Photo by Emily Soto

Growing up, I didn’t realize Brighton Park and McKinley Park were separate entities. Until eighth grade, I didn’t realize that McKinley Park was actually a box on the map and not the crossroads filled with the places, shops, and people that I had memorized as all being in the same place. In elementary school, Paco’s Tacos, on Archer and 43rd, felt like it was down the block from 35th and Archer. This ten block difference only felt like going around the corner from my childhood home. My parents would always take me to eat tacos there after medical procedures as a young kid. At six years old, my love for tacos would be a bribe for me to trust the doctor another time. 

I also remember Tastee Freez, from way back in the day, as my go-to ice cream spot for those massive M&M flurries with the coolest graffiti in the back. I would always beg mi Mama, Obdulia, to take me there after street vending at the Catholic Church across the street on 44th & California. While El Super Mercado “El Güero” had fruit stands taller than me, I would pretend that the produce aisles were corn mazes that I saw on TV but never experienced in real life. Visiting El Güero always felt like visiting a fancy tia’s house who had everything in the world. I secretly wanted to live in the cereal aisle, specifically the bottom shelf underneath the off-brand Mexican Lucky Charms. I saw Zemsky’s, on Archer, as our personal closet where we went for any clothing needs. It was that easy to me with an early child’s mind. I remember going to Brighton Park like any old walk and holding mi Mama’s hand. I would get lost in colors, people moving, and daydreaming about hopefully getting a local snack for not causing any trouble during our visits.   

In McKinley Park, most of the neighborhood felt like an extension of my backyard. I would play hide and go seek with most of my neighbor’s children. We even climbed baby trees and pretended to be King Kong. We chased each other on our bikes down sidewalks and, sometimes, ended up crashing against metal fences. My friends and I would often jump between backyards and family kitchens throughout the same day. At eight years old, I once had bunnies that escaped, and I pleaded with the friendly squirrels to help me. Luckily, they were found thanks to my family, neighborhood friends, and even some furry tree ones. I especially want to thank mi Papi, Enrique, for my earliest bond to nature. He would run as I biked throughout McKinley Park and made sure I got to know the trees, grass, and flowers. He let me pretend for hours at McKinley Park with my imaginary friends and encouraged me to make real, random playground friends. I am grateful for both of my Papis for allowing me to live in my neighborhood with a carefree spirit that lives with me today. 

For so long, I didn’t distinguish the two neighborhoods that blended into my early childhood. However, I grew up to respect McKinley and Brighton Park’s own identity, struggles, and histories in high school. Now as an adult, I see each neighborhood as geographic siblings that need each other more than ever. Our neighborhoods are facing gentrification and generational inequalities. Pero también tenemos el rostro de nuestra gente, pasado, y potencial como comunidades comunes. Compartimos más de lo que nos divide. (But we also have the face of our people, past, and potential as common communities. We share more than what divides us).

Jocelyn Vega is a first generation Latina dedicated to intergenerational healing and ancestors.

  • Best Little League That Survived the Pandemic: OMEGA Delta

    OMEGA Delta Youth Baseball League Inc., located at Hoyne Park, has supported generations of families and young people growing into their greatest potential through sportsmanship and leadership. Originally, there were only two teams, but now OMEGA Delta hosts twenty-five, and mentors over 300 youth per year. Youth come from nearby neighborhoods and from previous generations of OMEGA Delta players. Teams range as young as T-Ball to eighteen-year-olds. Since 2006, you can hear crowds cheering young people from the stands and lawn chairs dotting the baseball diamond field lines. 

    However, during the pandemic, there were many challenges that the world faced. This year marks a full come back, and the league is stronger than ever. Thanks to the leadership of Daniel “Danny” Gaichas, and a group team of dedicated group parents and coaches, the league survived COVID-19. Danny was also my softball coach when I was a teen and figuring myself out. His motivational power would inspire my team to try again after losing games or improving our technique. Danny would also push us to keep excelling in school and finding more mentors in school and as peers. He was a positive role model that helped me build a support system in middle and high school. I continue to see Danny work with generations of youth over a decade later. It’s hilarious to now hear him on a speaker officially narrating games versus him blowing his vocal chords across the field.    

