Nestled on the southwest side near 51st and California, the Gage Park Latinx Council’s Community Cultural Center is housed in a red brick storefront with shiny reflective windows that bear the organization’s acronym “GPLXC” in purple. The organization was founded in 2018 by Samantha Alexandra Martinez, Antonio Santos, and Katia Martinez.
Inside, accent lamps and LEDs illuminate black, pink, and beige walls. Potted plants, shelves filled with multicolored YA books, games for children, photos of community members, motivational messages, and student artwork make up the bulk of the center’s furnishings. Deeper in the space’s interior, sparkly purple tinsel curtains hang from two walls—the remnants of a Euphoria-themed Pride party organized by teens in the center at the end of “Queer Riot” last September, one of GPLXC’s summer programs for young adults.
Diego Garcia, 20, sat across from me on one of the many sleek gray couches arranged inside Gage Park’s community-led cultural center, which turned two years old last fall.
“I first entered the Gage Park Latinx Council in February of 2021. One of their organizers had asked me if I wanted to volunteer with them to distribute . . . I think it was 1,200 pounds of food on a weekly basis. And I was like, yeah, like, that’s a lot of food. You guys need help,” he said and laughed.
The space was empty besides the two of us and one other young staffer, who sat at a table in the back, working on a laptop. It’s here, sitting on the couches, where Garcia detailed how he became program manager of the five-year-old community mutual aid experiment slash nonprofit.
Garcia gestured to donated items on shelves.
“We distribute COVID tests, masks, soap, and toothbrushes because we know that these are the necessities people need on a daily basis. And also we acknowledge that the work we do is just a Band-Aid to the issues that are happening in the neighborhood but this work is still needed.”
GPLXC describes itself as a queer, femme, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and Latinx-led grassroots organization rooted in abolition and mutual aid. They provide programs that range from a culturally specific food pantry to children’s art classes, summer organizing internships, and more—all to fill the gaps in community programming and resources that they see their southwest side neighbors experiencing.
Garcia smiles a lot when he talks and speaks about his history of Gage Park organizing, as if it were just another after-school extracurricular that a kid might fall into, like basketball or clarinet.
“I started organizing when I was 16 years old” out of a church, he said. “That was the only space I had. So we would register people to vote.”
When Garcia realized there wasn’t a safe space for youth like himself to congregate, he volunteered at Immaculate Conception Church, sweeping the floor to pass the time. Soon he started meeting other young folks in the church, and they would organize fundraisers for victims of violence. One time they raised $6,000 in a day for a five-year-old.
By 2020, Garcia and GPLXC’s small team were already collaborating before he was a bona fide member. They organized a march of over 3,000 people for Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020 by hanging a few flyers and posting online. Local artists and activists flooded the streets with them, and a Black-owned vegan restaurant from Little Village started distributing free food.
Garcia started helping GPLXC run its weekly food market not too long afterward. “I just showed up, and I volunteered for a couple of weeks. And that’s when they opened their arms to me.”
Gage Park sits in the middle of Brighton Park, Back of the Yards, and West Lawn. Its population is just shy of 40,000 residents and is primarily made up of Mexican American working-class families living in multigenerational homes (mostly bungalows). The neighborhood’s restaurants, auto shops, hair salons, government services, pharmacies, and other businesses are concentrated along 51st from Kedzie to Western and Kedzie between 51st and 59th.
Gage Park has been heavily Catholic for about the last century, when, in the 1920s, the neighborhood attracted Anglo-Slavic immigrants enticed by the southwest side’s several newly established national Roman Catholic churches. The land is also surrounded by three railroads, so bustling businesses like World’s Finest Chocolate, the Royal Bottling Company, and Central Steel and Wire Company settled in the area, attracted by the nearby transportation. But in 1966, Gage Park made national headlines as part of the first open housing experiment for Black residents when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march from Gage Park High School to Marquette Park for integration.
White residents and visitors attacked the march, throwing rocks and bottles and spitting on marchers. In the months after, the American Nazi Party organized a series of protests and a “white people’s march.” As white flight spread in the 1960s and 70s, the neighborhood’s middle-class—predominantly made of European immigrants from Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and Ireland—transitioned to 91 percent Latinx and working-class, and today it is the second largest Latinx neighborhood in Chicago outside of Little Village.
Despite feeling gratitude that integration allowed Mexican immigrants to make a home in the area, the organizers running GPLXC said that they still lived in the shadows of the white Europeans who built Gage Park and then fled.
“[We saw] that when white people left, resources also left,” Martinez said
Gage Park is rich in public and charter schools, but their scarce public amenities otherwise reflect the level of divestment locally.
“The Gage Park Field House is a big building that could potentially be a community center. But it’s not; it looks quite abandoned,” Martinez said. The fieldhouse used to house the Chicago Public Library, but the library was downsized to a small storefront in the 90s when the neighborhood transitioned to mostly Black and Brown. “We’ve gone inside that building, it’s pretty deteriorated,” Martinez said “Our park is also very deteriorated.”
On Western, she continued, there’s a government agency where WIC and SNAP recipients go for food support. “But every time I pass outside during the summers, there’s a long line of people just waiting there.”
The past two decades of Chicago news headlines about the neighborhood detail shootings and intermittent gang violence. Today, many residents of the southwest side face food insecurity, gun violence, and negative health effects from nearby factory pollution.
GPLXC originated in 2018 when a group of youth who grew up in the neighborhood organized art and literacy programs in the Gage Park Library after it went without a children’s librarian for five years.
“I grew up in this neighborhood, and one of the few things we could do for free, coming from like a single mom household, was going to the library and storytime, games and all that,” Santos said. “That disappeared for many years.”
