Making Art in Chicago’s Barrios: Meet South-side All-Female Collective Las Artelitas

When asked how they met, the all-female members of Las Artelitas, a (mostly) Latina Chicago-based art collective, simultaneously respond “the streets,” before bursting into laughter. To hear them tell it, it all started over pizza and beer on the steps of an apartment stoop in Little Village, a neighboring hood south of Pilsen; the growing women’s art collective was once just a group of neighborhood acquaintances coming together over mutual interests.

The group, largely Chicago born and bred, has since become a staple in the local Latinx art scene, with a goal to bring collaborative and conscious art to the neighborhoods not usually on the city’s radar. The group is headed by Adi Patron, Alyssa Stone, Amara Martin, Erica Sanchez, Rosa Rodriguez and Sara Cortes.

“We were all individual artists in some way or another,” said Sara Cortes. “We felt like we needed an outlet at the moment…and [creating art] was that one piece we were missing from the group dynamic.”

Ernestina Perez at an Artelitas exhibition. Photo by: Erica Sanchez
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The collective’s art, created and curated for seasonal shows, is described by Alyssa Stone as “DIY-nation”.

“It’s the opposite of you know a Wicker Park, with all these galleries that are very commercialized spaces for art,” said Amara Martin. “It’s a community space, it’s a homey space, straight DIY, no pretension. People are looking for something more authentic and that’s what we’re trying to be.”

Las Artelitas’ exhibits and showcases center around their individual cultural identities as well as the dynamics of their larger community. Recent shows have included tributes to the students of Ayotzinapa, artistic odes to the barrio and hoods, and a Día de muertos ofrenda for the National Museum of Mexican Art that honored the lives of transgendered women who were murdered this year.

La Villita Colors by Amara Betty Martin
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“There’s always the underlying theme of social issues, social change. We’re constantly discussing the things that are going on in our society and communities and how we deal with [them],” said Cortes. “It’s more than just a gallery show with art.”

Their current exhibition space, a closed down furniture store turned gallery, is still a work in progress. To get in, you must enter through a side-alley door – a quirk that began as a necessity (the front door was blocked) and has since become a signature.

“Having people come through the alley forces people to interact with their community in a way that they normally wouldn’t,” said Erica Sanchez. “[People] might not necessarily know our faces but they know Las Artelitas–we’re the girls who throw the gallery shows through the alley! Don’t be scared!”

Las Artelitas community
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For Las Artelitas, their space, although evolving, symbolizes more than just a room for shows and creatives–it’s a physical representation of their dedication to their cultures and their neighborhood, which is seeing rapid growth and changes due to white flight and gentrification.

“We’ve spoken about gentrification and it’s very important to have a [place] of our own so no one can come in and take that. There won’t be a void because we have filled that void ourselves,” said Martin. “Because we’re so involved in the community we cannot make art for art’s sake. We’re not going to have a show just to have a show. There always has to be intent and purpose behind the message we’re trying to get to people.”

For Cortes, the fear of gentrification stems not from new faces in an old neighborhood, but rather the possibility of erasure.

“I do want to see the city interact with each other and the idea of having new people move into your neighborhood doesn’t have to be a negative thing,” added Cortes. “But with the experiences that the city has had with gentrification it’s hard to have a positive outlook on the changes happening in the neighborhood. We don’t want to see our community divided and we don’t want to see the climate we cultured here change.”

“The way to fight it is by being resistant and I think we’re doing that by being Las Artelitas,” said Sanchez.