Chicago Latinos Resist Gentrification With a Two-Day Music Festival in Pilsen

Hello Seahorse! performing at Pilsen Fest 2015. Photo by Cristobal Mora courtesy of Pilsen Fest

Pilsen’s trendy status has been solidified thanks to new shops, galleries, and restaurants opening on what seems like a weekly basis, but one shouldn’t forget the origins the neighborhood has always had.

Pilsen is a community that’s seen its fair share of demographic changes — the district started off as a highly popular neighborhood for Czech immigrants in the late 19th century, but gradually transformed into the Mexican (and increasingly Puerto Rican) enclave it is recognized as today. Its residents are the ones who have inspired Pilsen Fest year after year; the annual event cultivates and celebrates the spirit of the Pilsen community through a two-day extravaganza of local art, food, and music.

“We’re here and we’re here to stay.”

“That’s the reason we’re doing Pilsen Fest, to try to maintain somewhat of a presence in Pilsen during this [gentrifying] shift in Chicago,” said Richard Morales, one of Pilsen Fest’s head organizers. As DNA Info reports, a recent study found that 10,000 Latino families moved out of the district between 2000 and 2013. Anti-gentrification signs declaring “White people out of Pilsen” popped up at a coffee shop on 18th Street last fall. To top it off, the median monthly rent increased from $483 to $778 between 2000 and 2013. “We want the festival to associate itself with Pilsen and the neighborhood and the community,” Morales continues. “When we started it, one of the big messages we wanted to put out there was ‘This is what Pilsen wants. This is the music, this is the food, this is what we have to offer.’ We’re okay with anybody obviously coming to [partake], but understand we’re here and we’re here to stay.”

The biggest draw to the fest year after year is easily the musical performances. For the 2016 edition, Morales and his team curated an eclectic lineup that reflects the cultural intersections of Pilsenites.

“Pilsen is definitely very Latino, but [it’s] changing, and within those Latino [subgroups] there’s a lot of different subcultures,” said Morales. “These subcultures like really different types of music and different types of food.”

Gaby Moreno performing at Pilsen Fest 2015. Photo by Cristobal Mora courtesy of Pilsen Fest
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The weekend’s headliners range from cholo goth band Prayers, to new age hood leader Princess Nokia to the 80s psychedelic dance tunes of Patterns. Aside from the main stage where the headliners will be playing during the festival, a second DJ stage will be across the lot ready for those who come solely to dance.

“Pilsen [residents] love bands that are melding into a lot of different styles of music, blending cumbia and electronic and anything else that they can think of,” said Morales. “I think the lineup is a big product of what Pilsen as a community asks of music, what they like, and what they wanna hear.”

This year is going to be Pilsen Fest’s biggest yet; it’s the first time the event will be a two-day affair. The city is granting organizers three (Chicago-sized) city blocks to allow for more dancing, food, and fun.

Pilsen Fest 2015. Photo by Cristobal Mora courtesy of Pilsen Fest
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“We had to try and be really strategic and think as much as we could to get as much diversity in the music, in the artisans, the food — everything — in order to appeal to everyone,” said Morales.

Entertainment aside however, the core reason for continuing to produce Pilsen Fest year after year is simple: getting a community back to its roots.

“The dual theme we’ve got going on is roots and renaissance,” said Morales. “We want to stick to our roots, but we want to also create a renaissance where we’re trying to create a rebirth of Pilsen to show we have a lot of the old still with us that’s never going to go away.”

Pilsen Fest is free and open to the public and takes place August 20-21 from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m., between 18th Street and Blue Island Avenue. Check out the full flyer below. For more info, click here.