I'm a frequent visitor to Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. Although rapidly gentrifying, it is still a mostly Mexican area that is considered by many to be the center of the Latino arts community because of its many murals, galleries and artist studios. It's also home to the National Museum of Mexican Art. Oddly, I myself have a historic connection to the area. Before it and neighboring Little Village (now mostly referred to by its Spanish name, La Villita) started absorbing waves of Mexican immigrants in the 60s and 70s, they were predominantly Czech areas, absorbers of an earlier migrant wave. As a child, I had many a hearty Bohemian meal there, and I think I even sipped my first beer at my father's side at the New Little Old Bohemia, a dining hall behind a tavern on 25th Street. But I digress....
Rogers Park, where I live, is about 1/3 Hispanic, predominantly Mexican. Large Hispanic communities exist in Albany Park and Edgewater as well, and the southwest side where I grew up has recently seen a significant increase in Hispanic population. But the city's oldest Mexican community is in a neighborhood known as South Chicago. That's where I found myself for the very first time on Sunday.
South Chicago, along the lake near the Illinois-Indiana border, was home to several steel mills, which attracted a labor force from Mexico and eastern Europe in the early 20th century. Those mills have long since closed, and the area has yet to fully recover from the devastating loss of jobs. Most of those with European roots moved on. But the Mexicans stayed. And more came.
Chicago area arts organization Portoluz is presenting a Son Jarocho International Exchange Project that features Afro-Mexican music and culture from the state of Veracruz, Mexico. This past weekend, they presented essentially the same show twice. Local legends Sones de México Ensemble hosted two master musicians from Veracruz, Andres Flores and Camerino Utrera. Saturday night was at a fairly typical music club in a popular nightlife area. Sunday's show, however, was a matinee in a church basement in South Chicago. I hate to get bogged down in notions of 'authentic experience', but this seemed to good to pass up.
A word or two about Sones de México: Yes, they are a band, but they are a bit more. Organized as a non-for-profit, they research music from all of Mexico (just as there is no one 'American' music, there isn't a singularity to music from Mexico) and then perform it expertly and con gusto. Their participation in the son jarocho project is as almost as musicologists, albeit ones who know how to have a good time.
Back to South Chicago and that church basement. It was the first truly hot day of this summer, but the room held on to the coolness from earlier in the week. Mass had just ended and people were still filing in, some pausing at the lunch window for tamales, tacos and carnitas. Sones, in accordance with the program theme, started playing son jarochos, to polite response. Then it was on to the state of Zacatecas and their music. Now, that got a few people going. Just uttering the word 'Zacatecas' elicited whoops of appreciation, even before the first note was played. It was then that I had an ah-ha moment where something that I knew became something that I understood.
To say that something is Mexican is like saying something is African. It's not inaccurate, but it's far too broad a term for a place with many distinct cultures and traditions. People from Veracruz love and honor their roots, and people from Zacatecas, Oaxaca, Sinaloa, and dozens of other Mexican states love theirs. They respect and enjoy the other traditions, but they love what they know in their hearts and bones. And in Chicago, like great cities everywhere that become landing points in a migration, they mingle together. Not necessarily as one, but as multiple peoples eager to share the best of their culture. Like my Czech family, who made clear distinctions that they were Bohemian on my mom's side and Slovak on my dad's, meeting in Chicago not 8 miles from this church basement, becoming something that is not one thing, nor the other. Americans.
Just like me.