Puppies Out of Pilsen

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #13 in April 2013]

Puppies Out of Pilsen: A Day Without Public Art in Pilsen

El Popocatepetl Tortilleria, mural: Jeff Zimmerman.
Photoshopping by Mina Marroquin-Crow.

In 2008, someone stickered the intersection around 18th and Loomis with “yuppies out of Pilsen!” Shortly afterwards, someone wrote over the stickers and changed them to “puppies out of Pilsen!” A classmate told me about a student who moved into the neighborhood, and expressed her disdain for graffiti by stickering her own retorts, like “ILLITERATE!” and “Absentee Father?” on top of spray painted tags.  A flier making rounds on online media declaring “White Yuppies Out of Pilsen!” is presented (without a precise known origin) in an editorial from an August 2012 F Magazine, the SAIC student-run newspaper, as evidence of the “reverse discrimination” a white resident felt he had experienced in Pilsen. And there was an incident where a mural called the Declaration of Immigration, located on the side of Yollocalli and painted by students and teaching artist Salvador Jimenez, was defaced with spray paint that said “Mexicans are Racists!” Earlier the same year, the Casa Aztlán was defaced with swastikas. These are just some examples since 2009.

Some long-time residents express anger and concern over the influx of new residents who are changing the face of the overall community, but why? Some white residents express frustration at feeling excluded, unwelcome, and not knowing how to fit in. What is at the root of this frustration? Despite the turbulence, this community is still extremely attractive to all sorts of artists for a range of reasons, particularly the low cost and the “vibrant mural scene.” There are organizations, galleries and artists operating from within Pilsen that do not interact at all with Mexican residents or contribute to the collective public culture, but benefit from affordable rent and the status of being located in a fashionable neighborhood. This exacerbates the already tense exchanges because people do not know what motivates other people to do what they do. It has led to mounting suspicion, deepening divisions, and growing gulfs between different groups of creative producers. While this might be attributed to natural differences between creative groups and generations, many of the divisions are along race and class lines.

Yollocalli, the youth arts program at 18th Street and Loomis, is closing its doors after 15 years, this year, and their satellite programs will be forced to find free places to hold classes. ProsArts is now crammed into a park building at Dvorak Park, and does not have its own building. These two organizations and the artists affiliated with them are responsible for a majority of the murals in the neighborhood. They are barely able to remain open, and neither has a site of their own. Public arts programming for youth is suffering and shrinking while the affluent white student population appears to be growing.

What draws people to Pilsen? What motivates some people to leave? What conditions of power have led to the changes that have caused some working class people to react to their new neighbors with frustration? What experiences do new residents feel entitled to that they are not getting? What are exceptions to the divisions, and what are ways that new residents can acknowledge and contribute to the existing culture of the neighborhood?

In November 2012, a collective I am a member of was awarded a Propeller Grant for a project that aims to address the status quo of frustration and disengagement in Pilsen with a series of public discussions as part of a weekend of artistic interventions to occur in late summer 2013.  The project is called A Day Without Public Art in Pilsen, which is a mash-up of Day Without Art (1989) and the film A Day Without A Mexican (2004.)  The main activity involves of covering up Pilsen public art. By drawing attention to the enormous contributions of Pilsen cultural workers, youth and visual artists, we aim to create a scene around the absence of this work, and to ask, what it would look like to not have the art and public life we enjoy in Pilsen? In addition to the shrouding of public art, there will be a series of public forums and panels, which will include all stakeholders in the neighborhood. Local histories, stories, and experiences will be shared, expressions of fears and anger will likely arise, and a People’s Cultural Plan for Pilsen will be created collectively, as a result.

This is a huge idea with a small budget, but volunteers and organizations that are affected by changes in the neighborhood demographics are excited to participate. Our best-case scenario is that the alderman’s office will support this, corporations will sponsor art shrouds (complete with corporate logos!), and that individuals will contribute by covering their own murals, garden sculptures and window displays. Taping a napkin over a graffiti tag could be a small but powerful gesture.

Wrapping up public art brings up images of work by the artist Christo, of course, but it also refers to the Catholic practice of shrouding sacred statues during the passion week, 2 weeks before Easter. It also refers to the practice of shrouding mirrors during shiva, the Jewish traditional mourning period after someone dies. Shrouding covers, protects, and it also focuses attention. It will give residents an opportunity to focus on the value of the creative laborer in the community and the organizations that support this work. Hopefully it will enable folks who romanticize this labor to snap out of it and take an honest look at the workers whose efforts make it possible for people to be able to be this proud to live in Pilsen.

This is also an opportunity look at people in this little microcosm of the U.S. and at the tension and anger we have seen in the larger national context around the migration of millions of people and the emergence of borderlands in places far away from the actual border. The struggles Arizona and Texas are going through are echoing here, too. It is time to discuss this context and our nation’s history of conflicts over land, the prevailing notion of manifest destiny and how this relates to gentrification. Hostility towards Mexican people is not self-defense against reverse racism.

This project is, in part, a stunt to create an opportunity for residents, recent and long-term, to come together and begin a dialogue. People need to share what is at the root of the anger and lack of communication and talk about individual experiences. This kind of discussion would be more likely to succeed in intimate settings between people who have a stake in the outcome. People have also expressed an interest in sharing their views in public forums. This will provide opportunities for several approaches, different kinds of dialogues, and for communities of affinity within this geographic community to talk in terms of solidarity and difference.

Members of the Day Without Public Art in Pilsen team include Elvia Ochoa Rodriguez, Paulina Camacho, Amanda Cortes, Brenda Hernandez, Vanessa Sanchez and Nicole Marroquin.

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