- Best Neighbor That Welcomed Our Family to the Neighborhood
- Best Neighbor Who Exemplifies Neighborly Integrity
- Best Paleteros and Ice Cream Vendors to Support
- Best Voluntary Neighborhood Gardner
- Best Grocery Store to Support During the Pandemic
- Best Small Park Growing Future Generations
After twenty-seven years of living in McKinley Park, Obdulia and Enrique Vega have grown and tended to many community roots. They’re also my parents. I interviewed them to learn their “Best of McKinley Park” based on nearly three decades of living on the same street. As early twenty-year-olds and recent immigrants, they purchased their first home in a new nation and city in 1987. Many of their coworkers scorned my parents for being “financially irresponsible” considering how young they were in an unknown country, but they persisted.
Obdulia hopes Chicagoans honor its existing residents and their contributions in shaping McKinley Park. Meanwhile, Enrique described it “as his home” because his children were raised here. Enrique and Obdulia’s “Best of McKinley Park” reflects their highest respects to its outstanding people and places.
This home has been extended to many guests throughout the years. Each visit often involves many elaborate meals and growing acceptance in community by seeing people as part of their greater family. This home continues to be their home. (Jocelyn Vega)
Best Neighbor that Welcomed Our Family to the Neighborhood
A Tribute to Ailene Emerson
Until she moved in 2005, Ailene was our neighbor. “She’s our family,” said Obdulia. When she was twenty, Obdulia and Ailene, who was twice her age, became close friends. Ailene also became a confidante to the young mother of a three-year-old and another daughter in the future.
“At first, Ailene was concerned about two twenty-year-olds moving next door to her family’s previous home. Her mother, sister, and family members grew up there. That was her family’s home. Ailene told me how she lost her tranquility after we first moved in,” said Obdulia.
However, Ailene extended her arm and wisdom to my parents. Obdulia said, “She told us that she realized her impression was wrong. She revealed her assumption too. She was simply surprised but saw young people working so hard and raising a family.” Ailene also extended her compassionate wisdom about parenthood, homeownership, and living in America.
“We spoke different languages. She didn’t know Spanish. I didn’t understand English, but we listened to each other in many ways. Ailene would invite me to learn about the grocery stores, visit hardware stores, and understand government paperwork. She recommended people that she trusted. I could always turn to her.” Over the fence, they shared space between their homes.
Obdulia would offer homemade gelatinas (jello) that were never refused. As an exchange, Ailene would always surprise my parents by ordering pizza or grilling some burgers to eat together. They respect Ailene as a lifetime mentor to their children. “She is a kind person that welcomed us with heart,” said Enrique. (Jocelyn Vega)
Best Neighbor who Exemplifies Neighborly Integrity
“He’s helped us in our greatest needs. He’s always willing to help and listen, even in emergencies,” said Obdulia. Enrique added that Rafa’s help also ended those emergencies, and they would always return that support as neighbors.
My parents counted all of the times Rafa was an ally and community role model. “He is genuine, even down to the detail, in everything he does,” said Obdulia. Enrique described him as a man of integrity. He also thanked Rafa for his support across these years. Both Enrique and Obdulia appreciate Rafa and his extended family. “The sidewalk conversations, greetings, check-ins, and advice are all things we need as neighbors,” said Obdulia.
Tears escaped from Obdulia’s eyes when she explained his mentorship as irreplaceable. My parents lost count of how many times Rafa invited me to join his nieces and nephews on adventures. Enrique mentioned how Rafa treated me like another niece. In the past twenty years, his family became part of ours.
Obdulia and Enrique see Rafa as the type of neighbor that we all need and need to be. They hope people don’t forget how powerful neighbors are. They encourage people to actively build relationships with people close by. Without these deep connections, Obdulia said, “it wouldn’t be a neighborhood without this.” (Jocelyn Vega)
Best Paleteros and Ice Cream Vendors to Support
All of them
“There’s a love in what they do, and it’s difficult to do,” said Obdulia when describing the gamble paleteros make each day when they sell their paletas (ice pops). “There’s no salary and all of the risks. You risk not selling enough to even have an income,” she added, encouraging community members of all ages to buy directly from the vendors. Enrique agreed that each dollar goes the mile considering how far each paletero walks, searching for customers.
