A taste of Humboldt Park

A sip of sweet café con leche and freshly baked criollo bread is a wonderful thing any day of the week, even more so amidst one of the worsts winters Chicago has ever seen.

Two years ago, Nabol and I found Café Colao driving down Division Street in Humboldt Park, the city’s Puerto Rican neighborhood. At 5 degrees, there were hardly any people on the street. But this small panadería was thankfully open like any authentic panadería would be. You could smell the aroma of warm bread from across the street.

It was our first taste of Puerto Rico outside of the island. Exactly what we needed.

We found traditional quesitos filled with cream cheese and other pastries with guava. There was freshly squeezed orange juice, pineapple, and passion fruit juice. You could even get a week-old copy of Claridad if you wanted, a newspaper that has been promoting “the fight for Puerto Rico’s independence” since 1959.

It was slightly bizarre to be enjoying our beloved treats while looking at the snow outside, but I just focused on my precious cup of coffee imagining I was back home. 

Across the street, there was Casita Cultural with a small park celebrating the community. A statue of Pedro Albizu Campos, the leading figure of the Puerto Rican independent movement, was standing tall right in the middle of the square, covered in snow. Another piece of artwork honored political hero Lolita Lebrón, someone who Millenials on the island would most likely have to Google.

Boricuas in Chicago are very proud. They live and breathe their heritage. And in case you had any doubt, there are two ginormous 60-foot Puerto Rican flags along Division Street to remind you. This community was built in great part by generations of Boricua families who started to arrive in the 60s and 70s looking for opportunities they couldn’t find back home. They are business owners, teachers, and politicians.

Their stories are preserved in the impressive Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture dedicated to the history of Puerto Rican culture and diaspora. They even have their own Fiestas Puertorriqueñas, an annual summer festival that is somewhat similar to one of our island’s town carnivals.

We attended this past year for the first time. There was salsa and reggaeton, fritters and piña colada.

Nabol got a plate of rice and beans, and a plantain “canoe” filled with beef. It tasted just like the ones you get at any cafeteria on the island. And those beans, let me tell you... Those stewed beans were amazing.

Coming back to Humboldt is comforting. Yet, somehow, as we were eating picnic-style at the festival, looking around and listening to others speak Spanish with our Caribbean accent, we couldn't help to realize that we haven't completely found our way into the community. We might be getting there, or we might have to start a thing of our own. After all, our island experiences are slightly different. We are a different generation, with a different context and reason for being here.

Meanwhile, Humboldt Park continues to evolve into a community with its own unique flavor, way beyond being just the "Puerto Rican neighborhood." This is a very powerful place. It's where many have come to be themselves and redefine themselves in a new land.

Case in point is the awesome “jibarito” plantain sandwich that we tried, also for the first time, at the festival. Just like Salsa music was born in New York in the 70s with all of the great rhythms from Cuba and Puerto Rico, this “jibarito” was born decades ago in Chicago with all of the wonderful ingredients that we know and love from the island.

Similar versions started to appear on the island since then, but if you go to Puerto Rico today, just a handful of places will have a similar item on their menu. In Chicago, a “jibarito” is in itself an institution, dearly loved not just by Puerto Ricans, but everyone in the city.

As we continue to grow roots in our new city, we hope to become part of a new generation of strong-will people who gather to build something just as meaningful. We hope to give our corner of the world a taste of its own, to build a warm home for others like us regardless of how cold or how hard it gets. And if we are lucky, we might even come up with our very own version of the famous jibarito.

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