A New Song

Claire Hungerford

The flashing disco lights signal that a musical performance is about to begin. An artist picks up the mic, singing one of his old Mexican favorites, barely even looking at the screen for the correct lyrics. People in the crowd begin to whistle and howl, some getting up from their tables to dance. After he warms up the mic, a person walks up from the bar to take the stage. It is Sunday night in Pilsen, and Simone’s Bar and Grill has come alive. It is karaoke night.

This tradition is part of a larger project, called the People’s Stage. The founder, Pablo Serrano, got interested in karaoke with a few friends at a party in 2005. For him, it was simply a way to get the wallflowers engaged. Since then, the artist, who is well known for his murals which decorate public walls all over the neighborhood, has discovered that singing, too, is a “vehicle to explore different traditions, different genres, different periods in time.”

He started the People’s Stage to prove that light-hearted social events like karaoke can promote the growing diversity of the neighborhood, which has been a little resistant to change.

Pilsen, with its deep immigrant roots, has seen its share of changes. But now settled families have to reckon with the fact that their neighborhood is becoming the home to a growing population of transplants from all over the city. Young Chicagoans and college students who attend classes in the nearby Loop have found a hip, artistic atmosphere in the neighborhood’s rich culture, and have been flocking in increasing numbers.

Lately the spotlight on the area has intensified–the Red Eye recently added Pilsen to its ‘hoods’ section–but the enthusiasm of its older residents hasn’t necessarily followed suit. The neighborhood, which is home to the National Museum of Mexican Art, is still for many a source of predominantly Latino art and culture. This past spring, a resident found and posted on the internet a sign in an abandoned factory with the warning “White Hipsters Get Out of Pilsen.”

Serrano believes that the rift in the community can be traced to a lack of dialogue between new and longtime residents. He explained that many view the up-and-coming district of Pilsen as “foreign to the community as a whole, which is struggling to affirm its Mexican-American identity”.

But Serrano, who was raised in Pilsen, hopes to change that through the social singing experience. The typical soundtrack in Simone’s, ranging from ’80s punk rock to South Side house, is aimed at the English listeners. However, during karaoke nights, “the Spanish songs are extremely well received by the Latinos in the bar,” says Serrano. “They’re like a blast of the past or a breath of fresh air to a Latino cultural identity.” And the Spanish words flashing across the prompter screen give non-Latinos the opportunity to feel engaged in new genres and cultures of music.

Serrano has big plans for the People’s Stage, hoping to build on its early success. He hopes the mic will one day turn to a broader range of talent that includes poets and other artists. The karaoke nights are currently held at multiple bars across Pilsen and Little Village, including Martin’s Corner Bar and Grill each Thursday and Caminos de Michoacan Bar every other Friday.

Simone’s sees a lot of regulars–people call the bartenders by name, and crack jokes with the waiters.  Karaoke adds a new dimension to their happy-hour meeting place. “All of a sudden you have a person that works a 9-to-5 that you didn’t think had a musical bone in their body go up there and blow up and you think, ‘wow,’ I didn’t know they could do that,” says Serrano.

This kind of camaraderie is exactly what the People’s Stage was designed for: belting out a ballad that a singer takes to heart, knowing that the crowd will join in on the refrain. The stage belongs to everyone.

“My joy comes from creating a space where our common humanity is affirmed as we sing music that was passed onto us by our parents,” says Serrano. “That make us move in our own ways so that we may feel like a part of the whole.”