Portraits of Mexico in Chicago
By : Laura Putre
Fotos J. Kevin Foltz
On the wall of a carniceria in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, Mexican country singer Juan Sebastian rides a rodeo horse under the watchful gaze of Jesus, while folklorico dancers kick up the brightly colored ruffles of their long skirts. They're all two-dimensional characters in a pair of side-by-side murals, but they look ready to hop off the backdrop and party in the streets.
The works, by Pilsen painter Alejandro Medina, are just two of about 30 outdoor murals in this art-filled neighborhood on the city's Near West Side. A few of the Pilsen murals date back to the 1970s, but many, like Medina's, were created recently. A handful are in progress right now.
In April, inside the National Museum of Mexican Art on West 19th Street, artist Hector Duarte was filling the walls of the front gallery with butterflies, fire and barbed wire for Destejiendo fronteras/Unweaving Walls. The mural is a symbolic rendering of the journey Mexican immigrants make as they separate from their families and cross the perilous border frontier to the United States, sometimes never to return.
A graduate of the Siqueiros Mural Workshop in Cuernavaca, Mexico, the 57-year-old Duarte is considered one of the elders of Chicago's mural scene, someone the younger artists call "Maestro."
Duarte moved to Chicago in 1985. He had previously spent a month in the city for a mural workshop and was impressed by the arts scene in and around Pilsen. "I saw a lot of possibilities," Duarte says. In Mexico, despite the influence of Diego Rivera, who revived the traditional art of fresco painting in the 1930s, "nobody was painting murals anymore," says Duarte. "The movement had been declining since the 1950s. The new generation had started to paint small pictures in other styles from Europe and changed everything. The government, they didn't support it anymore." But in early 1980s Chicago, Mayor Harold Washington was preaching support for the arts, and parents of Pilsen schoolchildren were pushing for commissions for visiting artists.
Roy Villalobos, a 37-year-old muralist who lives and works in Pilsen, calls Duarte his mentor. "He's humble and he's straight with me. He'll look at my work and suggest I make corrections," says Villalobos. "He's the one I go to as a guide."
Villalobos took a rather circuitous route to Pilsen. He was actually born in Chicago, and at age 10 moved to the family homestead in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, with his immigrant parents, who longed for their old land. He returned to the States in 2000, when he was a 28-year-old struggling artist. "I had already heard about Pilsen through an uncle of mine back in Mexico… about this community of artists, mostly Latino, who lived there," he says. "When I arrived on 18th Street, I didn't know where to go. That's when I noticed it was all right here in front of me." He already had a job lined up through contacts at the National Museum of Mexican Art (then called the Mexican Fine Arts Center), where he had exhibited work in absentia for a Day of the Dead show. He quickly found a community, hanging out with other artists at Cafe Jumping Bean, a coffee shop on West 18th Street that shares the block with a Spanish-language bookstore, Libreria Giron, and indie record label Thrill Jockey Records. His first commission was painting a landscape of a little town in Mexico for El Milagro restaurant, a popular taqueria at 19th and Blue Island.
Villalobos says he lands his commissions mainly by "knocking on doors" around the neighborhood. "And then a little bit more for not-for-profit organizations… summer projects with the neighborhood kids," he continues. "That's how most of us start. We never stopped getting involved in this community."
Villalobos says that in Pilsen, the murals' symbolism has become more universal as the movement has matured. "In the past, you'd see a lot of murals with themes of Aztec or Mexico or heroes. It was to help sustain our identity, because a lot of people who came here from little towns didn't know about the Aztecs. It was the idea 'Let's identify with our community, painting a mural positive to them at that moment."'
His latest mural is a 30-foot-high rendering of a family looking down on the world from a golden tree (which could be interpreted as one of the fancy high-rises encroaching on the working-class Pilsen community in the past decade). Called Global Gentrification, the mural was painted on the side of his apartment building. Though Villalobos calls himself a surrealist, the work's palette of vivid reds, blues and golds is all his own, and his iconic human figures conjure up references to 1920s constructivism as much as they do Salvador Dali.
In the past couple of years, Villalobos has mentored a few Pilsen youngsters. The kids tend to start off with graffiti tagging, using spray paint instead of brushes. "They're more influenced by that movement," says Villalobos, "because it's what they see. I didn't see tagging over there in Mexico."
Villalobos says he recently worked with a group of teenagers who said they liked tagging. He took that to heart, having them first design a tag for the wall they were working on, then color it with paint so they could get a feel for the blending they could do with a brush instead of a spray can. "There's going to be more and more muralists here," he happily predicts.
How To Get There: American Airlines and American Eagle provide service to Chicago O'Hare International Airport.
Book your trip today! Visit www.aa.com, call American/American Eagle reservations at 1-800-433-7300, or call your travel agent for more information.