Hector Duarte and an assistant Alex Esquiliano inserting the recreated piece of Mario Castillo's mural on "Fight to Stay" at the Pilsen Housing Cooperative. Credit: Provided

PILSEN — Local artists are paying homage to the Pilsen’s first mural with a new piece, “Fight To Stay,” representing the struggles longtime neighbors face in fighting gentrification and staying connected to their roots.

The new artwork spans two stories of a large building at 1910 S. Wolcott Ave., which houses a housing co-op, a resistance of its own. Artists Hector Duarte and Gabriel Villa said the mural aims to unite Pilsen residents under a common goal: to fight against the forces driving out local Mexican families.

Embedded within the artwork is a small recreation of “Peace,” Pilsen’s first permanent outdoor mural, which was painted by artist Mario Castillo in 1968 on Halsted Street between Cullerton Avenue and 19th Street. Duarte said they wanted to include a piece of Castillo’s work in their own to acknowledge the community’s Mexican history.

Castillo is a pioneer muralist, and his 1968 mural is thought to be the first mural painted during the national Chicano mural movement in the 1960s and ’70s, said Jeff Huebner, a Chicago art writer and mural historian. It was also the first mural in Pilsen, a neighborhood now widely known for its vibrant artwork. The mural was sandblasted in 1992 and no longer exists.

Castillo said he was honored Duarte and Villa paid homage to “Peace” and the neighborhood’s history.

“There is a lot of change in Pilsen, but I think that it’s still considered as a place where visitors can appreciate Mexican and Latino culture,” Castillo said.

Hector Duarte recreated just a part of Mario Castillo’s 1968 mural titled Peace. Art historian said the mural was the first in Pilsen and the first one in the nationwide Chicano mural movement. Credit: Provided

Castillo thinks the themes of his mural — empowering communities with Mexican roots and protesting the Vietnam War — parallel “Fight to Stay’s” theme of fighting displacement, he said.

Villa said the choice to fit Castillo’s work into his and Duarte’s mural came “organically.”

“It’s kind of like a time capsule,” Villa said. “It just made sense that we were going to pay homage to not only one of the core murals, but also paying homage to how community art has played an important role in the neighborhood.”

After running the idea by Castillo and working with him to figure out how best to fit his piece into theirs, Duarte spent the winter recreating the segment of “Peace” in his studio. Castillo’s mural was quite large, so the artists decided to paint just the focal point of the piece.

“Fight To Stay” also features dueling tornados, representing the competing forces of big developers and rising home prices against longtime residents and their culture, Duarte said.

Pilsen, a historic port of entry for Mexican immigrants, has seen an exodus of Latino families in recent years. A 2016 University of Illinois at Chicago study found that more than 10,300 Hispanic residents left Pilsen between 2000 and 2010.

Before it became a Mexican enclave, Pilsen was first occupied by Czech immigrants in the late 19th Century and subsequently by other European working-class immigrants. In the 1960s, as Latinos were displaced from the neighborhood UIC currently occupies, Mexicans moved into Pilsen. By 1970, Pilsen was the city’s first majority Latino community, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. 

It’s not too late to turn Pilsen’s trend of displacement around, Duarte said. In the mural, a massive tree could symbolize the tree of life, he said.

“We come from very old cultures that flourished … and we should feel proud of this past, and we don’t want to forget this past,” Duarte said. “We can make the future better through this knowledge.”

Hector Duarte said the massive tree can symbolize the tree of life and being connected to one’s culture and past. Credit: Provided

The site of the mural is significant, as well.

The 1910 S. Wolcott Ave. building is owned by the Pilsen Housing Cooperative, started by a group of neighborhood residents who wanted to stand up to gentrification in the area and turn longtime renters into homeowners. Duarte and Villa are core members of the group, along with others.

“It reflects the community. It reflects, in a certain way, the fight for the cooperative itself,” Duarte said.

In February, the group bought its second building and is now on the lookout for its third.

Neighbors are invited out to celebrate “Fight To Stay” with music and food 2-5 p.m. Saturday as the artists put their finishing touches on the mural.

The mural is located at 1910 S. Wolcott Ave., the first building purchased for the Pilsen Housing Cooperative. Credit: Provided

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