From NBC News: It’s Friday night and time for the “marcha de cumpleaños” (birthday march) at Mi Tierra restaurant in the Chicago neighborhood of Little Village. Waiters bring cupcakes with lit, oversized sparklers, while patrons don straw hats and, paying no attention to empty tables, snake through the dining room to a Latino beat in a conga line.
“Fiesta. Happy,” is how Mi Tierra owner Ezequiel Fuentes describes the good times in culturally vibrant and economically vital Little Village — or as the community calls it, La Villita, a historic section in southwest Chicago that is billed as the Mexico of the Midwest.
But since the start of the year, fear of President Donald Trump has been spoiling the “fiesta” of Little Village, business owners and regular visitors said. Despite Chicago’s sanctuary city status, the uncertainty of when or whether immigration agents might strike is sapping the bustle from the 2½-mile stretch of quinceañera shops, restaurants, shoe and clothing stores, dental offices and other businesses that line W. 26th Street, the community’s main drive.
Locals say they see evidence that something has changed since January. Dozens of carved, brightly painted chairs and tables of Mi Tierra’s second dining room sat empty one weekend last month. Some tables in the main dining area also were unused. At lunchtime, half of the tables hid behind a partition awaiting customers.
“After the elections, everything changed,” said Fuentes, a former undocumented immigrant who now owns several restaurants in four states. “People are scared. They are scared to go out. The decrease of business (after the election) probably was 40 percent during the week, especially in the day time.”
Other business owners echo this sentiment. Vendors on the street corners complain that they no longer see the crowds walking up and down the neighborhood’s main street and lining up at their carts to buy their “elote” (Mexican grilled corn) and raspados (shaved ice sweetened with natural syrups). The usual buzz amid the selling of mariachi suits, clothing, jewelry, curios, accordions and many other goods at the Discount Mall outside Little Village’s welcoming arch is dampened.
Business leaders have been trying to tamp down the fear they think is driving the slowdown, reminding the community of Chicago’s historic sanctuary city status, and enlisting the mayor and police chief to dispel anxieties. They tell them there are no arrests going on in the neighborhood, that the Chicago police and local agencies don’t cooperate with the feds or question the immigration or citizenship status of residents because Chicago is a sanctuary city.
Exuding confidence in the city’s sanctuary status has taken on an urgency as news stories of arrests of immigrants with DACA – a type of protection from deportation – and people with immigration violations but not criminal histories fill the national news. The administration has threatened to punish cities that don’t cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“I would tell people here in La Villita to not be afraid, to get well informed, find [out] for each other if ICE is coming. Get communication through police. Come out and support our families, our businesses,” said Ezequiel Fuentes Jr., who works with his father in running their restaurants. “La Villita is a great place. We can make it even greater.”
Two days after the Mi Tierra celebration, residents came together at La Villita for a community meeting where some of the topics discussed included how to prepare for possible deportation, what rights people have if arrested and shopping local. The meeting’s title: “La Villita Se Defiende.” (“Little Village Defends Itself.”)
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