An immigrant father’s legacy lives on through an old cantina in Pilsen, where gentrification has been a challenge – Chicago Tribune –
The evening that Samuel Ornelas died, music from the old jukebox in his cantina stopped playing and the vintage bar stools stood empty. On Jan. 28, for the first time in nearly 50 years, El Trebol Liquors, the oldest dive bar in Pilsen, closed its doors to its faithful patrons to pay their respects to Sammy, as most people called him.
Sammy was 86, and had spent most of his time at the family business that he helped establish and that he became sole proprietor of in the last decade.
He was resilient, said his oldest son, Manuel Ornelas, much like the other immigrants who arrived in the city in the ‘60s and beyond. They’re the ones who started 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 Trebol.
They still do.
And now, some of their children and even grandchildren do too. They visit the bar to remember their loved ones, those who settled 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 joyfully.
That’s the atmosphere Sammy helped create when he became co-investor in the family business in the late ‘50s. And that is why he refused to change the bar despite the development occurring in the neighborhood over the decades: The addition of trendy restaurants, luxury apartment buildings and of course, new bars, Manuel said.
Many patrons had to leave the area because they could no longer find affordable places to rent. Those who stayed say they go to the bar because it still feels like the “old Pilsen,” said Don Severo, 86, who has been frequenting the bar since its beginning.
Every time he visits, he orders the same thing: A tequila with a glass half-full of Squirt and two ice cubes.
“He was a good man,” Severo said of Sammy. “Yo también ya voy pa’ ya,” meaning that Severo is getting older too.
“Now his sons must keep this place going,” Severo said on a Sunday afternoon when he walked into the bar to buy lottery tickets, like he does every weekend. Some of the men already at the bar stood up from their chairs and shook his hand.
Many had visited 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 their care but visited often to say hello and drink a Bohemia, his favorite beer.
When Manuel stepped up at the business, he knew he had big shoes to fill, he said. All the men in his family who managed El Trebol, including his uncle Ramon Verdin, who died in 2021, had created a special place in a neighborhood that has been changing year after year, he said.
Suddenly, there was an interest in Pilsen and its culture, he said. While Manuel was growing up, his father would take him to El Trebol’s store to help out, so he got to know many of the people who would 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 as people began getting priced out of the neighborhood, they would return to El Trebol to meet with friends, Manuel said.
That made Manuel realize that, like his father, he does not want to change anything about the bar.
He won’t replace the old jukebox that plays only Mexican oldies that his father listened to. Sammy’s favorite songs were from the legendary Vicente Fernandez or Los Panchos.
He also doesn’t plan to get a new fridge or replace the cash registers that take only cash. Inside the store, there is still an old phone booth that was once a sanctuary for the Mexican immigrants who would pay a few dimes to call home in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
After hearing the news of Sammy’s death, Ramon Velazquez, 45, returned to El Trebol for the first time in several months. He lived at 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, he said.
“They would always make us feel at home,” Velazquez said.
The bar is a symbol of Sammy’s resilience and perseverance in creating a better life for himself and his children after migrating 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 understood. That is why he went above and beyond to make his patrons 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 the patrons as a sign of appreciation for their business. When customers would visit the store with their children, he would always have a lollipop ready for them.
A tearful Laura Carranza, 40, remembered the times she would walk into the store with her father just to get a lollipop from Sammy. When her children were younger, she would take them in just to say hello, she said.
“I have kids now that look up to him. He never rejected anyone and always listened to people,” she said.
Javier Ornelas said his father was compassionate and empathetic, a man of God who always wanted to help others.
Sammy arrived in Chicago in 1955 from Encarnacion de Diaz, a small town in Jalisco, Mexico. He was only 16 and worked in a cotton field in Texas for several years before getting permanent residency, said his wife, Maria Ofelia Ornelas. Sammy loved to dance, she recalled.
They were married for nearly 53 years and she took care of him until he took his last breath. Manuel, Javier and Sammy’s six other children were all by his side when he died at home.
Manuel promised to keep his father’s spirit alive through his work and his love for their family, including El Trebol.
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’s respect for my father and those who established this place and for those who visit,” Manuel said. “It is something you will not find anywhere else.”