Friday, November 17, 2023

The teachers who started a museum

 

   Oh, you’ve got to tell the story.
     Not to take anything away from my colleague Ambarcq Colón, whose excellent article in Wednesday’s paper shared the news that Carlos Tortolero, founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art, is retiring. There was a lot of real estate to cover — quotes from the ever-effusive Tortolero, the search for a new museum president, the honors and accolades rightly laden on the Pilsen landmark.
     But three simple words, “opened in 1987,” just don’t do justice to the reality, and spur me to blow the dust of decades off them. Opened why? Opened how? How did a history teacher at Bowen High School — as Tortolero was — start what became the preeminent institution in the country showcasing Mexican, Latino and Chicano art?
     It should be part of Chicago lore, alongside Uno’s inventing deep dish pizza in 1943. But it isn’t. The only reason I know is from interviewing Tortolero for my recent book, “Every Goddamn Day.” But since every Sun-Times reader hasn’t read that book, alas, I should lay the tale out here, briefly.
     Wander back in time, not to 1987, but to September 1982. Tortolero was disgusted with a Chicago Public Schools system that would treat Spanish-speaking students as if they were learning-disabled. Where Mexican culture was pretty much limited to the bad guys at the Alamo. Inclusivity is such a mantra today, we forget the headlock that white culture had on education not so long ago, and what did show up in classrooms about Mexican history echoed the joke about food at a Catskills resort: lousy, and in such small portions.
     “Beyond bad,” Tortolero said. “The misinformation was unbelievable. No one knew about Mexican culture. The students, young people, don’t know the impact of Mexico. These kids were not getting any of their history, all the great things. They knew nothing about it.”
     So he met with five other CPS staffers on Sept. 15, 1982, at Benito Juarez High School. That date was picked deliberately: the evening before Mexican Independence Day. “El Grito” the anniversary of Father Miguel Hidalgo ringing his church bell and calling for the Spanish oppressors to be driven out. “The Cry of Dolores” — a perfect day to start a revolution.

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10 comments:

  1. Beautiful and enlightening. Thank you.

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  2. "Some demanded the museum be defunded" Which is what modern "conservatives" do when confronted with something that doesn't meet their ideological litmus test.

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  3. 🚶🏽‍♀️Trans John/Karen 3/22November 17, 2023 at 8:49 AM

    Another easy bus trip to add to my bucket list. Looking forward to it ASAP. Thanks, Neil.

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    1. If you go before Christmas, the museum has the BEST gift shop.

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  4. Unfortunately, it's not just the suburbanites who fail to attend this marvelous museum that I have failed to attend myself, although I lived for 25 years in West Lawn, which is as Mexican a neighborhood as Pilsen/Little Village, and have been involved in numerous real estate transactions in the 60623 area. But then I haven't taken advantage of the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture at 6500 S. Pulaski either, despite having Lithuanian cousins and proximity urging me on. I guess until my next lifetime, I'll continue to rely on vicarious adventures with Neil. I often remark, mostly to myself, that had I been in charge of a band of our hominid ancestors, we never would have come out of the trees.

    john

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    1. I've been to that museum (I'm noticing a pattern here). Quite well-done.

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    2. "I often remark, mostly to myself, that had I been in charge of a band of our hominid ancestors, we never would have come out of the trees."

      I've had similar thoughts, John, though I tend not to talk to myself. ; )

      I've read the version of today's story in the book and I've been to the National Museum of Mexican Art, but, alas, after briefly considering it, we didn't take the opportunity to dine at 5 Rabanitos when we drove by it recently. If I'd known that's what it would take to go 3 for 3 today, maybe we would have!

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  5. I had a late night fare, three Hispanic gentlemen with limited English skills. They directed me to take the Kennedy past The Loop. I asked for an address or street name but was only told when to turn. It was becoming a bit scary as we approached their destination, robberies occur in similar situations, and I figured that maybe I was due to be a victim, having lived in the big dangerous city for almost 60 years without incident. But I recognized the neighborhood where I dropped them, I had made a daytime trip to the NMMA a few weeks earlier. I intended to look into it, intrigued by the building's appearance, but never got around to it before the memory faded. Thanks for the reminder and the lunch recommendation. My passengers that night, actually the only one who spoke, apologized for something. The confusion of language barrier or he could have sensed my apprehension. I felt relieved and a bit guilty, and wishing I'd taken my high school spanish classes more studiously.

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  6. I'm ashamed to admit that I lived almost half my life in Chicago and the northern suburbs and I never shlepped down to any of the Mexican neighborhoods. Not even once. I missed all the food, the culture, the art, the museums, everything.

    My first wife was a graphic artist and a painter and she went to several art galleries in Pilsen on various occasions, but I did not accompany her on any of those sojourns. Nor have I visited any of those same neighborhoods in my visits to Chicago over the last thirty years. That has to change.

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  7. I love this museum! And lunch at 5 Rabanitos. Thank you for writing about it.

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