Village Voices

Three blocks from the Kedzie Pink Line station I’m brought to a halt by a giant stop sign that reads ARTE. The bright red banner in the window of Yoli Furniture indicates that art can be found in this unlikely setting, inviting curious passersby in with a handwritten sign on the door directing them to the rear of the building. To get to this exhibit, one of seventeen in last weekend’s Little Village Arts Festival, attendees must follow a narrow path in between a parted sea of piled sofas and dining room tables.

Hanging up on the concrete walls in the back of the store are colorful 2-D works done in acrylic and spray paint. The exhibit, which also includes a painted air tank on the floor and a bloody bust of Jesus Christ with rotary saw blades behind his hair, is made up of art submitted by young males in the area between the ages of 18 and 24 who have spent time in a Chicago correctional facility. The curator’s brother points to his own piece, a neon pink-and-purple-striped image with outlined graffiti letters in one corner.

The Little Village Arts Festival (LVAF) started as a temporary solution to the growing number of local artists who had work on display in every neighborhood but their own. Unlike the adjacent neighborhood of Pilsen, La Villita has no permanent venues for the display of community artwork. In 2006, the LVAF claimed five gallery spaces, a few committed artists, and a small amount of money granted by Enlace Chicago, a Little Village non-profit dedicated to community organizing and development. Organized by Villarte, a neighborhood arts coalition hoping to invite members into the heart of the community with unique gallery and performance spaces, the Arts Fest was never intended to be a regular event. But the festival brought a much larger turnout than they had anticipated. Interest from local schools, churches, and businesses willing to donate extra space and talent, Villarte was inspired to make it an annual Villita celebration, held in October of each year. Says Elias Corral, a local artist and LVAF founder, the fest is “a great way to increase awareness about the amount of ‘home-grown’ talent, and for the community to enjoy and experience the world of artistic creation right in their backyards.”

Four years later, the Little Village Arts Festival lives on. Now without a gallery space of its own, Villarte relies on the friendships and close connections within the tight-knit Little Village community. Villarte board members–almost all practicing artists–have other jobs, teaching high school chemistry, working as dance instructors, or running local stores, enabling them to call on a diverse mix of up-and-coming artists. The festival now boasts seventeen converted spaces and spans three days of performances, activities and workshops. The tie between most exhibition areas and the work they contain is simply the neighborhood–when asked why he chose Las 3 Campanitas ice cream shop for his exhibit “Vision,” the curator responds frankly, “They said yes.”

The festival’s main hub, Catedral Café, is a stone castle on the corner across the street from a gallery that Villarte used to own. Although it’s rainy and bleak outside, the inside is bustling with artists and neighborhood families. Children put together photo frames at round tables in the front of the building as a performance takes place in the back. A remix of Miike Snow’s “Animal” bumps in the background; Jose Art, a local airbrush artist, and an assistant apply paint to the stomach of a willing, tube-topped teenage model. She looks proud to be the canvas, an image of theater masks taking over her chest in the colors of the Mexican flag. A crowd of the girl’s friends, a few older Caucasian couples, and various community members watch the work come together, as girls in traditional Mexican floral dresses and their mothers bring bags of costume changes across the stage to the back.

In the living-gallery style for which Pilsen has come to be known, Exhibit 8, “Faces of Little Village,” is located on the second-floor of an apartment building. When asked about the differences between the two neighborhoods, a friend of the artist, keeping her company in the gallery, comments, “I see Pilsen as a place representing the past of Latinos in Chicago. Little Village for me feels more like the present.” And with two bundled-up toddlers traipsing through the apartment’s front door as we exit–undeterred by the weather or the fact that gallery hours are almost over–the future of the neighborhood’s art scene looks bright.

