By Brenda Ordoñez
A Chicago organization with strong Mexican roots is proving it doesn’t take a big village to make a difference.
Inside the Little Village Community Council edifice awaits a beige-colored room lined with tables disguised by donations. Standing in the center of the room is the council’s community organizer, Kristian Armendariz. Unmoving, his eyes roam the tables only to pause on a pair of tiny purple polka-dotted rain boots that will likely find a home in the coming days.
According to the council, since August, they have helped thousands of refugees obtain clothes, shoes, toiletries, jobs, legal services and …
ARMENDARIZ: Arepas? I believe that’s their home-cooked meal: arepas. One of our members from the council, she is from Venezuela. So, she came here, donated her time and her food and was cooking in the back in our small kitchen, cooking arepas for all the refugees, and it was, I want to say magical experience because they haven’t tasted their native food in so long.
For years the council has helped immigrants. So when Chicago received an influx of more than 5,000 Venezuelan migrants as part of the Texas Operation Lone Star campaign meant to pressure Democrats to enact stricter immigration policies, it’s no surprise they were on the front lines, ready to welcome these refugees with open arms.
ARMENDARIZ: This is nothing new to us. We have been a welcoming community. Little Village is known for the Mexican community, immigrant community. We know how it feels to come to a country with nothing, no family members, no home, nowhere to go.
While the council is happy to lend a helping hand and a home-cooked meal, organizers say the absence of aid from city and state officials has made this work that much more challenging, leaving Little Village Community Council President Baltazar Enriquez frustrated.
ENRIQUEZ: The city is not prepared. The state of Illinois is not prepared. As a sanctuary state, as a sanctuary city.
According to the Office of the Mayor, in late December, Mayor Lori Lightfoot requested just over $54 million in state aid to continue supporting the migrants. Since August, the city has opened numerous shelters and provided meals, clothing and a multi-agency resource center connecting migrants with legal services and medical aid.
Enriquez estimates that in the last few months, the council has received hundreds of shoes and coats, all of which he says were donated by community members and volunteers.
This warm welcome has not gone unnoticed. Enriquez says refugees are visibly amazed when they arrive to Little Village, as they are greeted with giving hearts and a familial environment.
ENRIQUEZ: A lot of them said, you know, in Spanish, “Hermano, nadie habla espanol.” And I’m like, “Nah, aqui si,” you know, and they go down 26th Street, and they’re like, “Oh, my God, everybody speaks Spanish here.” And, you know, they’re just amazed because they’re from Venezuela, so the big Mexican influence is here.
While the council has been able to help clothe over 300 Venezuelan refugees, they remain without the ability to provide one critical resource: mental health services.
ENRIQUEZ: The stories are, you know, sometimes they’re too overwhelming.
One of these harrowing accounts comes from 29-year-old Luis Arguelles. He crossed nine borders by foot in September.
ARGUELLES: Comenze a ver niños ya llorando, mujeres ya llorando y apenas estábamos empezando.
He says he saw children and women starting to cry very early on in the journey.
Arguelles’ trek consisted of climbing two mountains, crossing multiple rivers, coming face-to-face with the mafia and escaping the Darien Gap jungle.
ARGUELLES: Dentro de la selva es horrible porque tu no sabes si vas a salir. Habían personas que tienen tiempo dentro de esa selva, y no pueden salir. No lo cruso, no lo vuelvo a ser. Es el enfierno.
He says the jungle was horrible and riddled with uncertainty as many before him who had ventured in never made it out. He describes this jungle as hell on earth, a place he says he will never cross again.
On his journey to the U.S., Arguelles saw death, faced death and encountered many terrors.
ARGUELLES: Una cosa es lo que te dicen, otra cosa lo que tú vives. Ya ahí te enfrentas en realidad a muchas cosas estafó, secuestro, violencia, demasiadas cosas y ahí comencé yo a vivirla.
He says one thing is what they tell you and another is what you experience. For Arguelles, his travels were filled with scams, extortion and violence. Arguelles is not receiving mental health resources to overcome what he endured. He says he gets through his days by suppressing the memories of that voyage from hell.
For the council, Arguelles’ story is just one of many that emphasize the need for mental health resources. But until those resources are available, Armendariz plans to …
ARMENDARIZ: Continue to help out any refugees from any native country, any Latin American country.
Because this is what it means to be a Little Village.
I’m Brenda Ordoñez, Medill Reports.
Brenda Ordoñez is a video and broadcast graduate student at Medill. You can contact her on LinkedIn.