The Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago has long been known as the hub of Mexican culture in Chicago. It is a great destination for a day trip, especially for students who are studying Spanish or people who are interested in Latino culture.
Close to downtown Chicago, the neighborhood has an interesting history. Originally home to Irish immigrants, in the late 19th century Pilsen was home to immigrants from Poland, Germany, the former Czechoslovakia and more. A few of the buildings still have a Bohemian feel. Starting in the 1960’s the neighborhood became mostly Latino and was known as a rough part of town. However, the community began organizing and creating community centers like Casa Aztlan and other neighborhood programs. Today one of the problems facing Pilsen is gentrification, as the desirable neighborhood close to downtown is attracting wealthier inhabitants.
The National Museum of Mexican Art
The National Museum of Mexican Art is a hidden gem. I’ll admit that I was not expecting much because this is a free museum. However, the works blew me away, and are worth a trip even if you aren’t a big art fan. The museum has over 10,000 pieces and while some of them are typical fine art paintings, others showcase very creative uses of mixed media. It is a good place to learn more about the indigenous cultures of Mexico by seeing paintings like this one based on the legend of Popocatepetl & Iztaccíhuatl, star-crossed lovers who turned into mountains.
There are always temporary exhibitions, also. During the fall don’t miss the annual Day of the Dead exhibition, where you can see carefully decorated ofrendas on alters to honor dead ancestors.
Pilsen is famous for its vibrant art scene. Just walking the streets and seeing the murals and mosaics that have been created by artists in the neighborhood is a major highlight. Most of the art involves Latino empowerment and some works have more of a political or social justice message. It is a beautiful celebration of community. There is a lot of great street art in other parts of Chicago, too!
Street Food and Restaurants
If you like Mexican food, (and honestly, who doesn’t?) you can’t come to Pilsen without eating. There are lots of cheap places where you can grab a meal or a snack here. You’ll find authentic tamales, tortas, and paletas (popsicles) for sale on the street, especially on Loomis and W 18th and near the baseball fields in Harrison Park.
If you are looking for a sit down restaurant, check out one of the many Taquerías that will hook you up with tacos cheaply and quickly. Taquería Sabor y Sazón is a good one, with fresh, homemade salsas and guacamole. You can pick up tortillas to take home at one of the tortillerías where they are made fresh.
Pilsen is not a major shopping hub, but if you are looking for unique gifts this can be a great place. The National Museum of Mexican Art has a large gift shop with clothing, books, and some very creative handcrafts. West 18th street has some independent shops with traditional Mexican clothing and accessories like Zarai. Thrift shops and vintage clothing are also big here.
Benito Juarez Community Academy and Park
Benito Juarez School is an example of the spirit of Pilsen. It was created in the 1970’s in response to the demands of the community for a bilingual neighborhood school with a curriculum that reflected the Latino students it served. It took quite a fight to get it approved. Outside the school is a park with a perfect view of downtown Chicago.
The park has a dozen or so statues of famous Mexicans. Different Mexican states gifted these statues to Chicago, each of which represents an important person from that Mexican state. If you are a Mexican history buff, see how many you can recognize.
Fiesta del Sol
In the summer Pilsen hosts the four day Fiesta del Sol. Over a million people visit Pilsen for this festival that raises money for the neighborhood. Music, food, community resources, and carnival rides are all highlights. It’s a great excuse to visit Pilsen and experience all it has to offer!
Are you an educator? Check out my post about taking a field trip to Chicago and Pilsen here.