Contributors: Damary Alvarez, Kira Davis, Iselle Diaz, Tara Kothari, Reanna Lebitski, Jielu Yu
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Kira Davis, Iselle Diaz, and Kimberly Allotey discuss the El Abrazo mural in the El Paseo Community Garden as well as the history of murals in Pilsen. We examine the influences of the Chicano movement as well as community organization surrounding local murals, painting a picture of the themes consistent throughout Pilsen artwork.
Chicano Mural Movement
Murals are part of the everyday landscape in Hispanic neighborhoods. They are usually located in highly visible places of gathering, such as community centers and parks. This is reminiscent of the legacy of public plazas in Mexico, where public parks are valuable social spaces. Murals serve a community function, generating a sense of belonging and unity in neighborhoods that were often marginalized by the rest of the city. They also help preserve traditions in absence of written histories and act as a medium to strengthen group memory.
Emerging in the 1960s during the tumult of the Vietnam War, the writing of Chicano history became centered around emboldening the communities from which the Chicano historians were a part of. Mexican Americans faced criminalization, racial profiling, and strict immigration laws. They were looked upon with suspicion and sometimes deemed as incapable of being “fully American” no matter how long they had lived in the U.S. or how patriotic they were. The Chicano movement propelled the quest to “recover, recapture, and recast the ethnic Mexican past” to empower those in the present and to understand and document Mexican American history in a focused manner.
The Chicano Movement involves “the self-definition of a people.” Regardless, Chicanos cannot be understood as a distinct ethnicity or from a single geographic origin. Instead, Chicano history must be understood through historical contexts that produce a range of shared experiences. Chicano history is a transnational one, involving colonization, the segregation of Chicano people into separate neighborhoods, as well as displacement and downward mobility exacerbated by both race and class conditions.
~ A Closer Look at Murals ~
The mural at El Paseo, titled “El Abrazo,” meaning “The Embrace,” is a three-phase project that depicts outstretched arms embracing the garden of El Paseo. The entire project was intended to be community based and informed. The artists were found through social media, people who were local to the Pilsen area. There were multiple artists: “three lead muralists (Eric J. Garcia, Diana Solis, Katia Perez-Fuentes) and four to five high school age apprentices (listed below for their respective projects).” There were community meetings prior to the mural being painted to brainstorm ideas and themes, including “immigration, Pilsen history, local art, environmental justice, and workers’ rights.” The creation of the mural included multiple community days to prepare the wall and paint the entire mural. Being community oriented is a crucial aspect of the El Paseo Garden, providing a space for people to come together and work on a common cause.
“La Malinche” is a lovely mural that decorates the wall outside the Pilsen coffee shop with the same name, La Malinche Coffee and Tea House.
The owners of the cafe had wanted a mural that is related to women and honors women. The subject of the mural is a controversial figure in Mexican history. The woman depicted is Malinal, later nicknamed La Malinche. She was the daughter of an Aztec chief, which allowed her to receive a high level of education. After her father’s death, Malinal was sold to the conquistador, Hernán Cortés, where she quickly rose to prominence for not only her ability to interpret, but also her skills at speaking compellingly, strategizing, and forging political connections. Malinal was indispensable to Spain’s success in North American colonization.
Mexican history paints La Malinche as a betrayer to her people. The owners of the cafe, however, believe that she is a misunderstood woman who was put to blame for a lot of what happened. La Malinche was enslaved; she was only in a position to obey and serve. The consequences of colonization should not be pinned entirely onto her involvement. The context of her times should not overshadow the fact that she was a brilliant and astute woman. The cafe owners thus hope to highlight La Malinche and celebrate her abilities and competence.
Other components of the mural include the hummingbird that adorns La Malinche’s profile, which is a symbol of good luck in Mexican culture. The jaguar nesting in her hair is a powerful symbol in indigenous culture, which may reflect La Malinche’s significance in Mexican history. The lower right of the mural shows a mother and her daughter, in which the mother is making the braid for her daughter. The owners explain that this is symbolic of passing down heritage to her daughter. The message is to remember one’s roots and where one comes from, as a center of one’s identity. Overall, this is a lovely mural that honors a misunderstood historical figure, celebrates women, and reminds us to not forget how integral our cultural roots are to our identity.
Las Cosas Q’Se Ven
Jeff Zimmerman is well known for his large, photo-realistic murals that depict actual people that live and work in the areas surrounding his artwork. A native Chicagoan, Jeff Zimmerman’s artwork is displayed throughout the city. His three-part mural, Increíbles Las Cosas Q’Se Ven, on 19th and Ashland, was painted in the 1990s when Zimmerman was asked by a priest at St. Pius V parish to paint a mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe—this mural would be his first. Today, the mural holds only three of the many murals that Zimmerman has painted throughout the Pilsen neighborhood.
On the far left panel, the mural showcases two young graduates, smiling and looking ahead. Depicted amongst the clouds, significant Latino historical figures hover above them. Below, a smiling doctor stretches out her hands, while a teacher chalks the words “Si, se puede” Yes, we can. A chef smiles below. In the middle panel, a representation of the working class community, where the people are slightly turned, facing the right-most panel—a stunning, large-scale painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe watching over immigrants sailing across the sea to the United States. Behind her, a man with his eyes closed grasps at a chainlink fence.
Zimmerman’s historical and political pieces work to represent and celebrate the community of which they are a part of. The three murals work together to depict the hard work and success of immigrants, the industrious and inspirational faces of past and present Latino residents, as well as the Virgin of Guadalupe who watches over the community.
Wall of Hope
In 2010, a group of Yollocalli students led by artist Jesús “Chucho” Rodriguez created the “Wall of Hope” mural for the San Jose Obrero Mission, a local Pilsen organization that provided assistance to the homeless. The mural depicts the people who created the mission, as well as images of homelessness, with the words “dignity” and “community” featured prominently. The aim was to humanize those who are often ignored and give them hope for a better future.
The artists used butterflies as a metaphor for transitioning, representing the process of change that the homeless individuals at the San Jose Obrero Mission were going through as they tried to find jobs or new homes. The mural has since become a symbol of the community’s efforts to help those in need, as San Jose Obrero Mission provided many with a place to get food, showers, and sleep.
The “Wall of Hope” is a beacon of light in Pilsen, a symbol of the community’s efforts to help those in need. However, the shelter that the mural was created for closed in 2018 after 30 years of service. Despite their closure, the mural remains a testament to the power of art in creating positive change and providing hope to those who need it most. The powerful and transformative Pilsen mural “Wall of Hope” stands as a reminder that even in difficult times, communities can come together to create something beautiful and impactful.
Declaration of Immigration
The mural reads: “Declaration of Immigration; We are a nation of immigrants; No inhumane treatment, deportation, family separation, detention; No wall; No human being is illegal.” Depicted in between these statements are barbed wire and a variety of national flags from Latin America.
Yollocalli Arts Reach is the main contributor to this piece. This arts school was established in 1997 to offer education and artistic opportunities for young people in Pilsen. Over the years, Yollocalli participants have contributed to the creation of more than 30 murals in different parts of Chicago. One of the most remarkable pieces is the “Declaration of Immigration”, a mural located in Pilsen that serves as a tribute to immigrants and their supporters who have tirelessly advocated for fair treatment and immigration policies. This artwork perfectly captures the Chicano movement’s goal to preserve identity and empower advocacy. Despite the fact that Yollocalli has moved its base to Little Village, the mural still stands on the former site of the organization, now occupied by Giordano’s.