groups, always affiliated with church. I went to Catholic schools. Like, food events. A lot of food. I used to hate sauerkraut. I love sauerkraut now. And I used to always think sauerkraut was a Polish dish, but it’s all Eastern European. It’s, you know, German. You know, pierogies? Like, pierogies are, you know, the Eastern European version of empanadas, you know? So, there’s a lot of, like, cross-connect and shared heritage in a lot of these ethnic communities that I think about but I’ve only come to understand and appreciate when I was, you know, becoming of age as a young adult.

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