Toy drive with a twist in Little Village: Kids get vouchers for Discount Mall vendors

The Una Buenanoche toy drive, scheduled 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, will give 500 children $20 vouchers.

SHARE Toy drive with a twist in Little Village: Kids get vouchers for Discount Mall vendors
A family from St. Louis browses Agus Landa’s toy shop in the iconic Discount Mall, in the Little Village neighborhood.

A family from St. Louis browses Agus Landa’s toy shop in the iconic Discount Mall, in the Little Village neighborhood.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

At a mini-mall where kids have long scoured for toys — a mall whose tenants are bracing for what could be its last Christmas — a nonprofit is trying to help kids and drive traffic at the same time.

Urban Warriors is funding $20 vouchers for 500 children to spend at participating Discount Mall vendors.

The event, called Una Nochebuena, is planned for Thursday at the mall at 26th Street and Albany Avenue in Little Village. It will run from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. The vouchers will go to the first 500 kids to arrive and are good at 10 vendors.

Rey Raigoza, a co-founder of Urban Warriors, chose the mall for its significance in the community. Since opening in 1991, its lively warren of shops, near the “Bienvenidos a Little Village” arch, has become a destination for Mexican and Latino shoppers around Chicago.

Vendors, however, are preparing for the worst, with the mall’s lease set to expire next month. The property’s owner, John Novak, has revealed few concrete details about the future of the mall or the larger, 6-acre Little Village Plaza where it is located. Novak bought it in 2019.

Ernesto Gonzalez (left) and Rey Raigoza are co-founders of Urban Warriors.

Ernesto Gonzalez (left) and Rey Raigoza are co-founders of Urban Warriors, which is handing out vouchers to children Thursday. The $20 vouchers can be spent at participating vendors inside Discount Mall, in the Little Village neighborhood.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Raigoza, who picked out toys at the mall while growing up in Little Village, particularly wanted to highlight the role small businesses play in the neighborhood. “Small businesses are critical to a community, to a neighborhood, you see the culture of the community,” said Raigoza, 32.

This is the organization’s second year organizing the toy drive, although twice as many vouchers are being handed out this year.

Roberto Sotelo and Agus Landa, owners of a toy shop, were one of three vendors participating last year. Business has been slow lately because of inflation, they said, but they hope their Cocomelon and Roblox toys will fly off the stands come Thursday.

“This is great so that the kids don’t have to go without a gift, and the parents don’t have to go without being able to get their kids a toy,” Landa said.

Agus Landa at her toy shop at the Discount Mall in Little Village.

Agus Landa at her toy shop at the Discount Mall in Little Village.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Armando Porras, the owner of a soccer jersey shop, has done well with the World Cup but wanted to help bring attention to the place where he and his wife, a dress seller, have worked for 25 years. “Right in the middle of the Mexican neighborhood, this is a historic place,” Porras said.

Others at the mall echoed his sentiments. Marta Torres, a manager at the mall who’s worked there since its opening, hopes the new owner will appreciate the community’s strong support for the mall. “We’re good people, we just want to be considered.”

The Santa Claus on hand will be state Rep. Edgar Gonzalez, whose 21st District includes the mall.

“It holds a special place in my heart,” said Gonzalez, who went there for holidays while growing up.

More than the toys, the temporary Santa said the event was a chance to instill an ethos of supporting small businesses among the kids and reminding the plaza’s owner that the vendors hope to be included in whatever’s next for the property.

“It’s about making sure Novak is keeping people up to date,” he said.

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

Juan Zarate (left) and daughter Sofia Zarate in their pet store at Discount Mall.

Juan Zarate (left) and daughter Sofia Zarate in their pet store at Discount Mall.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

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