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Pioneer Days

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The Latin American Museum of Art's difficulties may seem familiar to anyone acquainted with such endeavors. Lack of funding and deep-seated rivalries often dog these projects from the start.

The city's first Latino museum--the Mexican Fine Arts Center--was founded as a nonprofit organization in 1982 by a group of 13 board members, including public school teachers Helen Valdez and Carlos Tortolero. The board began with only $900 and a post office box; its goal, stated in a directory of Latino organizations, was "to establish a permanent home for exhibits dealing with Mexican culture and to develop educational programs for individuals interested in learning any of the Mexican Fine Arts."

Mi Raza Arts Consortium, another Pilsen-based arts center, was chartered that same year. Its director, Jose Gonzalez, was a longtime cultural activist. In 1975 he founded the influential Movimiento Artistico Chicano, or MARCH, which brought Latino art to a wide variety of venues in Chicago and the midwest. The journal Abrazo, started the following year and edited by Gonzalez, published the visual and literary works of MARCH members. In the late 70s, Gonzalez served as the Chicago/midwest representative on the National Endowment for the Arts' Hispanic Task Force.

In 1984, Gonzalez and art historian Victor Sorell initiated plans to create a Chicano art museum, forming an exploratory committee. In the meantime, Mi Raza Arts Consortium sponsored art exhibits and other events. Though its goals were seemingly similar to those of the group lobbying for the Mexican Fine Arts Center, they were actually quite different: MFAC's initial focus was on Mexican fine arts, while MIRA set out to showcase contemporary Mexican-American art, with an accent on the local community. "The focus of the museum project will first be with the history of the Chicano people in the U.S.," Gonzalez wrote. "It will not limit itself, however, just to these two distinct cultures but will initiate and invite other exhibits/programs of Latin American origin."

Lacking a permanent space, the Mexican Fine Arts Center presented performance art and musical shows as a way to establish a track record and raise funds. In 1986, the group signed a ten-year lease with the Chicago Park District for a converted boat-repair shop in Pilsen's Harrison Park. The resulting museum soon became a national success story--by the early 90s it was generally regarded as the largest museum in the country devoted to Mexican culture. Early on, some local artists charged the institution with elitism--they said it ignored those toiling in its own backyard--but the museum has worked hard in recent years to be more inclusive. Today it exhibits a mix of artists from Mexico and the U.S., acknowledging the contributions of artists in Pilsen and the rest of Chicago. The museum has also developed a broad spectrum of cultural and community programming--performances, readings, and festivals, as well as arts education programs, a youth museum, and a radio station for young people. The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum hosts up to 800 school groups a year.

Early last year the museum broke ground for two new wings that will triple its space to more than 50,000 square feet. The $7 million expansion (the cost will be split between the Park District and private donors) includes not only the two-story additions but an outdoor plaza that will feature a Mexican-American veterans' memorial fashioned by sculptor Luis Jimenez.

But Gonzalez has never been able to shake the notion that the rug was pulled out from under him, and the rift between the camps--the community activists and the brash, well-connected arrivistes--persisted for many years. (While MARCH/Abrazo Press continues as a literary collective, MIRA eventually disbanded.)

"They worked hard," acknowledges the now ailing Gonzalez. "That's one thing I always praised them for. They have worked hard, and they wanted their thing, where I was working for many things--to promote Latino art in the whole community. They're doing some good shows. They're doing work that is important. But there's a jealousy. See, they know they're not the pioneers. They never have been recognized there. They came after. They came when the road had been paved. It was real rocky, years ago. I drove on that rough road and I helped make the pavement. I wasn't the only one, but I can tell you for a fact that I was one of the main persons. And they came along when things were smoother."

Still, Gonzalez says, "To me, it didn't matter who built a museum. In fact, I didn't see one museum being built. I see more than one being built." Latinos, he says, "need to build institutions. It doesn't matter if I succeed or someone else does."

Residents of Mexican origin now constitute 70 percent of Chicago's Latino population--of course they would forge their own cultural institutions. That also goes for those with roots in Puerto Rico--estimated to number 130,000, or 18 percent of the city's Latino makeup. In fact, Puerto Ricans maintained many community cultural centers and arts organizations decades before the efforts to establish a full-fledged museum emerged.

The Puerto Rican Congress was among the earliest of these groups in West Town and Humboldt Park; it was founded in 1953 and remained active through the 1980s. Located in a storefront at 2313-15 W. North, the facility included a music conservatory, museum, and gallery. (The courtyard murals, painted by Puerto Rican Art Association members in the early 70s, are currently being erased as the building gets converted into condominiums.)

In 1966, riots near Damen and Division--sparked by incidents of police brutality--set off a wave of Puerto Rican activism across the country. Puerto Rican residents in West Town and Humboldt Park vigorously protested discrimination in employment, housing, and education. The rise of ethnic politics extended to artistic and cultural activity, and by the early 70s such organizations as the Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and the Puerto Rican Cultural Center had been established in West Town. Besides providing social services, these organizations also offer youth programs in literature and visual and performing arts. (The Puerto Rican Cultural Center also runs an alternative high school.)

In 1993 the Pedro Albizu Campos Museum of Puerto Rican History and Culture opened in a former church building at LeMoyne and California. Like many Puerto Rican cultural centers, the facility promoted art with a nationalist bent. Several years ago local activists tried to erect a statue of Campos in Humboldt Park; the plan came under attack because Campos advocated Puerto Rican independence (he'd been imprisoned twice in the 1950s). The statue is now located in a casita off Division. In April the Campos Museum relocated to the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.

The Puerto Rican Parade Committee has always been one of Humboldt Park's most active cultural and political organizations; its leaders are chosen in community-wide elections every two years. The parade committee was the first group to attempt to establish a museum in Humboldt Park. In 1982, Rafael Rios, then president of the committee, spearheaded an effort to purchase a lot at the corner of North and Troy using committee funds and donations. "We did the fund-raising and presented it to the community, but we still lost [the election]," says Rios, executive director of El Rincon Community Clinic. "The administration that won that year changed the plans, and the idea of a museum went down the drain." (The lot is now occupied by the Humboldt Park branch of the Chicago Public Library.)

The idea of a Puerto Rican museum was revived by members of the parade committee in the mid-80s. According to Rios, parade president Raul Orencia worked out a $1-a-year deal with the Park District to convert the Humboldt Park boathouse into a museum. The committee threw a grand opening party, and things looked promising. But, says Oscar Martinez of the Latin American Museum of Art, the group's contract was canceled, and the museum never opened. "A lot of people connected that to us, but we had nothing to do with it." --J.H.

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