Two more Puerto Rican murals preserve cultural ties and record history

By: 
Jeff Huebner
Date: 
11/08/2013
HonorBaricua3

"Honor Boricua"

In addition to the Puerto Rican Congress Murals restorations, there are two others recently refreshed a few blocks to the west of Wicker Park in Humboldt Park. Both are located on two affordable-housing apartment buildings owned and renovated by the Latino United Community Housing Association (LUCHA). 

Honor Boricua was led by Hector Duarte in 1992; and Breaking the Chains/Rompiendo las Cadenas was led by John Pitman Weber in 1971. Weber’s has long been believed to be the oldest surviving outdoor community mural in the nation. 

BreakingTheChains

"Breaking the Chains" by John P. Weber and residents (1971) Restoration (2013) by Weber, Vergara and Lanza

Just as important, these murals remain visible symbols of East Humboldt Park as a historically Puerto Rican neighborhood, now racially mixed as it continues to undergo social change. They “served as a reminder that there were still affordable rental housing units in the community” in the face of gentrification," said James Miletello, LUCHA’s director of development, in an email. People “grew to be very ‘protective’ of them.” 

He went on, “For example, when we started the restoration process, many community members were antagonistic towards the artists because they thought the artists were (and I’m paraphrasing here) ‘destroying the murals so that some company can build houses for rich people.’ This presented LUCHA with an opportunity to…correct this inaccurate statement.” 

As part of its $11.7 million public-private cost to rehabilitate four apartment buildings it owns in East Humboldt Park into 47 units of affordable rental housing, the nonprofit developer LUCHA (“struggle” in Spanish) also received government arts grants to help restore the culturally significant murals on the exterior brick of two of the buildings, both located on Rockwell Ave. Brick repair and tuck-pointing would’ve damaged them further. (See more information about the Borinquen Bella Mural Restoration Project.) 

Without regular maintenance, or neighborhood stewardship, many important outdoor murals may become lost. They become worn by the elements, faded by the sun, degraded by building problems or repairs or destroyed by demolitions or redevelopment. Yet, even as longer-lasting paints have been developed in recent years, the relevance of some street murals fade along with their colors. If they no longer have any meaning to local residents, then something new should take their place. But many older murals still speak to their communities, and are as vital and powerful today as they were decades ago.

That was the case with Hector Duarte’s Honor Boricua, at Rockwell Ave. and Evergreen Ave., originally sponsored by LUCHA, and John Weber’s Breaking the Chains/Rompeindo las Cadenas at Rockwell and LeMoyne Street, along with the Puerto Rican Congress Murals.

Over the decades, these works had barely been defaced, a testimony to their local status. Weber’s mural is one of several that he and volunteers created in the largely Latino West Town in 1971. 

Honor Boricua and Duarte

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Hector Duarte (r) and assistant Alejandro Esquiliano at base of "Honor Boricua"

Honor Boricua honors Humboldt Park’s predominantly Puerto Rican heritage (Borinquen is the island’s original Arawak Indian name). The original mural was a project of the nonprofit community-based Chicago Public Art Group. It depicts the Puerto Rican flag flying from the island (represented by an Old San Juan colonial-era building), across the sea, and into the Chicago skyline. In turn, the flag unfurls from Chicago and returns to the island. The circle of flags suggests the ongoing exchange of culture, people, and ideas. 

In painting the mural, Duarte, a veteran muralist from the Pilsen neighborhood, drew from his formative stint with the first session of the Siqueiros Workshop in Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1977-78, when he learned the compositional methods and perspective techniques used by the revolutionary Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. (The school was launched by Siqueiros’s wife and assistants after the maestro’s death in 1974.) 

Duarte took time from painting up on the aerial lift with assistant Alejandro Esquiliano in early July to talk (in his always improving English) about the new/old mural. He explained that it was an interesting challenge to paint the same scenes, in sort of the same way, 21 years later. He said he’d changed as an artist in that time. His vision and his eyesight had changed. His brushstrokes were different. And the paint he’d used back then was different, too. Now he could use bolder, brighter, longer-lasting acrylic colors not available in the early 1990s.

