Arts Issue 2017 | Visual Arts

New Space, Same Work

Cultura presses on with art, activism, despite organization’s uncertain future

Vives Q Labs meeting hosted by Cultura at its residency at La Catrina Cafe (Deysi Cuevas)

Cultura in Pilsen, a grassroots gallery and arts organization, is in transition. Displaced from its original space and unsure of where it will end up, the organization is now striving to continue being a gathering place for Pilsen artists and activists.

Cultura was founded in 2014 as a joint project of two Pilsen-based publications: Contratiempo, a Spanish-language arts magazine, and Gozamos, an independent online magazine. For years it has run a diverse calendar of events reflecting the equally diverse needs and interests of the Pilsen neighborhood. The organization was formerly located at  19th and Carpenter in the former space of another community organization named Calles y Sueños, which had been there since 1994. In 2014, a year after moving into the venue with Calles y Sueños, contratiempo and Gozamos created Cultura in Pilsen.

Ilene Palacios, an editor at Gozamos and one of Cultura’s co-managers, explained that Calles y Sueños “left the space due to funding and availability, reasons that prevented them from being able to continue their programming at the space. Calles y Sueños, Cultura, and the other organizations under Cultura’s umbrella are all volunteer-run nonprofits, so funding ourselves is a perpetual struggle,” she said.

In the Carpenter Street space, Cultura was able to host events and connect with other community organizations that share its mission to educate and empower the Latino community. Some of Cultura’s partner organizations include the Chicago Community and Workers’ Rights (CCWR), which helps build leadership strategies to fight against labor rights abuses, and Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD), which organizes against unfair and inhumane immigration enforcement practices.

Palacios said that Cultura was established as an independent organization to give the location its own identity. All of the partner organizations, which at one time included Calles y Sueños, operate independently as part of Cultura.

But in August of 2016, Cultura was forced to leave their space after their rent was nearly doubled to $2,500 dollars per month, which was an unattainable amount for the organization.

“We’re all volunteers,” Palacios said. “We had suggested donations for events and occasionally we sold tickets, but we wanted our events to be affordable or free. Occasionally we put in our own money from our full-time jobs, and we definitely put in a lot of labor and time to make these [events] happen. It’s not a way to make money.”

“Objectively, gentrification and real estate speculation resulting in increased property values and rents are major concerns for many in the Pilsen neighborhood, as there has already been displacement of business and families,” she continued.

While Cultura’s decision to leave the space was a difficult one, Palacios explained that it also led to a positive, if unexpected, outcome. In October 2016, Cultura began an ongoing residency at La Catrina Cafe, located just a block north at 18th and Morgan.

“A lot of people know La Catrina Cafe as an important hub in the neighborhood to have informal meetings or larger gatherings or events,” said Palacios. “There’s a little stage, so there’s been concerts here. So there [were] a lot of similarities between the kind of stuff Cultura was doing and what La Catrina also does.”

Nevertheless, Palacios says Cultura in Pilsen is looking for a permanent location for future events. They have been searching outside of Pilsen, too, fearing they won’t find a location in the neighborhood due to the rising rent prices.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of people getting displaced from this neighborhood, getting priced out,” she said. “It was very much an artist neighborhood and it’s getting difficult for people to sustain themselves.”

If Cultura does make a move outside the neighborhood, they would be moving into a less expensive space, meaning into an area with lower rent. However, with this comes the realization that they, too, could be contributing to the spread of gentrification by making the move.

“There’s definitely a responsibility there,” Palacios said. “Even if you have the best intentions, you have to be aware of what ripples out.”

Regardless of these concerns about its future, Cultura remains committed to its present work in Pilsen. On Sunday, January 29, Cultura hosted the organization Vives Q Labs at La Catrina Cafe for an event called “Cafecito con Queers.” Vives Q Labs is a monthly community gathering for queer and trans Latinx people. Attendees can share information, and skills and build a dialogue with the community. The lab featured an immigration “Know Your Rights” training with Vives Q Lab Organizers and Nebula Li, Staff Attorney at Community Activism Law Alliance (CALA).

Emmanuel Garcia, one of the organizers of Vives Q Labs, stressed the importance of organizations like Cultura and of its current residency at La Catrina Cafe.

“This coffee shop is a staple in Pilsen,” said Garcia. “It’s important for our community, especially the LGBT community, to know that they have a home here in Pilsen and are also part of our community.” According to a report by the Williams Institute, members of the LGBTQ community are more vulnerable to economic inequality. They are also more likely to face employment discrimination and lack health insurance, and some are also undocumented.

Due to the Trump administration’s extreme anti-immigrant sentiment, many undocumented immigrants are now afraid they will be deported or separated from their families. Garcia said the Cultura-hosted workshop allowed members of the LGBT community to come together to discuss their concerns about the recent immigration policies.

“Right now, especially with the way the Trump administration has targeted the undocumented community, it was important for us to share a ‘Know Your Rights’ training,” said Garcia. “A lot of the information that was shared was what to do if you are stopped by the police, how do you interact with detention, and what are some things you can do as an individual to support the undocumented community?”

Pilsen community member Dania Cordova said organizations like Cultura are important because they allow groups like Vives Q Labs to have a space to create relevant and useful programming. It is also important because “people come and network, connect, and they gain information so you can share it with relatives and other members of your community,” she said.

Palacios noted that Cultura is not the only organization in Pilsen that supports local activism, artists and performers. Other organizations exist that work towards similar things: Pilsen Alliance, for example, advocates for quality public education, affordable housing and immigrant rights.

As Cultura has transitioned into its residency at La Catrina, facing uncertainty about its future, it has dabbled in all kinds of work: art, music, activism, organizing, community-building, and more. Palacios and Cultura’s organizers see all these efforts as intertwined and of equal importance, and they strive to make Cultura as layered and complex an organization as Chicago’s Latinx communities.

“Many times it happens out of necessity and out of the passion and love people have for their community and wanting to give something to it because it gives them so much,” Palacios said.

For more information on upcoming Cultura events, visit culturainpilsen.com.

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