By Kerry Cardoza
Pilsen was a hotbed of community activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Brown Berets organized at the newly established cultural center Casa Aztlán. The Pilsen Neighbors Community Council and others fought the city on Plan 21, a massive redevelopment project that would have wrecked the neighborhood as residents knew it. Local women founded a social service agency that would become Mujeres Latinas en Acción. One of the largest battles was the campaign for a neighborhood high school. Pilsen had no high school, just Froebel, for ninth grade, so students had to commute to Harrison High School, way out in South Lawndale. Harrison was overcrowded and fraught with gang tension. Not to mention that Pilsen’s Latinx majority student body was not adequately supported at Harrison; Spanish-speaking students were frequently placed in special education classes. Pilsen parents and students pushed the school board relentlessly for a new high school, which they eventually got. Benito Juarez High School opened its doors in 1978. Sarita Hernández, teacher and student program coordinator at the National Museum of Mexican Art, tells the story of this high school and “La Esperanza,” the mural that serves as its cultural touchstone, in the exhibition “40 años a la esperanza.” Newcity sat down with Hernández to learn why it was important to set the record straight on the mural’s creation.
How did the Benito Juarez High School come to be, and what is the story behind the mural?
Between 1968 and 1974, there was a big push between organizers through the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council and parents and students from Harrison High School-Froebel, who were advocating for essentially the building of a new high school. Because there was no high school in the Pilsen neighborhood. Froebel was one but it was an entry-level branch, what ninth grade would be, super small. So everyone had to go to Harrison High School, which was all the way in Little Village. That’s where Maria Saucedo is right now. A lot of parents and students were concerned because they would have to cross gang territory and the school was way overcrowded. The conditions were terrible. There were a bunch of sit-ins, boycotts, protests advocating for it. They got approval, but of course there was so much delay throughout the process with the Board of Education. Eventually it passed and they were able to get the land on Cermak and Ashland. In 1977 the doors opened. Students started in seventy-eight, so the first graduating class was in seventy-nine.
The interesting thing about what was going on during this whole transition was that while this school was getting built, a lot of students were pushed out. And I say pushed out particularly because it was the system that pushed them out. It wasn’t necessarily that they just dropped out. A lot of students would go to Casa Aztlán, which was the social service agency of Pilsen, and also an arts and cultural center. They would go and hang out there when the schools were in transition, basically go there instead of school.
That’s really important to note because the mural itself, “A la esperanza,” came out of Casa Aztlán. There were a bunch of teaching artists who were asked to propose what they would put on the wall, on the first mural of Benito Juarez [High School], outside. They had to defend it and present it in front of a panel of parents and teachers. All of the people who competed would be asked to help paint the mural. Almost everyone did, except Aurelio Diaz. All the artists—like Oscar Moya, Marcos Raya, Salvador Vega—actually had more of a background in making murals and painting. Jimmy Longoria and Malú Ortega, who co-submitted a proposal—this was their first project. This was their first mural. So you can imagine there was a lot of tension, even though they had backgrounds in the arts and were teaching artists, there was a lot of tension there. But they definitely learned a lot from each other. One of the reasons why their mural design was chosen was because it was very new and contemporary for the time. Very abstract and interpretative and also talking about the past, future and present of the student, focusing on the life of the student, and how this figure of Benito Juarez is a guide for the students to make decisions about their future. It’s really poetic in that sense. There’s so many different characters within it that reflect what was happening at the moment and then even today. It’s still relevant of what’s going on. Especially if you think about teachers right now advocating for changes, and as they’re going through the bargaining process, I think it honors the activism that happened. It’s not explicit, but I do think that it does honor the struggle that the parents had to go through in order to build the school.
How did this exhibition, “A la esperanza,” come about?
In my fellowship before, I directed this oral history video on Casa Aztlán in the early 1970s. A lot of the teaching artists that I interviewed would mention this mural project, part of that was people mentioning Malú Ortega, who was the co-designer. She just kept on constantly, constantly coming up! And everyone was like, I can’t find her, everyone’s lost contact with her, it’s been almost forty years. I was so determined to get in contact with her because I didn’t want to work on this oral history project and not include her. And we did. We were able to get in contact with her and honestly because of her, I really feel like this exhibition was possible.
Part of my interest in working on this was to give credit to all the artists who participated. Before September 16—a couple weeks ago—you would pass by there and you would just see one name credited. It was restored in 2015 by the other co-designer, Jimmy Longoria, and while he totally did so much work on the restoration and the planning and even the original proposal and design process, so did all these other folks. It’s important that they get credit as well. Before September 16, when we installed a bronze commemorative plaque honoring the original 1979 credit panel, you would pass by there and only see one name and think only this one person did it. A lot of people here at the museum even didn’t know that Malú Ortega co-designed it. There was actually a place-making exhibition that was up that my mentor Cesareo Moreno curated and when he met Malú, he asked me to change something in the exhibition because it didn’t honor her work in it. That was an exciting moment, because it was like, yes, we’re correcting this history that was erased or forgotten. That’s really where it came about.
My relationship with Malú grew and then I got this fellowship and they offered me an opportunity to curate in the galleries here. Since it was coming up on the fortieth anniversary, and the Chicago Architecture Biennial was happening, it seemed like a good moment to have this. Then Malú, of course, after our Casa Aztlán oral history video, she stumbled upon this really big shoebox full of ephemera and color slides that she took in 1979, documenting the process of the mural, because that was her practice. She was a photographer, a ceramicist and a printmaker. She had all of this photo documentation and all of this ephemera that she had archived on her time in Chicago in the seventies. Casa Aztlán was such a big part of that, the mural and her work at SAIC. I was able to work with actual color samples from her time in generative systems, which was a very big intervention of technology in the arts. I got really lucky, is what I like to say. If it wasn’t for her, in terms of the objects and the ephemera of how you publicly display this history and knowledge, I don’t think it would have been as powerful.
