Welcome to Chicago Voz’ inaugural 18 on 18th Street, an annual series that profiles 18 people from the Pilsen community. This series will feature residents, leaders, artists and small business owners who have contributed their time and skill toward the betterment of Pilsen. Various names were nominated and voted on by our editorial board and they will be released throughout the month.
While there are many influential Pilsen individuals to choose from, one criteria was to highlight people who are not media regulars. Chicago Voz will profile those who have not received proper media recognition for their work, but are nevertheless the unsung heroes of our community. Congratulations to Pilsen’s 18 on 18th Street!
Business Owner and Bartender – Caminos de Michoacán Bar
Ask a Pilsen old-timer about Caminos de Michoacan, and you’ll know that it wasn’t always a youthful bar bursting at the seams. The corner establishment used to be the definition of a traditional cantina: plain walls, four types of cerveza, a jukebox stocked with nostalgia, and men, mostly men, the type that would thirst for an escape from the grueling routine of his life.
Unlike other “paisa” bars in the neighborhood that have been lost to the pathogens of gentrification, Caminos has managed to stay put, its reputation credited to its level of authenticity and to its ability to adapt to Pilsen’s bicultural base.
When Salvador Torres arrived to Pilsen as an immigrant from Michoacan, he never imagined he’d be running his own business. In California he picked fruit and later came to the factories as a means to sustain his wife and four children. He went from bartending at Caminos one day to outright buying the building when it went up for sale. Torres has owned Caminos de Michoacan for 33 years.
Through blaring Antonio Aguilar lyrics, I gathered from Torres that “the times have changed”. He remembers serving another type of clientele, Mexicans who every now and then you could witness carry a gun in their belt. It’s not that he approved, he clarified, but he wasn’t the type to pat people down. It was indicative of the camaraderie you would find in old-fashioned bars like Caminos. Nowadays he’ll call the cops at the hint of a weapon in his bar, he reassured.
“We brought old habits from Mexico. Like if a woman came into a bar, she would be considered another type of woman,” Torres said. He didn’t agree with that belief, but the commonly held view kept women away until recently. “Now there are days when we get more women than men. And if you’re a woman and someone is bothering you in this bar, we’ll stand up for you,” he said.
The family-run business means that Salvador Jr., bearing a pronounced resemblance to his father, manages the bar on Friday nights at full capacity. Torres’ daughter, Erika, is often found among the crowd singing along to The People’s Karaoke. Torres also has a son who graduated as an engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a daughter who works at Rush University Medical Center. He beamed at the mention of his kids’ achievements.
His wife stays at home, but for 27 years she helped the family run a hardware store, Torres Hardware, which stood on 18th Place and Ashland. Regrettably, too many Home Depots and Menard’s led to their closure in 2013. Torres said it was “caused by the people in power that allow big corporations in the community and wipe out the storekeepers.”
Caminos is economical at $3.50 a beer on a normal day. And even though they recently remodeled the bar’s interior, “It’s not in my mind to raise prices,” Torres said, as opposed to many bars near 18th Street. When his beer distributors raise their costs, he resists upping his retail prices as much as he can. He thinks it’s not right that “there’s places in the neighborhood with downtown prices.” It’s possible to bring diversity and remain reasonably priced, he said.
So far, Friday is the only day that Caminos gets packed. Every other day you may get a glimpse into its old-school ways. But that’s what works for the bar on the corner of Paulina and Cullerton, a mix of Chicano oldies with a dose of rancheras and a pinch of U.S. pop culture.
“We’re thinking of expanding to the back because we don’t fit anymore,” he said.
Interview by Jackie Serrato
Photos by Jackie Serrato