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Chicago Tribune

A Wall That Builds Bridges

Neighbors can't picture Humboldt Park without their mural--but it's disappearing

By Allan Johnson
Tribune staff reporter

February 8, 2004
Copyright © 2004
Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

Enrique Salgado Jr. grew up between Humboldt Park, where his father's family lived, and Bucktown, the neighborhood of his mother's family. As a boy, Salgado got lost walking from one neighborhood to the next.

"The only way I was able to get home was through the murals that were in the community," the 26-year-old remembers. "I knew that when I saw that mural I was to keep going straight two blocks [down North Avenue] and I would take a left."

"That mural," at the southeast corner of North and Artesian Avenues, is the oldest of dozens of pieces of wall artistry populating the Humboldt Park neighborhood.

Painted by the Puerto Rican Arts Association in 1971, it features renderings of several Puerto Rican patriots.

But a kid today had better not count on using the mural as a guide. That's because it's in danger of being lost to the community because of gentrification, with new construction taking the place of several older buildings in the area.

"A lot of people were like, `You know what, I only remember a couple of things in Humboldt Park, and this [mural] is one of them,'" says Salgado. "There were African-Americans who don't even know who these people are, who say, `Man, this is our mural, how could they take this down?'"

The mural, "La Crucifixion de Don Pedro"--which spotlights Pedro Albizu Campos, who was jailed repeatedly for speaking out for independence of his island country from the U.S. in the mid-1900s--is a roughly 100-year slice of history that many may not have been aware of.

A greater meaning

"The meaning of the mural has kind of transcended into identifying itself with the community," says community consultant Eduardo Arocho, "whether it's Puerto Rican or all the other cultures that live in Humboldt Park and the area."

Adds Salgado, who has grown from that lost little boy into the executive director of the Division Street Business Development Association, "We're not taught Puerto Rican history. My grandmother couldn't even tell me who these people were."

The backdrop of the mural is a faded blue and red flag--the first flag the island ever had, one symbolizing the country's first declaration of independence from Spain in 1868.

Others on the mural are Rosendo Matienzo Cintron, founder and president of the first Puerto Rican Independence Party in 1912; Rafael Cancel Miranda and Lolita Lebron, both of whom spent 25 years in prison for attacking the U.S. Congress in 1954 (President Jimmy Carter pardoned them in 1979); and Luis Munos Marin, Puerto Rico's first elected governor.

"Those are your people, and it gives you a sense of history of what Puerto Rico has been struggling for," says Jonathan Rivera, a 24-year-old Malcolm X College student. "It means a lot to the Puerto Rican people."

Added symbolism

But besides the historical and community significance, the mural has achieved another status: a symbol of a culture threatened by gentrification.

The wall in which "La Crucifixion" appears faces a vacant lot that until last summer was being developed as a condominium complex. The beginning of a new wall now covers up the bottom portion of the mural.

"We did a structural analysis of the mural, and we'd have to do another one to incorporate any new damage," says Arocho, who is heading up a project to restore murals in the area.

Work on the lot has ceased while its owner hammers out a compromise with aldermen and community leaders.

An attorney for the lot's owner, Steven Johnson, said his client, 2425 W. North Ave. Corp., hopes that a proposed land-swap deal goes through "so the mural can be preserved" while respecting "the valid property rights of my client."

The mural is one of several in the neighborhood that are threatened by development, says Eliud Medina of the Near Northwest Neighborhood Network/Humboldt Park Empowerment Partnership.

"One of the things developers basically don't [consider] is that the whole community takes into account important things like the arts," Medina says.

Gentrification has been blamed for eliminating idiosyncrasies that can give a neighborhood its unique character. For that reason, an ordinance that would give aldermen veto power over building permits for some developments in their wards was introduced last spring by Ald. Billy Ocasio (26th). It is currently under consideration.

"My legislation basically says that within redevelopment areas there should be no permits issued without the community signing off on those," says Ocasio, who along with Ald. Manuel Flores (1st) has been in talks to save "La Crucifixion."

A unique expression

What's unique about the painting Ocasio and others are crusading for is that mural art is not a typical means of expression in the Puerto Rican community, according to one scholar.

"Mural artwork has usually been tied to the experience of the Mexicans," says Jose Lopez, executive director of the Puerto Rico Cultural Center, and a teacher at Columbia College and Northeastern University.

"La Crucifixion," Lopez adds, is "not necessarily Mexican, it's not necessarily Puerto Rican, but it's sort of an intermixture of the two. And I think that speaks to something that happens in Chicago that doesn't happen anywhere else in terms of the Latino experience in the United States."

When the mural was painted in the early 1970s, it was a time of "a great deal of problems," according to Medina, citing unemployment, disenchantment with the system and a crumbling neighborhood as among the problems the community was facing at the time.

"The mural basically was part of a historical period where many murals in protest were put together," Medina says. "And this one was one of the most significant."

An inspiration

Lopez says that because the mural has been such an inspirational force in Humboldt Park, many have taken the time to find out exactly who some of the figures in the painting are.

"It has inspired young Puerto Ricans who pass by that corner and ask who are these people, and have to basically engage in some discussion about the meaning of the mural itself," he says. "That's another positive element, because a people without memory cannot create."

Among those who have been inspired is Salgado. In learning about the history behind the mural, it also made him "find out about myself. And that's where a lot of things started to change for me," including developing interests in both business and helping the community to thrive through a series of programs for students, single mothers and others.

Salgado said his grandmother didn't know much about "La Crucifixion" beyond the images being Puerto Rican, but she did know one other detail that gives him a personal connection.

"She knew that this flag that they've painted on was the flag of the town of Lares," Salgado says, "which is also the town that my family is from."

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