Dance Dance Revolution: Pilsen’s May Day Blast redefines party politics

Pasted to the front door of Pilsen’s Casa Aztlán is a handwritten sign that reads, “Donation $15–if unemployed, $5.” Inside the performance space, Benito Juárez and Pancho Villa stare grimly from the mural that covers the walls. Their vibrantly rendered figures are barely visible in the darkened room–every few moments their faces appear from behind a dancing audience member or a community volunteer. The presence of two icons of Mexican progressivism in this makeshift ballroom is fitting: May Day, known as International Workers’ Day outside the United States, is a commemoration of the fight for the eight-hour workday and a reminder of the oppressive conditions that persist for many laborers. In collaboration with Portoluz and Rockotitlan, Casa Aztlán hosts the annual May Day Blast, which celebrates Pilsen’s rich culture while raising awareness of the conditions of migrant workers.

Tonight’s celebration is not a fundraiser for a wider philanthropic project; the donations, according to Portoluz director Marguerite Horberg, will cover the costs of the evening itself. She describes organizations like Portoluz and Casa Aztlán as “sanctuaries for progressive culture.” They are nonprofits with modest means and lofty goals: they aim to promote the arts in Chicago and to provide a space for what Horberg calls their “proclivities.” Proclivities seems to be a euphemism for politics, as made evident by the Zapatista soldier painted on the side of Casa Aztlán itself.

The May Day Blast includes performances by a host of musical ensembles, including Benjamin Anaya & Los Extraños Unidos and Los Vicios de Papa. The crowd consists mostly of well-meaning young adults sitting cross-legged in front of the stage, although a few older patrons dance unabashedly in the back of the room. Despite the leftist philosophy of the event’s organizers, the musical acts themselves are seemingly apolitical, and the drinks being sold at the back of the room suggest an entrepreneurial streak that contrasts with the revolutionary backdrop of the night’s festivities.

The apolitical nature of the musical acts doesn’t disturb Horberg. Portoluz’s mission is centered on the fusion of the political and the cultural, the artist and the activist. According to Chris Geovanis, a former organizer for Hothouse, Portoluz’s precursor, the separation between the realms of culture and politics is an artificial divide created by those she calls “the little capitalist monsters who call the shots.” As she sees it, venues like Casa Aztlán and nonprofits such as Portoluz are “a collective answer to the dearth of access to anything but mainstream pop culture.” But according to Geovanis, even this subversive approach to cultural activity has been corrupted by corporate interest. She believes that visionaries like Horberg remain relatively faithful to Portoluz’s original objective: to serve as “a standing expression of solidarity.”

Earnest patrons clap and shuffle enthusiastically about the room as the night progresses, leaving little room for sermonizing. Despite the serious theme of the event, it is primarily an opportunity for the community to come together and celebrate its often difficult history. As if to distill the spirit of the evening, Geovanis paraphrases the anarchist writer Emma Goldman: “I don’t want to be part of your revolution if I can’t dance.”

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