Pilsen’s Muse

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

This article is reprinted with permission from the March 10th, 2010 edition of Chicago Journal. Thanks to the author, as well as Chicago Journal editor Micah Maidenberg for his assistance.


On some nights, Decima Musa, a bar and restaurant at the corner of 19th Street and Loomis in Pilsen, is calm and quiet, akin to a living room. On other nights, the air vibrates with clinking beer bottles and live music.

Fandanguero might be playing the foot-stomping music of Vera Cruz, or Tropa Solar could be serving up its original blend of American and Latin ballads and pop. For eight years, Thursdays have featured the canto nuevo (protest music) of Ramon Marino, along with an open mic that might draw a veteran performer or a student just learning guitar.

Recently, Pilsen has gotten much attention for its hot new bars and restaurants. But Decima Musa, celebrating its 28th anniversary this May, epitomizes the allure, eccentricity, and ups and downs of Pilsen as perhaps no other cantina could.

Decima Musa is named for Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, the famous 17th century Mexican nun, feminist, poet, and playwright who championed women’s right to education, defended prostitutes, and mocked stubborn and hypocritical men. It is a fitting name, given the tough proprietress who has kept Decima going all these years.

Owner Rosario Rabiela grew up in Guerrero, a state in southern Mexico known for being lawless, impoverished, and wild. Drug traffickers, Marxist rebels, and protesting farmers often hold police and government officials at bay in Guerrero. But Rabiela’s childhood town, Coyuca de Catalan, also had a thriving intellectual scene. Her father helped publish a literary magazine and filled the house with discussions of art and philosophy. Rabiela’s mother played the violin.

In December 1957, when Rabiela was 12, her parents and seven siblings migrated to the U.S. and settled just north of Pilsen. In the afternoons, Rabiela would pick up her younger brother Henry at a settlement house with after-school programming near Roosevelt Road. She became close friends with Carmen Velasquez, who did programming for children at the settlement house.

Around 1980, Rabiela, Velasquez, and a few others hatched the idea of forming a women’s collective to run a bar, restaurant, and community center. They saw a For Sale sign on the stocky brick building that now hosts Decima, then owned by a Polish widow. Tenants, many of them elderly, lived in the apartments above. The ground floor once housed a bar and assembly hall for Eastern European workers, but it had been vacant for a number of years.

The women decided the building was perfect for their plans, and Decima Musa officially opened on May 7, 1982, Rabiela’s 37th birthday. Eventually, Velasquez and Rabiela took over operations at Decima.

“Imagine two women starting a bar in a rough Mexican neighborhood like this was,” recalled Itzel Muñoz, a poet who found her way to Decima Musa in the 1990s and quickly became a regular. “It was hard. It was really something.”

Even though Pilsen was a hardscrabble blue-collar neighborhood, Rabiela and Velasquez shaped Decima Musa to reflect their commitment to cosmopolitan thought and culture. They decorated the walls with posters of Sor Juana and a series of Spanish-language posters celebrating everyone from Aristotle and Marie Curie to Rainer Maria Rilke and Anne Frank. A framed treatise, titled Consejo Al Hombre(Advice to Man) proclaims that it is “better to die than live without hope.”

“I wish more people would read these posters and learn about these people,” Rabiela said. “It’s a universal history. These ideas are never obsolete, whether they’re from the 1500s or 1800s. We are living the same things now.”

It’s an ethic that Marino agrees with. People often ask him why he always plays the same protest songs at Decima each week.

“I don’t see any change in the world from the 1970s until now,” he said. “The 1970s was Vietnam, Pinochet in Chile, Mexico 1968. Now we have the problems in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Honduras. There’s no change. So we still need that music.”

Decima is a venue for many political, cultural, and fundraising events, and as such has drawn a handful of Latin American luminaries. It is not uncommon for tourists or students from Argentina, Chile, or Mexico to wander in, saying they heard about the bar back home.

On busy nights, as the clock inches toward 2 a.m., Rabiela will often take the mic and make a speech about whatever is on her mind: the latest challenges facing Decima, an upcoming protest, injustices plaguing the world. The speeches sometimes come off as quixotic or grandiose. But given the context of the neighborhood and the lives of many of the cantina’s independent-minded and unconventional clientele, the melodrama of her speeches seems to resonate. Some residents and patrons have fled civil wars, imprisonment, oppression, and even torture in their home countries. Others have no legal status, having built lives in Pilsen that could be yanked out from under them at any minute. Many are searching for themselves and their identities.

Through it all, Rabiela is the force that keeps drawing people here. Her presence behind the bar or at the mic is a balm to many.

“She’s like a mother,” said Muñoz.

Five years ago, Decima Musa would be packed nearly every night of the week. Now large crowds are usually reserved for the events or celebrations that happen several times a month.

Marino, the protest singer, suggested the smoking ban and economic downturn thinned crowds at Decima, not to mention the changes in Pilsen that have likely uprooted former patrons. In spite of the challenges, Marino respects the fact that Rabiela has not turned to plasma TVs, extra-flirtatious waitresses, or other new measures to draw larger crowds.

“She’s not commercial,” he said. “It’s the only place in Pilsen, maybe in Chicago, that lets us do whatever we want to do.”

On many a Thursday, Marino wraps up the night with the Chilean song “Todo Cambia,” popularized by Mercedes Sosa.

The refrain, “cambia, todo cambia” (“everything changes”) seems fitting for a place like Pilsen, where successive waves of immigration and now gentrification have kept residents in a constant state of flux.

As a winter wind howls outside, or on a hot summer night as the air conditioner whirs loudly, those words seem incongruous. Inside Decima, at least, it feels like nothing changes.


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