In North America/ Travel

Pilsen: The Beating Heart of Mexican-America in Chicago You Need to See

Chicago skyline from the 'L'

The name “Pilsen” doesn’t exactly inspire images of Latin America. That’s the place where that beer comes from, right? Some city in the Czech Republic?

Yes, immigrants from that corner of the globe were the original inhabitants of this lower west side Chicago neighborhood, but overtime it has shifted identities. This is no longer an Eastern European enclave. This is firmly a barrio of Mexican-American immigrants and their second generation kids. The art is Mexican, the food is Mexican, you place your order aquí and you pick it up over ahí. Only Miami transports you to Latin America within the United States like Pilsen does, except the layout remains distinctly Chicagoan. You’ve got your rows of densely-packed single-family homes just outside the main strip, Calle 18 where there’s everything from the lavandería to modest-looking taco joints for a quick yet filling bite.

Artistic sign in Pilsen ChicagoI lived in Chicago for something like two years. In that time, I never made it to Pilsen. Never knew it existed, in fact. The idea to visit came from my wife Melanie’s cousin, who didn’t even necessarily suggest checking it out. She just mentioned it was someplace she spent an afternoon in recently. So rather than retrace familiar territory, I opted to hop on the ‘L’–that screeching, glorious piece of rail transit that screams CHICAGO–and get off where Google told me Pilsen is. To give us some direction, we first headed to the National Museum of Mexican Art.

Who doesn’t love Mexican art? Find the most xenophobic asshole in your neighborhood and I’ll bet you the entirety of their Toby Keith memorabilia that even they enjoy the vibrant colors and stylings of Mexican art. While I’m hardly an art connoisseur who can rattle of the names of personal favorites, I will go out of my way to check out some Mexican art.

The National Museum of Mexican Art, this country’s largest collection of works by Mexican-American artists, tells the story of the Mexican experience in the United States from abused migrant farmers and César Chávez to today’s bilingual second generation. The whole collection is housed in an otherwise unassuming building. From the outside, this could easily be the local intramural sports venue. But given what is inside, I’d say it’s an obligatory visit for anyone stopping through Pilsen and with an interest in hearing their story through one of this world’s most absorbing artistic stylings.

Besides enjoying some Mexican art, the visit accomplished a second task swimming in the back of my mind: working up an appetite. Mexican cuisine, too, has always held a special place in my heart, or more accurately, stomach. Screw that, it’s more than what’s going into the stomach. Mexican food hits all the senses. I can damn-near smell it now; the sizzling carnitas and pollo, the tortillas, the rice, the peppers, the fried beans–all of it.

Carnitas Uruapan in Pilsen, Chicago

Luckily we didn’t have to wander around long over the simmering concrete under the sweltering July sun before we came to Carnitas Uruapan on Calle 18. Melanie and I were the only Gringos inside and Spanish was the dominant language between staff taking counter orders and the waitress shuttling around food. This felt like any something-ería joint back in Central America, and so I was quite pleased.

Carnitas Uruapan Pilsen Chicago

Now I intended to take the obligatory travel writer picture of my food to better jog my memory later on when it came to providing flowery language to wholly describe my meal. Looking back through my photos, it appears I only took a photo after clearing my plate. Based on the smudges, I’d say it was a solid plate of tacos de pollo with guacamole and a healthy helping of refried beans.

Pilsen, Chicago train station

Belly full and sufficiently zapped thanks to ninety-degree heat, we strolled back to the train station where the staircase from the ground to the elevated platform is covered in Mexican art. Bright yellows, greens, purples, reds and a dash of pink filling in countless intricate designs. A neighborhood that started out Eastern European is now a reflection of where demographics say this country is heading. If this is what the U.S. is destined to look like, then count me excited. After all, it certainly beats the Walmart parking lot and boilerplate designs that plague so much of modern America.

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