‘Chicago always lives in my heart’ — Aimee Garcia

Frank Sinatra calls Chicago a big city with the heart of a small town, and that’s exactly how I grew up. Something that is really special about Chicago is that it is such a microcosm of the world, and it still has really friendly, grounded people. To this day, no matter how long I’ve lived in L.A., people say, “You’re so nice.” And I always reply, “Yeah, I’m from Chicago.”

Garcia playing in the cabinets of her childhood home on Berteau Street on Chicagos North Side.

Garcia playing in the cabinets of her childhood home on Berteau Street on Chicago’s North Side. (Photo Submitted)

My first memories are from Berteau Street, where we lived in a humble little apartment near Kimball. That’s where I talked for the first time, walked for the first time, other firsts. I was too young to remember much, but I remember my parents, Eloisa and Hector, and playing under the kitchen cabinets. I remember speaking Spanish with my mom; I still speak Spanish to her when she calls. There are other memories, too. My mom actually has a dental office in Little Village off of Independence Boulevard, in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood. I would spend every weekend in that office. She would put me to work. I’d water the plants, pick up garbage, sweep. What can I say, I was a hard-worker. The office was near Pilsen, which I guess is now total Hipster-ville. Back then, it was like little Mexico. Everybody would speak Spanish, and there was really good Mexican food. I felt like I was living with my cousins back in Mexico. So half my childhood was in that neighborhood.

My mom was a trailblazer. She was the first Latina to graduate Northwestern’s dental school. She is a total role model for me. We were talking to Tom Ricketts at the Cubs Gala a couple weeks ago, and—I didn’t even know this until she was telling Tom the story—apparently my mom and dad’s first date was at a Cubs game and she didn’t even like baseball. I’m like, “Mom, you’re telling Tom Ricketts you don’t like baseball,” She’s like, “But I do not like baseball.” I’m sure it cracked him up. She said it was a doubleheader and it was the longest game ever. Three months later they were married.

Chicago is so much a part of my blood, starting back on my dad’s side with my grandpa. He was born in Puerto Rico, but served in the U.S. military. He went to France before they stationed him at Fort Sheridan, which is up on the North Shore. My dad ended up going to school in Evanston. Our roots are very much in Chicago. I associate with Chicago and say I’m a Chicago girl no matter how long I’ve lived in L.A. Whenever people ask where I’m from, I say I’m from Chicago and always will.

I ended up going to Montessori school on North Avenue, or maybe it was on Chicago. It was so interesting because my mom is an immigrant from Mexico and my dad is from Puerto Rico and they sent me to Montessori school. But that’s Chicago for you. You get all shapes and sizes, which is what I love about the city. When I was about four years old, or maybe five, we moved to River Forest, a suburb that is about fifteen miles west of the city. I ended up going to Alcuin Montessori School, which to this day remains very much a part of who I am. There were no grades, no tests, no homework; it just taught us the intrinsic value of learning, which is why I’m just a big nerd. I’ll go to museums on my off days from shooting “Lucifer” and just learn. I blame Montessori for that one.

After my Montessori stint, I ended up going to Roosevelt Junior High in River Forest and then was actually part of the first class of girls at Fenwick High School, which was a Dominican friar high school. There were eight hundred boys and a hundred girls. All the seniors were boys, all the juniors were boys, all the sophomores were boys, and half the freshmen were boys. I think that has served me well in Hollywood, because I’m comfortable in a room full of dudes. So I tend to do a bunch of dude-oriented projects, like “Dexter” and “Robocop” and even “Lucifer,” to an extent. It is changing, but Hollywood is still kind of a boys club, so whenever I’m on the golf course or in a room full of guys, I feel super comfortable because I went to Fenwick in Oak Park when I was in my most formative years.

(Photo by Omar Cruz)

(Photo by Omar Cruz)

River Forest was super quiet, really safe. It’s funny because if I bring someone I’m dating from L.A., someone who grew up next to freeways, to River Forest, they’re like, “It’s so quiet here.” There were deer and a lot of green, very strong values of family and education. It was a great upbringing. We learned when we moved out that it was one of those towns where everyone knew everyone, a lot were Irish or Italian. When I was in Montessori school, I had friends who lived in Oak Park, Chicago, the South Side, the North Side. I got to see everything. I had friends of every different race, from every different place, every different income level. For me, it was a very well-rounded upbringing. For some people, the first time they see someone of a different ethnicity is in college.

I also spent tons of time in the city going to see plays at The Goodman and Steppenwolf, going to the Field Museum, going to the Taste of Chicago every single year, going to Great America with my cousins every single year. My grandparents lived in Highland Park, so we’d go visit them—so part of the time I thought I was Jewish. I was in my first theatre when I was ten years old when I went to Piven Theatre Workshop, Jeremy Piven’s parents’ theatre in Evanston. I was part of the Young People’s Company, which boasts alums like Joan Cusack, John Cusack, Jeremy Piven, Aidan Quinn. Here I am going to a Dominican high school, going downtown to see the amazing theatre performances that Chicago has to offer, spending my weekends in a lower-income Mexican neighborhood, and growing up bilingual, but also having a lot of Jewish friends. That’s special to Chicago.