“For me, it’s not easy to reproduce,” said Duarte, who’s participated in more than 45 murals in the Chicago area and in his native Mexico, including the city’s largest mural, La Lotería, on the Swap-O-Rama building at 41st Street and Ashland Ave., with Mariah de Forest, and the mosaic Ice Cream Dream for the CTA-Pink Line’s Western Station. 

“In time, I’ve changed a little bit in style. I simplify more. I can repeat exactly, but I don’t like to do exactly the same. It’s a different time. It’s why the artists who copy have a special way to copy, to restore. It’s another talent, a different talent. I like to restore, but I’m feeling the freedom to change something…The last time, we didn’t have brilliant colors because we had a commercial paint. Now we have acrylic, with more brilliant colors.”

How did Duarte feel as a Mexican artist working in Humboldt Park in 1992 as well as today? He recalled moving to Chicago from his Michoacán home in 1985 and seeing people driving around with flags on their cars during a Puerto Rican celebration. “It had an emotional impact on me,” he said. “It gave me a feeling of national pride. They’re defending their culture. It’s the same with Mexico here. So when I painted this mural, I felt a little Puerto Rican.” He said neighborhood people were especially elated when they saw the flag take shape.

Duarte did add one new element to Honor Boricua: the scene wraps around the corner (where the credits are), so viewers can now see a portion of the mural as they approach it from the west on Evergreen and from the north on Rockwell. 

Breaking the Chains and John Weber

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John Pitman Weber with his wife Elsa at the mural dedication, Aug. 16, 2013

John Weber directed building residents at 1456 N. Rockwell/2609 W. LeMoyne and other neighbors in the design and painting of Breaking the Chains during the early heyday of the community mural movement. 

Many of the people who lived in the building and worked on the mural were affiliated with the Latin American Defense Organization (LADO), a group that fought for racial justice and better housing in the neighborhood. LADO was one of the sponsors of the mural, which was a project of the Chicago Mural Group, the nonprofit artists’ coalition that Weber co-founded that year. (It became the Chicago Public Art Group in 1985.) 

Breaking the Chains was one of three socially conscious murals that Weber led in Wicker Park/West Town in 1971. He was among the movement’s pioneers and co-author of the first book about community murals, Toward a People’s Art (1977). 

They focused on the struggles and aspirations of Puerto Ricans and other people in the neighborhood, highlighting hope, power, pride, and action. Another was Together We Overcome/Unidos para Triunfar, on the corner of Division Street and Hoyne Ave. (Weber later led the concrete-and-paint Life-Tree in 1989, still visible on the exterior of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, 2125 W. North Ave.) 

BurningScene

Images reference arson fires prevalent in Humboldt Park in the 1960s and 70s

The East Humboldt Park mural showed the hands of the people, black, brown, and white “breaking the chains” with the words vice, drugs, racism, injustice, war, poverty, and slums written on them, to create a better future, symbolized by youths of all races carrying roses. The mural also included references—e.g., a woman screaming from a burning window, to the epidemic of arson fires that plagued the neighborhood’s families in the late 1960s and 70s. 

According to Weber, the Rockwell-LeMoyne property had been vacated by about 1980 and was threatened with demolition. “A struggle was mounted to save the building and then use the mural as a focal point to focus energy on the question of affordable housing in this Humboldt Park area, that had been heavily hit by arson,” said Weber. LUCHA, formed by a group of local leaders and citizens in 1982, soon bought the building, and the organization became a key force in preserving affordable rental housing in the area. 

Weber restored the wall throughout July, assisted by neighborhood muralist John Vergara, along with Alexy Lanza, and, for one day, yours truly. (The team had to wait for Duarte to get done using the sky-lift on his mural down the street in June.)

With input from local residents and students, Weber updated text to reflect current issues in the community. Along with housing, other words on the chains were: racism, injustice, wars, profiling, machismo, sexism, prisons, and unemployment. (The artists replaced the triangular LADO symbol with a blended-in Puerto Rican sun, an acknowledgment of the neighborhood’s still-predominant population.)

