Progressive Pilsen: leaving behind a legacy

By: Lauren Miller

Family stands outside the a taqueriera
Family stands outside the a taqueria.

The faint smell of crispy tortillas lingers delicately in the air from the early morning production. People lazily move, precariously stopping for a casual conversation on the heat-swelled pavement, in front of vibrant murals that line the street.

These sights and smells are found in the small Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen.

Pilsen is dynamic community of 43,000 in the lower West Side of Chicago, with the boundaries falling roughly 16th Street to the north, Cermak Road to the south and Halsted Street to the east and Western Avenue to the west.

Often thought of as the epicenter of Hispanic culture in Chicago, Pilsen has not always been this way.

Pilsen was originally a home to many Czech immigrants in the early 1900s. The eastern European influence can still be seem in architecture of the buildings and last names of some of the residents, but this area has since progressed, with the arrival of many Mexican immigrants in the 1960s, to a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.

This tight knit neighborhood isn’t done progressing yet. Recently more Anglo-Americans have been moving into Pilsen and many new American restaurants have also been popping up across town.

The process of gentrification has started in Pilsen because of this, and the Hispanic residents have nothing but open arms towards the change.

“To me I feel great, everything is changing… There’s a lot of different areas that needs change, this street (Laflin) used to be crazy. Now it’s changing, little by little. They’re (gangs) moving on somewhere else,” said Erendira Gomez 42, a Pilsen resident of 20 years.

This new sense of tranquility does have a catch to it though, higher taxes, said Juana Ramirez 74.

“If we can afford the taxes, we will stay, but if not we will move up, and the white people will live in this Pilsen area. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, the environment is changing, becoming safer.” Ramirez said.

The residents of Pilsen try to keep their Hispanic culture alive, and leave a life long stamp of their presence on the community much like the previous inhabitants, the Czech, especially in the younger generations.

“Some people come to America and they don’t speak the language, so they just let their kids forget about Spanish culture,” Gomez said. “That’s not me. I always have my kids read and talk Spanish, so that he doesn’t lose that tradition.”




Little Mexico: A Community Of Culture and Change

Locals taking an afternoon stroll past Nueva Leon, a restaurant in Pilsen. The streets are now safer thanks to increased police enforcement.
Locals taking an afternoon stroll past Nuevo Leon, a restaurant in Pilsen. The streets are now safer thanks to increased police enforcement.

By: Sydney Chuen

Erendira Gomez, 49, was born and raised on a small farm in Mexico in 1965.

Despite living in a steamy and tropical climate, things weren’t so hot for her family of hard workers.

The only way to survive was for the family to relocate to a place that would be more hospitable, like Chicago’s own Pilsen neighborhood on the lower West Side, which now has close to 43,000 residents.

The vast majority of people living here are immigrants form Mexico, which means that they brought over their culture’s traditions of art, style, delicious food, and, of course, close family ties.

“Everything is different, culture is the same,” said Gomez smiling as she compares her lifestyle here as opposed to Mexico.

While Pilsen’s boundaries, 16th Street, Cermak Road, Halsted Street, and Western Avenue may not be familiar to most, Gomez doesn’t know where she would be without them.

From the classic Mexican restaurants to the murals to the residents themselves, Pilsen is nothing short of an exact replica of Mexico cut-and-pasted into America’s third largest city.

It wasn’t always this way Gomez continues to explain. Since the beginning, gangs were common on the streets of Pilsen.

She remembers being “worried for the safety of the kids,” Gomez said.

But the residents decided that they had enough, and with the number of police officers and arrests increasing, the streets became safer which allowed the Mexican atmosphere that even non-Hispanics have grown to love to shine through.

Even so, recently there has been a new development that residents of Pilsen tend to have strong feelings about: gentrification.

Surprisingly, Jose Fuentes, 62, who has lived in Pilsen for almost half a century, sees this as a good thing.

He goes on to say that the new families are contributing to the culture of Pilsen, not destroying it like some people think.

“We live in a free country,” Fuentes said. “Live wherever you want as long as you can afford it.”


Devon Avenue:


Pilsen: A Warm Community Filled with Smiles

Long time owner of Nuevo Leon, a popular restaurant in Pilsen, greeting an old friend on the street.

Imagine standing in the middle of a neighborhood surrounded by people who are all alike; all the people in this neighborhood know one another, are kind to one another, and love one another.

For residents of Pilsen, this just so happens to be their lifestyle.

Paul Guizar, 23, works in Pilsen Vintage & Thrift and first moved to Pilsen about five years ago. He describes it as an opening and close community.

Pilsen, a neighborhood that was originally inhabited by Czechoslovakian immigrants, is now primarily a Mexican-American neighborhood and has a population of roughly 43,000 people. With boundaries of 16th Street, Cermak Road, Halsted Street and Western Avenue, this neighborhood is on the lower West Side of Chicago.

