We Are a Nation of Immigrants
Whether you visit Pilsen for its art and culture or for its food or perhaps its services, this neighborhood, also known as the Lower West Side, has it all.
First a bit of history for would-be visitors. Pilsen, since its founding in the 1840s, has gone through several transformations and each ethnic group that once settled here has left a historical footprint. In the mid-19th century this area was mostly settled by German and Irish immigrants. Later came the Czechs and Bohemians. Much later the Poles came here and settled around Ashland and 18th Street.
Since the mid-1960s, however, Mexican immigrants have made this neighborhood a center of culture and activism. Mexican immigrants practically re-invented Pilsen with new schools, including a new high school, a clinic and a new library. The walls of this once Czech and Polish neighborhood were bathed in colorful murals which highlighted Mexican history and culture.
The area is now undergoing a new transformation with white artists, hipsters and university students moving here to live and work.
Recently I spent 12 hours in Pilsen in order to bring readers a sketch of this neighborhood. Though it is not a definite one, it is a faithful sample of what visitors can hope to find here.
The center point of this unique Chicago neighborhood is Plaza Tenochtitlan where activists hold rallies, press conferences and music and art festivals. It is located at the intersection of 18th Street, Blue Island Avenue and Loomis Avenue, the crossroads of Pilsen.
The plaza was dedicated on October 13, 1998 and has a tower with a replica atop of the symbol of Mexico which is an eagle standing on a tenochtli, a nahuatl word for cactus, devouring a serpent on its beak. The plaza, when no events are taking place, is populated by homeless men who while destitute are former poets, wrestlers, Central American guerrillas and/or painters who have seen better days and are now surviving from day to day.
From time to time local Aztec dance groups also rehearse here during the warm summer days.
If you walk to the corner of 18th and Loomis, there next to the new Wintrust Bank, you will find a bronze replica of the Aztec Sun Calendar. Several of these circular suns are also found at the intersections from Blue Island all the way past Ashland Avenue. It’s a reminder, I guess, of the historical imprint of the Mexican immigrants who starting in the 1960s made Pilsen their port-of entry. The replicas were placed there by local alderman Danny Solis, himself an immigrant from Monterrey, Nuevo León, México.
The Lozano Branch Library, perhaps the most beautiful of the small neighborhood branch libraries in the city, opened on September 7, 1989 and was inaugurated by former mayor Richard M. Daley. It was designed by the architectural firm of Jay Carow and Associates and has Oaxaca motifs on the façade such as are found in Mitla, Oaxaca, in Mexico. If you are bilingual, you are in the right place. The branch has thousands of books and magazines both in Spanish and in English.
The branch was named, at the request of local residents, for labor organizer Rudy Lozano who was killed on June 8, 1983 in Little Village. Inside the library, by the children’s section, is a wall covered with photos and news clippings about Mr. Lozano.
This beautiful public high school, which underwent an expansion about ten years ago, is the crown jewel of Chicano activism and was opened in 1977 after a three year struggle with the city to get it built. It became the first Mexican high school in the city and was named after Mexican president and statesman Benito Juarez, who drove the French out of Mexico and put self-proclaimed monarch of Mexico, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, of Austria, before a firing squad.
Of special interest to visitors is the courtyard facing Ashland Avenue which has more than a dozen statues of Mexican heroes, presidents and revolutionaries such as Emiliano Zapata. It even has a large statue of Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec tlatoani or chief who did battle against the invading forces of Hernan Cortez. The Mexican government, in a gesture of friendship, donated the statues to this neighborhood. It is worth a stroll through the outdoor courtyard.
Rosa Camarena, owner of La Esperanza Mexican Restaurant
Unassuming, friendly and offering excellent food at lower than average prices is La Esperanza Mexican Restaurant located near the corner of Blue Island Avenue and 19th Street in Pilsen.
Managed by owner Rosa Camarena and an associate, the restaurant opened ten years ago and its hours are from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day of the week. This restaurant has won the Mole de Mayo local competition for the past two years (2015 and 2016) for its mole, a Mexican dish with roots in colonial times in Puebla, Mexico.
