Essays

#398: The Steelworker’s Mermaid

Julia Mellen

On Lake Michigan, at 41st Street Beach, a mermaid suns herself by the water.

Carved in stone, she stretches, her arms thrown back, her hair trickling out in rivulets from a peaceful, strong face. On top of a limestone boulder that once separated lake from land, the mermaid acts as resting spot for weary joggers, an object of curiosity for beach-bound children.

For fourteen years, no one knew where she came from: from 1986 to 2000, it was a secret thing hidden at Burnham Park, north of 39th. Only locals knew it.

It was a meeting place by the water for families, lovers and smokers. Rumors swirled about some long-forgotten 1800s mansion, torn down and tossed as landfill in the lake; a part of Columbian Exhibition artwork cast into the water; or a lovelorn sculptor working alone by the moonlight reflected off the lake.

No one guessed that it was a laid-off steelworker and a couple friends who gave the city La Sirena.

Roman
“They just closed the damn door,” Roman Villareal said as his great-grandchildren laugh through his studio at 100th and Ewing.

The studio is filled with gasping, glowing, colorful paintings and sculptures by Roman and other artists, mostly Latino, seeking to tell the story of South Chicago.

Under the Bridge, the studio’s called. The Chicago Skyway snakes overhead.

“One shift went out, the next shift was coming. And everyone who was coming in, they wouldn’t let you in, not even to get your stuff out of your box or nothing. They slammed the lock on there,” Roman said. “That was the last time the men went into the steel mill.”

Between 1979 and 1986, about 16,000 Chicago-area steelworkers lost their jobs. Roman Villareal was one of them.

The steel mills that helped build the nation were out-priced by foreign markets: Wisconsin Steel, U.S. Steel, Acme, Republic, South Works, Iroquois Steel, General Mills, Valley Mould & Iron, LTV and others closed, one after another, all along the South Side of Chicago.

Out of work and feeling betrayed by union leaders, many of the steelworkers turned to alcoholism, some to crime.

“That period led to the downfall of many, many good men in South Chicago who were steelworkers,” Villareal said. “I was fortunate enough that I had odd goals in my mind.Art was my savior because I was able to concentrate a lot of my energy into my art projects.”

The Mill
Villareal was born in 1950, raised at 85th and Green Bay, in a neighborhood called The Bush.

“The men who were living in that situation didn’t have time to teach their children that there is another way to live other than blue collar,” he said. “You were expected to go right into that mill.”

In high school, Roman started running with the Royal Knights. It was a time when gang fights meant fists, not guns.

“When you were a gang member in those days, you did a lot of parties, dances with the girls, this and that,” he said. “That was the top priority for us at the time.”

To keep the seventeen-year-old off the streets, Roman’s father got him a job at the mill. Immediately after school, Roman would head to the steel mill for a shift from 3-11pm, paying $1.25 an hour or about $8.93 in today’s dollars. It was good money.

“Up to a certain point, as long as you were living at home, especially with a strong Mexican culture family, the majority of the money went to the family,” he said. “Because at the same time, the family was supporting people in Mexico. Even though we were barely making it, they had it worse.”

A Street Kid in ‘Nam
Villareal was drafted in 1968. He went through training, but through a combination of luck and working the system, he never was shipped to Vietnam.

In those years, he started learning more about the war and becoming more political.

“We were completely ignorant of what was going on because we were street kids,” he said. “We were having so much fun being on the street, that we didn’t pay attention to the newspaper. We didn’t know what Vietnam was.”

He received an honorable discharge in 1970, but later got a letter telling him he was ineligible to re-enlist. “Could not conform to military life.”

He and his wife, Maria, did some traveling before going back to Chicago. They started a family. Roman returned to the steel mills.
“When the mills closed during that period, I decided that I was going to be the master of my own fate. I was no longer going to depend on any-damn-body for anything,” he said. “It was over for me.”

Dada at the Bar
Self-taught through library books and with Maria’s support, Roman began making his lifelong interest in art a passion.

