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He Rescued Your Toys From the Trash To Make a Fantastic Backyard Playland

By Paul Biasco | September 22, 2015 6:22am | Updated on September 22, 2015 10:23am

WEST HUMBOLDT PARK — Mr. Rios never had toys growing up in Puerto Rico.

He never knew what a toy was, let alone what one looked like, until he was 8 years old.

Now 70-year-old Mr. Rios is a savior of discarded Barbies, race cars, headless GI Joes and hundreds of playthings that would have otherwise met their fate at the landfill.

His West Humboldt Park backyard resembles the Island of Misfit Toys.

Mr. Rios calls it his fantasy.

"It's beautiful," he said.

Victor Rios, who is affectionately known as Mr. Rios by neighborhood kids, has spent the last 18 years collecting toys from the neighborhood's back alleys and trash cans.

Each day, he heads out into the neighborhood at 5 a.m. on his electric scooter in search of treasure.

"Every day. It's every day," he said. 

He goes from Chicago Avenue to Division, from Kostner to Pulaski.

"It keeps his mind busy," said his wife, Miriam Rios. "Some people say to me, ‘I see your husband up early every day, in his wheelchair missing two legs, and it helps me get motivated to go and do my job.’”

Victor and Miriam Rios, along with their son Jose, have taken those toys, mixed and matched them together and turned their backyard into a wonder.

Mr. Rios's backyard collection has been growing over the past 18 years. [DNAinfo/Paul Biasco]

The best time of year for collecting is December. Families must toss last year's toys to make room for Christmas gifts, he supposes.

"When December comes, you can get all the toys," Mr. Rios said. "They don't want them."

Paul Biasco explains how you can get a look at Mr. Rios' toys:

It's December and Christmastime that sparked Mr. Rios' fascination with toys as a young boy in Puerto Rico.

He was visiting his godfather's house when he was about 8 and all of his cousins had lots and lots of toys.

"I asked them 'Where did you get those from?'" Victor Rios said. "They told me my godfather and aunt would buy them for them, toys."

His cousins asked why he didn't put a box of grass under his bed, as is the Puerto Rican custom on Three Kings Day, in exchange for presents.

It wasn't until years later that his mother's new husband bought him his first toy, a water gun.

Victor Rios moved into his home on the 800 block of North Karlov Avenue in 1972.

He started his backyard toy collection 18 years ago with two plastic cars that he found.

That collection has grown continually in both size and complexity since.

Many of the items on display are hybrids of multiple bits from discarded toys that Mr. Rios' son Jose and wife Miriam have helped put together.

They blow through battery packs on their drills every day, creating masterpieces that are straight out of Sid's backyard in Toy Story.

"It's funny what you can do with one broken toy and another broken toy," said 44-year-old Jose Rios. "It's just turning two things into something weird. I like the weird toys."

A toy version of Mr. Rios with a Puerto Rican flag is part of the collection. [DNAinfo/Paul Biasco]

While the backyard toy collection, collage or museum is nearly two decades old, aside from neighborhood folks and their kids and grandkids it's largely gone unnoticed.

Next month Mr. Rios will be part of Chicago Artists Month and will open up his backyard to the art world.

"I'm glad that somebody finally recognized it," Jose Rios said. "For as long as it's been here, it's never been really recognized."

Mr. Rios is excited.

"I'm going to enjoy it," he said with a big smile.

One piece that might be recognizable to those in the neighborhood or fans of "Wayne's World" is a replica of the Spindle sculpture, the 50-foot-tall spike stacked with eight cars impaled on it at the Cermak Plaza shopping center.

Mr. Rios has two similar spires in his collection stacked with toy cars.

"I don't know why they took it down," he said. "It was beautiful."

Silent Funny, a double-wide warehouse with a back door that opens to Mr. Rios exhibit, is hosting the exhibition Oct. 16 and 17.

The warehouse will have information displayed about Mr. Rios, and attendees will be able to walk through and enter his backyard through the alley, which will be blocked off to traffic.

The opening reception is schedule for 7-10 p.m. on Oct. 16. at Silent Funny, 4106 W. Chicago Ave. A special studio visit with Mr. Rios will be from 4-7 p.m. Oct. 17 followed by a closing reception until 10 p.m.

“We make our work to give a wow factor,” Jose Rios said. “That’s what we want people to say. That tops it all off right there.”

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