    Nearly each weekend this past summer, you’ll see dozens of uniformed children running across the playground, chasing grounders, and a baseball game taking place. In the background, there is a beautiful blend of youth, across generations, mentoring one another and being positive role models. The league also gained enough support to purchase an official score that upgraded the games to professional levels. For many young people, this league is their sense of pride that is built with community and across families. On September 3rd, OMEGA Delta hosted its annual award ceremony and recognized the growth and success of teams and their families. The megaphone echoed Hoyne avenue with many cheers and many youth hugging their trophies.

    OMEGA Delta Baseball, 3417 S. Hamilton Ave. See season schedule for hours. (312) 661-4733

  • Best Long Standing Chef in McKinley Park: Jose Esparza at New Archview Restaurant

    Jose Esparza is a community role model for many in McKinley Park and his current neighborhood on the Southwest Side of Chicago. He is a leading chef after working at New Archview Restaurant for decades. This restaurant is a community favorite for many generations of McKinley Park residents. Jose is an amazing chef and team player in the kitchen. The restaurant is known for its weekend brunches and filling entrees. Entire families, senior groups, and friends fill the parking lot, especially on weekends, to get a seat. The recent remodeling and additional patio have given the restaurant new life. However, Jose and other long serving staff have kept the restaurant’s pulse strong amongst change and during the pandemic. His dedication to his work and community of clients is recognized by many in McKinley Park.  

    Don Jose is also very important to my life and family. He moved upstairs with his family in my childhood home. I became best friends with their eldest son during pre school. His wife, la Señora Nena, would become my “Tia” (Aunt) for her gentle soul and hilarious humor. He was very caring towards his family and provided a great example of male mentorship outside of my own family. Don Jose and mi Papi were great friends. They encouraged our families to help each other as recent immigrants in the United States. 

    For example, La Señora Nena helped my mom manage my lice when there was an outbreak in kindergarten. I thought there were microscopic zebras and pandas running on my head. Instead of correcting me, she encouraged my creativity by asking for a safari story. After that day, she was one of my favorite people in the whole world because she taught me so much while allowing me to still be playful and make mistakes at that age. Don Jose and La Señora Nena moved out of McKinley Park, but they are my earliest memory of neighbors with children my age. It’s always a joy when I see him or his family at the New Archview parking lot. It brings me back to being five years old and thinking lice were adorable zoo animals.

    New Archview Restaurant, 3480 S. Archer Ave. Monday–Sunday, 6am–3pm. (773) 254-4862

  • Best Generational Corner Store: Oakley Foods

    As a staple to many McKinley Park residents, this corner store has been standing for generations. The beautiful building has brick and fencing that makes it truly stand out. For over twenty years, this mom-and-pop shop has all the snacks, drinks, and additional treats on a budget. The store’s layout brings you back to your childhood, if you went to the nearby schools, like Everett Elementary School on 34th and Bell. Neighbors make a pit stop during afternoon and early evening walks to pick up a drink or snacks to end the stroll. At night, the store has bright and coordinated lights that feel like you’re watching a light show performance. 

    For generations, this store has been embedded in many childhoods. I remember following my sister after school to pick up juice boxes with her quarters. These tiny moments mark special memories during my time at Everett. It is also my earliest memories of my sister buying me snacks and walking home together. Growing up, I would see a tiny mob, wearing blue sweatpants with golden print, rushing to this corner store. It’s funny to see the same sight now. Some things never change thanks to timeless stores like this. It’s incredible, yet sad, to know this is the last standing corner store on the north store of Archer in the neighborhood. (Jocelyn Vega)

    Oakley Foods, 3300 S. Oakley Ave. Monday–Saturday, 9am–9pm; Sunday, 9am–7pm. (773) 523-3945

  • Best Neighborhood Welder: Don Javier “Javy” Chavez
    Photo by Jocelyn Vega

    Don Javy is the most reliable welder in the neighborhood after serving dozens of families due to his lifetime work. He has helped countless families achieve fashionable and high-quality security with his metal work, like fences for the front and back yard, at affordable rates. He is also an expert in building porches and other metal projects to achieve a family’s needs. On my block alone, he helped construct multiple fences for over six homes—that I am aware of—during my childhood. Down my block, he built all of the second story balconies of a new housing development after the destruction of an abandoned building. As a Mexican immigrant, he was another positive male role model for me and for his community as a small business owner who continues to be successful.  

