Pilsen’s New Normal

Lower West Side Chicago neighborhood deals with the pandemic

By Joseline Salmeron and Mistica Maldonado

A vintage map depicting Pilsen’s rich history located in restaurant La Casa del Pueblo. | Photo by Joseline Salmeron

On Nov. 12, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Protect Chicago as a coronavirus response to inhibit the spread of the virus. The announcement detailed over 1,000 deaths through the remainder of the 2020 year could happen if residents do not change their behavior to curb the mounting cases of coronavirus.

The new order went into effect a few days later, mirroring one put in place back in March: No private gatherings can exceed ten people, no indoor restaurant dining, and an advisory asking residents to leave home only for essential services.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), Illinois has documented 646,286 cases of the novel coronavirus with more than 1,900 daily reported cases in Chicago. The IDPH’s data reports Hispanics and Black people as bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 spread.

Graph provided by Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH).

Hispanics are clocking in at a 52,858-positive rate, almost over half the number of the white and Black communities. It is essential to consider this data when reviewing the effects on a predominantly Latino community such as Pilsen.

Pilsen, on the city’s lower West Side, has a rich and diverse history. Its history is one of the wealthy professionals and the working class living symbiotically dating back to the early 20th century. Despite that rich symbiotic relationship, Pilsen has become one of the many neighborhoods in Chicago fighting against gentrification, especially business owners.

Pilsen in Trouble

Pilsen businesses have already been challenged with the surge of gentrifying businesses, such as artisanal coffee shops stealing away customers from family-operated panaderias. The rise of white-owned businesses in a community that has been predominantly people of color has shuttered many pre-existing businesses. Now, many are presented with the additional obstacle of coronavirus related revenue losses.

An introspective look into the changes of local businesses and organizations’ day-to-day operations, we speak with Pilsen business owners and community organizations to obtain a thorough understanding of their present and future.

Henry Ramírez of Zarai, an imported clothing store specializing in folk and traditional Mexican apparel, is one of the Pilsen business owners combatting the pandemic.

Henry Ramírez is co-owner of Zarai along with his mother, Zarai Reyes. The “ropa tipica” storefront has been in the Pilsen community for five years as of June 27.

Connect with Zarai’s educational courses on their Instagram- @ZARAI_CHICAGO | Photo by Mistica Maldonado

Zarai did receive some financial assistance through grant funding but has still not received federal loan funding that was requested earlier in the year. As a local business, Zarai’s philosophy is to employ federal or state funding and use it to help the community through job opportunities.

Zarai is a family-owned business that employs over 20 people in Mexico and Chicago combined. Everything in their store is imported from Mexican homespun clothing. Ramirez emphasizes that the charm and foundation of Zarai rest upon the handcrafted merchandise.

“It’s not because it’s a business, but also because it’s our culture,” Ramírez said.

As the winter season approaches, Zarai’s plans to survive the winter season’s slowdown started by accessing their situation.

Ramírez said his initial thought was to “just try to pursue what we’re doing, what we’ve always had and what holds true to making Zarai- us. If that makes sense, like to make it- ‘What makes Zarai?’ That’s it, and our thing is education.”

Much like other community-based organizations and neighborhood businesses, Zarai plans on weathering the winter slowdown by focusing on virtual educational seminars. On Zarai’s Facebook page, the owners have posted content that promotes public health practices like mask usage. Ramírez has also been sharing his entrepreneurial journey through virtual collaborative spaces.

Ramírez’s emphasis is to educate customers and the community on the origins of the merchandise.

“My thing is when someone comes in here, it is more of an experience rather than just buying because people don’t value the stuff when they don’t know the meaning or where it comes from or the history behind it,” he said.

How Community Organizations are Faring

The National Association of Latino Arts and Culture (NALAC) has been conducting an ongoing field study, gauging the economic losses and current financial standing of independent cultural workers and community arts organizations.

In Chicago, live results disclose the pandemic toll on non-profit organizations dedicated to promoting folk & traditional art shows. These organizations estimate a $25,800 loss in income for the following three months. It is quite clear that as these community arts organizations suffer, so do the businesses that supply them.

Aligning with the NALAC initiative is the co-founder and executive director of Pilsen Arts and Community House (PACH), Teresa Magaña, statement on her own organization’s present time in the coronavirus age.

Workshop gathering at PACH. | Photo by Pilsen Arts & Community House

Magaña shares how her art house shifted from a for-profit organization to a non-profit. Magaña mentions how hard it was to receive funding as a for-profit entity because she did not meet the state and federal funding requirements. Her art house was too small or did not meet the sales threshold needed to qualify for those programs.

Cementing the shift to non-profit on July 1, Magaña is now looking at funding for non-profit groups to keep her organization afloat. PACH has had to cancel many events that included one where artists would go into people’s homes.

The Pilsen Arts & Community House also used to host events in their studio space, due to the current climate, it has gone unused. Although some have suggested ideas to safely convene in the studio space, Magaña says,” If we don’t have to, we shouldn’t.”

PACH is looking to pivot its platform and work to thrive in an online space. This online space would include holding virtual art classes and workshops. Magaña does acknowledge that making that a reality has been challenging since most instructors and herself hold full-time positions elsewhere to make a living.

Just as Zarai’s decision, PACH’s decision to go into online spaces was made after contemplating what is best for their business and how it will best suit to empower the community.

Magaña says,” Not only do we support the arts and the artist, but we’ve also become a space that supports the community for whatever they need.”