The Mexican Heritage of Pilsen

A Pilsen resident walks past colorful murals found on the walls of St. Pius V Church.

A Pilsen resident walks past colorful murals found on the walls of St. Pius V Church.

Yasmin Alvarez has lived in the Lower West Side neighborhood of Pilsen her whole life. The 17-year-old is a cashier at Meztisoy Fruit Market at 18th and Wood Streets, a store owned by her family of Mexican immigrants. To her, the vibrant art and authentic food are the most special parts of the neighborhood.

She describes the cuisine as “addicting” with a laugh, calling tacos a special favorite. “Whenever we have family over we’re like… ‘What do you want to eat?’ ‘Tacos!’”

Alvarez is relatively typical of the residents in her community. A predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of about 43,000, Pilsen is nestled between 16th Street to the north, Halsted Street to the east, Cermak Road to the south, and Western Avenue to the west. The community is known for its art district and vigorous Mexican culture, both results of the historically mostly Mexican-American population.

The National Museum of Mexican Art is a popular showcase of the community’s cultural heritage. It features exhibits about the country’s history, as well as the histories of Mexican communities in the United States.

Ariana Porras, 27, has been a cashier at the museum’s gift shop for three years. She commutes to her job from Brighton Park, a neighborhood she says doesn’t have as much culture as the one she works in. “It’s totally different,” she said. “There are more ethnic stores here.”

Nowhere is the ethnic influence more present than in the selection of restaurants and cafes, including Fogata Village, La Catrina, Nuevo Leon, and Taqueria Los Comales.

Los Comales

The Tacqueria Los Comales is popular among Pilsen residents.

“When people come outside, they want to eat something ethnic. They expect that,” Porras said, adding, “and I think they’re doing a real good job of keeping the ethnic food around.”

One of the most striking displays of culture in Pilsen includes diverse offerings of artwork, from the murals that decorate many of the neighborhood’s churches, schools, and other buildings, to the art displayed in galleries throughout the community.

“It’s not just focused in one specific genre of art,” Porras said. “You have your muralists, you know, you have your art people that do actual art and have their galleries.”

But the face of the neighborhood is changing. Its proximity to the Loop and the University of Illinois at Chicago has driven increased development of Pilsen’s properties. The ensuing migration of more affluent Chicagoans of non-Latino descent to the area has raised property values and rents, leading many to worry about the gentrification of Pilsen.

These changes have not gone unnoticed by the residents of Pilsen. Alvarez, the cashier at Meztisoy Fruit Market, said, “we get a lot of customers who are new to Pilsen.”

Meanwhile Porras, who works at the museum, has noticed more art in recent years. “The art, I think that’s what attracts people the most.”

by Kinga Obartuch

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