Latinos are bringing their entrepreneurship to Riverside

At La Estancia, a Mexican restaurant across from west suburban Riverside’s historic water tower, owner Claudia Reyes remembers when she was one of a handful of Latina business owners downtown.

“When I got here, the store across the street and I were the only Hispanics around,” Reyes says in Spanish. “Now we have another restaurant and another … we’ve increased our numbers.”

Reyes, 54, moved to Riverside from Cicero in 2013 because it was “a very caring, very close-knit, very family-oriented suburb,” she says.

Once home to antique retailers and bohemian restaurants, Riverside — a town of about 9,000 — has welcomed a wave of Latino businesses over the past decade. From breakfast spots to barber shops, the trend demonstrates the growth of the Latino population in Chicago’s western suburbs, beyond communities like Cicero and Berwyn, which are majority Latino.

The Riverside Chamber of Commerce does not track businesses by race, but village leaders say the number of Latino-owned stores has multiplied from a handful to more than a dozen.

Village Trustee Alex Gallegos has noticed the change.

“Latin American Owners, Entrepreneurs [are] telling others that there is opportunity here and we are so grateful to have built this reputation as a welcoming community,” said Gallegos, a lifelong Riverside resident.

Village Trustee Alex Gallegos in downtown Riverside on October 31, 2023. Latino Homeowners, Entrepreneurs [are] telling others that there is an opportunity here and we are so grateful to have built this reputation as a welcoming community,” he said. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ

This picturesque suburb — designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the architects behind New York’s Central Park — is one of the cities west of Chicago that has seen significant growth in its Latino population over the past decade.

According to Institute for Greater Cities at the University of Illinois at Chicagoin suburbs including Riverside, Western Springs, and Broadview, the Hispanic population grew by 60% to 80% in just 10 years.

In Riverside, local chains also took notice. Dulce Mami, a Mexican cafe and bakery with locations in Cicero and Chicago, recently opened across the street from the vintage train station.

The community was looking for something like us – a coffee shop, a breakfast place, a bakery. We do everything in one place, so it was a great option,” said Andrea Torres, co-owner of the Riverside location.

Down the street from Dulce Mami, Amador Valenzuela owns Black Book Studio, where he does animation for movies and clients like the NFL and Lego. He saw an empty former real estate store and jumped on it in 2014.

“It was empty for a year,” Valenzuela said. “For me, it was like, ‘Okay, okay, hey, I can use this as a studio space.'”

Amador Valenzuela poses for a photo in a black shirt
Amador Valenzuela, the son of Mexican immigrants, opened the office of his animation studio Black Book in Riverside in 2014. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ

He added that many new businesses popping up in the area are from child entrepreneurs of immigrants like himself.

“I think it’s just that type of immigrant family, hard-working atmosphere,” he said. “If nobody else is going to do it, it’s like, ‘Hey, we’re going to step up and do it.'”

This entrepreneurial spirit is why Latin Americans are one of the the fastest growing groups of entrepreneurs in the country, according to longtime civic leader Maria Pesqueira.

Pesqueira directs the Riverside-based Healthy Communities Foundation. She and her staff had noticed the new Latin American stores popping up in town, most recently since the pandemic.

Moving to the suburbs is a natural process for many Latinos in the region, she said.

“Some are first-time home buyers, some are moving west because they’ve been pushed out by gentrification, some people are moving west because they can buy a bigger home with more yard,” Pesqueira said.

She added that by investing in homes and businesses in Riverside and other cities, Latinos are signaling that they are here to stay.

“The Latino community is very much part of the fabric of the western suburbs and a growing, thicker thread of that fabric,” Pesqueira said.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter in WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities Bureau. Follow her on X @estheryjkang.

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