By: Mark Fitzgerald
Chicago has nurtured some of America’s most renowned newspaper columnists, from George Ade during the late 19th century to Mike Royko in the second half of the 20th century. But the most interesting columnist writing right now is a man unknown to the vast majority of Chicago readers.
If Rey Flores were writing in English, his column would be turning heads and no doubt touching off a deluge of e-mails across Chicagoland. But Flores is a freelance columnist for the Chicago edition of Tribune Co.’s Spanish-language tabloid Hoy, and so his eclectic topics and utterly unpredictable viewpoint reach only the espa?ol hablantes who pick up some 40,000 copies of the free paper on a typical weekday.
Anglos don’t know what they’re missing. Flores’ work is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. He is the only Chicago columnist — and probably the only male columnist anywhere — to condemn the prescription drug Seasonale because it reduces a woman’s menstrual cycle to four periods a year. “You know, I’ve got daughters; I was like, ‘this is unnatural,'” Flores says.
His column lobbies for a new park in the Mexican immigrant neighborhood of Little Village, and takes the side of day laborers being chased from city corners. His Valentine’s Day column was directed at men who batter women. Then he’ll turn around and lament that now that summer’s here, the streets of Latino neighborhoods will be full of jerks. “It’s all about social responsibility,” Flores says. “Since I’m addressing the Latino community, I’m calling their bluff: ‘You come all this way just to piss all over the neighborhood?'”
No longer a lapsed Catholic, Flores occasionally brings a religious perspective to his writing. “I don’t want to say that I want to uplift ‘my’ people, because everybody’s my people, all Americans,” he says.
Flores, 37, has the kind of bona fides that once characterized the brawling columnists of the City of Big Shoulders. He was born in Chicago of Mexican immigrant parents, just four blocks away from where his hero Royko grew up decades before as the child of Eastern European immigrants. Like Royko, Flores has no college degree. He’s been a self-taught social worker and community organizer moving from one agency to another until the funding ran out, counseling battered women and training Russian immigrants to be janitors and undocumented Mexicans to be woodworkers. He came to Hoy’s attention because he was often an agency’s unofficial publicist, and a reliable source about the Hispanic community.
But Hoy is just a freelance gig. Flores is likely the only Chicago columnist whose full-time job is conductor on CSX freight trains. “He’s got a great feel for the Hispanic community in Chicago,” says Hoy Publisher Digby Solomon Diez. “He has opinions that are non-predictable, and he provokes more reaction than any columnist in the paper. … Unlike a lot of Hispanic columnists, he doesn’t fall for victimology, he makes people take responsibility for themselves.”
Flores will even step on Hoy’s toes. He started a protest campaign against the shock jock known as “El Chokolate” — whose station “La Ley” is a frequent full-page advertiser in the newspaper — because of the show’s outdoor ad campaign, which none too subtly suggests oral sex.
The next step, Flores says, is a column the rest of Chicago can read: “I mean, after all, English is my first language.”