Jose Guerrero is from San Antonio. His nifty wife Margaret, who doesn’t want to talk, is from Tennessee. She sits in the corner, laughing at our jokes. I’m not sure they’re all that funny, but she’s a good-humored woman, and probably doesn’t need the prompting. Directly in front of her—so behind Jose and I—is an altar. There’s a massive beautiful quilt she’s made, tiny little totems to the figures, family members, and objects that make up a good life. Spread in front of the quilt are photographs. Of historical figures, more family members, musicians. It’s the perfect backdrop to our conversation.
Guerrero has lived in Chicago since 1964.
What brought you here?
Nothing in particular. At that time I was drifting around. That’s what I like doing, but I can’t do that now. She won’t let me. [He gestures back toward his wife, who laughs in response.] I came to Chicago and started working at a factory. 47th and Central Avenue, Something like that. I said, I’ll stay here a couple years, and those years went by so fast. And then I met her, and that’s it. [He gestures back toward her again, and she smiles shyly.]
What was the city like then?
For one thing, things were cheaper here. And this neighborhood, Pilsen, didn’t have the museum, didn’t have no clinics, didn’t have no high school, didn’t have you name it—any assistance to human people, they did not have it. Seemed to me like a slum at that time. But one thing they did have was Mexican restaurants. So we were like 25, 24, and Little Village didn’t have restaurants—mostly Czechs—so where would you come to eat Mexican food and play pool and drink beer? Here, in Pilsen, ‘cause they had the taverns and good restaurants. And then, as years went by, way back in the ‘70s, ‘80s, the art people started doing stuff here. And I was involved in it.
Were you living in Pilsen at the time?
No, I never lived here. I was living on 26th Street, and then in Humboldt, close to Humboldt. Eventually we got a studio here, and Pilsen is a struggling community, all the time struggling. Pilsen has always seemed foreign to other people: Oh, that’s where the Mexicans live. But that’s not true, because there’s a lot of younger people here. And people appreciate that, you know.
So when did the art people start doing their stuff here?
I’d say the late ‘60s, maybe. Mario Castillo was one of the first to do a mural, and then other people came along, Marcos Raya. Those are my inspiration, those are the people I admire.
I always thought culture was very important—it’s a message in art and it’s how people find expression for their experiences. Here in Pilsen, the Mexican people have—look, they’re fighting for a library over there. Everything that the people have, they fought for. Nothing has been given to them. And I would say—we do tours, you know, we do mural tours—and we tell people, we are the new Jews here. We are the new Jews because they want to say, Let me see your papers. The people in Arizona, they want to make the people wear IDs. And the Germans told the Jews, We’re gonna un-German you! You’re not a German here! I was born here, sir. No! We don’t give a rat’s ass—you’re not Aryan, you don’t belong here, you’re causing unemployment, you’re causing diseases.
It’s like when they had that swine flu, Oh, it came from Mexico. The Mexicans are bringing over that. The drugs, they’re coming from Mexico. But they don’t tell you that the biggest supply of drugs come here to the U.S. Who launders the money? Who’s gonna launder forty million a week? Mom and pops cannot do it. It’s gotta be the big banks, you know. About a year ago, they post in Fortune magazine, that one of the richest men in the world was one of the biggest drug dealers in Mexico.
Isn’t he the one that’s also in telecommunications?
He says, How can you call me a drug dealer? Like saying, What are you? But working class people have always been in this position, because first, during the depression, who got it the most? Who got it harder? And yet people survived. The regular folks is just going to walk around, just continue living. This is not true? You don’t see them saying, I’m going to kill myself. For what? What makes you want to kill yourself? That guy says, I lost ten million, I got a reason.
I never had ten million. I’m not too bummed about it.
If I had ten grand I’d be doing pretty good these days. So it’s politics, and as I always explain to the tours, Oh that means the way you look at things. How individuals constantly struggle to uplift their economic interests. The ruling class does that, the politicians do that, and we do that too, because we’re trying to alleviate our economic interests. It’s like class struggle, that’s what it is. They got their fight going, and we got ours. ‘Cause we say, We just want housing, we just want to make it better for our children, want a school like Orozco. We want artists like Alejandro Romero, like Hector Duarte, we want artists like that. We’re not asking for too much.
And they say, No. We want like the whole state of Arizona. We want all you Mexicans to get out of here. They’re a bunch of hypocrites because the Mexicans are the ones that do the work that they don’t want to do no more. Yesterday I was on the bus, remember the guy yesterday, Margaret? [She nods.] He was coming up from Michigan, real depressed. I said, What’s wrong? He said, I worked in the restaurant for a month, a month, and I only got four hundred dollars. He worked twelve hours a day. And he was upset because he had lost the money. But he had to go back and get through another month so he could get another four or five hundred dollars.
This had to be under the table.
Oh yes. Everybody gets racial for cheap labor.