HUMBOLDT PARK — Artists are brightening up the epicenter of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community with colorful murals, which pay tribute to the neighborhood’s identity.
Artists are painting 10 sidewalk murals on Paseo Boricua, a stretch of Division Street that extends from California avenues, under the city’s Al Fresco initiative, a program aimed at creating “active community spaces” anchored by outdoor dining.
The murals — depicting everything from Puerto Rico’s state flower to the Puerto Rican LGBTQ experience — are expected to stay up for a few years, organizers said.
The art project is a way for Humboldt Park’s Puerto Rican residents to “claim public space” in the face of rapid gentrification, said Emmanuel Dávila, the director of business initiatives for the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, the organization overseeing the effort.
Housing prices have shot up in the Humboldt Park area and along The 606’s Bloomingdale Trail in recent years, driving out longtime Latino residents and businesses catering to the Latino community.
The murals “let folks know we are still a presence in this community, and we don’t intend to give up our culture. We intend to hang on to our culture,” Dávila said.
Local artist Cristian Roldán, who is Puerto Rican, is spearheading the project.
Roldán said the murals are an acknowledgement and a celebration of the area’s Puerto Rican community. Roldán is painting four of the murals, two of which are patterned bursts of color. The rest are being painted by other local artists Roldán has worked with before.
“Our public places, where we live, where we create our lives — it’s important for us to represent that we’re here, and we’re part of the population, too,” Roldán said.
Roldán added in an email, “By selecting four Puerto Rican artists, including myself, we expect to provide the space for creatives to create meaningful pieces that reflect the collective aesthetics as a means to celebrate culture, contribute to Chicago’s diversity and reimagine the space that we inhabit in a positive and colorful way.”
Raul Ortiz Bonilla is one of the artists Roldán brought on board. Bonilla’s mural, on Division just west of Rockwell Street, is done in the artist’s signature pointillism style with Puerto Rican themes woven throughout.
The mural’s hibiscus flowers — Puerto Rico’s state flower — have 78 leaves to represent the 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico, Bonilla said. Steps leading up to a fence are meant to illustrate the barriers Puerto Ricans face and the struggles Puerto Rican nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos endured, he said. Campos is a beloved figure in Humboldt Park and is the subject of other neighborhood murals; a nearby school is also named after Campos.
Bonilla, who is from the southern coast of Puerto Rico, said the response has been “amazing” so far, with neighbors sharing their stories of living in Puerto Rico and Humboldt Park.
“A lot of the old-timers and people open up and want to talk. You hear a lot of beautiful stories, you learn a lot,” he said.
Dávila said the art project is just one part of leaders’ broader plans to boost economic activity along Division Street and steer more people to the area’s Puerto Rican businesses, which have struggled because of gentrification and the pandemic.
The Puerto Rican Cultural Center is installing wooden structures along Division Street that will house outdoor dining, events and performances this summer, called Boricua Village. The structures should be up by early June, Dávila said.
Each structure will have its own theme. One near West Town Bikes and a senior housing building will be focused on wellness.
Like the murals, the Boricua Village project is part of the city’s Al Fresco program.
The Division Street stretch recently became Puerto Rico Town, a state-designated cultural district aimed at bringing resources to small businesses.
The art project is “one of the first steps in envisioning Puerto Rican Town as a cultural enterprise, using culture to drive the economic engine,” Dávila said.
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