In recent years, Pilsen has experienced gentrification, with more Anglo-Americans coming into the neighborhood.

While there have been some cultural changes due to the mixture of nationalities, it doesn’t bother some as much as it bothers others.

“I like that there’s something new and different,” Guizar said.

With restaurants and exciting shops on every block, it’s no wonder why people love Pilsen, and the town center in particular.

Just about everyone spotted in the town center of Pilsen has a smile on their faces and is friendly to one another.

“This [the town center] is the heart of Pilsen,” said Carlos Arango.

There are many different shops in Pilsen, some filled with traditional Mexican clothing, and others simply sell clothing that people wear all over the city of Chicago.

What separates the shop Guizar works at from the others? His store aims to be only vintage.

“Most of the other thrift stores from here just sell anything. We try to only sell things from the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he said.

Despite the differences in stores, everyone in the town still gets along with one another and there really isn’t much competition between businesses.

When asked what his favorite part of Pilsen was, Guizar said, “the good food, and that everybody is friendly.”


Devon Avenue

Ever-changing Little Mexico

By Taylor Puccini

A local work of art illustrates a modern issue close to the hearts of many residents of Pilsen.


From streets lined with colorful murals that tell stories and decorate the town, to the smell of freshly baked tortillas, Pilsen is alive and thriving, bursting with local culture.

Nestled on the lower West Side of Chicago, Illinois, the neighborhood is only a subway ride away from the heart of the city. And if the Loop is the heart of Chicago, Pilsen could be considered the eclectic soul.

Pilsen is an ever-changing town; originally a Czech neighborhood, it is now home to roughly 43,000 people, many of whom are Hispanic.

Now practically filled to the brim with traditional Mexican heritage reflected in various forms of traditional food and art, Pilsen has started to change again.

Even Ernesto Abina, 42, who has worked in Pilsen for 10 years at Tortilleria Sabinas alongside his father and brother, has noticed the difference.

“[Pilsen] is moving to the commercial side, but there are a lot of art galleries opening that showcase local artists from the area,” Abina said.

By looking at the vibrant murals that wrap around the buildings of Pilsen, the recent changes in the area are even obvious to visitors.

One such work of art, while beautiful, has a powerful modern message. The mural, with its light blue background and torn barbed wire, combines pictures and words to advocate for immigration reform.

Some of the few constants in Pilsen are its boundaries: 16th Street to the north, Cermak Road to the south, Halsted Street to the east, and Western Avenue to the west.

Daniel Gutierrez, 67, has lived in Pilsen for 57 years. Frequently locals walk up to say hello and wish him well as he sits outside of his restaurant, Nuevo Leon, showing just how tightly knit the community in this area is despite the growing diversity.

While in other cases change may seem unnerving, Gutierrez believes it has benefitted this historic neighborhood.

“Many Anglo-Americans have come to the neighborhood,” Gutierrez said. “[Pilsen] has really changed for the best.”


Devon Avenue 

What are you doing in Pilsen?

By Aaron Michael Lenz

photo-4Pilsen is tight-knit community with many activities for teenagers.

The boundaries of Pilsen are 16th Street to the north, Cermak Road to the south, Halsted Street to the east, and Western Avenue to the west.

Pilsen seems like a small community with a population of 43,000.

While spending time in Pilsen, many teenagers expressed that hanging out and having fun is a way to spend their time in Pilsen. Yasmin Alvarez, 17, said that the “place where people manly hangout is Harrison Park.’’

In Harrison Park, boys play basketball with there dads, and people work out.

Harrison Park, Speedies, and Pizza Nova are great places that teenagers Marllery Juarez, 15, and Aaliyah Caldeon, 13, frequent.

Teens said Pilsen is a not just a good place to hang out, it’s also a great to eat. Alvarez described the food as “addicting’’ and “authentic.’’ Taqueria Los Comales is a great example of authentic Mexican food, they said.

Besides all the food places and hangout spots, the murals are impressive things to see. Each and every piece of art that is on the walls is for a purpose to tell a story about the community.

Even though everyone in Pilsen might not be wealthy, they have an abundance of riches from their culture.

“Pilsen has a really family-friendly environment,” Ariana Porras, 27, a gift shop clerk at the National Museum of Mexican Art. “There is a strong cultural influence. You see it in the food and the art.”



Panaderías, Paint, and People: Pilsen

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Staircase art located at the subway station in Pilsen, Chicago.
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Church that has been painted by street artists.
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Fresh produce in a local grocery store.

By: Sasha Keenan

It is easy to feel alone when enclosed in the vast streets and endless bustle of downtown Chicago.

However, just outside and slightly to the west lies Pilsen, a tightly woven community that can make nearly anyone feel at home.

