Column: An immigrant father’s legacy lives on in a former cantina in Pilsen, where gentrification has been a challenge
The night Samuel Ornelas died, the music from the old jukebox in his canteen stopped playing and the old benches at the bar were empty. On January 28, for the first time in almost 50 years, El Trebol Liquors, the oldest nightclub in Pilsen, closed its doors to its loyal patrons in honor of Sammy, as most people call him.
Sammy was 86 years old and spent most of his time in the family business that he helped establish and become a sole proprietorship over the past decade.
He was resilient, said his eldest son, Manuel Ornelas, just like the other immigrants who came to the city in the 1960s and beyond. They are the ones who began to build a life in the area and shaped the culture of the then Mexican immigrant neighborhood. Those same immigrants, many of whom Sammy called friends, found a home in El Trébol.
They still do it.
And now, some of her children and even grandchildren are doing it too. Visit the bar to remember your loved ones, those who will continue in this country and many who have also left this world. Others, unable to return to their native country, go to the cantina to feel at home, surrounded by other immigrants who share similar stories, who love norteño music, and who aspire to see their families again one day.
Almost every Sunday, the same faces walk in and greet each other with joy.
That’s the atmosphere Sammy helped create when he became a co-investor in the family business in the late 1950s. And that’s why he refuses to change the bar despite the development the neighborhood has seen over the decades. decades: the addition of trendy restaurants, luxury apartment buildings and, of course, new bars.
Many clients had to leave the area because they could not find affordable housing to rent. Those who stayed say they go to the bar because they still feel like “old Pilsen,” said Don Severo, 86, who has frequented the bar since its inception.
Every time you visit, order the same thing: a tequila with a glass half full of Squirt and two ice cubes.
Sammy “was a good man,” Severo said. “I’m also going pa ‘ya”, he points out, because he is getting old.
“Now your children must maintain this place,” Severo added one Sunday afternoon when he entered the bar to buy lottery tickets, as he does every weekend. Some customers at the bar got up to shake his hand.
Many were at the bar that weekend to pay their respects to Sammy’s sons Manuel and Javier, who took over the bar in 2015 when their father retired. Sammy left the business under his care, but he visited often to say hi and drink a Bohemia, his favorite beer.
When Manuel entered the business, he knew he had big shoes to fill, he said. All the men in his family who managed El Trébol, including his uncle Ramón Verdín, who died in 2021, had created a special place in a neighborhood that has changed year after year, for sure.
Suddenly, there was an interest in Pilsen and its culture, he said. While Manuel was growing up, his father would take him to the El Trébol store to help out, so he met many who frequent the bar in the back. He also spent a lot of time in Pilsen growing up.
“It’s like a small town,” he said.
Even when people left the neighborhood, they returned to El Trébol to see friends, Manuel added.
That made Manuel realize that, like his father, he doesn’t want to change anything about the bar.
He will not change the old jukebox with records that play only old Mexican music, the one his father listened to. Sammy’s favorite songs are by the legendary Vicente Fernandez or Los Panchos.
Also, don’t plan on buying a new refrigerator or replacing cash-only registers. Inside the store, there is still an old phone booth that was once a sanctuary for Mexican immigrants who paid pennies to call home in the 1980s and 1990s.
After hearing the news of Sammy’s death, Ramón Velázquez, 45, returned to El Trébol for the first time in several months. He lived on 19th and May streets for much of his life, but 10 years ago his family moved to the Midway area because rent was more affordable there, he said.
“He always made us feel at home,” Velázquez said.
The bar is a symbol of Sammy’s resilience and perseverance in creating a better life for himself and his children after immigrating to this country, Manuel said. His story reflects the experience of many of the immigrant entrepreneurs who started family businesses in Pilsen. Few are still around today.
Sammy understood the immigrant experience. He knew what it meant to miss home, to want to feel safe and understand. That’s why he went out of his way to make his clients feel welcome, Manuel said.
Sometimes he would give them a free beer, other times he would order food and share it with them. And every Thanksgiving, there was a dinner for customers as a token of appreciation for their business. When customers visited the store with their children, they always had a lollipop ready for them.
Laura Carranza, 40, tearfully recorded the times she entered the store with her father only to receive Sammy’s lollipop. When her children were younger, they would take them just to drop by to say hi, she said.
“I have children now who look up to him. He never turned anyone down and always listened to people,” he said.
Javier Ornelas said that his father was compassionate and empathetic, a man of God who always wanted to help others.
Sammy came to Chicago in 1955 from Encarnación de Díaz, a small town in Jalisco, Mexico. He was just 16 years old and worked in a cotton field in Texas for several years before obtaining permanent residency, said his wife, María Ofelia Ornelas. Sammy loved to dance, record.
They were married for almost 53 years and she took care of him until he breathed his last. Manuel, Javier and Sammy’s six other children were by her side when she died at home.
Manuel vowed to keep his father’s spirit alive through his work and his love for his family, including El Trébol.
Preserving the bar is not an act of resistance against gentrification, and “it also doesn’t mean we don’t welcome new people,” he said.
“It is respect for my father and for those who succeeded this place and for those who visited it,” added Manuel. “It’s something you won’t find anywhere else.”
—To read this story in English, please click here
This text was translated by Leticia Espinosa/ACT