On a recent Friday afternoon, the aroma of birria, a spicy Mexican stew, filled the basement of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. The entrance of this historic red brick church, founded by Polish immigrants in 1887, now bears signs in English and Spanish. Downstairs, two men in matching maroon T-shirts chatted in Spanish as they set up rows of long folding tables and chairs between columns whose gilded moldings were the only hint of the opulent cathedral above them. A trio of black-clad security guards assumed their posts near the exits, as a DJ tested the sound system, blasting Shakira through the speakers.
“When I came over here, this neighborhood was Polish, some Irish, a few Mexicans,” said Alfonso Garcia, who moved to Back of the Yards with his family in 1971. “Back then, we heard the sound of rock ‘n’ roll. Now it’s all, you know, Mexican music, Hispanic music.”
A Mexican-born U.S. citizen who spent 35 years working as a butcher in Chicago’s mostly bygone meatpacking industry, Garcia now heads the youth soccer program for the Union Impact coalition — a local organization that aims to keep kids off the streets and give them the structure, support and motivation needed to resist the pull of gang life.
“That’s what a kid really needs — somebody to look after them,” said Garcia. He and the others were at the church setting up for a party to celebrate the end of the winter soccer season with trophies and awards. About 80 families, close to 400 people, were expected to show up.
St. Joseph’s church symbolizes how the neighborhood has changed — and how it hasn’t — since long before Garcia and his family arrived.
Once it was home to a diverse population of European immigrants, like those immortalized by Upton Sinclair in “The Jungle,” who had come from Ireland and throughout Central and Eastern Europe in search of work in the city’s meatpacking industry. But those communities began…