In Pilsen, artists Hector Duarte and Gabriel Villa have created with paint what they hope to see more of in the neighborhood: a flowering of culture and a commitment to “fight to stay” in the face of gentrification and development.
They say their new mural – standing nearly three stories high, painted on a building at 1910 S. Wolcott Ave. which is owned by the Pilsen Housing Cooperative, of which the two artists are co-founders – aims to unite the residents of Pilsen to push back against the economic forces that have helped push some Mexican American families out of the neighborhood.
“We put this name on from the beginning: ‘Fight to stay’,” says Duarte. “The name of this fresco is [about] anti-gentrification but above all the great impact of investors. They buy the little old houses and destroy the character of Pilsen.
The mural reflects the purpose of the Pilsen housing cooperative, says Duarte.
“The mission of this cooperative is to stay in Pilsen,” he says. ” Do not leave. You are from here. You can survive here. We think it can represent the spirit of people who live in Pilsen. They would like to stay, but the money is not enough to pay the rent. The new owners have rents three or five times higher.
Pilsen has a long history as a Mexican-American enclave. In recent years, however, some family homes andpanaderias and taquerias have given way to luxury apartment buildings and high-end restaurants. Property values and rents have increased. Between 2011 and 2020, the 60608 zip code that includes Pilsen and parts of Bridgeport and McKinley Park lost 10,392 Latino residents, according to census figures.
The new fresco also offers a reminder of Mario Castillo’s “Peace”, which was the first fresco in Pilsen and later also recognized as the first of the national Chicano movement. It depicted anti-war sentiments and included elements of Native American culture.
“Peace” was on Halsted Street between Cullerton Avenue and 19th Street but was sandblasted in 1992.
Offering a nod to “Peace” was natural, Villa says, because “her mural has a lot of history, being one of the first murals by a Latino artist in Chicago. And especially that period, the late 60s, it was very much in the style of the counterculture.
Duarte and Villa scaled down Castillo’s work and made it part of their new mural.
Castillo calls it “an honor.”
“It’s part of the story, and it allows me to have a footnote in the story,” he says.
The mural includes images of two tornadoes.
One is shown brushing off elements of traditional Mexican culture. The “invading” tornado is behind the “Peace” mural, threatening it and other elements of Mexican culture. Duarte says this poses the threat of displacement from investors buying into the neighborhood.
Against this is a “family” tornado that grows from a flower and depicts five people holding hands, whirling against the first tornado.
“The family tornado represents our neighbors, the co-op,” says Duarte. “It represents the whole intention of staying in Pilsen: do not leave Pilsen.”
The mural is also filled with flowers growing in small flowerpots on painted windowsills.
“Each window represents a family or people here” in the co-op building, Duarte says. “Culture comes from where people live. Put that energy into that plant. It grows. Say, “I live here. It belongs to me.’ ”
Another key element of the mural: a tree rooted in obsidian, a volcanic rock that the artists say represents indigenous cultures, symbolizing the deep roots of the culture and community of Mexican Americans living in Pilsen. .
“The tree represents community,” Villa says. “It represents the longtime residents of Pilsen who are here, who stay here, who stand here firmly rooted in the ground.”