The group started occupying space at Gage Park Library and led art projects for youth aged six through 12 rooted in social justice or Latinx identity and culture, and spaces quickly filled. “We had 70 youth consistently showing up to a small storefront.”
And that’s where it all started, Santos said. From there, they grew and started to see more in their community, particularly about how city resources are unfairly distributed.
Take their mercadito, for example. In 2020, some people from outside the community did weekly food pantry pop-ups for a couple months and then stopped when government funding ran out. But the pop-ups had already become a food source community members relied upon, 51 percent of who live below the poverty level. “People are still hungry. People have always been struggling to access food,” Santos said.
The organizers connected with Grocery Run Club, a community-driven fresh produce initiative, soon after the funding ran out. They started receiving 50 boxes of food weekly in a local parking lot. As of fall 2022, Grocery Run Club has provided 200 boxes of food weekly for GPLXC to distribute. GPLXC expanded their partnership to include the Pilsen Food Pantry and even secured a $25,000 grant for the market. They used the money to purchase groceries directly from a neighborhood mom-and-pop grocery store, making sure fresh items like tortillas and vegetables are available every week. GPLXC has distributed food to over 20,000 families in the past three years.
Now, their goal with the program is to help the community create local systems of food.
“So it started off as like, ‘Oh, cool, we don’t have a children’s librarian,’” Santos said. “And then it was like, ‘Oh, we also don’t have a food pantry. We also don’t have a queer space. We also don’t have art programming. We also don’t have X, Y, and Z.’ And that’s how our programming developed pretty organically into what it is today.”
The sheer scope of programs GPLXC offers is a reflection of how dynamic the space is. Martinez said that when it comes to stories of violence and other difficulties faced by those on the southwest side, they generally aren’t told by the residents who live there. So Martinez wanted the center to be a space where community members could articulate new narratives, educate their community, and facilitate self-expression.
When formal government entities provide community services, it’s usually more of a transactional experience than a relationship. The patron arrives seeking a specific type of support, and if they meet certain criteria set by the agency then they’re granted it. GPLXC did not want to replicate that sterile experience of receiving aid and has made a point to invest in neighborhood relationships and demonstrate community consistency.
The center’s annual summer art club serves middle schoolers and brings in local artists from similar cultural backgrounds and distinct artistic mediums (like screen printing or sculpting) to introduce students to another way of thinking about themselves and the world. “[We] not only do art as a way to learn about art and be artists, but also as a way to process emotion, to process some of the grief and some of the pain that might have come up from the pandemic,” Martinez said.
For a while, GPLXC also ran a mural project with local teens and young adults. Gage Park is very industrial and, because of it, giant gray buildings dominate the skyline and take up space that might otherwise be used for public expression. GPLXC leveraged their power as an organization to convince business owners to trust them and their students with public walls and space. Because of that, the group has painted ten murals over the past two years in their community.
The mural project beautified the neighborhood and let young residents assert their cultural and queer pride locally with vibrant colors and political messages.
Another program of theirs called Documentografia runs in partnership with the Chicago History Museum, where ten young people come in every summer to learn photography skills and capture their community through their eyes, all to be archived at the museum.
This program started when the museum was “called out” by Gage Park youth for not having any Latinx representation in the museum’s neighborhood archives, only records of theEuropean immigrants who were there before, or records about the violence against Black people. There weren’t stories about Black and Latinx families currently living there.
“[So we said,] We’re gonna capture our own images,” Santos said. “We’re gonna do our own oral histories, we’re gonna ask our own grandparents to sit down and have the oral history recorded so that we can get these stories collected. Because obviously, the museum hasn’t been doing that for the last 50 years.”
The young adults have documented things like young queer friends in love. Santos points out that while we all have access to a lot of cultural images of white, heterosexual, cisgender teen romance, the moment that gaze is focused on a Black or Brown queer youth, the topic is shrouded in more mystery, and images of it aren’t as readily available in their young people’s communities.
In GPLXC’s Queer Riot summer internship program, teens spend a few weeks learning about Black and Brown queer history in Chicago. During the latter half of the program, they’re given a budget to throw whatever event or organize any action that moves them.
Last year, the group held a sex education program for high schoolers in partnership with University of Chicago medical students from the Latinx association.
The organizers also coordinate regular all-ages family occasions like board game nights, slime parties, art markets, and other well-attended family-friendly events.
Although space is limited for each of these events, the siblings of any student who participates in a program will automatically be invited to enroll.
Santos feels that their model of sharing public history and education on queerness and more is slowly radicalizing their community.
“The 55-year-old grandmother coming into the food pantry sees our Pride flag on top of the building and sees the ‘defund the police’ sign in the window and is forced to kind of come face to face with these things that are oftentimes propaganda,” he said. “And the way that these things are taught to our communities . . . there’s a lot of communal unlearning that we’re trying to do.”
The organizers say Gage Park’s families have been more than receptive. The center has a good reputation among young people because of how they prioritize giving young people autonomy and power; so youth essentially recruit themselves by word of mouth. Youth often reach out to the center on their own to inquire about what programs are available. Once they release an application for any program, they have no trouble filling up those spots.
Not everyone in the programs is from Gage Park; they draw participants from all across the southwest side: from Englewood, West Lawn, Back of the Yards, and Brighton Park.
The group was introduced to grant writing in their second year, and the center is run by four full-time staff members, a local contracted photographer, contracted artists, college interns, and community partners. They pride themselves on catering to such a wide age range of folks.
The youngest person they served was a three-year-old who attended their art program. During different workshops or the weekly market, grandparents come out to receive food.
“I think that’s something super beautiful that I haven’t seen any other organization do in the southwest side,” Garcia said.
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