The current specialty of the house is Cabrito Al Horno and Cecina Al Gusto. People from outside Pilsen usually stop by, according to Camarena, to sample the quesadillas made with Flor de Calabaza and Huitlacoche. Huitlacoche is a mushroom that grows on corn and it’s considered a health food by some. It’s well worth a visit just to try this Mexican dish.
La Esperanza is a popular place for the breakfast crowd, which consists of Latino families, local activists and newcomers to Pilsen. You might want to stop by on any day for breakfast as the early bird special can cost you anywhere from $7 to $10 dollars.
A staple at this eatery is a group of six activists which have met every Friday morning here since the restaurant opened in 2007. They meet to talk over breakfast of huevos rancheros or huevos con chorizo and a cup of coffee. I am one of the people in this group and discussion topics include local and national politics. Discussion on a recent Friday centered on the firing of FBI director James Comey by President Donald Trump. Most often discussed topic, however, is immigration and how to stop the deportation of immigrants.
On the day that I spent 12 hours in Pilsen I walked all the way to Halsted and 18th Street in order to tell readers about Express Grill Original Maxwell St. Polish. This food stand caused controversy when it opened years ago. Other residents in East Pilsen thought that Express Grill would attract too much traffic and distract from the area’s more established businesses.
Express Grill, however, has thrived and offers its famous Polish sausage smothered in grilled onions, a treat that is a must for outside visitors. This corner stand also serves pork chop sandwiches, Italian beefs and other food selections such as hot dogs and hamburgers. But it is the Polish sausage sandwich which you must try. All sandwiches are served with grilled onions, mustard and peppers and come with free fries. No need to worry about the hours here, it is open 24 hours a day.
Croissants at El Acambaro Bakery
“Autentico Pan Ranchero”, authentic country style bread, is the theme of this small but charming Mexican bakery that sits not too far away from the Pink Line train station on 18th Street. Since it opened here about eight years ago, I have made it a habit of stopping by to buy its croissants which are superb. They are crisp and delicious. Ask for them as “cuernos”, as they are called in Mexico.
The owner and master baker here is Angel Beltran, who is from Acambaro, Guanajuato, in Mexico. This interesting bakery specializes in pan tallado and pan de agua. Pan tallado, explained employee Clara, is sweet large round bread made with raisins. Pan de agua is similar but it has salt added and no raisins. Pan de agua, said Clara, goes well with hot Mexican chocolate. It’s definitely worth stopping by.
The façade on 18th Place of this school which was called Orozco but now is part of Cooper Elementary Dual Language Academy is filled with close to 20 mosaic murals. The work was done by local students many years ago under the direction of artist Francisco Mendoza, who passed away on March 12, 2012.
The portrait murals, created with imported Venetian mosaic, are beautifully done and represent a gallery of Mexican heroes, artists, singers and activists. I personally just love the portraits of Cesar Chavez, the farmworkers leader, and his associate Dolores Huerta, an organizer, and the portrait of local printmaker and Wobbly enthusiast Carlos Cortez.
If you want to see who Mexicans look up to, here you will get a good idea but I would suggest that you consider taking a Latino friend with you who knows all these figures so he can fill you in on some of their stories. A couple of them will be easy to know such as Frida Kahlo and muralist Diego Rivera.
This is a busy place especially during the warm spring, summer and fall months as hundreds of students are bused in to visit the exhibits at this free museum. Founded in 1987 by several Latino public school teachers the museum is a showcase for Latino artists, both locally and nationally.
Current main exhibit is Memoria Presente: An Artistic Journey, which opened on March 24 and continues until August 13, 2017. The exhibit consists of the art of Latino artists currently working in Chicago and its suburban areas.
This interesting museum, built on donated Chicago Park District land, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and at last count it has put on display 220 exhibitions in the last three decades.