When we had some time, we’d do traditional kids’ stuff. We’d go get ice cream. After a dance recital, go eat some deep dish pizza. We’d have house parties. We played like spin the bottle—do people even do that anymore? If you were meeting someone at the mall at six, you had to actually be there at six. There weren’t texts, no one had cellphones or even pagers, except drug dealers, that’s what you thought anyway. No one else had any sort of communication. I remember being on the phone, the land line, with my boyfriend  Alan, who was the first love of my life and who I’m still friends with to this day, by the way, for like seven hours. Then my mom would get on the phone and say, “La comida está lista,” which means the food is ready. And it would be awkward. Your parents could literally intercept your phone conversations, and that totally sucks. A couple girls and I founded the poms squad at Fenwick. That was really a unique thing for a thirteen-year-old in Chicago. You had to blaze your own trail if you were a female at Fenwick. If you wanted a speech club, you had to create it. If you wanted to be in math club, you’d be the first girl. That was pretty cool. We partied all the time and always went to Fran’s or Danielle’s house. We’d, of course, have scary movie sleep-overs, watch “Children of the Corn”; to this day, I really can’t drive near cornfields without thinking a teenager is going to walk out. I’d have dance-offs with my best friend John Ambrosino, who also happened to be the high school quarterback; he remains a good friend. And there was Great America. Every year we’d go with our twelve cousins. We’d pile in a truck and there we are, going on American Eagle or whatever. And on the holidays, I’d go to Mexico every year and hang out with my cousins, or go to my grandma’s house in Highland Park. It was great.

Then, I had a choice to go to either the East Coast or West Coast for college, but I loved Chicago so much I couldn’t leave. Part of me wanted to go to New York, and I just couldn’t do it. I really, really love Chicago and wanted to stay close to my family. That sentiment is also a very Chicago trait—very down to earth, very grounded, very hard-working, and very family- and friend-oriented. I love that about Chicago values. So I ended up going to Northwestern, where I tripled-majored in economics, journalism, and French, and I also did theatre on the side. So during the summer I would take Shakespeare and calculus classes because I was a big nerd, and why not? And then I ended up in a lot of plays at Northwestern. I’m sure the theatre majors were thinking, “Who the heck is this econ major girl taking the lead role in ‘Chorus Line’?” People also ask me how I majored in economics and French and ended up in Hollywood. It was natural to me at that point. When I was a kid, I went to watch “Annie” and my mom says I just fell in love with theatre. After the show, this guy behind us said, “You little devil; I paid a lot of money for these seats and all I could watch the whole time was you.” I was just singing right along with Annie; I was the little Latin Annie. I came home and started dancing around the living room. I started doing plays, and my mom had a friend, Myrna Salazar, who was an agent and said I should do commercials. My mom told her, “but she’s not that cute. She has a great personality but she’s not that cute.” My own mother said that. But I ended up doing a commercial in Chicago. I went from extra to background to principal to choreographer at seven years old. Because I was doing “Nutcracker” at the time, I taught all the girls the moves from the show, which is such a Chicago tradition. In the show, I was Clara, the first Latina Clara in Chicago’s “Nutcracker.”

Because I also spoke Spanish, I did a ton of McDonald’s commercials in Spanish and English and even ended up doing a bunch with Michael Jordan. I’ll never forget spending like seven-and-a-half hours with Michael Jordan when he was on top of the world. When you say Chicago, people know two names: Al Capone and Michael Jordan. And I remember sitting with Michael Jordan in McDonald’s—he didn’t like their hamburgers, by the way; he only liked their strawberry milkshakes—and I must have been nine years old and after asking four hours of questions, I didn’t know what else to say. So I’m sitting next to Michael Jordan and just chilling next to a living legend and I had nothing else to say to the guy. We just sat there.

Garcia steals the show as the Clara in Chicagos “Nutcracker." Garcia was the first Latina Clara in Chicagos version of the holiday classic.

Garcia steals the show as the Clara in Chicago’s “Nutcracker.” Garcia was the first Latina Clara in Chicago’s version of the holiday classic. (Photo Submitted)

I credit Chicago for my career because that’s where it all started. Back in the day, I auditioned for “Romeo and Juliet” and I made it down to the final five. Next thing I know, a lawyer from 20th Century Fox was at my house and I’m flying out to screen test as Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio in New York. It was down to Natalie Portman, Christina Ricci, Claire Danes, Reese Witherspoon, and Aimee Garcia, this little girl from Chicago. That’s the first time I said, maybe I can keep doing this. But I didn’t—at least not right away. Once I graduated Northwestern, I actually quit the business for like a year and was doing finance work for a mutual fund analyst. I lived in Brooklyn. I lived in a closet. And there were cockroaches. I was so broke because I spent all my money on tuition. I couldn’t bring my parents to where I lived because my mom would have started crying. But when you’re twenty-one, you want to be living in New York, and I wanted to be financially independent. After a year doing that, I circled back to what I loved, to what I never considered a job. I always thought of acting more as a hobby, something to do for fun. I moved out to L.A. in 2002-2003 and the rest, as they say, is history.

