Board Chair Mario Treto Jr. Reflects on His Childhood Neighborhood, Chicago’s Little Village

Returning is always bittersweet, but more so in the age of COVID-19.

The La Villita neighborhood of my childhood memories was a vibrant, gritty place of crowded stores along 26th Street and churches full of parishioners on Sundays.  Extended families commonly shared cramped quarters to help make ends meet.  Street gangs patrolled the neighborhood as often as police, inspiring the same mixture of fear and respect.

As a toddler, our building’s stoop doubled as my playground under mom’s watchful eye.  My passion for persuasion likely started on our trips to the corner store, where I often nagged enough to leave with a 50-cent trinket.

Though I have visited hundreds of times since my family moved from the neighborhood, my recent trip was like no other.  I felt the haunting vibe of a community pushed to the brink.

I spoke to dozens of neighbors recently at the Covid Community Care station sponsored by Project Vida and Howard Brown Health in the heart of the neighborhood.  People spoke of their fears of exposure to coronavirus from close working conditions in factories and food processing plants.  Others held jobs as essential workers cleaning hospitals, delivering supplies, and preparing meals.  Entire families – with one or more nursing flu-like symptoms–lined up for testing.  Nearly everyone knew of someone infected, including accounts of Covid-related deaths. 

Cases of coronavirus in La Villita have skyrocketed, contributing to Latinx people having the highest rate of infection of any other racial/ethnic group in Illinois.  According to state officials, nearly 28,592 cases of COVID-19 were reported among Latinx people as of May 18.  Latinx people accounted for 29.6% of the state’s 96,485 reported cases but comprised just 17% of the state’s population.  By way of comparison, Illinois’s population is 14% African American and 60% White.

The health scare compounds a mountain of grief and oppression caused by federal immigrant policy. People here despair for their family members stopped at the border, some still in detention centers.  For others, earning a living had become harder without documentation. In 2019, neighbors reported sightings and arrests at the hands of federal immigration officials.  Despite the City of Chicago’s efforts to extend sanctuary to its immigrant residents, xenophobia and anti-Latino sentiments are impossible to ignore. 

The boarded stores and empty streets mask growing anxieties for many families left without income or prospects to earn a meager living. Federal stimulus assistance will not reach many of these households.  Places like Project Vida and other neighborhood organizations will need all the help they can get feeding neighbors and helping families survive. 

As a proud Mexican-American, I know my people to be strong, hard-working and resilient, and yet this most recent setback has me worried.  For our community already under siege, the compounding hardships created by the coronavirus may be too severe to overcome.  Without concerted assistance directed to Latinx communities – addressing the medical, public health, income, food, safety, and other basics needs – the pandemic will continue to thrive.

Mario Treto, Jr., Esq. serves as the Director of Real Estate for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. He is also Chair of the Board of Directors for Howard Brown Health.


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