“I would go into a neighborhood bar and I would start talking about everything I was doing,” he said, “and they would look at you like you’re a wacko. Who in his right mind in the ‘80s is going to be reading about Dada? They’re steelworkers. They don’t give a shit about that. All they talk about, sports, sex, whatever this and that … Nobody would ever discuss about the theory of art, the revolution, Impressionism. But this is what I was full of.”

He found a community of ex-soldiers from Vietnam who had returned to the neighborhood with broader perspectives and, in some cases, college degrees.

“I never got a degree, but I did go and attend certain classes,” he said. “Because a lot of times, in the early years of the Art Institute, it was more lax, right? I did a lot of visiting with friends who were [there], to the point where they thought I was actually a student.”
Roman started entering—and winning—local art contests. He and Maria, who is also an artist, worked fairs, festivals, shows, any place that would have them.

“We are survivors in the art world,” Roman said. “I don’t think we’re middle class. I just think we’re survivors. Period.”

‘A mermaid is not political’

When he was doing a show at Hyde Park with artist Jose Moreno, who was visiting Chicago from Mexico, the pair talked about collaborating on a guerilla piece. Soon joined by artists Fred Arroyo and Edfu Kingigna, they decided to make some of Villareal’s sketches of a mermaid into a sculpture by the lake.

“A mermaid is not political, not social,” Roman said. “Nobody could ever get mad at us for making a mermaid.”

They picked a spot in Burnham Park, just north of 39th, where four levels of rock act as revetment, keeping the park from washing away.

Villareal said his next task was to con his 15-year-old daughter Melinda into being the mermaid.

“So we needed a model,” he said. “So I told her, ‘Hey, you know what? Naah, forget it.’ ‘What?’ She was a contrarian, so you had to start off telling her, ‘No, you can’t do this.’ ‘Do what?’ ‘Well, I’m going to get somebody else. You won’t be able to sit still.’ ‘Sit still for what?’ ‘Well, we’re going to do this.’ ‘I can do it!’”

Melinda laid down on the rock in her street clothes to get the form right, the artists sketched her out. They started the carving that afternoon.

Nobody asks too many questions
It took nine days, showing up in the morning and working late.

“Broad daylight, right in front of everybody,” he said, “because something about Chicago, nobody asks too many questions.”
“We were into our fifth, sixth day that a police lady for the first time — she was having her lunch, a coffee and spotted us and she walks over and goes, ‘What are you guys doing?’ But by that time most of the mermaid was already out and she goes ‘Oh, that’s beautiful! Who commissioned you?’

“And we’re going, ‘Oh, well, this is kind of like a project on our part that we just want to kind of help beautify the lakefront and we’re just kind of, you know.’ And she left us alone. She congratulated us.

“And after a while another police officer came and another one and another one, but nobody ever really said too much to us.”

On the ninth day, La Sirena was complete. Then the four artists left, and the mermaid became a secret spot known only to the locals.

The Mermaid Discovered
The mermaid stayed a secret until 2000, when the Army Corps of Engineers started fixing up the Lake Michigan shoreline in an eight-year, $325 million revetment restoration.

“The last time we went to see her, we were quite concerned because all the equipment was coming near her,” a woman named Gail McClain told the Chicago Sun-Times, which ran a story on the mystery mermaid.

When the story came out Melinda Garcia-Villareal, the mermaid herself, was working downtown, across the street from the Sun-Times’ offices.

On her lunch break, Melinda crossed the street with some photos to show the newspaper where the mermaid really came from. The mythical artist wasn’t a lovelorn romantic or a Columbian Exhibition magnate. He was sitting a few miles away in a VA hospital.

The mermaid’s origins revealed, the community asked the park district to save the mermaid from the Army Corps’ restoration. The park district removed the statue in 2004, putting it into storage. In 2007, a group of students in a community internship program worked with the artists to restore the mermaid and place it in Bessemer Park, by 89th Street in Villareal’s home community of South Chicago. It was moved to its current home in Oakland in 2010.

Today, Roman paints and sculpts. He teaches. He continues to exhibit and he mentors the young artists who show at Under the Bridge.

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This story originally appeared as part of Paul Dailing’s 1001 Chicago Afternoons, a web series inspired by Ben Hecht’s original 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. Read more at 1001chicago.com.

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