An Iconic Pilsen Mural Is Being Restored To Carry On The Legacy Of A Slain Peace Activist

Salvador Vega
Salvador Vega, a Pilsen muralist, stands in front of a wall where he is repainting a mural of David "Boogie" Gonzalez at 18th and Throop streets in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. Vega painted the original mural nearly five decades ago to honor Gonzalez, a gang-member-turned-peace-activist, after he was killed in 1973. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ News
Salvador Vega
Salvador Vega, a Pilsen muralist, stands in front of a wall where he is repainting a mural of David "Boogie" Gonzalez at 18th and Throop streets in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. Vega painted the original mural nearly five decades ago to honor Gonzalez, a gang-member-turned-peace-activist, after he was killed in 1973. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ News

An Iconic Pilsen Mural Is Being Restored To Carry On The Legacy Of A Slain Peace Activist

Anyone walking down 18th Street near Throop Street in the Pilsen neighborhood will come face-to-face with a dissipated mural of a man with his chest pierced, a symbol of his sacrifice — an act of love.

The original artwork was a depiction of David “Boogie” Gonzalez, a peacemaker and a pivotal figure in Chicago’s Chicano movement in the 1970s.

The art installation, called “Let’s Organize So We May Have Peace,” has been a staple of the community for 45 years. Now, its original artist and community leaders are attempting to bring the piece back to life with a rehabilitation project.

Salvador Vega, a Pilsen artist, says he will repaint a different version this summer to bring cultural awareness back to the evolving neighborhood. Vega said it was nearly five decades ago when community members reached out to him to create a mural of Gonzalez, a former gang member turned peace activist.

Vega is a lifelong Pilsen resident who lost all of his brothers to gang violence. He said the mural is a visual testament to a neighborhood trying to survive through years of displacement and violence. For him, recreating the mural would revive a cultural moment in Pilsen’s past and teach youth about the neighborhood’s history.

“We shouldn’t lose the Mexican spirit that this community shared,” Vega said. “We are going through gentrification. We should be a part of this history.”

Gonzalez, who grew up in Pilsen, was a former gang member who became an outreach worker after he lost his older brother to gun violence. He moved toward social justice work in an attempt to broker peace among gangs in Pilsen. He was later killed in a drive-by shooting on June 19, 1973, at Harrison Park after trying to settle a dispute between two gangs.

His efforts to decrease violence in the community caught the attention of many organizers. After his death, activists marched in his memory and in support of his work with residents on 18th Street.

“It took a former gang member to sacrifice his life to bring the light — light into this darkness,” Vega said.

Refugio Gonzalez, no relation, and Rudy Flores formed the Ad Hoc Boogie Mural Committee last year to support the family of Boogie Gonzalez in its efforts to restore the mural, which adorns the side of a building at the corner of 18th and Throop streets. The family did not receive a response in writing from developer Doug Danby, who bought the property in 2011, to approve the mural.

The committee reached out to 25th Ward Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez to support its cause.

“Murals are artistic representations of history that touch on culture and the social fabric of our community,” Sigcho-Lopez said.

Sigcho-Lopez said his team reached out to Danby before the pandemic to preserve the artwork, and the developer supported the effort. However, the pandemic delayed the beautification process.

Sigcho-Lopez said there’s an ongoing struggle for artists on the South and West sides of Chicago.

“The city unfortunately cut half of the funding from the Department of Arts and Culture,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “We see the challenges, but we have been supportive of local artists coming together to preserve the murals.”

Salvador Vega and mural
Salvador Vega, a Pilsen muralist, stands in front of one of his finished murals in the Pilsen neighborhood. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ News
To help finance the restoration, the family of Boogie Gonzalez launched a GoFundMe page and raised $1,400. That amount was not enough to pay for the work, so the family decided to use those funds for an unveiling celebration of the mural. Regardless, Vega still agreed to start the project, and the community stepped in to donate.

The project received $3,000 in additional funding through the family foundation of Tanya Cabrera, chair of the Illinois Dream Fund. Cabrera said her father, Martin Cabrera, who passed away when she was a child, was a generous donor who cared about Pilsen families. Martin Cabrera was the director of Casa Aztlan, a cultural center that served immigrant families and gave local artists a voice in the heart of Pilsen. The center lost funding for programming and was forced to close in 2013. Casa Aztlan was later transformed into an apartment complex and original murals painted by Aztlan staff were removed.

Tanya Cabrera said that moment is when she realized Pilsen was rapidly changing, and her childhood was slowly erasing. She then made it her mission to provide local artists and immigrant students with monetary support.

“We already know that families are moving out because of the lack of affordability. We don’t want to erase the years and generations that have grown into this community. So, I am thankful to support this project and bring this mural back,” Tanya Cabera said.

Recently, a few friends of Martin Cabrera, including Refugio Gonzalez and Flores, gathered in front of the mural on Juneteenth to commemorate the 48th anniversary of Boogie Gonzalez’s passing.

Refugio Gonzalez said he saw a sign that surprised him.

“A sign said, ‘Let my kid live,’ “Gonzalez recalled. “I said, ‘Wow! Holy smokes!’ This person had a sign to save our children!”

“If we think about our children, our youth, I think that would be magnificent,” he continued. “If we can do this through the Boogie mural and the Juneteenth celebration for our youth, I think we will be heading in the right direction.”

Refugio Gonzalez recited a poem for Boogie on that day.

“‘I am Boogie! No, not the boogie man!’

A former gangster, almighty red pants.

Al Capone was infamous, a legacy of capitalist greed.

Chicagoans continue to fill a need.

Pilsen, a barrio, on the lower West Side.

The late 50s began the Metizo slide.

Clubs rule the night streets.

Young Bloods seek to fill components,

flashing their colors and protecting their imaginary street.

‘18 street!’ As the young Bloods proclaim.

Pilsen will never be the same.

Mexicanos came and planned their stay.

The Irish and Italians gave no bones.

The 25th ward and their democratic thrones.

The roaring 60s fed the mines.

Activists awaken the hungry lives.

Boogie’s body begins to come alive.

A call for young Bloods to unite.

Boogie begins his flight.

Clubs have to stop the fight.

‘Chicano Power! Viva la Causa!’

Boogie’s transformation came from la causa.

Uniting the various clubs was his marcha.

Speaking to young Bloods about peace and unity.

1973, June 19!

Boogie worked the night.

Boogie’s plight and the betrayal flight.

‘I am Boogie! Peace and unity!’

The mural on 18th street.”

Leslie Hurtado is a news intern for WBEZ. Follow her @lesshurtmedia.