The Identity of Pilsen—Spanish Language Presence, Cultural Appropriation, and Gentrification
Author: Yuxin Fan
Program of Study: Humanities MAPH
For any visitors to neighborhoods formed by an ethnic diaspora, they must have been greeted by the profusion of street names and shop signs in foreign languages. Indeed, racial minority groups tend to congregate when migrating to a new place. It is hard for the newly nascent communities to forget the strong tinge of nostalgia while neon lights impale every lost soul that has decided to settle down in this once foreign land.
To make the new place more like home, new immigrants decide to rename their new homes from their language. For example, in Penang, an ethnic Chinese city in Malaysia, the street names are famous for coining new phrases by mingling Hokkien, “POJ”, and Malay by semantic transliteration (Ong, 2017). The naming is always related to one’s life experiences as a particular ethnic group as a reflection of the life, organizations, and religion of the new residents of the communities.
Pilsen, the largest community of Mexican Americans in the Midwest (Pupovac, n.d.), has enjoyed its special place for all the Mexicans who have decided to start their lives in this country. The central building of Pilsen, la Casa del Pueblo (the house of the public), has reflected how Pilsen’s residents have started their lives in a strange place far away from home. It functions like a supermarket: on the aisles, special Mexican delicacies are imported from their home country, exotic spices are displayed as daily necessities. These foreign treats do not only provide inspirations for YouTube challenges but offered a sneak peek of la Vida en Mexico.
The most direct experiences always come from restaurants. Pilsen is famous for its street food, just like Mexico; the names of the restaurants also followed suit: top restaurants on Yelp or TripAdvisor are all named after common Spanish words, these street signs have become the inseparable identity of Pilsen.
The Spanish-leaning naming rules in Pilsen have also been touted as a mix of retaining their identity while offering a welcoming embrace to other people who may want to pay a visit from time to time. However, this Spanish community may have reached a turning point. During my visit, in the Pilsen festival, I witnessed a much more diverse demographic of visitors and more shop signs in full English, even if the shop names were in Spanish, their menus and employees didn’t convey the tinge of being ‘Hispanics’ anymore —— these newly erected names have marked a time point of change, but it also foresees the decline of Hispanic presence in this neighborhood.
Is this a good sign for the development of the neighborhood? The answer could be more complicated than we may think. One clear issue is, the gentrification of this neighborhood will bring in new blood that could contribute to this once tightly knitted community, yet it is decentralizing the distinct identity of Pilsen by driving residents out. New residents will occupy this once Hispanic dominated place.
Pilsen is driven by the immense economic potential of this neighborhood. Pilsen was laureled as “one of the 12 Coolest Neighborhoods in the World” (Abel, 2018) by Forbes. Media coverage has accelerated the shift of Pilsen, intermingling it with the ‘outsider force’ which has never put its eye on this working-class, ethnic minority community. An example would be high-end rooftop bars with eccentric Spanish names which decided to move to Pilsen because of the comparably cheap rent and top-tier accessibility and public transportation (Curran, 2015). The new shops in Pilsen have rarely become the home of Mexicans; the neighborhood may only attract glorified cultural appropriations or brand-new fads from then on.
Looking back at the purpose of gentrifying Pilsen, the problems are omnipresent. The strategy to co-opt this place was to make it a desirable ‘ethnoscape’ that could become a tourist attraction, in which Pilsen could be called a sanitized version of ‘Latinoness’ to attract development and tourism (Anderson & Sternburg, 2013). These moves have opened up more chances for the local business to thrive — however, the proposes of their appeals were based on tourist responses.
We should never forget that removing the ability of the working class to remain in the neighborhood through zoning changes, and other urban policies that remove the housing and industrial employment, has sustained Pilsen as a Mexican American enclave in Chicago (Curran, 2015). The gentrification of Pilsen has brought more resident to appreciate the Mexican culture, art, and history that has been ingrained in the blood of this neighborhood. However, it has also forced thousands of Mexican residents to leave Pilsen and relocate to other Chicago neighborhoods or surrounding suburbs. The speed of Mexicans leaving this neighborhood is more astounding than imagined: in 2013, the neighborhood was 81.6 percent Hispanic, down from 89 percent in 2000 (Lulay, 2016). However, could the wave of gentrification bless the future of this neighborhood?
The gentrification of Pilsen has been a typical example of ingraining antiques with new models into the forms designated by the innate purpose of gentrification (Betancour.J, Smith.J, 2016). However, despite being renovated and refurbished, Pilsen has still been considered an economically crippled neighborhood. A somewhat vibrant Pilsen does not reveal that most of Pilsen is populated by working-class Hispanic families while having a 10k margin in income compared with white residents (Betancour.J, Smith.J, 2016). The benefits of gentrification seem to have never extended to Hispanic residents.
Through cultural appropriation and removal of Hispanic families, Pilsen is struggling to keep it from its identity while combating the outside pressures. We do not want the Spanish shop signs to be the embalmed glory of its Mexican past, but we hope Pilsen will become a lively, welcoming, diverse community that could last years to come, providing a home for many who have chosen it to be their new, lovely home in this country.
Abel, Ann. (June 22, 2018). The 12 Coolest Neighborhoods Around the World, Forbes Magazine, retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/annabel/2018/06/22/the-12-coolest-neighborhoods-around-the-world/#6e688f026eb1.
Anderson M.B. & Sternberg C. (2013) “Non- white” gentrification in Chicago’s Bronzeville and Pilsen: Racial economy and the intraurban contingency of urban redevelopment. Urban Affairs Review 49: 435–467.
Bayne, Martha. (2018), Looking at Gentrification in Pilsen, Social Justice News Nexus, retrieved from http://sjnnchicago.medill.northwestern.edu/blog/2018/12/18/looking-gentrification-pilsen/
Betancur, J. & Smith, J.(2016). Claiming Neighborhood: New Ways of Understanding Urban Change. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. Retrieved August 19, 2019, from Project MUSE database.
Curran, W. (2015). ‘Mexicans love red’ and other gentrification myths: Displacements and contestations in the gentrification of Pilsen, Chicago, USA. Urban Studies, 55(8), 1711–1728.
Lulay, S. (2016) Pilsen Gets Whiter As 10,000 Hispanics. Families Move Out; Study Finds, DNA Info, retrieved from https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20160413/pilsen/pilsen-gets-whiter-as-10000-hispanics-families-move-out-study-finds/.
王桂蘭 Ong, Kui-lan. (2017). 〈Chinese Names of Streets in Penang〉內底ê語言現象kap文化語詞 / The Language Phenomenon and Cultural Words in “Chinese Names of Streets in Penang.” 台灣學誌 / Monumenta Taiwanica, 1.
Pupovac, Jessica (n.d.) History of Pilsen, WTTW11, retrieved from https://interactive.wttw.com/my-neighborhood/pilsen/history