Pilsen commuters walk through more than turnstiles at the 18th Street ‘L’ Pink Line stop; they walk through brightly-colored Mexican history as told by Francisco Mendoza.
Mendoza died on March 12 at the age of 53, and the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen held a wake for Mendoza on March 16. He painted the neighborhood with Mexican history and tradition.
Cesareo Moreno, National Museum of Mexican Art visual arts director and chief curator, said Mendoza was a prime example of a teaching artist that was attached to local schools and the museum was “a fitting place to sort of pay our last respects to Francisco.”
“I think – not only because of the size or the amount of people that were expected but symbolically – for him to be resting in state here at the premier arts institution in the city of Chicago, certainly in Pilsen, I think it was perfect,” he said. “It was something almost had to be.”
Hector Duarte, a Mexican muralist who lives in Pilsen, said that Mendoza’s legacy lies in his teaching.
Mendoza worked at Orozco Academy before it was turned into Cooper Elementary.
Dating back to the 1980s, Mendoza’s murals – displaying Mexican history and culture – cover Cooper’s main hallway as well as the auditorium stage, which now resembles an Aztec pyramid. His colorful mosaic panels also wrap the exterior of the school.
Principal Martha Monrroy worked with Mendoza for 15 years as a fellow teacher. While continuing to lead young students, she remembered her former colleague and his murals that cover the school and neighborhood.
“Those of us who taught with him always saw him as a really good partner because he really brought joy to the kids’ day,” she said.
Monrroy said Mendoza was always interested in teaching students about their heritage and culture through paintings and murals.
Cooper Elementary is a stop on the mural tour held by National Museum of Mexican Art.
As Mendoza and his work is remembered by colleagues, friends and members of the Pilsen community, a new light is shed on the importance of mural art and its connection to Mexican history.
“The idea of murals came from the fact that there were people who couldn’t read and write and there were a group of artists that took it upon themselves to educate the people through their artwork,” said Mario Hernandez, National Museum of Mexican Art educational tour guide.
According to Moreno, arts – in the form of murals – helped reform modern Mexico and define the identity of its people after the Mexican Revolution ravaged the country.
“It wasn’t art for rich people. It wasn’t art for museum walls. It was art for everyday people – many of whom couldn’t read – but they understand that their own personal private history was on those walls of the public spaces,” he said.
During the late 20th century muralist movement, Mexican-American murals faced the streets. In Mexico, murals were more commonly placed in public buildings and schools. The Mexican government promoted muralists while the movement in the United States was driven by the artists themselves, Duarte said.
Moreno said murals in the United States helped to physically establish and identify the Mexican community boundaries.
“The Chicano, or Mexican-American, communities really embraced the whole idea of murals to portray ourselves, to celebrate our community, to not forget our heroes and those things that are culturally of value to our community,” he said.
Duarte has worked since the 1980s on murals that communicate the identity of the Mexican immigrant and community identity.
His house and studio is covered in a mural which portrays a large Mexican man in a reclining position surrounded by barbed wire and colorful imagery of Chicago.
“It symbolizes that if we – the community – help him, he can integrate into the community. But if the community doesn’t, he won’t. He’ll fall,” he said.
Duarte said he used the story of Gulliver’s Travels to represent an immigrant’s journey. The size of the subject represents the success of crossing the border while the wire represents the border itself.
The subject also wears a cap and a mask, which represent factory and field workers and the death of his previous Mexican identity respectively.
He is currently working on a collection of 20 portraits of those who are important to him and his culture, including Pancho Villa and Rudy Lozano, a Chicago community organizer who was killed in 1980s.
While Duarte interprets the information gathered by working with the community, Mendoza was heavily involved in traditional education and worked with students learning to paint, Moreno said.
“In the end, we have two important, significant, creative people from our community. Both are visual artists, but both have a different technique or a way,” Moreno said.
Despite the different techniques, the work created by both artists represent a strong sense of culture that has been fundamental in teaching about Mexican history.
“[Art is] significant in that it really has this ability to get you to understand and reflect a little bit about your own condition by looking at someone else’s condition,” Moreno said.
Hernandez said visual art like murals “makes you acknowledge some of the issues in the community that have to be brought up.”
Aside from working with Mendoza, Chicago artist Sam Kirk also created a mural – on the corner of West 17th Street and South Ashland Avenue – depicting the architecture developed by Mexican “blue-collar” workers in the area.
“[Mendoza] was an amazing, amazing man,” she said. “You couldn’t meet a more humble optimistic person.” She worked with him on an unpublished series of mosaic paintings before he became ill.
As time goes on, the work of muralists – like Mendoza and Duarte – continue to have a strong connection to educating young people about culture.
Monrroy said she and Mendoza discussed funding to finish the mosaic panels that line the front of the school. After attending his wake, she hopes to contact his old students to finish the mosaics.
“So many of his students have gone into the art field that I don’t think it would be that hard to gather a group to come together and finish the mosaics in his honor,” she said. “I think there’s a lot that people will continue to learn from his murals.”
Columbia college students Julius Rea and Husnaa Vhora reported on and wrote this article as well as provided photographs. Columbia college assistant professor Teresa Puente translated the interview with Hector Duarte from Spanish to English.
- More than 350 additional community murals from Timothy Drescher are now available in the ARTstor Digital Library. (artstor.wordpress.com)