With colorful murals and taquerias on the street corners, Pilsen almost feels like a part of Mexico. Photo: IBL
With colorful murals and taquerias on the street corners, Pilsen almost feels like a part of Mexico. Photo: IBL

Discover Pilsen, like a part of Mexico in Chicago

Chicago is home to nearly four million people, but on a smaller scale, it is a city of distinct neighborhoods – small “villages” where the bartender and barista know your name. Pilsen is one of them.

With colorful murals and taquerias on the street corners, Pilsen almost feels like a part of Mexico. It also provides a perfect snapshot of multicultural life in Chicago.  

“We came here in January 1957 during a snowstorm and I said to my father, ‘where have you brought us?’”

When Carlos Tortolero was three years old, his parents moved to Chicago from Mexico to provide a better life for their children. Today, he is the president and founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.

“I like the fact that in Chicago I can eat 50 different types of food and hear all those languages,” he says. “That’s something to brag about.”

The former public school teacher was told he couldn’t open a museum in a working-­class neighborhood. Now, it is at the center of one of Chicago’s most colorful immigrant areas, known for its rich Mexican culture.

The free museum has two permanent galleries plus annual rotating exhibits. 

Enjoy art in the streets or at the National Museum of Mexican Art. Photo: IBL

“I believe that the arts are for everybody,” he says. “That’s a radical concept and the art world doesn’t do much to change it. So we’re giving people a glimpse of another view of the US.

“Pilsen is really the most Chicagoan of all Chicago neighborhoods,” says Tortolero. “Downtown is amazing. But you don’t get to know the real Chicago by going downtown. If you really want to know this city walk around Pilsen.”

Pilsen is just a 15-minute train ride from the city center, but it feels like a trip to Mexico with its colorful murals (many concentrated on 16th Street), signs in Spanish and multitude of taquerias and restaurants. It’s also one of Chicago’s many gentrifying neighborhoods. For better or worse, art galleries and trendy restaurants have moved into the eastern side along Halsted Street. But all along 18th Street, you can still find the real thriving Pilsen.

“Pilsen is really the most Chicagoan of all Chicago neighborhoods” 

Just around the corner from the museum is 5 Rabinitos, opened by a Mexican chef who has worked under one of Chicago’s top chefs. The traditional and very affordable menu includes tacos, tortas and entrées served in a brightly colored room. Meanwhile, for an authentic, no-frills lunch, Los Camales has been feeding locals satisfying tacos al pastor for nearly half a century.

Originally, Pilsen was home to German, Irish and Czech immigrants who gave it its Bohemian name. Later, during the labor shortages of the 20th century, Mexicans began settling and working here, keeping this a working-class area.

The vibrant Café Jumping Bean is one of the oldest and coolest coffee shops along 18th Street. For more than 20 years, it has been a haven for artists who sip mochas while lingering over their sketch pads or laptops at its colorful, hand-painted tables.

Tortolero says, “If you are in New York and someone asks ‘what does your father do?’ They say, ‘Oh, my father is a doctor or a lawyer’, or they whisper, ‘he works in a factory.’ Here in Chicago people say ­loudly, ‘my father worked in the steel mills!’ There is this great work ethic and a pride about being blue collar. I like that about Chicago.”

Tortolero adds, “If you want to understand why the immigrant experience is a healthy one, come to Pilsen.”

Things to do in Pilsen

National Museum of Mexican Art

1852 W. 19th St

5 Rabinitos

Translates as “five radishes.” Traditional Mexican food, famed for tacos.

1758 W 18th St

Los Comales

Mexican taqueria. Fine gorditas, fajitas and, of course, tacos.

1544 W 18th St