Little Village is a port of entry for Mexican immigrants, and the neighborhood's roughly two-mile 26th Street corridor from Sacramento to Kostner is crammed with around 500 local businesses that cater to their tastes: butcher shops, pharmacies, and more than 100 restaurants offering everything from mangonadas—fresh sliced mango spiked with chile and lime and drizzled with savory tamarind sauce—to toddler-size mariachi suits and live doves.
"It's the nostalgia market," says Jaime Di Paulo, executive director of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce. "It's the place that you go to buy stuff that reminds you of home, or your grandpa. This is the place where Spanish is spoken, where you feel Mexican."
Twenty-Sixth Street reportedly generates more revenue than any other commercial corridor in the city save Michigan Avenue—$900 million in sales in 2011, according to Di Paulo (more recent figures aren't currently available from either the chamber or the city). It's also a really fun place to shop.
In the mazelike warren of stalls at the massive Discount Mega Mall (3101 W. 26th), you'll find the aforementioned kids' duds and birds, along with a neon rainbow of futbol paraphernalia—soccer balls and cleats in fuchsia, highlighter yellow, and lime green—and beautiful acoustic guitars. (One was inlaid with a starburst mother-of-pearl rosette; another had a bridge shaped like a bull's head.)
Cremeria La Ordeña (3234 W. 26th) has a bulk section to rival any Whole Foods, with an array of chile-lime snacks (pepitas, white beans, chickpeas, and peanuts) and a deli case full of fresh cheeses, sticky-sweet cajeta (goat's milk caramel), and a dozen different kinds of fresh mole. (I left with a quarter pound of the deliciously smoky black Oaxacan variety.)
OK Corral VIP Western Wear (3300 W. 26th) stocks cowboy boots in every conceivable pattern (stippled, snakeskin) and color (orange, pistachio, cobalt blue), genuine Stetson hats, spurs, and lovely hand-tooled leather saddles.
At Dulcelandia (3253 W. 26th) you can choose from an army of cartoonish piñatas—Spiderman, Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, Dora the Explorer—then scoop up bulk Mexican candies to fill it with.
The chain Indio (3401 W. 26th) bills itself as "the world's most complete manufacturer and distributor of spiritual and mystical products." Its stripped-down location feels like Aldi for witches, its metal shelves stocked high with candles, incense powders, and oils intended to bring luck, exorcise demons, or spur breakups or sudden romances. (Jars of occult author and hoodoo supplier Anna Riva's "Law Stay Away" were stacked next to "Lottery" and "Gambler's.")
Like any great shopping district, this one is home to a variety of street vendors: I counted no fewer than three competing paletas carts staking out territory in front of various entrances to the Mega Mall; west of the "Bienvenidos a Little Village" arch that greets visitors you'll find at least as many sellers with elotes, vats of agua fresca, and bags of chicharrones; and the sidewalk in front of the parking lot at Cermak Produce (3311 W. 26th) was strung with luchador masks, embroidered blouses and belts, and red leather sandals detailed with gilt-thread horses and roosters.
In its splendorous variety, the bustling 26th Street commercial district is certainly proof of the strength and vibrancy of Chicago's Mexican community. But sales at some local businesses fell as much as 40 or 50 percent this winter, Di Paulo says, after Donald Trump's election sparked deportation fears among undocumented immigrants, who stayed home instead of shopping. The corridor lost as many as a dozen businesses as a result. "There was a jewelry store, a dress store, a quinceañera store—luxury stores," he says. "Not like grocery stores—disposable-income-type places." Business has since rebounded, he says, thanks in part to a shop-local campaign he helped spearhead—around 60,000 people showed up for the Taste of Little Village festival in early June.
In that way the corridor is symbolic of the broader community that created it—a welcome addition to the city that's vulnerable but resilient. v
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