Interesting to watch, too, are the many vendors who place their stands outside the museum and sell paletas, ice cream or other treats to the large crowds of outside visitors. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed on Mondays.
Vianeys Pet Salon
Vianey’s Pet Salon opened a year and a half ago and caters to dogs and cats whose pet parents want their pets to get a variety of grooming services. This can consist of a simple nail trim to a complete Bath and Brush package which includes a bath with shampoo and conditioner, nail trim, ear cleaning and tooth brushing.
Customers can also choose the Full Service package which also includes the services mentioned above but also an arty haircut of choice, perfume and your choice of a bow or a bandana for your pet.
Prices, by the way, are based on the pet’s size. For the Bath and Brush package, for example, owners can expect to pay $30 for a small dog; from $35 to $40 for a medium sized dog and from $75 to $100 for a large dog.
When I stopped by, three small dogs were being groomed while their barks filled the doggy spa’s airspace.
Employee Jose Tapia, a friendly fellow, said the customers and their pets come from Pilsen but also from as far away as 80th Street and Kedzie Avenue. The owner of this new business is Vianey Garcia.
Right now there are about three different pet grooming businesses in Pilsen mainly due to the fact that many newcomers have moved to Pilsen with their pets as well.
Along the same vein there are now several vintage clothing storefronts in Pilsen as well as at least two vintage vinyl record shops. Some of these businesses have set up shop where taquerías or carnicerías once stood. These types of businesses cater to the newcomers to this historic neighborhood.
Duseks Restaurant and Bar
Dusek’s, a restaurant and bar, opened in 2013 and is located in Thalia Hall, a renovated building which once housed a theater. The theater has also been renovated and music and cultural events are held there now. The place is named after John Dusek, a tavern owner and arts promoter who built Thalia Hall in 1892. The restaurant honors his memory.
Dusek’s has an extensive breakfast, lunch and dinner menu which can satisfy any taste. For example, there’s the board & beer breakfast, which consists of two eggs, choice of bacon or sausage, house potatoes, toast with a High Life beer for $11. There’s also the crab cake benedict breakfast choice which consists of lump blue crab, Jonah crab, creamed asparagus, preserved lemon hollandaise, an English muffin and house potatoes for $15
The dinner menu list is very extensive and one can securely say that Dusek’s is an experience in itself.
Below the restaurant, in the basement, there is also a Punch House which sells snacks, sandwiches and desserts plus several varieties of punches. For example there’s the From Chile with Love punch which consists of control pisto, pomegranate, linden flower, lime, sparkling and borage blossoms for $10.
Dusek’s hours are Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Reservations are accepted.
Café Monsivais is one of three popular Latino owned or co-owned cafes in Pilsen and it opened just two years ago. The other Latino owned cafes are The Jumping Bean and La Catrina Café. I chose to visit Café Monsiváis because of its unique name and its menu.
Let’s talk about the café’s name. It was named in honor of Mexican writer Carlos Monsiváis, a prolific writer who penned more than 32 books. Monsiváis was considered the chronicler of Mexico City because he wrote extensively about this mega city and its poets and journalists. He died on June 19, 2010.
Monsiváis was no stranger to Pilsen. He visited Chicago and Pilsen several times and Francisco Piña, a local friend of his, said Monsiváis once met with writer Studs Terkel and was also an avid fan of American movies and used to buy dozens of DVD’s each time he visited Chicago.
So it’s kind of fitting that a Pilsen café would carry on his name, according to café owner Katie Schlick, a French trained chef.
“We named the café after Monsiváis out of respect for his community and his people,” said Schlick.
Café Monsiváis offers lunch selections such as Whole Nopal topped with quinoa and lentil salad and garnished with beets, pickled jalapeños and cotija cheese for $12.
Schlick says the café sometimes receives criticism that its menu is too gentrified but she retorts that it’s a mix of Mexican and world cuisine and it’s healthy, too.
“I want to be proud of what I put on the table; just because we serve something different, it does not mean it’s gentrified,” said Schlick.
