Casa Aztlan murals restored
February 2, 2018

Photo by Troy Heinzeroth
The restored Casa Aztlan exterior mural replicates some features of the painted-over mural, but adds depictions of some neighborhood activists as well.

Developer Andrew Ahitow kept his promise to restore treasured murals at the former Casa Aztlan community center at 1831 S. Racine Ave.

Ahitow also is following through on his other promise to “create and sponsor a children’s art workshop that sparks young residents’ creativity and supports their talent,” he said.  “We genuinely believe children are our most valuable resource, and we are dedicated to investing in their future.”

Byron Sigcho of Pilsen Alliance has introduced Ahitow to several local youth art programs.

Ahitow also agreed to build new housing that will include at least 21% affordable units in what many activists believe has become a rapidly gentrifying area that has forced many working class people out of Pilsen. Ahitow’s plans specify ten affordable apartments in the former Casa Aztlan building.

Ahitow learned last July that he made a big mistake when he had workers paint over both the outdoor and indoor Aztlan murals, which dated back to the 1960s Chicano Mexican civil rights movement.

Adding insult to injury as far as Pilsen Alliance board president Magda Ramirez-Castenada was concerned was the “#Making Chicago Great Again” hashtag used by the contractor Ahitow hired to paint over the murals.

Ramirez-Castenada called that hashtag “a slap in the face,” adding that Ahitow should have checked into the murals’ significance before having them painted over.

During an emergency meeting that followed Ahitow’s announcement that he would replace the lost artwork, the Pilsen Alliance created three new special committees to address affordable housing, art preservation, and accountability to the community.

After leaving a meeting last summer, Ahitow e-mailed Sigcho a promise to have Ray Patlan, who had helped paint the original murals nearly half a century ago and now teaches in California, come back to help create new murals for Casa Aztlan.

While the new murals do not duplicate the original artwork exactly, they reflect its spirit, Patlan said.

Project leaders invited neighborhood residents to visit the site and weigh in with ideas.

Volunteer artists for the new murals included local residents Hector Duarte, Mark Nelson, Mirella Campos, John Weber, Traz Juarez, and others. 

The Mexican-Americans depicted this time include neighborhood notables such as political activist and poet Carlos Cortez and El Valor Children’s center founder Guadelupe Reyes as well as Rudy Lozano, a Pilsen labor and community organizer memorialized in the public library at 1805 S. Loomis that bears his name.

The artists completed the job in December.

Officials expect a Pilsen children’s art program will start this year under the auspices of the Chicago Public Art Group.

But while Ahitow kept his promise to replace the murals and fund a children’s art program, Sigcho said the developer has so far done nothing about his affordable housing commitment.

“We want to make sure he honors that commitment,” Sigcho said, adding the Pilsen Alliance has also scheduled a town hall meeting with the Pilsen Land Use Committee to find out what Ahitow plans to do about putting in more affordable housing. The meeting is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 10. Contact Pilsen Alliance for more information.

“We plan to keep holding him [Ahitow] accountable,” Sigcho promised.

For details on Ahitow’s firm, CityPads, visit www.citypadschicago.com. For more on the Chicago Public Art Group, see www.chicagopublicartgroup.org. For more on Pilsen Alliance, log on to www.thepilsenalliance.org.

—Patrick Butler