When driving down Southwest Chicago’s West 26th street, both drivers and pedestrians are suddenly met with a massive archway that reads “Bienvenidos a Little Village.” This grand entrance proudly holds two Mexican flags and is garnished with remnants of left over tinsel from the most recent neighborhood parade.
The corner of 26th and Kedzie makes visitors feel as though they walking the streets of a typical Mexican neighborhood. It’s filled with family owned bakeries baking fresh conchas, a multitude of clothing stores, and small cafes that line the streets. However, this collection of storefronts is not a district of Mexico City, but rather southwest Chicago’s largest Mexican-American neighborhood.
Little Village is an entryway into an entirely different culture, and the storefronts that line the main roads serve as an epicenter for consumerism. Nearly 500 businesses occupy the 2-mile stretch of West 26th street, but only one of these businesses is known for being the largest and most popular Mexican markets in the Midwest.
Nestled in between a Walgreens and a flashing sign that reads “Taqueria El Arco” lies the jewel of Little Village: a massive set of gray buildings that are known to many simply as the “Discount Mall.”
The Discount Mall is truly a hidden gem within the Chicagoland area, and carriers a multitude of discounted treasures from religious statuettes to perfumes and even tiny first communion dresses. On the surface, Little Village’s prized Discount Mall seems like nothing more than a chaotic variety store. However, this single building is one of the most popular destinations for Mexican-Americans in the Midwest.
The interior of this shopping center is a series of winding walkways that visually overwhelm shoppers with walls of high-heeled stilettos, sporting gear, and even musical instruments. Located between the clouds of white quinceanera dresses and mounds of plastic childrens’ toys, narrow walkways help to guide shoppers through the twists and turns of this massive shopping mall. At the end of a long hallway, a massive red macaw stands tall while perched on a branch. This pet store is selling the exotic bird for over two thousand dollars, and is just one example of the curious crafts and creatures that are sold daily at the Discount Mall. With such an unusual assortment of products, business within this shopping center is somewhat unpredictable.
Daniela Salgado is an employee at one of the many beauty kiosks inside of Little Village’s Discount Mall. She offers a perfume sample to the shoppers who walk past by storefront, but most people decline Salgado’s offer without any acknowledgment. A young boy sits on a tiny chair behind the counter, tapping feverishly on an iPad.
When asked how long she has been working at the Discount Mall, Salgado gave an exasperated chuckle and replied with, “forever.” In reality, Salgado has been an employee for over five years.
According to Salgado, the cold weather has made business dull. “Business is slow right now,” said Salgado. “The mall gets busy around summertime, since nobody wants to step outside during winter.”
As explained by Salgado, the Discount Mall experiences an increase in foot traffic on weekends, specifically in the mornings and afternoons. She’s right—on a Tuesday evening, the empty corridors and hushed conversation between shopkeepers gives the mall a somewhat eerie character. Regardless of the quiet weekdays, the vendors of Little Village’s Discount Mall continue to be a major retailer for consumers in Chicago.
Alondra Garcia is a 5-year employee of the Discount Mall. Although she agreed with Salgado’s statements on how slow business is on weekdays, she shared some larger concerns for the future of her kiosk.
“Business is really declining because of Walmart and Amazon,” said Garcia. “There’s a Walmart five minutes away from here. Why go to a Discount Mall when you can get everything there or online for cheaper?”
Garcia’s concerns are legitimate, but local businesses throughout Little Village are intent on keeping their doors open with the help of local organizations. According to managing director of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce Blanca R. Soto, restaurants, bakeries, clothing shops and grocery stores are most of the businesses seen throughout Little Village.
“About half of the businesses in Little Village are family owned” said Soto. “Most of them have been here for over 15 to 20 years.” Soto herself is a 43 year resident of Little Village.
The area of Little Village reports that over 900 million dollars is being spent annually by consumers within the 2-mile stretch of 26th street. Soto credits this success to the feelings of nostalgia that often surround the Mexican market.
“Little Village is often called ‘The Mexico of Chicago,’” said Soto. “People are able to buy products that remind them of their own countries.”
Small businesses are crucial to the cultural and economic wellbeing of Little Village. In order to help keep these storefronts open, the Little Village Chamber of Commerce offers plenty of resources to assist entrepreneurs and local businesses.
“High rent often forces businesses in other parts of Chicago to close,” said Soto. “The Little Village chamber of commerce works to supply local businesses with the resources that they need to stay open.”
By offering assistance to local businesses, the Chamber of Commerce has experienced long-term success in keeping storefronts open, as most of the shops along 26th street have been open for more than 15 years.
Supporting the local businesses throughout Little Village plays an essential role in maintaining a strong neighborhood identity. Mexican-Americans seek the comfort of home, and the culture that they often have to leave in their home countries. Being able to purchase Mexican crafts and foods while supporting Hispanic business owners is not only important to the preservation of Little Village, but rather to a greater Mexican-American culture.