Often, Obdulia and Enrique buy in large quantities and offer a tip to express their gratitude. This kind of detail is always received as a surprise by paleteros, but Enrique explained that it’s important to contribute as much as possible. As part of his values, this level of contribution directly supports “the people” as a person living with community.
“You have to support them. Look out for them,” said Enrique. My parents typically buy in large bulks to offer “the joy of paletas” to guests and family members. Obdulia explained that everyone wins when we support local paleteros. “They love what they do! That’s why they do it! They bring joy in a cart,” concluded Obdulia.
McKinley Park’s paleteros, located throughout the neighborhood. Listen for their jingling bells in the warmer months and remember, cash only.
Best Voluntary Neighborhood Gardener:
Obdulia wanted to highlight her husband as a hardworking neighbor, especially supporting seniors for the past twenty-seven years. Enrique is always working with the land and not just in his backyard. His green thumb has a collective hand. He extends his time to maintain the entire street by mowing the majority of the front yards each weekend. He explained that this is how he likes to spend his time. This is how he wants to live. He wants his neighborhood to be inviting and welcoming.
And it definitely shows—you cannot miss the engine of a nonstop lawn mower waking you up early on a Sunday morning. When I asked why he wakes up early for this, he simply responded, “It shows who I am.”
Obdulia explained that Enrique’s love for the land has helped many neighbors and our family enjoy the outdoors as a second home. She said, “This helps how we live together on this block. He also gives crucial support for elderly neighbors, year long. He’s always done that. He always helps who needs it, including the land.”
Across seasons, Enrique is either outside with a lawn mower and gardening tools or with a shovel tackling the winter’s garden: snow. Obdulia distinctly remembered when Enrique was in Mexico for an entire winter. Elderly neighbors constantly asked for him.
“They shared how much they needed his help. There was no one helping,” said Obdulia. During these conversations, some of the neighbors disclosed their medical barriers to her: heart attacks, hip problems, or balance issues. They also shared how Enrique’s yardwork kept them safe and gave them the security to step outside.
Upon returning, Enrique didn’t realize his work’s impact. “He does this with a voluntary heart,” said Obdulia. (Jocelyn Vega)
Best Grocery Store to Support During the Pandemic:
La Placita Chicago
La Placita has been fundamental to 35th Street, according to my parents. They both remember meeting most of its existing staff when they first arrived in the neighborhood. Obdulia explained how this is her go-to spot to buy meat, specialty dairy, and homemade specialties. “Los carniceros’ (the butchers’) dedication and detailed service is what makes the difference. Their dedication is seen in their service and products,” said Obdulia. During the pandemic, Enrique and Obdulia explained they are shopping here as much as possible. Obdulia said, “We have to support our small places. Each dollar counts more and more for them.” Enrique’s favorite aspect is their weekend food options, specifically their menudo and carnitas. (Jocelyn Vega)
La Placita Chicago, 1840 W. 35th St. Weekdays, 8am–8pm; weekends, 8am–7pm. (773) 254-1223
Best Small Park Growing Future Generations:
Hoyne Playground Park
“There used to be a lot of violence there, always something happening,” said Enrique. However, family engagement has uplifted a park and future generations in the past two decades. Enrique and Obdulia highlighted Omega Delta baseball as a powerful force in the community.
They explained violence in the park was a symptom of larger social issues, not stereotypes that gangbangers were simply “bad” people. Instead, they pointed to the overwhelming racism of unequal resources in the nineties that prevented young people and families from growing healthy ties in their environments. Enrique is happy to see the park now fill up with dozens of teams that are spending their time growing with the community.
From their backyard, they are both happy to now hear the booming cheers and the broadcasted commentary at the park. For Obdulia, Hoyne Playground Park is her favorite park, despite McKinley Park’s massive impression when she first visited the neighborhood. “Hoyne Park is small, but it serves the community,” said Obdulia. (Jocelyn Vega)
Hoyne Playground Park, 3417 S. Hamilton Ave. Open every day, 6am–11pm. (312) 747-6527. chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/hoyne-thomas-park