Photo by Sarah Derer

When outsiders talk about Back of the Yards, they often talk about deficit; they talk about what’s missing, what’s wrong and what needs fixing. However, for those of us truly invested in our community, we see how alive and rich our community is. 

We have an abundance of culture, history, community and talent. Most of all, we have a wealth of people who care, people who work, and people who go above and beyond for their fellow neighbors. You see, when the government and institutions that are supposed to bring resources to a community fail to do so, the community rises up to the challenge. This is especially true in Back of the Yards.

In 1939, Joe Meegan and Saul Alinsky organized residents, business owners, churches and unions to create the first major community organization in the country to address issues of unemployment, housing, and economic disparities. This tradition continues today with people and projects like Amor al Arte, Quinto Imperio and the wilderness trips, as featured here. There are regular people from the community taking it upon themselves to address the needs and lack of resources.

For me, the “Best” of Back of the Yards are its people who, with grit and ganas, wake up every morning ready to put in the work necessary to improve their lives and the lives of others. There are countless people doing amazing work in the community, so it is difficult to just name a few, but it is important to recognize those that are doing it day in and day out. 

Below we talk about the important nonviolence work that the women of Amor al Arte provide through the arts. We also highlight the fusion between advocacy and entertainment that Quinto Imperio provides through their music, and the connection between nature and healing provided by the voyages to the wilderness by neighborhood youth.

The research of Noble Peace Prize recipient and University of Chicago professor and economist Dr. Richard Thaler essentially says that if you want people to do something, remove the obstacles and make it easy. That is what these people are doing. They are helping remove the barriers toward social justice.

But they can’t do it alone. My hope is that when you read this, you ask yourself, “How can I help?” Whether it is to support the work these groups currently do, through donations or volunteering, or to inspire you to help plug other areas of need either in Back of the Yards or in other communities like it.

Jesse Iñiguez a lifelong resident of Back of the Yards. He’s the founder of the mission-driven Back of the Yards Coffee Co., receiving local and national awards for his work as a social entrepreneur and his commitment to community-based development.

  • Best Youth Tradition: Annual Wilderness Immersion Experience

    Iam proud yet reluctant to share one of the best kept secrets in Back of the Yards for the past thirty years. I’m proud because it represents the abundance of beauty and strength that the people in our community embody, but reluctant because the outsider gaze brings with it a tendency to co-opt and reduce these traditions to something less than they were intended. Nonetheless, it’s important for us to tell our story and the ways we share and heal as a community.

    In our neighborhood, we have established a healing, meaningful, and longstanding tradition for young people. Every year since the 1990s, groups of young people have embarked on a voyage into the wildernesses of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and Rocky Mountains.

    Many of the young people from the neighborhood who first went on these trips have grown up sharing stories of their experiences, their desires to go back, and the importance of a connection to each other and the relationship with nature. Some of them have gone back again and have shared the tradition with their loved ones, demonstrating the intergenerational connection that their nature experiences provided.

    I personally have been on seventeen trips to the BWCAW and the Rockies living in  Back of the Yards, and each of my trips has been alongside young people from the community.  

    Our neighborhood’s wilderness voyages are guided by four principles: health promotion, positive youth development, social justice, and culturally sustaining practices. The healing associated with these trips comes from the connection to nature and each other. It is seen in the ways young people organically and mindfully practice the version of health, safety, and wellness that they learn in the neighborhood and that can be sustained when our neighborhood is provided with the necessary resources and opportunities.

    The young people refine and develop skills for exploring the wilderness and pull from the skills they learn to navigate the neighborhood. This is how positive youth development results in the formation of positive relationships (peer mentoring, teamwork), skill building (problem solving, tolerating distress), and wilderness preparation (first aid training, water/fire safety, map reading).
    An element of social justice is embedded in these experiences, as young people advocate for and advance their understanding of environmental stewardship and equitable access to healthy green spaces in the neighborhood. A guiding ethic of these trips is to strengthen our commitment to being stewards of the environment to ensure clean water and air for people, the planet, and others. This ethic is then connected to our sense of social justice.

    When we glance around our neighborhood and notice that for a city replete with natural resources, such as the lakefront and the 606 trail, we recognize the ways that such resources are positioned further away from our neighborhood and are blocked by infrastructure at every level all the way down to the speedbumps. This makes us keen to identify barriers and solutions for mobility and access in our city and obtain equitable green spaces for us.

    Lastly, the final principle undergirding these wilderness excursions is the ways we sustain our cultures and traditions. These trips are not only a migration to a different geographic area, which is a parallel to the global movement of people historically and contemporarily, but they are also journeys through history to explore the lifeways and cultural practices of people and a world that was foreign to the wretch of colonization—providing a reminder of what is possible once we rid the earth of it.

    In sum, we have created and sustained a lasting hyperlocal presence of connecting with nature in Back of the Yards. This means more than I can explain in words. We have generations of young people who have grown up going to the wilderness, thereby establishing a culture and practice that aligns and reinforces with our lifeways in our neighborhood; caring and fighting for  the land, air, water, flora, fauna and each other.

  • Best Socially-Conscious Grupo: Quinto Imperio

    There are great music bands whose innovative rhythms, infectious beats, and passionate lyrics leave the body in a trance with no other choice but to dance. There are amazing activists whose social justice-seeking souls are guided by a compassionate heart and an undefeated spirit. Quinto Imperio is the best of both worlds.

