Feeling Mexican Styles in Pilsen
Author: Minghao Yang
Program of Study: SSD Computational Social Science
Pilsen, which refers to either a populous city of Czech, or a renowned type of beer born in Czech, seems to have nothing to do with Mexico or Mexicans; however, Pilsen in Chicago is an exception, with Mexican ingredients building up its exotic culture. Before I explain the reasons, I would like to give you an impression of the Mexican style in Pilsen by describing our trip there.
Our trip starts at the National Museum of Mexican Art, which is located in the center of the neighborhood. It is one of the most famous institutions focusing on Mexican art and culture in the US. The museum introduces Mexican identity to the visitors vividly by art works of different styles and origins. The first part gives a definition of Mexican identity. Before the Mexican Revolution, Mexican identity was extremely diverse and mixed, given that most of Mexican population were immigrants from West Europe, Africa, and even East Asia. The items displayed match these regions perfectly, including paintings, wood carvings, and china. After the Mexican Revolution, artists began to build up a unique identity on purpose, hoping to raise a national pride in Mexican people. Folk art is one of the most successful forms among all the trials, whose two defining features are bright colors and skeletons. It is still a typical Mexican pattern even today. The second part describes the struggles of Mexicans in Chicago. Most Mexican immigrants were blue-collar workers, working in steel mills, factories, railroad yards, and stockyards. They united to several groups and fought against racism, low wage, and cruel working environment. The whole museum not only displays the Mexican Art to visitors, but also arises the Mexican identity of the Mexicans in Chicago, or in the US.
Exiting the museum, we walked along the streets in Pilsen. It could be stated without exaggeration that where there is a wall, there is a mural. Murals are essential components of Mexican folk art, the themes of which vary from religious story to daily life. Consequently, their colors are bright and saturated. The most impressive mural we met is called Pilsen Mural painted on the buildings to the opposite of St. Pius V Church. It is divided into three panels. The left and middle panels depict the daily life of different Mexicans in Chicago, including scholars and blue-collar workers. On the right panel, the god is blessing two typical Mexican families with kids. I think the mural attempts to unite the Mexican people together to survive in Chicago and encourage Mexican people to work hard in order to be blessed by the god. There are also several murals serving as sarcasm. Fascinating as they are, they can be extremely caustic if delved in depth, some of which pointing to the unfair treatments the Mexicans are suffering.
In addition, Mexican style could be discovered from churches, monuments, restaurants, vintages, and even manhole covers. Most churches offer Spanish masses; most monuments tell Mexican stories; most restaurants serve Mexican food; most vintages sell Mexican costumes; most manhole covers have Mexican images. In a word, Pilsen is a lovely home to Mexicans and Mexican styles.
Now, let us turn back to our question. Why is Pilsen connected to Mexico, rather than Czech in Chicago? To answer the question, we need to glance at the history of Pilsen, the Mexican immigrants, and even the US.
Pilsen is a neighborhood of industry and the working-class, so it witnesses the sweats and tears of unwelcoming foreign immigrants. According to Pupovac (2018, March 26), the first wave of immigrants to Pilsen could date back to the 1840s. Due to the famine and the dark rule of the British, Irish people decided to make their lives in the US. Pilsen is one of their destinations where they serve as blue-collar workers. But later, new waves of immigrants dominated the community gradually. The Czech population were the majority of them because they were attempting to escape from the govern of the Austrian Empire. They named the neighborhood Pilsen (Plzeň), which is a Czech city that could arise the nostalgia of the Czechs. As a result, we have this Czech style name for the community.
It was not until late 1910s that Mexicans began to immigrate to the US. They chose to immigrate because of Mexican Revolution in Mexico and the economic opportunities in the US. Innis-Jiménez (2013) stated that most of them worked in Near West Side and Back of the Yards; however, because of the immigration law, only a small number of Mexicans managed to live there. In fact, a large quantity of Mexicans settled down in South Chicago. The separation between their living places and working places serves as the origin force of migration to Pilsen.
Shortly after the arrival of Mexican immigrants, the Great Recession and World War II took place, which seriously decayed the industry in Pilsen. The blue-collar jobs gradually moved to suburbs, taking the Czech immigrants away. Consequently, Pilsen became an abandoned neighborhood with notorious crime rate. But on the other hand, it is also a neighborhood ready to welcome new immigrants.
In the 1950s and the 1960s, some Mexicans in Chicago began to move mainly for two reasons, as suggested by Gellman (2005). The first reason is that the liberal immigration law was enacted, so the Mexicans were no longer banned legally from moving to the central part of the city. The second reason is that the University of Illinois at Chicago was built in University Village, so the Mexicans who managed to live there have to move away. Pilsen naturally became their desire destination: it is near the Loop and the initial residents had moved out because of the moving of their industries.
Later on, the Mexicans started to construct Pilsen as a place for themselves. Churches, shops, and restaurants changed their style into Mexican. Murals were drawn on the walls as the signs of Mexican territory. Local organizations and institutions were founded to better respond to the needs of the Mexicans. In no more than a decade, Pilsen had changed from a Czech neighborhood to a Mexican neighborhood and these changes make Pilsen a unique community.
In this time and age, Pilsen is a center of Mexican culture, attracting visitors from all over the world. It serves as a hangout for Mexicans, as a symbol of identity of them, and as a protector of their rights. If you plan to visit there, be sure to feel the Mexican style on your own. When you keep in mind the struggling history of the Mexicans, you will have a better understanding of what you see and hear.
Gellman, E. (2005). Pilsen. In The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Retrieved August 19, 2019, from http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/2477.html
Innis-Jiménez, M. (2013). Steel barrio: the great Mexican migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940. New York: New York Univ. Press.
Pupovac, J. (2018, March 26). History of Pilsen. Retrieved August 19, 2019, from https://interactive.wttw.com/my-neighborhood/pilsen/history