Mallery Juarez, 15, one of the 43,000 inhabitants of Pilsen, loves where she lives because of the people.  “They’re nice, you know everybody where you live.” Juarez said, an observation she has drawn from her whole life in the neighborhood.

Extending from 16th Street, to Cermak Road, to Halsted Street, to Western Avenue, Pilsen embodies the essence of traditional Mexican culture and provides a satisfying experience for tourists and residents alike.

Yasmin Alvarez, 17, a cashier at a local grocery , witnesses the qualities of her neighborhood from behind the register daily.

According to Alvarez, Pilsen is unique through its people’s ability to voice their opinions through mediums, such as art.

“ The way the artists express themselves” is what Alvarez  identified as the most special thing about her community.

In the 1950s, many Mexicans  that moved to Pilsen carried their mural art traditions along with them.

Large murals and street art adorn the streets, many of which tell stories.

Amongst these streets as well are a number of iconic restaurants, some of which have been serving up authentic Mexican food for decades.

For many, the food is the most noteworthy of Pilsen’s features.

13-year-old Aalyah Calderon shared that she not only enjoys the food, but also considers food a way to bond with friends.

“We hang out at places like Pizza Nova and Speedy’s,” Calderon said.

It is clear that almost every Pilsen native has something in common; an undeniable desire to preserve the distinctive culture of Mexico in a city that is rapidly progressing.

Through the presence of art, food, and close-knit people, the community of Pilsen remains a cultural gem.

Arianna Porras, 27, recognizes this: “There is a strong cultural influence here.”



Pilsen Welcomes the New and Old

By Emily Martinbianco

Escaping the hustle of thScreen Shot 2014-06-17 at 4-2.41.42 PMe city within the West Side of Chicago, the heavily Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen is evolving to become more welcoming to the public. The community is now opening up through iconic art in the streets and in its food.

Locals frequent the park and the streets beside the festively painted buildings and unique storefronts. With traces of the original Czechoslovakian neighborhood vanished, the laid back and heavily Mexican influenced neighborhood of Pilsen inches its way towards becoming a more alluring place for visitors.

“Every second Friday they have this art thing where you walk down 18th street and the galleries are open and they have wine,” said Ariana Porras, 27, an employee of the National Museum of Mexican Art.

“They try to make it both for adults and at the same time they focus on the community as well so it’s friendly for both. You could bring your kid and you could roam around and look at the galleries,” 2qzNpPxZGdqpwYV-OFBU8_9SZnXc3uPh5fgskA4E6Zx9_C1O425A253-fJIXhzAHoebrRg=w1349-h726Porras said.

Yesmin Alvarez,17, grocery store cashier, has been a part of the change towards a family oriented neighborhood.

“Little by little, we are changing stuff and making it a place where people are welcome. We get a lot of families and people from different areas,” Alvarez said, “We get a lot of customers who are new and want to get to know Pilsen. We usually get a lot of people who aren’t from around here.”

The neighborhood of about 43,000 people is bounded by 16th Street, Cermak Road, Halsted Street and Western Avenue, and is known for unique murals, the National Museum of Mexican Art and authentic Mexican food.
“We have one of the best Mexican restaurants in the community… when people come outside (their usual places) they want to eat something ethnic so they expect that,” Porras said

Although evolving, the neighborhood sticks to its roots with in the original culture of this long-standing Mexican village.
“I’ve been working here for seven or eight years. I actually started with this business when the owner of this business had another grocery store and I was only 10 years old,” Alvarez said, “The food has always been authentic.”


Little India


Pilsen: Sweet as flan

By Maja Bulka

A Loyola student takes a siesta surrounded by Pilsen murals.

“In hoc signo vinces,” the motto of Plzen, is printed in colorful lettering on a poster hanging inside of the gift shop in the National Museum of Mexican Art. Translated from Latin, the poster reads, “In this sign you will conquer,” and pays homage to Pilsen Chicago’s Czech roots.

Ariana Porras, 27, comments on the makeup of Pilsen from the register of the gift shop as she waits for a customer to decide on a pulsera, a traditional handmade bracelet.

“Now the neighborhood is mostly Mexicans and Mexican-Americans,” Porras says: “They have a strong cultural influence. You see it in the food.”

Meanwhile, the customer, a bespectacled, bearded man motions towards the red pulsera. Porras rings him up as she continues to talk about Pilsen’s cuisine.

A cheery danke schon from the exiting customer throws her off mid sentence, but Porras recovers.

“You also get that,” Porras chuckles, “different kinds of people from different places looking to experience the Mexican culture.”

The National Museum of Mexican Art sits on 19th Street, with the boundaries of Pilsen running from 16th Street to the north, Cermak Avenue to the South, Halsted Street to the East, and Western Avenue to the west.

The museum is surrounded by a variety of Mexican businesses, shops and a public park.

