- Best Empowering Words con tu Pan Dulce: Grecia’s Bakery
- Best Banana Split y Neveria: Betty’s Ice Cream
- Best Pollo a la Parilla: Palenque
- Best New Organización Latinx: Gage Park Latinx Council
Mis padres have lived under the same roof in Gage Park ever since my birth in 1993. My folks were a freshly married immigrant couple from Mexico (reppin’ Aguascalientes and Queretaro, specifically), a story that’s quite common in our community. According to the 2013-2017 American Community Survey, 92.1 percent of the neighborhood reported a Hispanic ethnicity. Furthermore, 94.1 percent of those individuals that reported a Hispanic ethnicity also reported Mexican ancestry. While growing up, it always seemed to me that Gage Park was truly one of Chicago’s Mexican havens. But despite Gage Park’s strongly Mexican cultural central, I’ve constantly had to deal with a resounding “where’s that?” when I tell even other Chicagoans which neighborhood I’m from. If anything, I hope to let you readers in on the character of nuestra comunidad.
While I’ve had the privilege of calling Gage Park my home for the entirety of my life, I spent the previous six years studying away from Chicago for both undergrad and grad school. After returning to the nest permanently around last December, I felt something was different, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. At first glance, most things appeared strangely the same. I went out to eat with family at the same taquerias, and mi pa kept up his routine of ordering from a nearby pizza joint over the weekend. Many storefronts seemed to house the same businesses and Pete’s Market was bustling with grocery shoppers, as usual. Our potholes were seemingly still being neglected. And, apart from our house needing a new coat of paint, the block I lived on had more or less the same families living in it.
And yet, there is an unmistakably new energy permeating the atmosphere of the neighborhood making what was once familiar seem less so. If I had to hazard a guess, it has something to do with the active and courageous youth dealing with the political turmoil of recent years. First+ Gen kids I grew up with are organizing as a result of neglectful political representatives and have the hopes of making our home a more inclusive space. While there’s still a long lucha ahead, Gage Park feels more like a place in which we belong rather than just reside.
I hope to highlight just a couple of key institutions in Gage Park today. Some are longstanding and have existed before I have, while others are newer. They are “Best” at providing spaces for Gage Park’s people, producing excellent goods and services, or even shaping the spirit of the community. Certainly, the unmistakable energy I first felt upon returning home will keep empowering the community and push our comunidad forever forward. But while we have plenty of “Bests” now, it’s exciting to know things are just going to keep getting better.
Alejandro Ruizesparza is a researcher at Urban Labs and data activist originally from Gage Park. When not fumbling with data, writing for the Weekly, or submitting FOIA requests, they DJ and produce in the experimental club music scene under their alias 2centavos.
Best Empowering Words con tu Pan Dulce
Walking through the front door of Grecia’s Bakery, you are immediately greeted with encouraging messages of self-love—in both English and Spanish—but the uplifting work doesn’t end here. Grecia’s conchas and pasteles de guava are soft and flaky; their colorful cookies are firm yet crumble and melt like mazápan in your mouth. But if baked goods aren’t for you, move past the multihued self-empowerment signs in the front toward a series of colorful gelatin and custard desserts. The fluffiness and just-right sweetness within Grecia’s Bakery is not only limited to its pastries and desserts—the sweet sensations are experienced by every customer that walks in through their doors. (Maria Mendoza Cervantes)
Grecia’s Bakery, 2644 W. 51st St. Monday–Saturday, 6am–9pm; Sunday, 7am–9pm. (773) 776-0705.
Best Banana Split y Neveria
Betty’s Ice Cream
Mi pa, a guy with a real sweet tooth, has been taking the whole family to Betty’s since I was a kid. A literal hole-in-the-wall, the serving window at Betty’s would be easy to miss if not for its massive sign straight out of the past. The shop is run by Juan and Beatriz Gonzalez, an elderly couple who’re as sweet as their treats and have close to fifty-four years of experience in the ice cream business. Although it’s not their first ice cream shop, it’s certainly their longest-standing, with the cash-only neveria having served the Gage Park community for over thirty years. Juan said to me that he and his wife found the neighborhood to be “muy tranquilo,” a perspective embodied in their own kind and caring demeanor whenever I’ve dropped by.