“Here we are 42 years later, and the mural miraculously survived almost untouched,” Weber told a LUCHA-convened assembly at the Rockwell Community Center, in the Greater Exodus Baptist Church, during the August 16 dedication. “But, sadly enough, all the issues that we had named in the mural are still terribly important.” 

John Vergara

Vergara was acutely aware of that fact. He has led youths in several murals in Humboldt Park on violence prevention themes, and he’s also repainted others, including 1971’s iconic The Crucifixion of Pedro Albizu Campos at North Ave. and Artesian Ave. with youth volunteers in 2011. Painted by Mario Galán and the Puerto Rican Art Association, the mural has for decades been a symbol of the neighborhood’s cultural and political identity—and its ongoing fight against gentrification. Community groups had waged a 10-year battle against developers who’d begun to build a condo in the lot next door that would’ve covered the mural. (The lot is now a park and garden.) 

Born and raised in Humboldt Park, Vergara, 39, never imagined he’d be restoring Breaking the Chains and The Crucifixion. “It was an honor to work on them, because as a little kid growing up in the neighborhood in the 1970s…and then in your teens and twenties, you’re too busy messing around out there, the last thing you do is look at a mural. It’s the last thing you care about. But then when you get older, you start to appreciate what the community has to offer…I really started to get involved in the arts and giving back.” 

"Leaving the traces"

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At work atop a crane on Honor "Boricua"

Outside the community center during the dedication, I met Gladys Diaz Moreno, who grew up in the Rockwell-LeMoyne building. Her parents helped start the Pedro Albizu Campos Health Clinic at 2353 W. North Ave. in 1971. The same year, when she was eight, she daubed red paint in the “left rose” of Breaking the Chains from atop the scaffold. “I just remember John [Weber] with buckets of paint, saying ‘Don’t fall off!’ I’d go up there and paint and he’d say, ‘Beautiful work!’” 

Over the last decade or so, Weber has managed to restore a half-dozen of his extant 1970s murals, funded by a variety of grants, nonprofits, and donations. They include several on the Near Northwest Side: Tilt (Together Protect the Community), at Fullerton Ave. and Washtenaw Ave.; Together We Overcome/ Unidos para Triunfar, at Division St. and Hoyne Ave.; and now Breaking the Chains.

After working on the streets of many Chicago (and many other cities’) communities with diverse artists and groups for nearly 45 years, Weber probably understands the nature of changing neighborhoods about as well as any urban sociologist. (He’s a professor emeritus of art at Elmhurst College.) After working with him on the wall, I asked him why it was important to restore vintage murals like Breaking the Chains—who, some might insist, is a relic from another era.

“It’s a question of leaving traces,” he said. “I think it’s very important to not erase the past. I see this as a giving of new life that’ll hopefully last a generation, something that is a document of the 1970s and what this neighborhood was then. Some of the things are still very valid—the basic imagery still speaks to a lot of people. But there was not an attempt to make [Breaking the Chains] into a new mural. 

If you don’t preserve past local landmarks, communities can’t get a sense of their history and future. Weber continued, “You lose the whole complexity and richness of who was there before you and what their struggles were, what their lives were about, which are also relevant to your struggles and the questions that you’re facing. This whole process of erasure is also a process of sanitizing, domesticating, and of disempowering people. 

You can’t have any democracy that doesn’t have some sense of people controlling their local destiny. You can’t have that unless newer residents unite with older residents, and the newer residents are able to get a sense of joining in an ongoing history.” 

Brendan Hudson was certainly aware of participating in that ongoing history when he restored the Puerto Rican Congress Murals in Wicker Park, and of being part of an ongoing mural tradition. 

“Chicago has this great history of community murals, and so many of them have been such an inspiration to me, like Bill Walker. I think that the one of his down on 47th and Calumet is my favorite mural in the city,” he said. “So just to be part of that history, to have a hand in bringing them back into life, is really special. Seeing as I believe in so many of the values that drove [artists] to do these murals in the first place—I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

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