Jason Schumer

Best of Pilsen 2019

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For most of her life, twenty-three-year-old visual artist Zarai Zaragoza grew up in a two-bedroom apartment on 17th Street and Wood with her stepdad, her older sister, and her mom, Santa Bandera.

Bandera has been selling tamales in the neighborhood for nearly fifteen years. She sells them off a cart outside Paleteria Los Magos on 19th and Paulina every day except Tuesdays, which is when she goes grocery shopping to make hundreds of tamales for the week.

“We had two fridges and they were full of tamales,” Zaragoza said.

Zaragoza’s family migrated to Pilsen from a small town in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero about twenty-five years ago. The family lived in a few apartments across the neighborhood until 2016, when rising rents pushed them across Western Avenue into Little Village. 

Two years later, Zaragoza graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont where she studied education and studio art. She moved back to Chicago soon after graduating and is now going into her second year of teaching art at UIC College Prep. Like many of the friends she grew up with, Zaragoza no longer lives in Pilsen, but she doesn’t consider herself completely displaced from the neighborhood.

“I will always feel like I can come back here,” she said. “It sucks that I have to make more money than I’m making now to live comfortably in Pilsen. I remember when we were paying $600 a month in rent. But the neighborhood will always live inside me.”
Zaragoza’s artwork—brimming with color and movement—is highly influenced by her roots in Pilsen. As a middle schooler at Jose Clemente Orozco Academy, Zaragoza worked under Francisco Mendoza, an artist from South Chicago whose murals cover the inside of the CTA 18th Street Pink Line. Mendoza taught art at Orozco for twenty-five years until his death in 2012.

Zaragoza said Mendoza helped cultivate her interest in drawing and painting and hopes to have a similar impact with her own students. “I want students to come into my classroom and know they have a voice and draw from their experiences because they are valid,” she said.

There is an entire generation of young people who, like Zaragoza, grew up in Pilsen and can no longer afford to stay. Zaragoza doesn’t know what Pilsen’s going to look like in five to ten years, but she’s confident the neighborhood that shaped her will always find a way to survive.

“I mean, just look at 18th Street—even though it’s changed so much, people are still doing their best to maintain the culture, regardless of who’s coming in,” she said. 

Carlos Ballesteros is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America. Carlos grew up in the city and is a proud Chicago Public Schools graduate. He covers immigration, housing, city government, and breaking news.

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Best Dance Class

El Zumbero de Chicago

Jason Schumer

Tuesday through Friday from 7–8pm, Ismael Alvarez Landa hosts a dance class in the public plaza in front of the old St. Vitus church off 18th and Paulina where dozens of women dance to cumbia, merengue, reggaeton, salsa, techno, and everything in between.

Landa started giving classes at the plaza—also known as “El Zocalo”—in 2015. Landa migrated to Pilsen in 2013 from the Mexican state of Veracruz, where he started hosting his first dance classes nearly twenty years ago. He lives in a basement apartment with his mom in a building owned by his aunt, who is also the owner of Pollo Express on 18th and Ada Street.

Landa makes a living off dancing. Zumba studios from around the city and across the country hire him to give classes to their customers. “My calendar’s full year-round,” he said. But Landa’s class at El Zocalo is donation-based and makes around twenty-five to forty dollars per class.

“Many of my students don’t donate, and usually I get one to three dollars from them,” he said in Spanish.

The class has become part of the tapestry of 18th Street. You can hear the music from blocks away and nearby residents often hang out around the plaza while the class is in full gear. Still, Landa said he’s looking for a permanent space in the neighborhood to host his classes through all four seasons. Until then, “we’re happy at El Zocalo,” Landa said, “and we’ll be there until we find something. We’ve danced in the rain and snow before.” (Carlos Ballesteros)

El Zumbero de Chicago, 1814 S Paulina St, Chicago, IL 60608. Tuesday–Saturday, 7pm–8pm. facebook.com/expo.festchicago

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Best Bleachers

Boogie/Reyes Park

Jason Schumer

There’s a small park across the street from an empty church on 19th and Peoria. The park is about three-quarters of an acre and features two basketball courts, bleachers and chess tables. 

The Chicago Park District originally named it Rose Park when it opened in the 1970s. In 2004, the Park District renamed it after Guadalupe Reyes, a Pilsen matriarch who organized the first  Fiesta del Sol in 1977.

But many people who grew up in the neighborhood also know the park as Boogie Park after David “Boogie” Gonzalez, a peace activist who grew up near 18th and Morgan and orchestrated a truce between rival gangs in Pilsen in 1973. He was killed in a drive-by shooting at Harrison Park four months later. He was twenty-three. In 1977, muralist Sal Vega painted Boogie in a bloodstained green robe on a wall overlooking the corner of 18th and Throop.

There isn’t a park in the neighborhood quite like Boogie/Reyes Park. The old abandoned church across the street—built by German immigrants in 1880 and mostly destroyed in a fire in 1979—gives it a sense of serenity hard to find elsewhere. Boogie’s legend adds another layer of serenity to the park; he exists through oral histories passed down by older Pilsen residents who’ve shaped the neighborhood as we know it today. (Carlos Ballesteros and Sebastián Hidalgo)

Guadalupe Reyes Park, aka Boogie Park, 821 W. 19th St. 6am–11pm, daily. (312) 746-5083. chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/reyes-guadalupe-park

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Best Stoop on Throop

Shady Rest Vintage & Vinyl

Few things are as important to a Chicago summer as a good stoop. A stoop is where friends reunite, families argue, kids run around, and couples sit on each other’s laps. The stoop is sacred. Everyone is welcome at the stoop, unless you’re an asshole.

There are plenty of good stoops around Pilsen. One of the best is outside Shady Rest Vintage & Vinyl, a record store corner of 18th and Throop. Longtime couple Peter Kepha and Nuntida Sirisombatwattana opened the store in 2016 and their front stoop quickly became one of the best hangout spots on the block.

Kepha and Sirisombatwattana supply the tunes for the stoop from inside the store. On a recent Saturday, it was T.S. Monk. As the evening turned into night, friends and strangers began to trickle toward the stoop, many stopping on their way to or from the bars around the area. 

But what makes Shady Rest’s stoop the stoop on Throop is not its location, it’s the people.

“People here are ready to react to help others in need,” Kepha said. “We’re like a neighborhood watch, you know. Not by choice, but because we’re just chilling and it comes with it.” (Carlos Ballesteros and Sebastián Hidalgo)

Shady Rest Vintage & Vinyl, 1659 W. Throop St. Wednesday–Friday, 2pm–8pm; Saturday, noon–8pm; Sunday, noon–5pm; closed Monday & Tuesday. (872) 444-6488. shadyrestchicago.com

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Best Weekend Lunch Deal

Panaderia Nuevo Leon

Jason Schumer

 Do you like pozole? Do you like bread? Do you have four dollars?

If you answered yes to all three, head over to Panaderia Nuevo Leon for the best lunch deal in the city: A cup of soup and a bolillo for $3.69, with tax.

The bakery rotates between three soups: lentil, cream of broccoli, and green chicken pozole. (The pozole comes with a side bag of lime and shaved cabbage and radishes.) Their bolillos—which are kind of like a baguette but better—are always made fresh in the morning, using a family recipe that’s helped keep the bakery in business for nearly fifty years.

While you’re there, pick up some avocado tortillas from the fridge near the register. Trust me. (Carlos Ballesteros)

Panaderia Nuevo Leon, 1634 W. 18th St. Monday–Friday, 5:30am–8pm; Saturday & Sunday, 6am–8pm. (312) 243-5977. panaderianuevoleonpilsen.com

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