CHICAGO — What brings people to the Southwest Side neighborhood of Chicago Lawn on any given day? Quality aguas fresca, a homemade beverage made of freshly squeezed fruit, is popular in Mexico and other Latin American countries.
Though many street vendors throughout the city may sell agua fresca, few specialize in the unique drink that most recently, in the mainstream, some began to refer to as “spa water.”
But on 71st Street and Homan, right across from Marquette Park, a family-run small business that specializes in selling aguas frescas and other snacks has been operating from their front yard since 2021.
A variety of aguas frescas and snacks is sold in front of Marquette Park in Chicago Lawn. (Citlali Perez )
The business is a family effort; Gloria Diaz and her husband Oscar Michelle, collaborate to make it possible with the support of Diaz’s sister Martina Guerca. And the youngest, Diaz and Michelle’s son and daughter, help to run the stand on weekends throughout the school year – when the family has the most patrons.
Diaz and her family moved to Chicago Lawn from Brighton Park in 2020. When they lived in Brighton Park, Diaz and Michelle would sell “bolis,” frozen flavored water inside a plastic bag. They were a big hit among children in Brighton Park, so they decided to continue selling when they moved to Chicago Lawn.
But they weren’t selling as much because many people in the area aren’t familiar with the bolis.
So the family began to brainstorm. After consulting with each other, they decided to sell aguas frescas instead. The most common flavors include horchata, hibiscus, and tamarind.
A recent TikTok trend popularized the Mexican staple when content creator Gracie Norton posted a video introducing the drink to her following as spa water, sparking a conversation about the re-branding and appropriation of traditional Mexican food by white people.
Diaz explains that customers unfamiliar with aguas frescas may be more open to trying it because they can compare it to something they are more familiar with. But what sets this apart from juice or any other fruity beverage, is its natural ingredients.
The aguas are all prepared from scratch with fresh fruits that the family sources from a warehouse. A good agua fresca should taste like the fruit or other ingredients that it is made with, and have a good water and sugar ratio, she explained.
The aguas are kept cool throughout the day by pouring in ice and adding more of the agua fresca into the container so as not to dilute the flavor.
When the weather hits at least 55 degrees, Chicago Lawn residents and other loyal customers can count on Diaz and her family to be set up with large transparent containers of aguas frescas.
The colorful row of containers catches the eyes of passers-by. Most days, people line up or drive by the family’s front yard, which is right in front of Tarkington Elementary.
During the school year, children coming out of class and teachers going on their lunch breaks frequent the stand.
Diaz said that she and her family hope to provide this service year-round.
Since September of last year, they have been working to open up a brick-and-mortar location for their business. They began to plan for this a year ago and since then have confirmed the locale, 3115 W. 71st Pl.
Michelle said opening the facility has been a long process because of city requirements and regulations. Though it is a risky investment, it has been a dream and goal of the family, he said.
The couple has been able to subsidize the cost of the project with a side job that has flexible work hours. They plan to name the business “Las Delicias de Michelle,” as it would include the whole family.
Meanwhile, Diaz and Michelle have been working at a different location on 83th St., for three months, aside from selling in front of their house.
“El sol sale para todos,” says Michelle who doesn’t view surrounding street vendors as competition and says they all offer something different to the community.
Michelle explains that there are three ways to successfully run a business: quality service, quality products, and loyal customers who help spread the word.
Cover Photo by Citlali Perez
Publisher’s Notes: You can read Citlali’s Spanish language version of Aguas frescas in Chicago: How a family business out of a front yard grows in a Southside neighborhood by clicking on Aguas frescas forman parte de la comunidad suroeste de Chicago.
Illinois Latino News (ILLN) and La DePaulia are partners in best serving the Hispanic-Latino community.