LITTLE VILLAGE — Jesus Gutierrez, the owner of Varela’s Groceries who served Little Village neighbors for more than 40 years, died from coronavirus last week. He was 79.
Gutierrez, affectionately known as “Don Chuy,” moved to Chicago in 1967 from Guadalajara, Mexico and opened his store a decade later with his wife and business partner, Juanita Blanco Gutierrez, always at his side.
During the last four decades, the inseparable pair turned the corner store at West 25th Street and South Karlov Avenue into a community institution that also served as the epicenter of life for a family that grew to include four children — Yolanda, Jaime, Marco and Sonia, 12 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren, his daughter Sonia Gutierrez told Block Club.
In late April, Sonia Gutierrez said her father began feeling ill and was tested for coronavirus. While waiting for the results, he began to have trouble breathing and was admitted to Rush Hospital, where he later died on Friday. Gutierrez said her father had no underlying conditions and was proudly healthy and avoided hospitals however he could — that he agreed to go to the hospital points to the pain he was in from the respiratory virus.
Not being able to visit because of restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus was especially difficult, his daughter said. The family was able to speak to him a few times before he was moved to the intensive care unit, where he was unable to communicate, but the family was able to give encouragement through video conferencing.
“Not being able to hold his hand one last time, or you know, touch his face, it’s going to make it a little more difficult to find any kind of closure,” Sonia said.
Since his death, Sonia said the family has found solace in the outpouring of support from the community. More than 300 people shared memories of her father and the corner store in a post on the La Villita Facebook page announcing his passing. A makeshift alter of flowers and prayer candles have been laid outside the grocery store by customers.
The store is currently closed, but the family hopes to reopen it in his memory, Sonia Gutierrez said.
Sonia has been living with her mother Juanita since her father passed away and the phone has been constantly ringing as relatives, neighbors and friends from “all over” call with condolences and expressing gratitude. A former Little Village neighbor Sonia hadn’t seen in over 25 years remembered “Don Chuy” as a mentor, and others recalled a time he let them have groceries even when they were unable to pay.
“Hearing people talk about him and mention those things kind of warms my heart,” she said.
Gutierrez believes her father was so beloved by the community because he always knew the grocery was more than a place to buy some milk and eggs. He poured his heart into the store.
“Every day, all day. That was his baby, that was his life,” she said. “He was like our community man/newspaper man/storyteller…he wore many hats here for a lot of people.”
The family lived behind the grocery store, and despite the long hours, Gutierrez was always present for his kids, even after a long week of work, his son Jaime said. Sundays in the summer are among his fondest memories of his father.
“We would all pile up in our big box station wagon — just like the one from National Lampoon’s Vacation — cousins included, and take us to the lake,” he said. “He wouldn’t go in, just his feet, but I knew he had fun just by the smile on his face.”
A fan of the Chicago Bulls and Chivas F.C., a soccer team from his native Guadalajara, Gutierrez would often listen to sports on the radio at the grocery, somehow managing to find a stream from Mexico. He also loved to cook, but he kept the secret ingredients to himself.
“He would give us the recipe, but he always somehow, someway managed to leave an ingredient out,” Sonia said. “We would tell him that it didn’t taste quite the same and he would ask, ‘Did you add this ingredient.'” The answer was always no. “He would say he forgot and give us a smirk.”
The store used to stock school supplies, allowing Gutierrez to keep track of generations of children as they grew older, delighting them with his wide variety of cheap candies.
Just as generations of Little Village residents have shopped at Varela’s, working at the grocery became a rite of passage for the Gutierrez family. Recently, Sonia’s 14-year-old daughter, Ari, worked the register, making her “Poppy” proud.
“He just loved her being there with him,” she said. “He’s like, ‘she’s so good at it! Oh my gosh, she reminds me of you.’ Because I used to do that as well.”
Raising children and running a store was difficult at times, Gutierrez’ wife Juanita said, but they were a team.
“It was very hard but we did it with love and gave it our all and put our heart into it,” she said.
With the stay at home order limiting funeral ceremonies to only 10 people, the family is having a hard time finding a way to honor their patriarch. He will be buried at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside. When it’s safe, the family will hold a mass at Epiphany Roman Catholic Church in Little Village, where Gutierrez attended every Sunday.
While some have asked how they can help the family financially, Sonia said the family doesn’t feel that is necessary. “Well wishes and support is more than enough,” she said.
Juanita is worried about what life will be like without her constant companion, but she knows her husband made an impact on the community.
“He was a very loving, caring man, with a heart of gold and he liked helping people,” she said.
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