Detail from mural at the 18th Street el stop
The Murals at the 18th Street El Stop
To my eyes the el windows frame ever-changing portraits of Chicago. My favorite is at the 18th Street stop on the Blue and Pink lines, where bright murals—a red beast baring fangs, a man in a green vest smiling at his dance partner—line the platform. In 1993 the CTA, with the city-run youth art program Gallery 37 and the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum (now the National Museum of Mexican Art), commissioned art teacher Francisco Mendoza to beautify the station. Mendoza enlisted his students at Gallery 18, a satellite program of Gallery 37, along with anyone else in the neighborhood who could paint. “It was like having a jazz session,” he says. “Artists would come up and say, ‘I can paint, I have an idea,’ and I would give them the colors they needed.”
Pilsen got its predominant cultural flavor in the 60s and 70s, as Mexicans, enticed by liberal immigration laws and displaced by the University of Illinois at Chicago, outnumbered the Slavs who’d preceded them. Chicano artists nationwide took to the streets to express themselves, in a nod to the artists of the mural movement that flourished in Mexico in the 20s, just after the revolution—a tradition that continues today. “We might not be here in a couple of years, so we try to leave a whole story of how things are going,” says Jose Guerrero, who’s been involved in the Pilsen art community since 1973. He conducts tours of the neighborhood’s many murals, including one of activists Rudy Lozano and Cesar Chavez and Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata at Bishop and 18th that he and others painted in 1997 to protest gentrification. “I think people that just pass through Pilsen get a feeling of a lot of artwork,” Mendoza says. “It’s almost like a feeling of festivity—fiesta.” 1710 W. 18th, Pilsen. —Brenna Ehrlich
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