Café hours are: Mondays to Fridays from 11 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Pilsen Community Books
This bookstore opened in 2016 at this location after it operated for several years out of a warehouse at another Pilsen location. This beautiful bookstore has floor to ceiling bookshelves with an estimated 15,000 new and used books.
“The bookstore is doing really well,” said co-owner Mary Gibbons, “We sell what people want to read, some of our books are new, including best sellers.”
The other co-owner is Aaron Lippelt, a local resident whose wife is a teacher at a local school.
Upon entering the bookstore, I had a flashback of memories when local residents had to go outside of this neighborhood to buy books. This is a welcome addition to Pilsen.
Bookstore hours are Tuesdays to Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Sundays and Mondays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
María Molina, owner of Don Churro el Moro de Letrán in Pilsen
Don Churro El Moro de Letran is practically an institution in Pilsen and has been in business for 28 years.
“The churro has its origins in Spain,” said owner María Molina and in fact she is right.
The churro was created in Madrid, Spain, at the beginning of the 20th century. The story goes that women with a basketful of churros used to visit factories to sell this flour and sugar treat to the workers.
The word churro is probably a derivative of churras as the story goes that Spanish shepherds used to enjoy baked fruits as they took care of their sheep known as churras.
During the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s a Spaniard immigrant named Francisco Iriarte started the first churreria In Mexico City in 1935 and called it El Moro de Letran. The business was near Avenida San Juan de Letrán, now called El Eje Central. It is said one of the first cooks there was nicknamed El Moro and was the one in charge of making the churros thus the name of the place El Moro de Letrán.
Don Churro El Moro de Letrán in Pilsen is very popular, according to Molina who adds that people and businesses order churros from as far away as Tennessee, Ohio, Missouri and Pennsylvania. Almost since their business began this local business began selling churros at White Sox games, a practice that continues to this day.
“We have very good customer response in Pilsen, everybody loves churros,” said owner Molina. Churros, sold here for $1.25 each, come in six flavors: vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, cream cheese, guayaba and cajeta. A trip to Pilsen, it goes without saying, must include a visit to this small but interesting place. As in Mexico City, as well as in Pilsen, the locals say churros go well with hot Mexican chocolate.
Hours are Monday to Saturday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Sundays from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.
If you want to read more about Pilsen you can check Peter N. Pero’s book Chicago’s Pilsen Neighborhood (Arcadia Publishers, 2011). You can also find new fiction stories set in Pilsen in my just published book Pale Yellow Moon. The book is now available at Amazon.com.
Pilsen also plays a central role in the book De Zorros y Erizos by Raul Dorantes (Editorial El Beisman, 2013) and 10 de Marzo La Marcha by writer Victor Cortes (La Cuadrilla de la Langosta Publishers, 2008). These last two books are in Spanish.
Pilsen, it goes without saying, is a unique neighborhood which in its latest reincarnation was rebuilt by the Mexican immigrants who moved here after the University of Illinois Circle Campus displaced them in the early 60s. The elevation of Pilsen to a livable space was possible by the hard work of dozens and dozens of Latino activists starting in 1970.
Developers, local politicians, City Hall, local merchants and community organizations should work together to preserve the area’s Mexican character. It is understandable that some local activists feel betrayed by the city authorities for not addressing the issue of gentrification.
Gentrification causes displacement of working class residents, causes taxes to go up, newcomers establish businesses catering only to their kind (the middle class) and in the end Pilsen could become an over commercialized area with dozens of bars and taverns.
Turning Pilsen into a “hang out” for weekend visitors also has its risks. Soon enough drug users and junkies are attracted to the late night scene to score drugs or squeeze someone for a few coins.
Right now Pilsen still has a sensible balance of longtime residents, families, businesses and activists.
Planned development for Pilsen is the key to its future. Local organizations, activists and affected merchants should not be afraid to raise the issue of gentrification, displacement, rent control and other issues with City Hall.
Antonio Zavala is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago and writes about the people and neighborhoods of Chicago.