Casa Aztlán was a community center that served Latino residents in Pilsen. Now, it’s a symbol of gentrification and displacement.
Iconic images—of Frida Kahlo, Emiliano Zapata, Subcomandante Marcos, and César Chávez—once adorned a historic building in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, alongside portraits of neighborhood residents. But those images no longer exist. The murals were painted over on Monday in anticipation of the construction of luxury apartments.
The building was the home of the former Casa Aztlán, a community organization that served Latino residents for decades. Many see the whitewashing of the murals as a symbol of the changes the neighborhood has experienced in recent years.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the building was sold to a developer via judicial auction for $293,000 in 2013; it resold to another developer two years later for more than double that price. Today the median home price in the area is around $260,000, according to Trulia, an increase from $135,000 five years ago. These figures speak to issues Latinos are already facing in this enclave: rising home prices are displacing organizations and individuals alike.
Beyond market changes, the aesthetic transformations of Pilsen are affecting the community, too. “Residents did not know about the plans to erase the murals until they saw workers beginning to paint,” Byron Sigcho, the director of the community organization Pilsen Alliance, tells CityLab.
Pilsen Alliance, which was also located in the building for a number of years, organized a vigil on Tuesday afternoon to commemorate the loss of these murals. "The owners told us that next fall they [are] going to hire artists to create other public works, but they don’t understand the significance of the murals they’ve already painted over," says Sigcho.
Casa Aztlán was the northern outpost for the Chicano movement that began in the Southwest U.S. “Aztlán” is the legendary ancestral home of the Aztec people and was taken up by the Chicano movement as a symbol of Chicano nationalism to refer to the land that was grabbed by U.S. during the Mexican-American War of 1846.
The murals were central to Pilsen's identity, according to Sigcho, and were painted by the Chicago Mural Group (now known as the Chicago Public Art Group) in 1971 under the supervision of the artist Ray Patlan. In addition to the icons of the Chicano community, the paintings blended pre-Colombian styles with portraits of contemporary Pilsen residents.
The works were restored several times under the supervision of different artists (the last such effort took place in 2007). According to Sigcho, community members spoke to the new owners in attempts to remove murals located inside the building, but their efforts were in vain.
On Wednesday the contractor responsible for painting over the murals, Real Restoration Group, was caught up in controversy when a resident exhumed a Facebook post from early February in which the company paraphrased Donald Trump’s infamous slogan and wrote, “New project started today. #makingchicagogreatagain.” Morris Gershengorin, CEO of Real Restoration Group, later apologized to Chicagoist.
The loss of the murals follows decades of challenges for Pilsen. Beginning in the 1950s, the neighborhood became a port of entry for Mexican immigrants and has maintained a predominantly Mexican presence since the late 1960s. However, in the late ‘90s it began to lose its Latino population, due to a number of factors. Low rents have attracted new residents, but costs of living are often prohibitive for new immigrants. According to Rob Paral, a local demographer, another contributing factor is the decrease in Mexican immigration to Chicago. It remains U.S. city with the second-largest Mexican population, but in Pilsen, the share has fallen. Paral has documented these changes for years, creating maps that highlight the neighborhood. The dramatic drop in the Latino community—from 32,963 in 2000 to 24,362 in 2010—has transformed the culture of Pilsen.
The face of Pilsen is different now that a third of the population is white. The lost murals are just one symptom. “Within the murals, there were symbols of displacement—for example, a broken heart and symbols of class struggle. They showed the community values, but also that we’ve been struggling with these issues for a while,” says Sigcho.
CORRECTION: This post has been updated to amend the building’s sale price.
This post originally appeared in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.