A Latina mother’s resilience shines through gentrification at Little Village Discount Mall: ‘We are still open’

Alondra M. Castañeda, La DePaulia

The floor-to-ceiling Mexican flag that once adorned the exterior of the once emblematic Little Village Discount Mall in Chicago’s Southwest Side neighborhood is no longer there. There are fewer street vendors selling corn, fresh water and cotton candy outside of the plaza that now sports an industrial gray and yellow look.

Inside the mall – now half the size it used to be- rows of intricately woven children’s clothing and traditional religious accessories adorn the small store that Bertha Veronica Ramirez owns. 

 She named it ‘Vero’s Kids and Hulama,’ which includes her name and the name of her husband’s store. They wanted to honor their dreams and accomplishments when they opened it 26 years ago. 

“Puede ver sin compromiso amiga, tenemos todo tipo de vestimentos para sus fiestas y comuniones,” Ramirez tells people as they walk by, inviting them to take a look at the merchandise “for your parties and communions.” 

Today, she still patiently waits for customers to come into the store while overlooking the endless rows of clothes and a close replica of tianguis, a street market in Mexico.  

Except, it’s more quiet now. There are much fewer stores and less clientele. 

Despite the changes to the mall that forced many immigrant business owners out over the past year when the new owners announced inevitable renovations -and with that higher rents, she opted to keep her store open.  

For her, this resilience meant honoring the dream that led her to become a woman entrepreneur and her commitment as a mother, she said.  

Ramirez, 47, moved to Chicago from her childhood home in Guanajuato, Mexico at the age of 18.  

“I came with lots of hopes and dreams when I left my country to come and work, and that’s what motivated me to have my own business,” Ramirez said. 

But the changes to the mall and the plaza surrounding it in Little Village, she said, have been drastic. 

Sometimes heavy and even heartbreaking. 

She recalled the weekends when the rows inside the mall were full of shoppers and their chatter intertwined with Mexican music playing in the background. 

That all began to change in 2020 when Novak Construction announced that it bought The Little Village Plaza, the shopping center adjacent to the arch that often characterizes the Mexican community in Chicago.  

For nearly three years, immigrant business owners and community activists fought to preserve the mall and other businesses at the plaza, but their efforts failed.  

In March 2023, nearly 50 vendors were forced to vacate their shops for renovations to begin. More than 60 vendors, including Ramirez, managed to stay, according to reports.  

That’s because the mall was divided into two parts and managed by two leasing companies. Only one of them agreed to the new owner’s deal upon renovations. 

PK Mall was the leasing company that did not renew its contract with Novak. Pilsen Plaza Corp., owned by Kyunhee Park, signed a new 10-year lease with Novak to continue renting space to vendors that operate at the mall. 

However, the new deal meant higher rents and smaller rental spaces for the vendors.

Bertha Veronica Ramirez stands proudly next to her merchandise at her shop Vero’s Kids and Hulama on February 4, 2024. She maintained a smile, hopeful that customers will stop by. (Alondra M. Castañeda)

Ramirez’s store was located inside the part of the mall that was demolished but found a way to stay.  When she moved her store to the remaining mall space, she had to go from 40-square-feet to only 20-square-feet.  

The gentrification of the mall and the loss of space have caused her to lose customers and money, she said. 

In recent months, she said she had to lay off two of her sales associates because sales were low. Her husband Armando Porras, who also manages a soccer merchandise store inside the mall, has the help of only one sales associate. 

That means that the two work seven days a week away from their children. 

“It saddens me to leave all four of my children at home and not be able to provide them with my undivided attention, all while trying to stay on top of my business,” says Ramirez. “Thank God I’ve had the support of my sisters and family members who have encouraged me to pursue my entrepreneurship dreams.” 

This is the reality for several immigrant-working mothers all over the United States. The 2021 Center for American Progress report about immigrant women in the workforce explores how their participation is essential for the livelihood and well-being of their families. 

The report also shows that 33.6 percent of immigrant mothers are the primary breadwinners for their families, either as single working mothers or as married women who earn as much or more than their husbands. This number jumps to 36.3 percent for Latina immigrant mothers like Ramirez. 

Despite these challenges that Ramirez has faced over the past years, she encourages women to step into entrepreneurship.

“Entrepreneurship and working hard is beautiful, especially being able to spend your own money,” Ramirez said. “Whether you’re in this country or wherever you’re at, women must work hard to not depend on anyone.”

Some of her customers appreciate Ramirez’s amiability and resiliency to keep the store open. 

Alma Ramirez has been going to the store since 2004 when she became a Godmother and baptized several family and friends’ children.

“Bertha Veronica has a way of tending to her customers in such an amicable way. That’s why I love her service and continue returning to her store,” Alma Ramirez said. 

While Ramirez eagerly waits for customers to drop by, she fluffs out her shop’s dresses and dust off the white bibles and candles inside boxes. 

She remains filled with hope.

Cover Photo: Marta Veronica Ramirez hangs a dress in her shop Vero’s Kids and Hulama on Feb. 4, 2024. Ramirez has seen a decease in clients after gentrification renovations at the Little Village Discount Mall. (Credit: Alondra M. Castañeda)

Publisher’s Notes: “Afro-Latines in Chicago Carry on Indigenous Roots through music and fashion” was first published on The DePaulia. To read the story in Spanish, click HERE.

Illinois Latino News (ILLN) and La DePaulia are partners in best serving the Hispanic-Latino community.

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