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Feature Wed Aug 18 2010

Good Deeds in The Back of the Yards


The Back of the Yards Fiesta last June. Photo courtesy of

If you haven't been to the Back of the Yards neighborhood, then you should visit it, not because it's fancy, but because it has a long history, most famously described in Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle (you can also read the entire book here), which linked the area to the grim stockyards. It's a dynamic area where various immigrants have lived, and currently houses a largely Latin American population. Most of the people are from Mexico, and many other residents are from Central America, including Honduras and Guatemala.

But the neighborhood that's been described in various books and articles throughout the years looks different today. It's not a grimy, dirty neighborhood, but has a lot
of space, wide streets, houses, and even trees. The main commercial area is 47th street, where you can go to discount food stores, chain stores, and get fast food. (The larger area is called New City, which includes Canaryville). There are a few gangs and people who are struggling to pay their bills, but it's not an entirely sad, hopeless place.

One bright spot is at the corner of South Laflin and South McDowell, angled streets that make triangles into 46th street. Rosario Ramirez lives there with her husband and two teenagers, and below their apartment is a small church called Iglesia Casa de Dios, which she and her husband lead, and where they offer free clothing and food every week. They also provide information about healthcare and support dysfunctional families.


Rosario Ramirez and her mother

Rosario came to the US just over a decade ago from Venezuela because of President Hugo Chavez.

"I don't like him. The country is very bad now," she often says.

She chose to come to Chicago because she had relatives here, and at first she lived in Humboldt Park because there were other Venezuelans there as well as Puerto Ricans.

"I thought we are all Carribean, we have similar cultures, but it was too expensive to get a house. The north side is expensive."

She moved to Back of the Yards because it was affordable, but she had no intention on getting so involved in helping the community.

"When I came here I wanted a good job, good house, good life. I only thought about me. But then people in my neighborhood kept asking me for help. And now, I feel this is my purpose on earth."

Her community involvement started in Humboldt Park, where people shared their problems with her and needed various kinds of practical help. One thing she noticed over and over again were women who were suffering from sexual abuse.

"When they cross the border, the men want money. There are people who make businesses on the border and sometimes women have to pay with sex. A lot of abuse."

By the time she moved to the Back of the Yards neighborhood, she kept noticing problems in that community, and people approached her for help there as well. So she started having people over at her apartment for Bible studies, to help them find information, or just to talk. Her apartment was big enough for her family, but not for all the people who were coming to see her, so she eventually bought the entire building, and created a food and clothing pantry and a space for worship services and Bible
studies on the first floor.

"I am Christian, but a lot of Mexicans are Catholic, but we don't care if they are not Christian. We will help anyone. Whatever their religion is. It doesn't matter."

She said that now African Americans from the 51st Street area are coming for clothing and food, which has helped her English improve. But Spanish is useful as well: their kids go to bilingual schools, so they speak Spanish with Rosario and other Latin Americans who volunteer at the pantry. Still, she feels like it is very important to learn to speak English very well, especially because she plans on going down to Springfield to get more funding.

"I need to learn better more polite English and speak for 10 minutes when I go there. That's a long time."

What started out as an informal attempt to help people she knew around the area now gets the support of various people, and she has even gotten money from various residents in the neighborhood, including two Asian neighbors.

"They see what I'm doing and give me money. They say, 'Here take it to buy things' because we have to buy the food ourselves."


The pantry line outside Iglesia Casa de Dios

Still, she welcomes food and clothing donations from anyone. Companies also donate gift cards and other items, and when Rod Blagojevich was Governor, she got funding from him as well. That is why she likes him.

"He did a lot for Latinos. Pat Quinn cut funds. He doesn't give our church anything. That is why I want to go to Springfield."

At first when she was becoming aware of how much help the community needed, she approached her 12th Ward Alderman George Cardenas, but he was too busy.

"But it is your job," she told him, and eventually he helped her out. He's also been introducing her to different politicians and other community leaders. "He is wonderful. He cares a lot about this neighborhood. He said maybe I will become Alderman and he will help me do that."

Which made me wonder if he's worried that she's going to take his job.

"That is the very far future. But I do want to be Alderman because I want the power to help a lot of people in Back of the Yards, not just in this place."

A more short-term goal is getting enough education and English ability to open up a daycare center and shelter. Basically, she wants to do as much as she can to make the area better.

"Back of the Yards is a wonderful neighborhod. But it needs more orientation on how to move forward. They have to break that curse of poverty that has been passing down from generation to generation. I would like to see prosperity not only financially but also in their homes; restored families. A lot of people here don't have education; they think about rent and food. They don't think about what else they need to have for a better life."

She likes to educate people on how to save money, which would give them a better quality of life.

"Even if they are not hungry, they can save money when they get free food and clothes. I tell them they can use that money to pay their rent, to get education, many things. Some people have new expensive cars but they can't pay their rent. Then they lose their jobs and they have a lot of problems."

Of course, she wants people to volunteer and tries to get anyone involved wherever she goes.

"When someone is depressed-- has a hard life-- if they help other people, they will feel better. I love it! It is my passion!"

If you're interested in volunteering or donating items, contact Rosario at
Iglesia Casa de Dios, 4558 S. Laflin St.,
or call 773-715-6947.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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