New restaurants like La Catrina right on 18th street are joining the ranks of older, more well known restaurants in the area, such as the highly recommended Nuevo Leon, also on 18th street. Both restaurants offer their own take on authentic horchata, flan, tacos and other Mexican specialties.

Art galleries open to the public take place every 2nd Friday of the month, and instill a sense of family and belonging into the community.

“It’s a win-win for everyone,” Porras comments on the relationship between Pilsen’s older, Hispanic residents and the starving artists who have recently began settling in the area.

At first, the residents regarded the artists with some contempt for fear that they would boot them out of their own neighborhood, but as they began opening galleries and beautifying the neighborhood, tensions chilled.

“It’s a lot safer now than it was before. There is some change, but it’s good,” Jasmine Alvarez, 17, explains from behind the counter of the Lagos Fruit Market.

A Loyola student admires a stretch of wall art.
A Loyola student admires a stretch of wall art.

With a population of about 43,000, she says individual faces become almost as recognizable as the vivid murals adorning the sides of many buildings.

Roberto Garcia, 36, summarizes the feel of Pilsen:

“People don’t stay because it’s pretty, bonito, they stay because this is home. We are family.”


Pilsen: A 2nd Mexico

By: Nick Kowalski

Artwork by the L.
Artwork by the L.

Yasman Alvarez, stands behind the cashier counter at her family’s grocery store, Lagos Fruit Market, greeting customers with an enthusiastic smile. Homemade baked goods and fresh watermelon cover the store as customers browse at ease, as if they were home.

Alvarez, 17, explained that customers from all over come to her family’s store to be able to feel like they are still in Mexico.

“We’re making it a place where people are welcome… someone from Mexico would find Pilsen like home,” Alvarez said.

Bounded by 16th Street, Cermak Road, Halsted Street and Western Avenue, families like the Alvarez’s are working to keep Pilsen rich with authentic Mexican culture and heritage.

Family owned stores and art galleries cover the neighborhood, which has a population of 43,000.

Alvarez continued on to explain that the art in Pilsen is one of the factors that make the community so special.

Just a block away, on 19th Street and Wolcott Avenue sits the National Museum of Mexican Art.

Inside the art museum, gift shop sits an abundance of handmade Mexican decorations, overlapping with richness of fabrics and colors.

Behind the register stands Ariana Porras, 27, inquiring how people’s experience in the museum was while cheerfully bagging newly purchased decorations.

Porras gladly tells how Pilsen is bustling with new art left and right.

“Hang around 18th Street on the weekends. Walk down [the] street and galleries are open with wine and families… Pilsen is a family friendly environment full of art,” Porras said.

Porras went on to explain that on the 2nd Friday of every month, there is a small art festival within the Lower West Side community.

Porras claims that she attends every art event possible and wouldn’t give them up for the world.

Due to people who care about Mexican art living on in 21st century Pilsen, the spirit of Mexico lives on in The Midwest Heart of Mexico.

“People expect true ethnicity when they come to Pilsen”, Porras said, “and they get it.”

So Good It Tastes Like Home

By Alina Panek

Alina Panek
Nuevo Leon Pastry Shop located near 18th and Ashland

Pilsen is a place not only to find colorful art but also vibrant Hispanic food.

The community members feel like the art inspires the food that the surrounding restaurants provide.

Yasmin Alvarez, 17, a lifelong resident of Pilsen, finds the art the most special aspect of the community

“[The art translates into the food by] the way the art expresses [itself], like the artist,” said Alvarez, a clerk at a family-owned Meztisoy Food Market.

She describes the local food as authentic but also addictive. Alvarez is a taco lover who cannot get enough.

“[My favorite food from Nuevo Leon is] the flautas. It’s good and it has chicken, and they’re wrapped in a tortilla then deep-fried,” Marrero said. “[The food is my favorite] because it’s homemade.”

There are dozens of authentic Mexican restaurants within the boundaries of Pilsen which are from 16th Street to the north, Cermak Road to the south, Halsted Street to the east and Western Avenue to the west. The neighborhood also has about a 43,000 population.

But not all believe that the restaurants are authentic in Pilsen. Gaby Rodriguez, 24, a receptionist at the National Museum of Mexican Art believes that some are Americanized.

For example, in some of the local restaurants like Taqueria Los Comales, the menus are written in both English and Spanish.

But immediately, the first example that came to mind for authenticity was Nuevo Leon. It is also her favorite restaurant with her favorite dish also being flautas de pollo.

The food also has the special ability of bringing people back home. Abel Sirngua, 57, a local ice cream vendor, agrees that the food around Pilsen is authentic.

“With all the food being made by hand,” Sirngua said, “it’s as if my mother is here.”

Alina Panek
Tacos and Flan at Taqueria Los Camales

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