    My family worked with Don Javy over twenty years ago when mis Papis finally saved to replace my childhood home’s fence. They trusted Don Javy due to his patience to answer questions and provide updates throughout the service. I remember at a young age that this was one housing project that didn’t stress them out. Don Javy was also kind enough to let me observe at a young age. I had never seen sparks of fire or metal work. At first, I thought he was a fire magician, but then I saw how the tubes and machines came together. I would mock his technique from afar with my teddy bears as he worked. I would tell my mom what I learned from Don Javy and make up words in English and Spanish to explain. 

    Don Javy is also a lighthearted spirit and is still connected to my family decades later. My dad and him crack up the funniest jokes. I have to remember that they didn’t grow up together. Over twenty years later, Don Javy still recognizes me as the tiny kid who would throw her teddy bears around and play in the yard with her Dora the Explorer haircut. It’s awesome to still be connected with him. Don Javy takes quality in his work, connecting with customers, and knows how to make anyone laugh.

    Don “Javy” Chavez. (773) 841-6295

  • Best Laundromat with Dry Cleaning Services: Harts Coin Laundry 

    Growing up, I loved going to the laundromat. I know for many this is not the case, now as adults or as children back in the day. Harts continues to be a staple in my life thanks to their affordable dry-cleaning services. As a young kid, I loved Harts because they had the best music, different television channels playing, vending machines with good options, and offered a separate play and eating area for customers. There was one time where I didn’t want to leave because they were playing a movie only available on cable, which my family didn’t have. Harts felt like a mall in my five-year-old eyes. 

    This laundromat also felt more family friendly compared to the one closer to my home. The staff were always kind and didn’t make children feel like a burden. I always looked forward to going and supporting my family to stay fresh. I loved playing imaginary tag with the dryer machine as a way to pass time. I pretended to “chase” one of my sock friends like it was “whack a mole,” laundry edition. I would keep track but still lose pairs of socks afterwards, which I never understood. 

    Another activity was playing crosswords with mi Papa. I would additionally hunt down words by tracking how his massive mustache wiggled when he found a faint trace of something. Con mi mama (with my mom), I would hold her hand and ask for hugs as we waited for the washing machine. I did my best to help with folding, but I wasn’t promoted beyond sock folding, opening doors, and packing the clothes until middle school. Harts is an awesome place where I recommend going to wash those dusty fall and winter blankets. The dry cleaning is also highly recommended!

    Hart’s Coin Laundry, 3800 S. Campbell Ave. Monday–Friday, 6am–9pm; Saturday, 5am–9pm; Sunday, 5am–8pm. (773) 523-8038

  • Best Taquería con Tortillas Hechas a Mano: Los Chepes 

    This restaurant can be overlooked when you’re driving down Archer Avenue, but I suggest you pull over. Tucked away on a side street, this restaurant might become one of your top taco spots. The decor is also one of my favorites. They have adorable Ty stuffed animals as part of their cashier area. Whenever I pay, it reminds me of being in Mexico before I step back into the rest of Chicago. There’s a lot of love that goes into this establishment from the food to the small details. The decorations during the holidays also make the place stand out. 

    Los Chepes truly serves it all when it comes to regional Mexican Food. Their handmade tortillas are the cherry on top and what sets them apart. There is nothing like the softness of fresh masa (corn dough) when you bite into it. Masa is truly a gift from the ancestors for many Mexican and Central American communities and descended from thousands of years of culture. Eating the tortillas is worth the trip alone. However, if you want more than just masa, the menu is packed with options. The proportions are hearty and will leave you filled to run a marathon. Some of the meals, like a quesadilla, are as long as the length from your wrist to the tips of your fingers. You can definitely taste the amazing flavors of Mexico in Chicago. I also love this place because they sell lamb which is very hard to consistently find. There is truly something for everyone in your group.  

    Los Chepes also caters most of its menu and offers economical lunch specials as well. If you’re not sure what to try, the barbacoa de borrego y montalayo are wonderful options, and their carnitas estilo Michoacan are worth taking home to continue the delicious flavors at home. They also sell great combos. There is a deal for twenty-seven dollars that includes two pounds of carnitas, an order of rice, beans, salsas, and two liter soda. For thirty-nine dollars, you can purchase the same deal but have two pounds of barbacoa de borrego (lamb) instead. Both options are extremely reasonable. You can also keep it classic with tacos or a torta which never fails. You really can’t go wrong, but you’ll probably be back to try more. It’s definitely a neighborhood classic.

    Carnitas & Barbacoa Los Chepes, 3116 W. Pope John Paul II Dr. Monday & Wednesday–Sunday, 10am–5pm. (773) 565-4105.

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