Barista Magazine

APR-MAY 2019

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YOU KNOW THAT FEELING when you walk into a new space and it feels … sterile? Like it hasn't been lived in, and lacks personality? Back of the Yards Coffee Co., a shop the owners named for their beloved neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, doesn't have that problem. Though it's only been open a year, the space has life to it—it buzzes as an environment that neighbors, school kids, professionals, and coffee nerds who've come to see what the excitement's about, actually use and engage with. That's hardly by accident: Co-owners Mayra Hernandez, 31, and Jesse Iñiguez, 37, say their whole reason for opening Back of the Yards was to pay homage to and help the scrappy, often misunderstood neighborhood they grew up in, thrive. Just below the register is a bookshelf full of children's lit. ("We do a monthly storytelling event," Mayra says.) One wall showcases art from local craftspeople, many of them students in the high school across the street. Another wall is a community board where patrons can post their events or advertise services. These features—the ones that have almost universally been ripped out of most modern coffee shops in favor of sleek lines and clean surfaces—defi ne and differen- tiate what Mayra and Jesse are trying to do: Create a space that is uniquely for and in service to their local community. The story of Mayra and Jesse starts with the story of this neighbor- hood in southwest Chicago. Author Upton Sinclair made the zip code famous with his book The Jungle, which detailed the conditions that many immigrant families faced in the early 1900s working in meat- packing plants. The name "Back of the Yards" refers to the area's location behind the Chicago stock yards, which has been an immigrant enclave since the late 19th century. "First it was Irish and German immigrants, and then it was Eastern Europeans, and now it's Mexican families," Jesse says. Back of the Yards is a precinct rich in history: Along with being immortalized by Upton Sinclair, the neighborhood is cited in Jane Ja- cobs' book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and histori- an Studs Terkel called the territory home, bringing along the tradition of storytelling and oral history. "You know, this is the birthplace of modern-day organizing," Jesse says, citing the neighborhood's history of activism. Noted community organizer Saul Alinsky worked in Back of the Yards to give residents the tools necessary to advocate for themselves and demand better neighborhood conditions. Community organizing is how Mayra and Jesse met when she was 12 and he was 18—they were both members of their church's youth group and were placed in a mariachi band. "We were infl uenced by a priest [Bruce Wellems] and a nun [Sister Angie Kolacinski] that were progressive and took care of our youth," Jesse says, noting that the unemployment rate for young people in the neighborhood is almost 50 percent. "Seeing other mentors engage with us was inspiring," Mayra says. "Living in a very under-resourced community, they've taught us and many from our generation how to fi nd resources and how to create initiatives to help our communities." Mayra left the neighborhood in her teens, which followed a doc- trine they heard growing up: Moving on from Back of the Yards was thought to be the key to a better life. "The idea was always to leave the neighborhood," Jesse says. He didn't really think about what that meant until he was older. As for Mayra, she felt ill at ease in her new community—her par- ents moved the family to West Elsdon, a Chicago neighborhood bor- dering Midway Airport. "I could see the airport parking garage from my room. I was in the middle of fourth grade when my parents made the move. Their reason for moving: to get me and my little brother to a better school and to avoid the violence in Back of the Yards. There were a lot of fi ghts happening after school, and the last straw for my parents was when a stray bullet hit one of windows of the school we attended," Mayra says. "For the 10 or 15 years I was out of Back of the Yards, I never felt like I was in my place." Her family would drive to the old neighborhood on weekends for church, and it was in those moments when she felt truly at home. "I always wondered when people left the neighborhood how they imagined the community would get better." Neighborhood fl ight is hardly a new concept in Back of the Yards. In 1940, there were roughly 80,000 residents, and half that by 2015. Mayra and Jesse, however, cite local community leaders as a driving force behind their desire to reinvest in their childhood block. "Our mentors put that responsibility in us," Jesse shares, noting that it took going to college and learning more about his history before he realized his place in the community. "I can be that leader now. I can be success- ful and not leave the neighborhood." College was a transformative time for Jesse, who attended the Uni- versity of Illinois in Chicago. Not only did he begin to recognize his talent as a community organizer, but he also discovered café culture. "The fi rst time I walked into a coffee shop was as a freshman in col- lege, and I remember thinking, 'Why is this not in my neighborhood?'" Jesse would go on to open a café in Chicago's Tri-Taylor neighbor- hood, only for it to close. "It was 2008, so there's the recession, but also I wrote a business plan and never stuck to it. I did pretty much everything wrong." Meanwhile, Mayra was working part-time making cold brew at her house—she'd grown up drinking coffee with her family and continued to savor it when she moved out on her own. "Growing up, my break- fast before school often consisted of instant coffee and Mexican bread. I loved it! Unlike the coffee-on-the-go trend of today's world, coffee for my family and many other Latino families means you have to take "I ALWAYS ASK, 'WHAT AM I DOING FOR THE PEOPLE AROUND ME?' THIS IS WHAT DRIVES ME." JESSE IÑIGUEZ 68 barista magazine

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