Some of the murals decorating the walls at the 18th Street “L” stop in Pilsen were painted over in white in 2019. Controversy erupted when the murals, which highlight the neighborhood’s history and Mexican culture, were covered up. At the time, the CTA said the walls were painted white as part of a process to rid the station of graffiti, and the plan was to restore the murals.
One Curious Citizen said they’d seen a sign posted saying the CTA was working on restoring the art, but nothing’s happened. So they asked Curious City: What’s the history behind the murals at the 18th Street station and what’s the plan for restoring them?
The station murals date back to the 1990s, when Chicago artist Francisco Mendoza first led a classroom of students to paint the corridors and platforms, sponsored by the National Museum of Mexican Art. One of the most iconic murals is an image of the Aztec sun and moon stones, located on the east side of the station, painted by Mendoza and his students between 1994 and 1998. It’s faded and chipped now, but the CTA has tapped artist Robert Valadez to restore it.
The CTA has not finalized the timeline for the restoration, but Valadez said he anticipates it will begin later this spring. Curious City dug into the history behind the murals and talked with Valadez about his friendship with Mendoza and how he plans to honor the artist’s legacy in the restoration.
A tradition of community mural painting
Community mural painting relies on collective expression. Cesáreo Moreno, the visual arts director at the National Museum of Mexican Art, said the Chicano movement inspired a lot of the murals in the Pilsen neighborhood, including the ones at the 18th Street station.
The 1960s and ’70s movement advocated for Mexican American labor and education rights. Moreno said Chicago’s movement was led by mothers who fought for better education for their kids and the creation of a new high school — the Benito Juarez Community Academy High School. Outdoor murals became popular in Mexican American communities as an expression of Mexican American identity, inspired by both Mexican frescoes and Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals.
For example, in 1968, Mario Castillo, the son of an art teacher, painted Peace (also known as Metafísica) at Halsted and Cullerton. It’s considered to be the first Chicano mural in the country, according to Moreno.
Murals like the one pictured above were an effective way to celebrate Mexican American cultures, Moreno explained, because they were so public. They got the whole community involved, he said.
“Someone finds scaffolding, someone finds paint,” Moreno said. “Everyone does their part. The most important part is the youths, getting them excited. It’s not just skill or understanding of making the community better, but also the sense of history, who you are and where you came from.”
Aztec imagery and Mexican history are prominent features of the station murals
In addition to Mexican frescoes and WPA murals, many of the Chicano murals were inspired by Aztec imagery and symbols from the Mexican Revolution. But they also referenced people from Chicago’s Mexican American community. The murals at the 18th Street station are no exception.
In collaboration with students, outside the station’s entrance artist Mendoza created a mosaic featuring Rachel Sturgeon, the front-desk worker at the NMMA, and four generations of her family — Rachel, her grandmother, her mother and her daughter. Mendoza also painted the mural of the Aztec sun and moon stones on the Loop-bound platform while his students painted other symbols from Mexican history along the stairs and wall panels.
Dr. Claudia Brittenham, an art history professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in Mesoamerican murals, said Mendoza’s platform mural is an accurate interpretation of the original Aztec sunstone in Mexico.
“The colors in which it was painted look a lot like the colors in that mural. I like to point people to this as a kind of visualization of what this would have looked like in its heyday,” Brittenham said.
Growing up in Pilsen’s art community
Like Mendoza, Valadez said he came up in a tradition of community mural painting, which empowered people to feel a sense of ownership for their shared neighborhoods. Valadez, a third-generation Mexican American, said his interest in art started when he was a kid in grade school in Pilsen. “I’m sitting in third grade staring out the window thinking about how I gotta get out of there,” Valadez recalled. “I’ve got to be an artist.”
His first memory of painting a mural is from the late 1970s, when he was a student at Benito Juarez. Architects set aside space in the new school building specifically for a mural. Malú Ortega and Jaime Longoria won a contest to paint the mural and created A La Esperanza along with Chicago artists Marcos Raya, Sal Vega and Oscar Moya.
Valadez recalled, “I was sort of captivated by what they were doing, and they kept seeing me hanging around.” The artists invited him to help. This mural was different from typical Chicano murals, according to Moreno. Instead of featuring heroes of the Mexican Revolution or nationalistic designs, it was contemporary and abstract with a focus on color theory. It was good training for a young artist-to-be.
Valadez went on to paint more murals in the neighborhood and beyond Chicago. He worked as an artist and a youth organizer at the Casa Aztlán community center, where young people could observe his painting process. He completed more murals at Benito Juarez, around Pilsen and in Chicago’s neighboring towns. One of his more well-known murals is in Pilsen. You might recognize it across the street from the 18th Street CTA station, a portrait of Frida Kahlo, depicting her with monarch butterfly wings.
Valadez has a working history with Mendoza
During the 1980s, Valadez and Mendoza taught summer and after-school programs at Gallery 37, a youth arts program, in the 1990s. The artists were friends from the ’90s art scene, Valadez said.
Valadez admired Mendoza’s “bold and graphic” style. “It was very honest and very soulful, and very much his,” Valadez said.
Mosaics were Mendoza’s niche. “He did a lot of portraiture,” Valadez said, “and certainly a lot of Mexican imagery and Aztec codices.”
He said since Mendoza came from Back of the Yards, he connected well with Pilsen students. They shared a working-class Mexican background from “rough and tumble” neighborhoods, according to Valadez. “The kids identified with him because he was one of them, and [teaching] was very much his whole life.”Mendoza also connected to his students with his ever-present sense of humor. For example, “He had a trumpet which he took with him everywhere,” Valadez remembered. “He would play it and he was absolutely awful. And whenever the kids would be misbehaving he would threaten to take it out and play. He’d say, ‘Don’t make me take out my trumpet!’ It was a running gag.”
Mendoza passed away in 2012 from complications resulting from multiple myeloma, a death that “hit me pretty hard,” Valadez said. When asked what it means to be restoring a friend’s work, he replied, “Well, I think it’s an honor, you know?”
Valadez said he thinks it’s important to keep the original artist’s ideas in mind when restoring another person’s work. And he’ll remember that when he restores Mendoza’s mural at the 18th Street station. “I’m going to punch up the colors but I’m going to stay pretty true to what’s there, you know, I’m not going to show off or do anything too whacky or too off from what Francisco did originally,” he said.
The 18th Street station art is beloved by many in the community because it was a neighborhood effort. Former students who painted the station in the ’90s can still point out their panels today. The CTA intends for young artists to remake the panels in line with this original vision.
For Valadez, youth involvement keeps mural painting a living tradition.
“Every generation can contribute new things, and it can be more organic and reflective of where the community is now.”
Natalie Dalea is Curious City’s multimedia intern. Follow her @nmdalea.