Chicago's Mexican-American Entrepreneurs Have The Antidote To Gentrification

Mexicans in Chicago shaped these neighborhoods decades ago. Now immigrants and their children are ushering in a new era of business and community.
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Angélica Rivera Varela and her partner Miguel Rivera spend the week preparing for private events and weekends when Semillas Plant Studio is open.
Angélica Rivera Varela and her partner Miguel Rivera spend the week preparing for private events and weekends when Semillas Plant Studio is open.
Jesus J. Montero for HuffPost

Ni de aqui, ni de allá: In Spanish, it means “neither here, nor there.” It’s an expression some Mexicans know all too well, a feeling of being caught between American culture and your ancestral roots. Navigating this blended identity can be complicated for many of us who are perceived as too American for Mexico, yet too Mexican for America.

But for Alma and Cristóbal Mora, longtime residents of Chicago’s Mexican Little Village, somos quién somos. They just are who they are. Through their coffee concept company, Bueno Days, they’re able to share their culture and create a sense of belonging for people in the neighborhood and across the city.

“It’s cool to just be who you are and appreciate your heritage, wherever it comes from,” Cristóbal said. He tells me that embracing his Mexican-American identity informs how they run the business and why they source the coffee the way they do.

Alma Blancarte-Mora sits on the counter of her home as her husband Cristóbal Mora makes coffee before they start working from home in Little Village.
Alma Blancarte-Mora sits on the counter of her home as her husband Cristóbal Mora makes coffee before they start working from home in Little Village.
Jesus J. Montero for HuffPost
Cristóbal Mora’s love language is making coffee. He works his full-time job from home.
Cristóbal Mora’s love language is making coffee. He works his full-time job from home.
Jesus J. Montero for HuffPost

This October, Alma and Cristóbal celebrate one year in business and a three-year wedding anniversary. And while Bueno Days is in its early stages, you can tell it runs on intentionality, sourcing coffee from Mexico’s Oaxaca and Chiapas regions while working equitably with locals. The partners pride themselves on bringing far more than coffee to loyal followers.

From hosting pop-ups to storytelling and other curated events in the city, Bueno Days’ foundation rests upon an appreciation for the various, vibrant narratives of what it means to be of Mexican descent. The Moras are part of a growing movement in Chicago, built by immigrants and their children, to usher in a new era of business and support for these subsections of the city, dubbed the “Mexico of the Midwest.”

Despite the fact that Bueno Days doesn’t have its own storefront yet, Alma and Cristóbal have found a kinship with others in the neighborhood. Among them are Miguel Cervantes, owner of Mexican goods store Comercio Popular and Lucy Angel Camarena, who runs flower shop Campo Santo under the same roof, where they launched their first pop-ups. Both work in collaboration with Dom Cordilla, interior designer of Italian-French descent, who renovated the space over the summer of last year and since then has been a part of the team.

Miguel Cervantes is a designer and founder of Comercio Popular in Little Village.
Miguel Cervantes is a designer and founder of Comercio Popular in Little Village.
Jesus J. Montero for HuffPost
Dom Cordilla is a prop stylist, designer and creative director at Comercio Popular.
Dom Cordilla is a prop stylist, designer and creative director at Comercio Popular.
Jesus J. Montero for HuffPost

“[Comercio Popular] tries to encompass a bit of everything from everyday commerce that happens in Mexico,” Cervantes said. “It tries to capture that and the energy of going to a market: exchanging stories and transactions between people, both monetary and socially.”

The owners consider themselves part of the rebirth of culture that small businesses have begun in Little Village.

“We hope to be able to use our space and its location to amplify and encourage the work that other entrepreneurs in the area are wanting to go into,” Camarena said, adding that their major goal is to introduce new audiences to their spaces and the work being done in Little Village by Mexican-Americans looking to build community. One way they’re able to meet these goals is through the team’s creative agency Agencia Sí Sí Sí. A recent exhibition they created, ¡Ayñ!, brought together a mosaic of Chicago and Guadalajara audiences to pay homage to Mexican art.

Dom Cordilla, Lucy Angel Camarena and Miguel Cervantes set new pieces from Mexico for Comercio Popular along with flowers from Flores Campo.
Dom Cordilla, Lucy Angel Camarena and Miguel Cervantes set new pieces from Mexico for Comercio Popular along with flowers from Flores Campo.
Jesus J. Montero for HuffPost

To understand how these entrepreneurs got here, both physically and mentally, it’s important to recognize how Mexicans in Chicago shaped Pilsen and Little Village decades ago. Chicago, like many American cities that were redlined, was built on exclusionary housing practices that hurt Black and Latino communities the most. And the city in the 1960s bluntly expressed this reality. When the mayor proposed that the University of Illinois be built at the exact location of affordable housing residencies, 5,000 people were displaced. Many of them were Mexican and made their way to Pilsen, which was affordable, and at the time, mostly a Polish neighborhood.

By 1970, Pilsen was majority Mexican. The residents began making the neighborhood home by organizing a mass for Spanish-speaking churchgoers, starting new businesses, creating art and organizing. Mexicans also began settling into an area next door, known as Little Village.