    To say that Quinto Imperio has deep roots in music is an understatement. The Dominguez family—Edy, Hugo, Fredy, and Marciano—are originally from Mexico and have the distinction of being the fifth generation of musicians. This generation’s iteration of Dominguez musicians manifested as Quinto Imperio in Back of the Yards when Edy, Hugo, and Fredy were just kids. The guys joke that Fredy needed a booster seat when he learned to play the drums. The group added their best friends Adriana Velazquez and Quintiliano Rios and they have been making their dynamic mix of music ever since.

    Best characterized as a Latin fusion of cumbia, hip-hop, rock, and traditional Mexican music (with a dash of good ol’ Back of the Yards ganas), their repertoire includes songs such as “Crónica Inmigrante,” a high-powered cumbia that reminds us of our resilience and power, “Cumbé,” a cumbia hip-hop mezcla that is a vibrant homage to our ancestors, and “La Última y Nos Vamos,” an accordion-laced party anthem that even the most staunch metalheads would rock out to.

    I first met Quinto Imperio through my local parish in Back of the Yards when they were practicing out of their dad’s two-bedroom apartment on Marshfield Ave. Marciano and I were members of the parish’s immigration ministry and Edy, Hugo, and Fredy participated in the church’s marimba music program. I’ll never forget the first time I saw them play for a large crowd at a church event. I was like, “Woah, these kids can play!” You know, the kind of music that gets all the abuelitas and tias yanking the abuelitos and tios out to dance.

    Now, you can find them performing at Grant Park, Navy Pier, Taste of Chicago, national music festivals, college campuses, and even opening for stellar bands like La Santa Cecilia. In 2017, they released their freshman album, Crónica Inmigrante, and their sophomore album is currently in the works! 

    What really sets Quinto Imperio apart is their continued compassion, care, and advocacy for the community, particularly for our immigrant brothers and sisters. Individually through their activism, and collectively through their music, they have stood up for immigrants and have invited others to do the same. All of the members, except for Marciano, are under the age of forty, yet they all have résumés that rival résumés of seasoned advocates. The number of hours they dedicated in their young lives to organizing immigration know-your-rights events, voter registration drives, community workshops, marches and mentoring are countless.

    Further, the members of the group helped establish “Dreamers and Allies Run,” which has raised more than $100,000 in college scholarships for undocumented students since 2012. Some have even taken the torch of la lucha to their day jobs and have worked as organizers and educators for local Chicago institutions.
    Louis Armstrong once said, “Music is life itself.” The best musicians intertwine their notes, melodies, and beats to our hopes, histories, vulnerabilities, struggles, and triumphs. Their music follows the rhythmic ups and downs of life, and their songs tell the stories that reach our core and amplify our emotions. Quinto Imperio does all this and, if that wasn’t enough, they call us to action and remind us of the potential of our collective impact. Quinto Imperio is a proud product of Back of the Yards and is a perfect mix of fun, resilience, power, hope, advocacy, and of course, cumbia beats.

    Quinto Imperio.

  • Best Art Pop-up: Amor al Arte

    Art is one of the best ways to release stress caused by trauma, especially when living in urban settings like Back of the Yards. However, art materials can be expensive, and spaces dedicated to art are rare and can feel exclusive. A group of local working moms decided to take action and in the summer of 2016, armed with some scratch paper, broken crayons and white folding tables, set up a pop-up art clinic on one of the “hottest” gang corners, and the rest is history. They called themselves Amor al Arte.

    Initially it was going to just be a one-time thing. They were going to do a series of pop-up art clinics in different parts of the community to give the youth something to do that summer, but after seeing the sustained interest and building a following of kids and families that summer, they decided to do it again, and again. 

    Today, the collective of women, composed of Claudia Alvidrez, Priscila Gonzalez, Liliana Celso, Estela Flores, and Cynthia Alba continue to gather every Friday afternoon in various parts of the community, offering free art sessions to kids and families. This summer, with support from the Safe and Peaceful Communities grant, they were able to partner with the Holy Cross Marimba Ensemble to incorporate live music from neighborhood youth in the pop-ups.

    The reason their work is so important is that they address an important tool for violence prevention that is often overlooked: creative spaces. Oftentimes, the response to violence is reactionary. Police are sent, show force, make a few arrests, and then they’re gone. This often creates more trauma and doesn’t fix the problem. Real nonviolence work takes a commitment of time and money for a sustained period of time. That is what Amor al Arte does. 

    By bringing pop-up art sessions just outside their doorsteps, they’re providing kids and families an opportunity to lose themselves in their creativity and escape from reality, even if just for an hour. Art also helps them build on their imagination, and helps them imagine that another world is possible.

    Through the support of the Peace and Education Coalition, the women are able to fund their work through small grants, fundraising and donations. As the saying goes, “it takes a village,” so while this may be one drop in the bucket, this program goes a long way in building a safe community. If you’d like to learn more about Amor al Arte, donate or check out their next pop-up.

Join the Conversation


  1. God bless your work. I remember when the City closed the local
    Mental Health Center. I was distraught. As a school based counselor, the MHCs were places I could refer families with needs who were under or non-insured. Chunk by chunk and bit by bit the Powers That Be removed places & personnel that served wonderful, hard-working, deserving people.

  2. God bless your work. I remember when the City closed the local
    Mental Health Center. I was distraught. As a school based counselor, the MHCs were places I could refer families with needs who were under or non-insured. Chunk by chunk and bit by bit the Powers That Be tore our resources apart

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