Best of the South Side 2017 | Little Village

Best of Little Village & South Lawndale 2017

Bridget Gamble


I am an immigrant like many of our community residents, born and raised in Ecuador. I came to the States after a few years in the international field. I actually first came to know La Villita in 2005, when I was hired as the Director of Community Schools at Enlace. That was the first time I had visited La Villita. I was completely taken by it from the beginning. I loved the sense of community that you get when you’re in the neighborhood. It reminded me so much of many towns in Latin America. I immediately felt at home with everybody speaking Spanish, the street vendors. It’s a very dynamic and vibrant neighborhood. Everybody uses those same words, but it’s true. When you drive through 26th Street that’s what you feel, that you’re in a community where people know you. People are interested in their neighbors as human beings. They made me a part of their community. I have lived in Little Village for ten of the twelve years that I have lived in the States.

Katya Nuques is the executive director of Enlace Chicago, the lead agency in Little Village for the New Communities Program, a citywide initiative that seeks to improve the quality of life in sixteen Chicago neighborhoods, in partnership with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and with support from the MacArthur Foundation. 

At Enlace Chicago, we’re very focused on the well-being of the community residents. I believe in inspiring community residents and staff so they do the best that they can and they reach their goals. To me, that’s the best way to improve a neighborhood. More than half of our staff are community residents.

In the nonprofit field, we use a lot of data to plan and decide on initiatives that target certain issues. I see a lot of patterns that a regular community resident would not. Right now, our graduation rate at the La Villita High School is eighty-six percent. If you compare it to the first class of 2011 when it was sixty-nine percent, that’s a big jump. These are things I wouldn’t know if I didn’t have to pay attention.

What have I experienced as a community resident that I wouldn’t experience only as a professional in the nonprofit field? I get the whole picture. I see the sense of unity that exists among neighbors. People are really organized in La Villita. Collective work is our reality in La Villita; it is something we learn and it’s a reflection of the sense of unity among community residents.

I do believe people are resilient and feel a sense of unity in the struggle, in the fight. Throughout the history of the neighborhood, we’ve had to fight for so many things. People fought for the schools built in the 1990s to address overcrowding in the schools. Because of the large community of undocumented people, we feel we have to be there for each other regardless of immigration status. Everybody is working on this.

As things change, we want the neighborhood to keep its natural vibrancy. We want it to continue to be home to immigrant families. Being a mixed-status community, we always want immigrants to feel at home in La Villita. We want the community to keep being affordable, too. And we want our people to stay resilient. (As told to Bridget Gamble)

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Best Crowd

26th Street Mexican Independence Day Parade

Bridget Gamble

Bridget Gamble

For the past half-century or so, Little Village has observed Mexico’s Independence Day in September with a lively parade down 26th Street from Albany to Kostner Avenue. If you can peel your eyes away from the impeccably styled mariachi bands, folklórico dancers, or vibrant floats for a moment or two, you’ll notice the crowd of spectators is unique in its own right. Of the 80,000 people living in Little Village, nearly thirty percent are under eighteen, and ten percent are under five. That’s about 8,000 kids, not counting the families that come from all throughout the city to celebrate—and they make their mark at this parade.

Though the crowd is remarkably young, all generations turn out for the festivities, making for a genuinely wholesome, family-centric vibe not common among massive groups. The hundreds of babies perched on shoulders may obstruct the view, but the parade-goers are so pleasant that they’ll likely have no problem making space for you. Plus, when the parade ends at the Fiestas Patrias festival, there’s a community-wide party with more live music, food, and rides to enjoy. (Bridget Gamble)

26th Street Mexican Independence Day Parade, 26th St. from Albany Ave. to Kostner Ave. Second Sunday of September, noon–3pm.

