Taking Mexican Art beyond Borders

Article excerpt

On the south side of Chicago more than half a million Mexicans live in the neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village. There, recent immigrants together with first-, second-, and third-generation citizens of Mexican descent have created a vibrant and growing Mexican community in the middle of America's heartland. About fifteen years ago, a group of local teachers came up with the idea of establishing a museum dedicated to Mexican art and culture. Now, Pilsen's Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum (MFACM) is changing the model of a museum from a remote, static institution to an accessible, lively part of the community.

"Putting an art museum in a community is really a big political statement," says Carlos Tortolero, executive director and cofounder. Pilsen is three miles south of downtown Chicago and two miles away from the city's cluster of museums along Lake Shore Drive. "When we first opened the museum here people thought we were crazy," he explains.

His critics told him no one would come because the working poor in the surrounding community could not appreciate art and that anyone else would be too afraid to go into the 99 percent Mexican neighborhood. Knowing they were wrong, Tortolero and his colleagues opened the museum in 1987 with three full-time employees and a budget of US$200,000. Now, just a decade later, the MFACM employs thirty-two people, hosts 100,000 visitors annually, manages a permanent collection of twelve hundred pieces, and operates under a budget of US$3 million.

"The museum is best described as a performance art piece, because every day we open, we really are something of a happening," says Helen Valdez, associate director and cofounder. In just a decade, the museum has established well-known and anticipated traditions--the Del Corazon Mexican Performing Arts Festival, the Sor Juana Festival, and the Dia de los Muertos exhibition--and has received recognition from the White House, in the form of the Institute of Museum Services National Service Award, achieved full accreditation from the American Association of Museums, and broken ground for a US$7 million expansion.

With the goal of creating a Mexican museum "sin fronteras," or without borders, the MFACM features modern, traditional, and sometimes controversial performances that showcase Mexican culture in both the U.S. and Mexico. Each spring the Del Corazon Mexican Performing Arts Festival--the largest Mexican performing arts program in the U.S.--catches the museum's spirit with a diverse offering of art, theater, dance, performance art, literature, and film. The 1997 festival featured the one-woman theater piece "Done Rosita's Jalapeno Kitchen" by Ruby Nelda Perez, a premiere showing of the video "mockumentary" "Where's Jose? A Day without a Mexican," and a concert with 0pre-Cuauhtemoc musician Antonio Zepeda. Plans for this year's festival include a book fair and, in keeping with the museum's desire to bridge gaps between communities, a theater production about African-Americans in Mexico. The Mexican musical group Los Fokloristas and New Mexico-based fiction writer Rodolfo Anaya are among the invited participants.

Another established tradition is the autumnal Sor Juana Festival, when the museum pays tribute to Mexican women who have made an impact in the art world. Named after Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz--sometimes called the Americas' first feminist--the festival celebrates the diversity and creativity of Mexican artists such as master musician La Negra Graciana and award-winning author Sandra Cisneros. Performing Arts coordinator Amber Da believes the festival serves a definite need in the Mexican community because in the past women's theater and dance have taken a back seat to men's art. The festival "is not an exclusion of men at all," she explains. "It's just taking time out to recognize, to focus, and pay tribute [to female artists]."

Overlapping the Sor Juana Festival is the largest Day of the Dead exhibition in the U. …

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