Chicago Diaries,  Life

Paintings and Protests in Pilsen

Art and culture might seem like a luxury at this dark moment, with the Trump administration’s announcement that 200,000 Salvadorans who have lived here legally since 2001 will be forced to leave, and with young Dreamers brought to this country when they were just children left to face an uncertain status after the government reopened without Congress securing protections for them.

But when a people see their humanity denied, art is a defense of that humanity.

We Need Protests. And Paintings from the New York Times by Héctor Tobar

A few months ago, I went into the neighborhood of Pilsen for a concert at Thalia hall. I had the day free, so I went in to explore the National Museum of Mexican art. It was recommended to me by a few friends and I was excited to see the museum and explore the neighborhood a little.

It was an early April day and it was snowing. I took refuge in the art museum and found an exhibit by Chicano artist, Luis Tapia. The exhibit was called “Sculpture as Sanctuary”.

“For many, sanctuary can signify a holy place, a refuge, a ritual, a haven, or an oasis. It can also mean home, family, community, religion, and identity. The exhibition, “Luis Tapia: Sculpture as Sanctuary” engages and critiques contemporary global themes of Sanctuary and highlights the hand-carved masterworks by Luis Tapia (b.1950), a Chicano artist from Nuevo México.”- NMOMA 

The first piece that greets you in the space, was this one. Liberty is dying and crying. Her “freedom” for her people is built on the death of indigenous peoples. Her dress is adorned with the fear stricken faces of her people.

Talk about a gut punch. Oof.

A lot of Luis Tapia’s pieces reference religious symbols from Chicano culture.
Like Our Lady Guadalupe and even Jesus himself.
All of Tapia’s pieces felt visceral to me.
They are sucker punches of commentary on religious thinking and abuse, as well as abuse and violence that is projected and pressured upon immigrants (and just POC in general) in our country.

This last piece stuck with me. It was supposed to represent pedophilia. The young girl is dressed for her baptism. She represents the purest of souls. The most innocent. And behind her is the monster of pedophilia. It holds different items trying to seduce her. Things like toys, candy, phones, and even a cross. On the backside of this sculpture is a cage that holds three crying children. I didn’t get a picture of it, because it’s really disturbing and hard to look at? It felt wrong to take a picture of something that depicted such horrible pain and suffering.. Idk how to explain it without sounding like an Overly Sensitive Sally™.

Separate from the stunning sculptural work that Tapia offered in this exhibit, I LOVED how this was curated.
The simple red walls with the lighting was the perfect way to display these pieces.
I freakin’ love curation and thinking about exhibits as a whole (thanks to my fiancé) and this one definitely left an impression on me. Like I can see it still when I close my eyes. UGH!

After I left the Tapia exhibit, I walked around to look at the permanent collection that the museum has. There were so many beautiful pieces that depicted Mexican culture, celebrated Mexican people, and executed beautiful technique, detail, and storytelling through the art.

I literally cannot believe this place is free.

This was my favorite piece from the museum. I stared at this for at least twenty minutes. This painting is by Jesus Helguera and it depicts the Aztec legend of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl.

In the legend, the volcanoes used to be humans who were madly in love. Popocatépetl was a warrior and in love with the Princess Iztaccíhuatl. Iztaccíhuatl’s father told Popocatépetl that if he wanted to be with his daughter, he had to be on the front line of a particular battle and return with the head of the enemy. (Basically ensuring his death, lol.) Popocatépetl goes to battle and a false message is sent back to Iztaccíhuatl, telling her that Popocatépetl was killed (but he actually won the battle). Immediately, Iztaccíhuatl becomes ill with grief and sorrow and she dies of a broken heart. Popocatépetl returns victorious, only to find his love dead. He carries her body into the mountains and builds a funeral pyre for the both of them. He lies next to Iztaccíhuatl and dies. The Gods saw this and decided to make the two into mountains so that they could be together for forever. “They remain so to this day with Popocatépetl residing over his princess Iztaccíhuatl, while she lay asleep. On occasion, Popo will spew ash, reminding those watching that he is always in attendance, that he will never leave the side of his beloved Izta.” (The Legend of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl)

I’m not sure why this particular painting and legend stuck with me.
Maybe it was because it was a story about a love so strong that the world literally changed to make space for it?
Maybe it was because it was just a beautiful painting?
I’m not sure.
But I was SO excited when I left the museum and later found a mural on the street of the same painting!

This Aztec legend is so important to Mexican culture, because it tells the story of the mountains that surround Mexico City. The volcanos themselves represent a great creative inspiration for Mexican peoples and I’m just IN LOVE with this legend, its importance, and its beauty. Ugh!

I started this little post with a quote from a New York Times article that has meant a lot to me. I know as a white lady, I have a lot of work to do to better support POC. I know that in my attempt to work for racial equality, I need to support and uplift POC artists. Because their work is important. Their work is human. And their work is just objectively damn good. It only seems right that I end this post with the end of the article.

Resisting the spread of hatred requires all sorts of actions. Go to a march, call your representative — but also bring a great work of literature by an immigrant writer to your book club and support arts education everywhere.

When we feel powerless to stop the hatred and injustice directed at our people, we should remember art’s potential to enlighten the uninformed and to slowly eat away at prejudice.

This has happened before in the United States. In the early decades of the last century, during the depths of Jim Crow, with its lynchings and de jure segregation, the Harlem Renaissance was born. It was a cultural prelude to a civil rights movement that changed the very notion of what American identity is.

I feel a renaissance coming. I see it in the discipline and ambition of our young people. They eat Oaxacan mole and Korean kimchi, and they read, joke and create in Spanish, Amharic, Creole and Arabic. But above all, they also employ the same language used by James Joyce and James Baldwin: English, spoken with accents from the Midwest, New Jersey and East Los Angeles, and all the other places they call home.


Light & Love,


P.S. Get ur butt to the National Museum of Mexican Art. Ok?!



  • Libby

    WOW! Thank you for giving us your perspective on this museum. That first image of Lady Liberty is so overwhelming. What a way to begin that experience.

  • Juana

    Hi Emma thanks for all this great info. Where e actly in Pilsen is the mural of the legend of el popo and Itza? I would love to take my engagement photos in front of it.

    Thank you

    • eveningcrickets

      Hi! This is such a great idea!

      The mural I found was on the side of Benny’s Pizza #2 in Pilsen. It’s literally right down the Street from Thalia Hall! I hope that helps!!
      -Emma 🙂

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