“Appreciate everything. Why else you do think we came to this goddamned country?” Javier stands in his kitchen, facing his adolescent daughter–she’s drunk, failing high school, and ready to run away. The low stage he stands on is bare except for a table, two chairs, a few milk crates covered with a sheet, and a stream of smoke from an incense stick burning off stage right. In the small, back-room auditorium of Café Catedral in Little Village, a family audience of about sixty watches the tense scene unfold under a barn-shaped ceiling painted in faded shades of red, white, and blue.

At the Little Village Arts Festival last Saturday afternoon, Teatro Americano gave the first bilingual performance of Con Raices, Sin Papeles. Put on by an all-volunteer and mostly teen-aged cast, the play is based on the true stories of Latino immigrant families around Chicago, and will show several more times in locations across the city.

The story follows a family of first generation Mexican immigrants over four years, with flashbacks to their days in Mexico. Javier and Marta lived in Mexico until their infant son Ivan’s illness forced Javier to cross into el norte to find work. The money he makes as a laborer isn’t enough, and Marta must eventually cross herself, carrying her Ivan with her.

In Chicago, the family faces generational struggles as they try to establish a new life without losing their identity. They are forced to tell their college-bound son that he isn’t a citizen, and can’t apply for a scholarship to Harvard. “Este Harvard, está en Chicago?” Dolores asks, trying to avoid the inevitable. “Har-vard. That’s an animal, right?” Javier puts in. “I watch the Discovery Channel.” At the same time, their daughter, Sophia, who is a citizen, runs away, rebelling against a broken system. “Teachers don’t care, so why should I? I’m a number.”

The themes are familiar, but they’re also timely; the play is overtly political. In his introduction, director Emmanuel Guttierez introduces Teatro Americano as a branch of Latinos Progresando, a Pilsen-based non-profit that also provides affordable legal services to immigrant families and gives scholarships to promising students who face legal issues because of residency or documentation. There are even a few direct, somewhat awkward speeches about Latinos Progresando, the Dream Act (an initiative to improve access to higher education for immigrants), and discriminatory legislation in Arizona.

This is a community theater company; the play lacks some of the smoothness of a professional production. There are moments of unconvincing dialogue, clumsy acting, and stuttered or repeated lines, but they aren’t serious distractions, and between them there are moments of startling, fresh, and powerful theater. In one of the most affecting scenes, the young Javier desperately tells his wife that he will send money soon, and that he wakes up crying during the night for fear of never seeing his son. He is cut off when his phone card expires.

Some of the best moments in the performance come directly out of its community roots. “Got that job at the carwash,” Ivan tells his father. “The one on Kedzie.” The audience laughs; that carwash is a few blocks away. Even the accidents–Javier slaps a cup off of the table and accidentally sends it onto an audience member, the burning incense sets off the smoke alarm for thirty seconds–reinforce the interaction between the story of those on stage and the story of those in front of it.

The crowd itself is part of the show. The spectators have almost all come as families, many of them spanning at least three generations, and roughly a fourth of the crowd is children. Several play on the floor between the aisles, and one bold toddler climbs on stage and sits down during a scene. Another stood on the back of a reporter’s chair while he jotted down notes.

Yes, this plotline has been done before, and there are gaps in the acting, and by the third scene you will have guessed the ending, but there is something more important going on. This isn’t about the suspension of disbelief; it’s a direct, present reflection on a reality being lived by much of the audience watching it. It’s more powerful than it would be if it were perfect, and if an affected audience is any measure of success, the play is a triumph. When Javier’s phone call is mid-sentence, many, many people in this room are crying.

After the production ends, the director and the actors come to the front of the stage and introduce themselves. They are from Back of the Yards, Pilsen, Gage Park, Brighton Park. They take questions from the audience about their personal experience as immigrants. The actor who played the elder Javier jokes about his own real trip across the river, while the director Gutierrez admits he cried during rehearsals. “What inspires you?” one audience member asks. The teenage actress who a few minutes before had been Dolores now stands before the crowd as herself, and recounts her personal realization. “It was like, oh…we’re living this.”