How Pilsen transitioned from a Bohemian neighborhood to the heart of Chicago's Mexican community

Pilsen is named after a city in the Czech Republic. But from 1960 to 1970, Pilsen's Mexican population more than doubled

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Tuesday, October 11, 2022
How Pilsen became the heart of Chicago's Mexican community
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Pilsen is a Chicago neighborhood that screams Mexico, loud and proud. But it wasn't always this way. In fact, Pilsen is named after a city in the Czech Republic.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- From its street vendors to its murals to its Mexican Independence Day celebrations, Pilsen is a neighborhood that screams Mexico, loud and proud. But it wasn't always this way.

"Those communities in the early 20th century were predominantly Eastern and Southern European," said Prof. Mike Amezcua, author of "Making Mexican Chicago, G.U."

Pilsen, in fact, is named after a city in the Czech Republic. From 1960 to 1970, Pilsen's Mexican population more than doubled. Within that decade, they comprised a majority of the population.

"The neighborhood just whoop, just changed," said Carlos Tortolero, president of the National Museum of Mexican Art. "It was white flight. It was happening in cities all across the country."

As the Great Depression and then World War II left the once-booming Bohemian neighborhood a shell of its former self, Mexican families started to move into the Near West Side, near Pilsen, but not quite in the neighborhood. That was until the early 1960's, when construction of UIC's new campus left thousands in search of new homes.

"Gentrification is something I understand," Tortolero said. "We were happy where we were at. We didn't want to leave, but the rents went sky high."

Enter Anita Villarreal, a forward-thinking Mexican-American activist and real estate agent, who herself was displaced. In Pilsen and later in nearby South Lawndale, she saw an opportunity to make money, and create established communities for newly arriving immigrants. Historian Mike Amezcua delved into Villarreal's story in his recently published book, "Making Mexican Chicago."

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"Anita taps into that kind of hustle, that dream, and begins to pitch storefronts, buildings to Mexican immigrants," Amezcua said. "'Hey, wouldn't you like to build your fruteria here on 26th Street?' And alongside that pitch she also pitched housing opportunities to large Mexican families."

At 65, muralist Salvador Vega belongs to one of those first Mexican families to move into Pilsen. Today, the artist, is one of many who uses the neighborhood as his canvas, telling its story through art - the good and the bad.

"I am born and raised in this neighborhood," Vega said. "I figure my Pueblo is 18th Street, Chicago.

Vega was just 19 when he painted a representation of David "Boogie" Gonzalez, a gang member turned peace activist, who killed in 1973. Restoring it now at 18th and Throop is his way of reminding the neighborhood of its past and the struggles it still faces.

"This is our history," Vega said. "To me, the murals are a time capsule."

Art - whether on its streets or inside Harrison Park's National Museum of Mexican Art - is front and center in the telling of Pilsen's story: paying homage to its heritage, but also to the Chicano Movement of the 1970s, which largely played out here.

"We wanted to be in Pilsen," Tortolero said. "Even though we knew it wasn't the oldest, it wasn't the largest, but this is the center of the Mexican community in Chicago.

And yet the tug of war to keep it that way is one that has been going on for decades as Pilsen today, while still heavily Mexican, has been extensively gentrified.

Hip restaurants and cafes are replacing taquerias and panaderias as a more affluent population seeks out its prime location, within a stone's throw of downtown.

"By 1969, they had already created a market study analyses with architectural renderings of what Pilsen could be if they could transform it and redevelop it," Amezcua said.

So is Mexican Pilsen set to go the way of Czech Pilsen?

"I think it will still stay a majority of Mexicanos community, but it won't be an immigrant community anymore," Tortolero said. "That will change. That will change and that's kind of sad."