You hear a lot of things on 43rd and Cottage Grove. There’s the whizz of the CTA bus hydraulics, the cheery giggles of toddlers entering day care, the sound of elders using walkers to access the dialysis center. But last week something new added to the corner cacophony: the wafting wail of a classic love song by Puerto Rican salsa singer Eddie Santiago.
The music poured out of Maracas Restaurant whenever a customer went inside. Eventually even the guys from across the street came over to figure out who was playing “Spanish music” in a decidedly African-American neighborhood.
Blame it on Raquel Dailey-Parham. She’s the restaurant owner and one half of the brains behind blogger platform BoriquaChicks.com. She’s also Puerto Rican. And black.
“My father’s people lived in Ida B. Wells (public housing,) which is closed now, but near here,” says Dailey-Parham, whose restaurant borrows heavily from her mom’s recipes. “My mother is from Puerto Rico. I grew up in two cultures.”
And she embraces both. That’s why, though Puerto Rican restaurants tend to cluster in Humboldt Park, she’s taking a gamble on Bronzeville and on the strength of Chicago’s “hidden” diversity. She’s counting on the larger black community’s familiarity with Caribbean food and is banking on the fact that many black Chicagoans have Latino roots.
“More slavery came to Latin America than the United States,” notes her sister, Rebecca Dailey-Wooley, “The black diaspora is larger than people think.”
It’s difficult to measure the numbers of black Chicagoans with Latino roots, mostly because the U.S. Census, according to critics, does not adequately allow for Hispanics to fully identify heritage. “Afro-Latino” culture is not new, but in historically segregated Chicago, the idea of being black and Latino could be news to some, That’s changing in part due to social media and how the Boriqua chicks and others, such as the actress Zoe Saldana (who is Dominican and Puerto Rican) are emphasizing their roots.
Racial identification is tricky when it comes to native Spanish speakers, but according to the 2008-12 Puerto Rican Community Survey, about 70 percent of the island’s population self-identifies as white, 8 percent embrace black and the rest are of “some other race” or of “two or more races.”
“These last affirmations, to me, speak of the continuum between being ‘white’ and ‘black’ without of course forgetting of our indigenous or Taino blood,” says Ivis Garcia Zambrana, a University of Illinois researcher who helped produce the 2012 Chicago study “The Puerto Rican Agenda.”
“There’s not a lot of recognition of [Afro-Latino lifestyle and self identity] in academia, although it’s definitely emerging and more people are trying to study this subset. That said, Chicago’s Puerto Rican population is dispersing and having a restaurant on the South Side makes complete sense. I can see the synergy.”
Menu items at 4317 S. Cottage Grove range from homemade chuleta dishes (marinated pork) to plain old chicken wings doused in mango sauce. It’s about $8 for dishes that include rice and beans and are cooked to order. It’s a welcome addition to the limited casual restaurant options in Bronzeville. The restaurant features colorful paintings by local artists and employs local teens.
Dailey-Parham, 35, in 2009 left her job at Shoop School to have her children and work on her business plan. Her mom, Eva Quinones-Dailey, was one of the city’s first bilingual teachers.
Last week’s grand opening looked like something out of the United Nations. Every skin color was represented. And perhaps that’s a good portent — and business model.
“I’ve been waiting for it to open,” said Yelitza Rivera, 26, an Americorps tutor who lives in the Back of the Yards but works across the street at a community center. Rivera’s heritage is Mexican. “We needed something else here. Somewhere else to eat.”
Teacher Christina Bradley, 35, who is black, said, “I wanted to check it out, and try some different food. So I tried a steak sandwich because that’s what I know, and I also tried the empanadas. Every time I come I’ll try something different.”
And breaking bread together is oft the best way to bridge gaps.
It’s about educating and exposing people because there are people out there who are like us,” Dailey-Parham says. “This restaurant has been quite the journey.”