Facesof COVID-19 in Chicago

Pilsen's New Normal in a Pandemic

Lower West Side neighborhood finding its way during COVID-19 spread

By Joseline Salmeron and Mistica Maldonado |  @RedLineProject | Posted: Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020

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 behaviors 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. 

Pilsen, a Latino community 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. 

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. He and his mother, Zarai Reyes, co-own the "ropa tipica" storefront that has been in the Pilsen community for five years as of June 27. 

Zarai did receive some financial assistance through federal-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 the 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 Teresa Magaña, the co-founder and executive director of Pilsen Arts and Community House


Magaña shared how her art house shifted from a for-profit organization to a non-profit. Magaña said it was hard 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, she said. 

Cementing the shift to non-profit on July 1, Magaña is now looking at funding for non-profit groups to keep her organization afloat.The Pilsen Arts & Community House 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 said," If we don't have to, we shouldn't."

The Pilsen Arts & Community House 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. 

Akin to Zarai's decision, the The Pilsen Arts & Community House'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 said, "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."

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