Talk a bit about what the curation process was like and some of the objects on display.
A big aspect, other than Malú Ortega’s archive, is Community TV Network. They’re this grassroots video arts education organization, and they’ve been around since the seventies. Their first color film project, along with Latino Youth Alternative High School, was on this mural, which is so dope, because the first time they got color, three-quarter-inch U-matic
, they decided they were going to color the mural. That’s so important because the color, it’s like, the lines and the color is the mural. So it’s really amazing that they were able to capture that in color. Through that, I was able to get access to their outtakes of all the footage they took when they were doing the video called “La Esperanza.”
The really cool thing about this mural is how much it’s about arts education, and how all of these artists are also teaching artists, because often just because you’re an artist doesn’t mean you’re a good teacher, you know? It’s really great how both of these things are going hand in hand: the public service, the social service arts education and public art.
I also did a bunch of oral histories with all the artists who were involved, I actually went to meet with Jimmy Longoria. I had a studio visit with him. Marcos Raya, Salvador Vega. Malú and I had done a series of oral histories that were actually recorded, because I felt like it was really important to record her oral histories because she’s simply not been in the archive. She’s been literally erased. For me, it’s really important to get that back in there, even if that recording lives in the institutional archives of this museum, at least it’s here and in an institution. If researchers need to use it, it’s there.
Another major part was working with Nicole Marroquin around a lot of the projects that she and Paulina Camacho were doing at the Benito Juarez Community Academy, around learning the history of how this school came to be. She has a lot of prints around the Harrison and Froebel school uprisings. Then there are these collages that were stitched together in a fabric piece that the students made, these collages from one of the classrooms that Paulina and Nicole did, around thinking through identity and place-making and thinking about what it would have been like to be a student at Froebel. A lot of the images contain soccer playing and faces, like eyes cut out and things like that, to address identity. Something that I think is really interesting is that a lot of the collages are soccer players playing because they actually didn’t have a soccer team. A lot of the students were like, “Oh my God, how did they not have this? It’s super important to our community.” It’s something that we take for granted, that wasn’t around or wasn’t part of the reality of that time in that context. They were asking such amazing questions comparing then and now.
There’s a comic book club at Benito Juarez right now, and I thought it was important to include current students in the exhibition, because they’re the ones who see the mural every day. It’s part of the fabric of their school. So they learned about how Malú was no longer on the wall, how artists credited the mural right now, and they wanted to talk more about that and rewrite this history through a comic book. In the exhibition there’s a little snapshot of what the comic book is going to be like. We actually don’t have a programming budget for that gallery, so it’s been a labor of love figuring out how to fund this. It’s really important to my own methodology to include and connect with the people who this would directly affect, which is Benito Juarez students. We have a GiveGab right now, we’re trying to fundraise for the comic book and the teaching artists behind the project. That’s going to be coming out throughout the run of the show.
The comic book is such a cool project.
The cool thing about it is that the students have this and can add it to their resume. One of the students, her portfolio just got accepted at SAIC, so she’ll most likely get accepted. It’s good for them to have a publication. It’s empowering to be published in the comic book! Also, what I really appreciate and I always will, about zines and DIY publications or non-DIY publications, is that it will live beyond an exhibition. I am invested in rewriting this history, that everyone thought was a certain way.
To put this exhibition in context for 2019, obviously this is the fortieth anniversary of the mural, but why else do you think this story is important to tell?
When I was initially thinking about how to construct this exhibition, I realized that Day of the Dead would also be up at the same time. Around this time of year, we get so many students in the museum, like every day. For me, it was important to curate a space that would be inviting to high school students and also to any level of student. Especially with the video, I think, because it’s empowering to learn about students that fought for a school to be built. On top of that, to learn that this mural that was created and organized by art teachers at the school, in connection to a social service agency that a lot of people went through, that was focused in the arts. Some students and their elders might have gone through Casa Aztlán. For me, it was really important that students see that it is possible to advocate for things that they want, and that they have a right to. I really wanted them to know that this happened and that it can happen again, to feel empowered to organize for themselves.
It’s super timely, with the Chicago Teachers Union going on strike. Seeing that change happens from the community. We can’t wait for politicians, or people in power, to make the moves. It’s within our everyday struggles. That’s something that I also appreciate of the narrative of the mural. It’s these everyday people, particularly everyday students. Even the illustration of Benito Juarez in the mural, he’s not dressed in a fancy tuxedo, he’s just wearing a button-up. He’s like an everyday person, but with so much confidence and power and guidance and light for these students. I love the emphasis on the everyday in this mural. That’s empowering for a student or a teacher or a mom or a sister, whoever passes by that mural, to see that this person in power is in the same position as them, and can feel empowered to advocate for themselves. I just really feel like knowledge is power, especially when it comes to understanding how things like this happen, particularly how Benito Juarez came about. The community fought for a school, period. Without the community, it wouldn’t have happened. Without the pressure of the community, and the organizing and the arts, the arts was so integral to it. Casa Aztlán was such a big part of that too, along with Pilsen Neighbors. So many cultural hubs around that time were in conversation with each other, fighting for whatever issue it was. For me, it’s this constant reminder that we have a history that we’re building on, that we can advocate for ourselves.
“40 años a la esperanza,” National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 West 19th Street, through March 15, 2020.