I can say I’ve had a very blue-collar career in that it’s been one foot in front of the other. I started with one line, then two lines, then one scene, then two scenes, then one show, and then another show. It’s been a very slow and steady elevation that I’ve built, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve learned from the “George Lopez,” which became an iconic show in the Latino community, kind of like what “The Cosby Show” was to the African-American community. I remember having a group of girls come up to me and they were all twelve years old. There was an Asian girl, a black girl, a Latin girl, and an Indian girl, and the Latin girl says, “We love your role on ‘George Lopez.’ She’s so funny and so cool.” In that moment, I realized I’m not picking roles to pay rent; I’m picking roles to represent, give people a voice, and be a role model. Since then, I’ve been really conscientious about representing women in a positive light. I had a wonderful time on “Dexter,” which was such an iconic show. Even though she was in a bikini and she’s a nanny and Miami girl, I wanted to make sure she was studying and doing her homework, because she was studying child psychology in college. Little things like that. I make it a point to represent people in a positive light. I’ve had a wonderful experience in Hollywood. I love what I do. I got to work with Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton in “Robocop” and learned from both of them and got to play a woman in science.

In the same way, in “Lucifer,” what I love, is my character, Ella, is in the sciences, is super fun, and goofy and relatable, according to the feedback she’s gotten. I love it. It’s one of my favorite roles. It’s a show where there are angels and devils and celestial beings, but you also have your case-of-the-week and you also have family dynamics of being a single parent, sibling rivalry, and stuff that is very relatable. It’s such a fun show. And Ella is funny, she’s fun, she kind of beats to her own drum. She speaks Klingon, but she’s also from Detroit, so she can pick a lock. She’s tough because she has four older brothers. She’s also a woman of science and a woman of faith. It’s one of the most fun roles I’ve ever done because she’s just this walking dichotomy of things you don’t think should be together—someone who can punch you in the face, shouldn’t be able to speak Klingon; someone who can pick a lock, shouldn’t know chemistry inside out; and someone who can determine cause of death, shouldn’t be such a believer in God. She’s such a cool character and so well-received and I couldn’t be happier. Our show-runner who came up with the character, Joe Henderson, is actually from Chicago as well. He’s a huge, huge Cubs fan. I obviously discovered this afterward. But he created this character and I’m really glad he did. I think it’s the most fun role I’ve ever done.

We film a lot in Vancouver, and I’m in L.A., but I’m back in Chicago a lot. If I could pick any city to live in, this would be it. I’ve been very lucky—really, really fortunate. I’ve been to Morocco, Israel, Turkey, New Zealand. I went to Iceland by myself last year. I had a couple days off from shooting and no one could go with me, everyone was busy, and I just went by myself to look at volcanoes, wild horses, and didn’t know a soul in Iceland but just spent seven days up there. I just rented a car and drove across the country. It was lovely. But Chicago is home. For example, I had friends getting married in Morocco over Thanksgiving, and I came home. Something about Chicago is so special to me. Chicago always lives in my heart. And don’t get me started on the Cubs. I didn’t know how to talk yet and I was wearing Cubs pajamas. I love baseball. My grandfather was a professional baseball player in Puerto Rico; he’s in the Puerto Rican hall of fame. I had to take my dad to the World Series. I flew in to Chicago to surprise him, and when I told him, he got a little emotional. But what I love about my dad is he keeps it real. He said, “Aimee that’s so awesome, but I don’t want you to pay too much money; even if we’re behind a pole, it’s okay.” I said, “Dad, we’re not going to be behind a pillar, why would you say that?” He said that when he was a kid, he and his three brothers would go with my grandpa and he could only afford three-dollar Cubs seats way up in the stands. Only one of the brothers could see clearly at a time, so that one would tell the others what was going on and then they’d switch. But I told him we weren’t going to be sitting behind a pillar. And it’s something I will remember the rest of my life. It’s like a movie. I guarantee they’ll make a movie. Chicago to me and the Cubs really appeal to my underdog-ness. Whether you’re black, white, brown, whatever you are, we all have felt like an underdog, and I feel like the Cubs are more than a baseball team winning a game. They represent a team that has been dealt a tough hand and didn’t give up and overcame and fought and did something very few teams in baseball history have done. Not to mention they had one of the largest celebrations in history—we’re talking since like the first Olympics here. Peaceful celebrations, too. Name me another city that would have a historic assembly of five million people and still have it be peaceful and considerate. To me, in a way, Chicago really represents the best of our country, which is multi-cultural, different socio-economic incomes. We have to work on our school systems, don’t get me started there, but for the most part, I think the values that Chicago has are really special. It’s why Chicago has a special place in my heart.

— As told to Publisher Joe Coughlin

Aimee Garcia first became a household name with her role in 2006-2007 as Veronica Palmero on “George Lopez.” Since, she starred as Marisa Benz on “Trauma” and, maybe most famously, as Jamie Batista in Showtime’s “Dexter.” She was also the narrator in “Spanglish” and cast in the reboot of “Robocop.” She is now playing scientist Ella Lopez in Season 2 of Fox’s “Lucifer,” which runs at eight o’clock central standard time on Mondays.

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