Concepcion Rodriguez, who has lived in Pilsen since the 1960s, became a homeowner with help from her local church. “I only know of living on this block,” Rodriguez said. “I have three buildings on this block, and I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon.”

As neighborhoods do, the ethnic and socioeconomic identities of Pilsen and Little Village whipped back and forth throughout the decades. Recent gentrification led to the departure of more than 10,000 Hispanic people from the area in the last 20 years. “There’s a lot of change happening, and I’m saddened by it,” Rodriguez shared. “We need to preserve and support businesses that are Latino-owned.”

Growing up, Angélica Varela recalls staple businesses in the community she frequented, but she never saw businesses stay long on Blue Island, a major street in Pilsen hosting some of the neighborhood’s biggest Latino festivals. One can surmise that financial security was one of the culprits for the fleeting businesses. So when Varela opened Semillas, choosing a space was intentional. She picked a studio next to Pilsen’s Mexican supermarket serving the community since the 1960s: La Casa del Pueblo, right on Blue Island.

Semillas is an airy studio space that serves as a plant shop, as well as a work and event space for members of the community. In many ways, her business, a safe space for families to congregate, is what Varela said she craved growing up when gang violence was prevalent in the neighborhood.

“We want people to come in and feel safe to be able to do their homework. If they have an idea they want to pursue … we want them to come into our space and plant their own seeds,” she said. “I wish I had that kind of space to go to when I was in high school.”

The exterior of Semillas in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.
The exterior of Semillas in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.
Jesus J. Montero for HuffPost

The neighborhoods hold a complex array of emotions for those who grew up there because of all the transitions it has gone through. “I think about the discount mall and spending a lot of my weekends there, whether it was getting a quinceañera dress for my cousin’s quince, getting alterations, shopping for jewelry,” Camarena said. “There was so much that happened at the discount mall that happened as it pertains to commerce and understanding small business.”

Today, the future of the well-known discount mall hangs in the balance. In 2020, it was sold to a development company for more than $17 million dollars with few updates on what will happen next. Vendor leases are reportedly ending in January.

“That’s something that will change the Little Village neighborhood, however that situation pans out,” Camarena said. “I think for us, that’s why it’s so important to claim space in Little Village as a small business owner in this time when there are many changes that may be happening.”

Indeed, Pilsen and Little Village’s new businesses are more than just about commerce. They are about holding space for both the Mexican communities that have built the neighborhoods over time, and for the young people whose well-being depends heavily on community and feeling seen.

While businesses are critical to the fabric of Chicago’s trademark Mexican neighborhoods like Little Village and Pilsen, there’s no denying that activism (and the art that’s fueled by it) is crucial to driving neighborhoods forward. In 1970, when the community opened cultural institution Casa Aztlán, it would become a community staple: a hub for artists, an affordable clinic to Pilsen, a place for neighbors to organize for change.

Aerial view above La Esquina in Pilsen.
Aerial view above La Esquina in Pilsen.
Jesus J. Montero for HuffPost

Today, you can find creatives perpetuating this work and helping document history in the area. Among these torch bearers is Mateo Zapata, a Pilsen artist of Colombian-Chilean heritage. One of his first organizing roles during his 20s was helping lead a protest against the Sensenbrenner Immigration Bill of 2005, a bill that would make it illegal to be undocumented. On May 1, 2006, the coalition Zapata was part of helped mobilize Latino participation in one of the biggest demonstrations of Latinos in history.

Born in Colombia, Mateo Zapata was raised in the Pilsen community. Zapata opened La Esquina in Pilsen to bring the community together in a safe space.
Born in Colombia, Mateo Zapata was raised in the Pilsen community. Zapata opened La Esquina in Pilsen to bring the community together in a safe space.
Jesus J. Montero for HuffPost

Throughout the years, he contributed to the growth of the community by creating murals of local heroes, taking photos of residents and planning major festivals in the community, like the Pilsen Taco Fest.

“It showed that we as brown people have what it takes to produce events for our own community,” he shared. Zapata’s most recent way of working with the neighborhood is through creating a community center for skill-sharing called La Esquina, where he will be teaching free photography workshops for youth and adults.

For Rosalba Valdez, a Pilsen native and singer/songwriter, the area where she grew up has been an influence for the kind of music she performs today. From a young age she’s been involved in the music space, performing at churches, community events and rallies campaigning for immigration rights, which she saw impact her community. Her newest song, “Lucha de Familias,” was created to illustrate different stories in the immigrant community and send a message of unity across Mexican communities.

“What I really hope is that my community can be empowered, not just through feel-good initiatives, but also empowered through policy action,” Valdez said. “I hope we can be empowered financially, emotionally … but also thrive.”

Being Mexican for these business owners, community leaders and members ultimately has a range of definitions. It can mean having stayed in Mexican neighborhoods and spaces like Little Village and Pilsen your whole life. It can mean being a close ally of the community and really embedding yourself in the storytelling and causes. It’s also about sharing diverse experiences that are all authentically Mexican.

“Coffee for us means a lot,” Cristóbal said. “I think we explored that during the pandemic. We were thinking about what’s really important to us and it was always based around our identities. Through coffee, we were able to use it as a platform to talk about that.”

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