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Best All-Ages Dance Troupe

Ballet Folklórico Xochitl

Hafsa Razi

Hafsa Razi

In a small classroom of the True Value Boys and Girls Club at 25th Street and Sacramento Avenue, about a dozen elementary school girls await the start of rehearsal, twirling their blue practice skirts and clacking their dance shoes on the tiles. When their teacher, Mario Galindo, turns on the boom box, he channels their restless energy into synchronized turns, steps, and shouts; the room suddenly fills with color.

As a young boy, Mario danced with the famous Ballet Folklórico de Amalia Hernandez in Mexico City. When he came to Little Village thirty-five years ago, “he felt like he was missing something,” said Mario’s daughter Cindy.

So, in 2002, Mario formed his own folkloric dance group and named it Xochitl, an Aztec word sometimes translated as “queen of flowers.” There are many folkloric dance groups across the South Side, but Ballet Folklórico Xochitl is literally the group for all ages, with dancers as young as six, as old as eighty, and everything in between. Dancers perform together, based not on age or height, but on whoever knows the steps to a particular song, Cindy said.

The group pulls music and dances from both the Aztec tradition and from across the states of Mexico. They dance wherever they’re invited—at hotels, churches, festivals, schools, and most recently at Little Village’s 26th Street Mexican Independence Day Parade in early September. (Hafsa Razi)

New Life Community Church, 2657 S. Lawndale Ave. and Boys and Girls Club True Value, 2950 W. 25th St. Monday, 5:30pm–7pm and Saturday, 9am–11am at New Life; Wednesday, 5:30pm–6:30 pm and Friday, 5:30pm–7pm at Boys and Girls Club. $25 per month. (773) 726-4852 or (773) 289-8469.

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Best Industrial Complex Turned Soccer Field

La Villita Park

Though less than three years old, La Villita Park has quite a past. The park’s grounds once housed a roofing product factory that infiltrated the soil, causing cancer-linked materials as recently as the late 1980s. After the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) fought for the space to become a park, La Villita—named by community consensus after the

Bridget Gamble

Bridget Gamble

neighborhood’s commonly used Spanish nickname—now boasts the largest EPA Superfund-to-park conversion to have taken place in a major U.S. city. This twenty-two-acre oasis offers soccer and softball fields, basketball courts, trails, a skate park, and a huge playground—but the soccer fields are the park’s hottest commodities. Groups can rent a field at $75/hour for kids and $150/hour for adults, while basketball courts and softball fields go for about a fifth of those prices. The Park District also offers some free programs for kids during the summer at La Villita.

Post-soccer game, check out LVEJO’s community garden, Semillas de Justicia (Seeds of Justice), at 2727 South Troy Street. For the past five years, Little Village residents have claimed this 1.5-acre space, once a dumping ground for leftover oil barrels, to grow produce, herbs and flowers, and even raise chickens. Semillas de Justicia also hosts educational workshops, free weekly dinners, kids’ art classes, and more. It was one of LVEJO’s earlier victories in transforming hazardous “brownfields” into bustling green space; the journey from garden to park testifies to the power of community organizing. (Bridget Gamble)

La Villita Park. 2800 S. Sacramento Ave. 6am–11pm. (312) 745-4801.

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Best Quinceañera Magazine


A girl’s fifteenth birthday is a rite of passage calling for an elaborate celebration in Mexican culture. So it only makes sense that La Villita has a magazine devoted entirely to the quinceañera. Alborada is the name of both the dress boutique located at 26th Street and Central Park Avenue and the magazine it runs for teenage girls hoping for a fairytale party. Stacked with ads for local venues, limousine services, cakes, DJs, and more, the boutique’s magazine is essentially an encyclopedic inspiration board for the detail-oriented party planner—good enough to convince any teenage girl to use analog over Pinterest or Instagram. This homegrown operation is complete with cover girls who are selected from the magazine’s fans, for those whose quinceañera dreams include modeling aspirations. (Bridget Gamble)

Alborada, 3544 W. 26th St. Monday–Saturday, 11am–6pm; Sunday, 11am–5pm. (773) 277-0601.

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