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Gage Park Latinx Council brings care, healing to hard-hit community

From weekly food distribution to creating public green spaces on the Southwest Side, the council has helped its community and helped their neighbors help each other during the pandemic.

Samantha Martinez, family outreach director and co-founder, left and Antonio Santos, executive director and co-founder, stand together inside the Gage Park Latinx Council’s Cultural Center, Wednesday, March 17, 2021.
Samantha Martinez, family outreach director and co-founder, left and Antonio Santos, executive director and co-founder, stand together inside the Gage Park Latinx Council’s Cultural Center, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Over the past year, Gage Park has topped the charts when it comes to COVID-19 cases and positivity rates — not just in Chicago but across the state.

Even worse, a lack of health care infrastructure and resources on the Southwest Side left many Gage Park residents on their own.

That’s when the Gage Park Latinx Council decided it had to do something.

The grassroots organization was formed three years ago to address systemic issues facing the Gage Park community. Last year, it finished converting a vacant storefront at 2711 W. 51st St. into a new cultural center to better serve the neighborhood. With the pandemic, the council pivoted to deal with different challenges, finding a way to help Gage Park residents help each other, said Antonio Santos, co-founder and executive director.

One in seven people in Gage Park has tested positive for COVID-19. Positivity rates in the 60629 and 60632 ZIP codes, which include Gage Park, have recently been as high as 7%; the citywide average is at 5.4%.

The council recently partnered with Esperanza Health Centers to open a vaccination site in Gage Park, and Santos said the group has helped hundreds of residents sign up for appointments.

Given that 92% of the neighborhood’s population identify as Hispanic or Latino, Santos said the council, run by longtime Latino residents of Gage Park and Chicago’s Southwest Side, has become an important unifier amid the grief and loss.

“For us, community care and mutual aid means using our strengths and our identities to guide the work and trusting the folks whom we serve,” Santos said. “All of us involved in this organization are young people that grew up and still live in this community.”

Over half of Gage Park residents live at or below the poverty line. Food insecurity has always been an issue for the neighborhood, Santos said, and the pandemic has only exacerbated that situation.

That’s one reason the cultural center opened a free community market, the “mercadito,” with stacks of fresh fruit, jars of peanut butter, displays of toiletries and other items. Arriving customers are handed a red tote bag and urged to take whatever they need.

Diego Garcia restocks a food shelf for individuals in the community to come and take, at the Gage Park Latinx Council’s Cultural Center, Wednesday, March 17, 2021.
Diego Garcia restocks a food shelf for individuals in the community to come and take, at the Gage Park Latinx Council’s Cultural Center, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Neighborhood families also can enroll their children in the council’s summer art club or sign up for year-round programming.

“We have a unique understanding of the families that we’re serving because many of us are those families,” Santos said.

Samantha Martinez, the council’s co-founder and family outreach director, arrived in Gage Park over 10 years ago with her family. As Spanish speakers and immigrants, she said her own family didn’t know where to go for support. Now, the council tries to fill that void for others.

The council started distributing grocery boxes last year in parking lots, Martinez said. Food distribution now is done through the mercadito. Each week, 70 to 100 families visit, she said; many are regulars.

“We all grew up in Gage Park, and our parents didn’t necessarily have that support,” Martinez said. “It’s wonderful to see that there is now a Gage Park where our community can be cared for and supported.”

Planting seeds in the next generation

The council recently launched a youth co-op program, Reclaiming our Roots, to create green spaces on the Southwest Side. A handful of young Gage Park residents work in a community garden and study the effect of environmental racism on the neighborhood.

The garden is in what used to be a vacant lot a few blocks from the council’s cultural center. Gage Park resident Alberto Rodriguez, now the council’s eco-coordinator, connected with Martinez last year as he began to drum up the idea of growing a community garden in the neighborhood.

To regenerate the land so it could be cultivated again, they covered the plot in shredded cardboard and mulch and built two garden beds and a compost bin. They continue to collect extra resources like sticks and compost material, which sometimes includes scraps from the mercadito.

Alberto Rodriguez stands at the community garden organized with the Gage Park Latinx Council.
Alberto Rodriguez stands at the community garden organized with the Gage Park Latinx Council, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Rodriguez comes from a long line of farmers in Mexico. When his father lived in Mexico, he and his family cultivated food to make a living. Even though Rodriguez was born in the United States and lives in an urban area, he said working with the land is in his DNA.

“Gardening shifted the way I see life,” Rodriguez said.

Santos said he’s excited for the garden to start giving back to the community. Produce could go to the mercadito, and co-op members learn not just about sustainable practices but also about food access and racial inequity, he said.

“Why are there so many abandoned lots in our community that sit vacant for years?” Santos asked. “Now, in the time of COVID, people are really looking for outdoor spaces to connect with the community. [Reclaiming our Roots] allows these youths who have been virtual learning for a year to get outside and work with the land.”

As Gage Park residents get vaccinated, Rodriguez said they hope to slowly open the community garden, allowing more residents to gather at the garden’s fire pit to share their stories.

There’s still room to grow, Rodriguez said, in imagining ways to connect through these rare public green spaces. But for now, they said the Reclaiming our Roots initiative is a small glimpse of what healing a community can look like in Gage Park.

“This space has allowed me to orient myself in my identity and helped me teach and meet other folks who are interested in reclaiming this part of our culture,” Rodriguez said.

Alberto Rodriguez digs away dirt and leaves on a compost pile to add rotting vegetables and fruits to it at a community garden organized.
Alberto Rodriguez digs away dirt and leaves on a compost pile to add rotting vegetables and fruits to it at a community garden, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. Behind him lies a fire pit encircled by logs where members gather together. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times