PILSEN — After his 20-year-old mural was defaced last week, Pilsen artist Oscar Romero — and a stranger — rallied to fix the 16th Street mural.
Sometime last week, letters were spray-painted across the face of the Our Lady of Guadalupe mural, the celebrated Catholic image of The Virgin Mary, on 16th Street near Carpenter Street in the neighborhood.
Late Monday, 64-year-old Romero began restoring the paint on his 20 year-old mural. Romero painted the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe in summer 1998 to represent the Mexican “culture and roots,” he said while fixing the mural Monday.
“I couldn’t leave it in this condition,” Romero said.
Romero, who has lived in Pilsen since 1987, first noticed the graffiti Tuesday but was unable to immediately restore it because he was briefly hospitalized.
Romero said he received calls about the graffiti and he saw it as a “call to action to fix the mural.” The 20-year-old mural was already needed some retouching before it was defaced, he said.
“The truth is when I saw [the graffiti] it made me really angry,” Romero said. “But I took a step back and said, ‘this is my chance to restore the Virgen.’”
When Romero fell ill last week, he thought he was suffering a heart attack, he said.
“I told my wife, ‘If I die, please ask my brother to restore la Virgen,'” Romero said. “When I realized I was going to be OK, I said, ‘This is a sign for me to fix the mural.'”
He expects to finish restoring the mural by this weekend.
Romero, who started painting and drawing when he was four years old, has painted a number of murals on 16th Street, a mural at St. Procopius Catholic Church and has paintings in the National Museum of Mexican Art collection in Pilsen. He immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1980s, he said.
In the 80s and 90s, the concrete walls along 16th Street had 20-30 time more graffiti than they do today. The graffiti inspired him to send a good message through his art.
“What can I do to send a positive image to the community?” he remembered thinking.
The Virgin Mary mural is located just west of the Chicago Fire soccer club-themed mural that Romero also painted in 1998.
Nancy Quintana, who has lived on the block for more than two decades and whose family provided the paint for the mural more than 20 years ago, said seeing the Virgen defaced was upsetting.
“My feelings ranged from sadness to anger and progressively throughout the day, my emotions turned into pure advocacy — how would we restore her?”
When she returned home Monday, she saw a stranger — a man named “Tom,” she said — fixing the mural.
“Little did he know that I had already started my mission of having her restored by contacting [Oscar],” Quintana said.
Quintana thanked him for his kind deed, and the man pulled a rosary out of his pocket.
“[He] said, ‘Ma’am, I am Catholic, and until you get a hold of the original muralist, I mean no disrespect but I am going to fix her face until he can get to her,'” Quintana remembered.
“With just that, my faith was restored,” she said.
Later Monday evening, Romero began repairing the mural, she said.
Quintana, a first-generation Mexican-American, said the Virgen is an important symbol in the neighborhood.
“I could share so many stories and pictures centered just around her, and what she represents,” she said.