Ella verdaderamente es la hija de La Villita.
Whether you prefer Spanish or English, Elianne Bahena truly is the daughter of Little Village.
Ely, as she’s known to her friends, was born in California and spent her early years in Guerrero, Mexico, on the country’s Pacific coast southwest of Mexico City, but she grew up in Little Village.
“It’s the only home I’ve ever known,” Ely said. “Growing up on that block, specifically where I grew up at 23rd and St. Louis, there was a huge community there.”
La Villita, as Little Village is known locally, is one of those special places that serves as a pocket of cultural confluence for its residents, with many sharing common life experiences as Mexican-Americans and mixed-status families navigating the United States immigration system.
“Growing up in those areas, you build communities,” Ely said. “I knew all my neighbors. We all went to the same church. All the kids went to the same schools. My mom would walk my neighbor home. We would always be in a group.”
While being raised by her village provided the opportunity to embrace her Mexican heritage, it was her own parents, whose entrepreneurial spirit and selfless generosity inspired Ely to invest herself back into the community.
“Haz todo del corazón porque cuando es del corazón nunca de duele.” Ely recalled one of her mother’s sayings. Do everything from your heart, so when you do it, it never hurts.
She went on to explain the saying’s meaning to her. “Any kindness that you give, you always have to do it from the heart. So you can’t be mad if someone doesn’t say thank you because you did it selflessly.”
Her mother’s perspective is one not only admirable for its altruistic nature, but also for the personification of the grace and patience it takes for a village to raise its many children, despite the personal endeavor required to make a life in a foreign land.
“My parents came here from nothing,” Ely said. “I understand the privilege of being born here and having something. I’m so incredibly proud of my parents.”
About 12 years ago, Ely’s parents started their own restaurant, Sinfonia Del Mar, in Cicero, Ill., featuring food from their home state of Guerrero. It’s one of many entrepreneurial ventures her parents have taken on, but it was one of her mother’s first jobs in a book binding factory and the free access to the factory’s defective books that stoked Ely’s love of reading - a love that found its way into her daily work.
Advocating on behalf of others isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a demanding, consuming task that addresses some of the most intimate and emotionally complex issues people can face.
“It’s not 9-5 work. It’s all of your life,” Ely said. “I’ve been an advocate for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and an advocate for immigrant communities across Illinois, advocating for their rights in the workplace and anything that bars them from having certain rights.”
A hot-button political issue, immigration is particularly pertinent to the residents of Little Village, a community proud of its large Mexican heritage, yet apprehensive about an incoherent immigration process that is fraught with potential pitfalls.
“This is my community. I grew up in La Villita. It’s immigrant and mixed-status families, just like mine,” Ely said. “I know what it’s like for your family to go through this immigration system.”
She has worked many overnight shifts to help her neighbors file the appropriate paperwork, following countless hours explaining the process and potential outcomes.
“Because the laws aren’t there, if someone were to file right now to adjust your status, it could be 80 to 100 years before they ever see the results of a case. That’s a lifetime,” she says. “Some people don’t have a path to citizenship.”
It’s impossible to separate a person’s immigration status from Ely’s advocacy work, making the task all the more challenging. Whether she’s encountered a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault, a person’s status and the status of those around them impact their willingness to seek help from local law enforcement.
“The intersection with immigration,” Ely began, “Means a lot of people don’t feel comfortable calling the police because police and ICE are always associated (in her community) even though we’re a welcoming city.”
Comfort and confidence in your environment are just two of a myriad of factors that people need to begin to engage with others and address their traumatic, personal experiences.
Ely created such an environment with the Cuėntame Comadre Collective, a book club she co-founded just before restrictions related to COVID-19 began to impact in-person gatherings.
“It’s a space that we’ve created to navigate what it means to be a young Latina woman trying to break a lot of generational trauma and how we heal each other,” Ely said. “It’s helped us do a lot of healing through storytelling, through reading. Sometimes beautiful things can come out of horrible things.”
There’s no manual to guide you along the way to restoring a community, to building trust between the residents and its institutions.
“It only comes from understanding the needs of your neighborhood,” Ely said.
In return for the work she’s put in, for the kindness she’s shown for her neighbors, for people who are overwhelmed by their situations, La Villita has put its trust in Ely.
“It took a long time for me to get there, to recognize the power and influence I carry in my community.”
She’s never expected anything in return for her efforts, she did it from the heart, after all. But the faith in her came anyway.
Ely was elected to the 10th Police District Council during the 2023 municipal elections, the community’s literal vote of confidence in a woman who has given a voice to so many. Now she can speak for all of La Villita.
“I want to make sure my community is at the forefront when we’re discussing policy issues. I want to make sure my community is at the forefront when we talk about how we want our area to be policed. I want to make sure people are held accountable in the way they work in our area and how they deal with all of these community issues. It’s such an important thing.”
Life sometimes takes you to places you never planned to be. For Ely, the community has seen her heart, her love for them and chose her to be their voice. It’s a gift she’s embracing.
“At that moment where you are, you’re supposed to be in those places.”
The daughter of Little Village is coming into her own.
Elianne Bahena is one of 18 up-and-coming Westside leaders selected to be a part of the inaugural cohort of Community Leadership Fellows. Community Leadership Fellows (CLF) is a leadership development experience that involves educational workshops, tactical training, collaborative learning, coaching, mentoring and networking. We believe that the investment in homegrown talent will lead to sustainable, vibrant communities.
Elianne Bahena, Director of Policy & Community Outreach, 22nd Ward. Hear more about her mission to change Little Village.