“We’re Cultural Workers”

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

“We’re Cultural Workers” Jose Guerrero and the Pilsen Mural Tour

A black and white print leaning against the window depicts a pair of sinister businessmen  sitting and digging into a cake with “Pilsen” scrawled across its front. A dog—an emaciated Chihuahua—guards a few scraps between its front paws, waiting for another crumb to fall to the floor. A sign in the background translates to:

“Your House is My House.”

Another reads:

“Plan 21.”

Even as vintage-clad kids crowd the sidewalks of the 18th Street corridor, José Guerrero, a Chicano activist and the artist behind the print, explains that the hip crowd is not to blame for Pilsen’s rapid gentrification. “The new people coming in, like the hipsters and the younger whites, they’re friendly people and become our allies,” Guerrero says. “They help us fight gentrification. But it’s the banks you’ve got to worry about. They’re the ones that chase everybody out.”

“Plan 21” refers to the Chicago 21 Plan , hatched in 1973 as a scheme to turn the areas surrounding the city’s central business district into housing for downtown workers, a sort of barrier between the Loop and the communities of color surrounding it. Pilsen’s proximity to downtown has made it a prime target for developers looking to extend condominium development further west.

Guerrero has always been an artist, and his interest in muralism was encouraged by the frequent trips he made to Mexico in the 50s. There, he encountered some of the biggest names in Mexican muralismo, the visionaries whose art inspired a parallel movement in Pilsen and other Mexican-American enclaves throughout the US.

Guerrero first came to Chicago from San Antonio, Texas in 1964; the burgeoning mural culture led him to settle in Pilsen. Casa Aztlán was doing murals that he was interested in, and he began working with them doing murals in the neighborhood. In 1980, Guerrero and some colleagues started Pilsen Mural Tours as a means to share the socially conscious murals they were painting with the mostly Mexican community in Pilsen.

Back then, Guerrero and his peers compared themselves to the Mexican muralists. They aimed to educate people with their work, he says, by adorning the alleyways and garage doors of Pilsen with stills of Mexican history and struggle precisely because of the importance of muralism in Mexican culture. According to Guerrero, the new crop of mural artists in Pilsen takes a different approach. Some Pilsen mural veterans are skeptical of “cartoonish” mural art that has no clear political or social message, but Guerrero is optimistic: “They’ll eventually get into the form of art for propaganda to help the people of Pilsen, that teaches history and so on, to continue talking about the Mexican culture. Because culture is very important to everybody, I don’t care who it is.”

The role of culture in Pilsen mural art, both new and old school, is what sets it apart from other mediums and precisely what makes it a useful organizing tool. For Guerrero, mural art is not only a means to celebrate Mexican culture and fight stereotypes about Latinos, but also a way to celebrate culture more broadly and combat assimilation. “The people on East Halsted, they’re artists. We’re cultural workers.” ◊


Excursions with Pilsen Mural Tours can be booked for a flat fee of $125 per tour for up to 30 people. Tours meet at the National Museum of Mexican Art at 1852 W. 19th. Guerrero and other Pilsen artists also offer printing, silk screening and drawing classes at the Mestizarte workshop at 1440 W. 18th. Classes meet for three hours on Saturdays and Sundays and run in three weekendlong sessions for $80. To register for classes or to make a reservation with the Pilsen Mural Tour, call (773) 342-4191.


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