‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Little Village

Little Village on Chicago’s Southwest Side is known for its rich Mexican culture. 

But some residents and business owners fear a neighborhood staple could be in danger. 

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The Discount Mall in the Little Village Plaza on 26th Street houses scores of shops, run by independent vendors. 

Daisy Reyes’ family has had a booth in the mall for decades. Now, they’ve got two.

i-Mex Imports sells sombreros and other traditional Mexican attire, baby clothes, soccer shirts – a bit of everything, she says. 

For Reyes, the shopping center is more than tradition. It’s family.

“This is a Hispanic community, so anything you want from Mexico, you’ll find here,” Reyes said. “A lot of items you cannot get anywhere easily, and people know that, and they come straight to here to find those things. And it’s people’s lives, like us, we’ve been here more than 30 years.” 

But Reyes says shoppers have begun to stay away, under the incorrect impression that the mall is closed. 

Chicago developer Novak Construction bought the mall in February. 

Novak has previously worked with big-box stores, stoking fears that that’s what will happen here too. 

In a statement, the company wrote that “although rumors and misinformation have surrounded the plaza for months, the owners wish to convey that there will be no re-development plans this year as they seek to understand the market and the neighborhood better.” 

The statement, first written in August, didn’t otherwise give specifics about the mall’s future. 

The company says it recognizes the plaza as an anchor of the 26th Street shopping district, and plans to bring “much-needed care and attention” to a property it says has been long neglected. 

Kocoy Malagon, owner of the mall shop Source Fashion, says she’s worried that to Novak, the mall represents money. But to her, and to her clients, it represents their culture. 

“When you come to this place you feel identified. You forget that you’re in the United States, that you feel that you’re back in your country. You feel nostalgia and you feel comfortable,” Malagon said in Spanish. “So what we want is to maintain that concept. We aren’t opposed to progress, we want to be included in that progress. Our question is why can’t we be included in that progress?”

Meanwhile, Little Village residents are coping with high confirmed case counts of COVID-19. 

Video: Our full interview with state Rep. Edgar Gonzalez Jr.

In the early days of the pandemic, there were more cases in this area than anywhere in the city. 

Overall, the ZIP code that encompasses Little Village has had 5.6% of the total confirmed coronavirus cases in the city. 

22nd Ward Ald. Michael Rodriguez says leaders meet weekly, in efforts to contain COVID-19; but he says area residents face additional challenges.

“There are federal policies that do not allow for all benefits to be eligible to undocumented immigrants,” he said. “And the fact is, the 60623 ZIP code that’s disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, is also disproportionately impacted by federal policies that do not allow for our community’s economic advancement.” 

In response, neighborhood grassroots leaders are stepping up. 

For three months now, the Telpochcalli Community Education Project and other groups have held a resource fair off California Avenue. 

At a park near a COVID-19 testing site, community members can get food, clothing, flu shots, and also participate in an art class. 

There’s an emphasis on outreach to Spanish-speaking residents, and advertisements for a hotline they can call to access direct support. 

You can also sign up for the census there – a major issue across the country ahead of the 2020 deadline on Sept. 30. 

The deadline is especially pressing in Little Village, where the response rates in sections of the neighborhood are well below the city average. 

Community groups are out on the streets canvassing, putting up yards signs, and trying to reach as many people as possible before time runs out. 

Organizers say part of the low response rates are due to lingering fear over the Trump administration’s proposed “citizenship question”, which did not make it onto the census form. 

“I believe it’s the mistrust that the community still has,” said Anel Sancen, a census organizer with the group Mujeres Latinas en Accion. “We knew about the citizenship question they wanted to ask, that was the big thing. And that’s what we’re doing, we’re making sure that [residents] know that’s no longer on the questionnaire, that they can trust their information can be private.” 

Sancen says response rates are slowly climbing in the parts of Little Village she and her colleagues are targeting. 

Video: Our full interview with state Ancel Sancen, a census organizer with the group Mujeres Latinas en Accion.

And much of Little Village is represented in Springfield by State Rep. Edgar Gonzalez Jr., one of the youngest legislators in Illinois history. 

In May, Gonzalez and his entire family were all struck with COVID-19.

“Once I lost my sense of taste and smell, I knew I had it. My mom, my dad, my sister, they all caught it. In the end, we all got sick,” he said. “I cannot stress enough—socially distance, cover your mouth, just wash your hands.” 

Gonzalez says his family has now all recovered from the virus. 


Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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