In terms of the desserts, there’s certainly no shortage of options. Betty’s has everything from basic sundaes and milkshakes to dipped cones and floats. However, the star of the show for most people is Betty’s banana split. Just like the one depicted on the large sign, the banana split is a decadent dessert served in a plastic rowboat-shaped bowl. It consists of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream, fruit, chocolate, and crushed nut toppings, a cleanly split banana, whipped cream, a wafer cookie, and a cherry on top. A mouthful of an ingredient list, surely, but also a mouthful of frosty bliss.
Juan, who is turning eighty later this year, mentioned that he and Beatriz may be retiring soon. But for now, business is booming as usual. It’s unsurprising to see a line of locals excited to get their hands on some helados over the weekend, or swarms of kids rushing in after class on the weekdays. “Es un muy buen negocio,” Juan said as we chatted across the serving window. “Es que la nieve esta buena,” he said with a smile. Thinking back to my own joyous memories of Betty’s ice cream, close to twenty-five years worth, I had to agree. (Alejandro Ruizesparza)
Betty’s Ice Cream, 5858 S. Kedzie Ave. Sunday–Friday, 10am–10pm; Saturday, noon–10pm. (773) 737-7634.
Best Pollo a la Parilla
The alluring smell of Palenque’s pollos asados a la parrilla pulls you in from across the street. Walking into the restaurant, you are instantly face-to-face with the staff in action: chefs carefully placing their home-seasoned chicken on sizzling industrial stoves, the front-cashier wrapping together pick-up and delivery orders, making sure all that comes with their grilled chicken stays with the chicken—anything from tortillas, frijoles de cazuela, soft arroz, or french fries. While it is a tight restaurant, there are raised tables accompanied with stools for those who would rather dig into their food right then and there.
Just be sure not to block Palenque’s entrance from other hungry customers; After looking at the menu enlarged on overhead television screens, walk immediately to the second cashier at the other end of the narrow restaurant to place your order. Once you have your receipt in hand, pull back to continue enjoying the savory smells and passionate hard work found in this establishment. (Maria Mendoza Cervantes)
Palenque, 2756 W. 55th St. Monday–Thursday, 10:30am–9pm; Friday–Sunday, 10am–9pm. (773) 863-9000.
Best New Organización Latinx
Gage Park Latinx Council
“Gage Park is kind of forgotten,” Antonio Santos, director of the Gage Park Latinx Council (GPLXC), told me while we spoke over coffee. During our chat, we spoke at length about cultural representations in the physical spaces of Gage Park. “It doesn’t have the footprint of the people who live here,” remarked Santos. Despite being a neighborhood with Latinx individuals accounting for 92.1% of the population as of 2017, Santos and I struggled to see ourselves in the neighborhood, beyond the displays on storefronts written in Spanish. “I think that as a first generation American and as a person who grew up here my whole life, I feel that I’m past that ‘just be happy that we have a space’ [mentality], and I want to move toward empowering ourselves and our youth [toward] feeling ownership over our communities,” he said.
Established just two years ago, Gage Park Latinx Council (GPLXC) is a grassroots organization started by local residents to support and empower nuestra comunidad. Despite not yet having a permanent physical location, GPLXC runs youth art clubs and free family events at the Gage Park Public Library, community cleanup initiatives, a queer network for LGBTQIA+ individuals, and a “Know Your Rights” workshop put on with the collaboration of the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP). But GPLXC isn’t just a collection of programs and projects.
Santos and I spoke about a perceived lack of political support for youth and the seemingly invisible local politicians. “We can’t just reach out to officials….We tried that and the response we got was was very much like ‘Who are you?’ and then not [being] taken seriously because we’re a bunch of young people.” But the organizers of GPLXC have not become disheartened by a space not yet reflecting its people or a political machine seemingly uninterested in its population. Santos alongside co-founders Edith Dimas, Katia Martinez, and Samantha Martinez se han puesto sus pilas and are committed to making sure Gage Park does not remain forgotten. “And so it became like, let’s not dream of what we can change if we had all the support in the world and a million dollars. Let’s see what we can do as of right this second.”
In many ways, GPLXC represents a community coming together to empower itself and its youth. Rather than allowing us to feel like Gage Park is merely a space we occupy, GPLXC is actively fighting for us to have a neighborhood that is truly nuestra tierra and ushering in a future where residents will never doubt they have a home. (Alejandro Ruizesparza)
Gage Park Latinx Council. (708) 872-8798. gplxc.org