On the evening of July 7, pink clouds billow over Pilsen, and the National Museum of Mexican Art is abuzz. The line for the museum’s thirtieth birthday pachanga stretches down a long hallway, however despite the long wait, the crowd is jubilant.
Before reaching the dance floor, visitors wind through a small gallery framed by colorful walls and the smell of fresh popcorn. Families and friends embrace one another, eat piping hot tamales, and pose with feather boas as vintage Latin vinyl music, handpicked by local DJ collective Sonorama, floats in from a nearby stage. A collection of work from Yollocalli Arts Reach, the NMMA’s award-winning youth initiative, surrounds the celebration with messages of solidarity in the face of oppression. The work is part of Yollocalli’s second annual “Best of Yollo” show, and features art from the initiative’s regular programming and submissions focused on the theme “political issues affecting youth.”
Protest posters paper the gallery’s western wall, some featuring familiar slogans like “Fight Ignorance, Not Immigrants,” “No Justice No Peace,” and others—a photo of the Statue of Liberty accompanied by yellow text reading “[screaming internally]”—playfully repurposing pop culture. In one corner, high-contrast photographs of shoes, playgrounds, and neighborhood cats explore the meaning of “safe spaces.” And just before the dance floor entrance, a poster by Yollocalli students Cecilia Ruiz and Zipporah Auta declares boldly: “Through thick and thin, we’re proud to be who we are.”
The beaming woman next to me in line for popcorn is Leticia Madrigal, the founder of Ámate Ahora—“Love Yourself Now”—a Pilsen health organization that hosts their annual expo in the room we now stand in. She recalls her first meeting with NMMA founder and president Carlos Tortolero at the first Ámate Ahora expo, how he greeted her with joy and told her that the museum is her home.
“[Tortolero’s] leadership of the museum is so important, so key, to our community,” said Madrigal. “He’s helping us stay healthy and get access to extremely important services.”
Our exchange continues, drifting from healing to honor to César Chávez, but every thread of conversation leads back to Tortolero, his leadership, and his impact. Madrigal has high hopes for the NMMA’s future, and she refers to the man and the museum interchangeably, substituting the part for the whole in a telling synecdoche.
“As he grows, we grow,” she concluded, gesturing to the bustle around us. “As he blossoms, we blossom. Because that’s what flowers do, right? We help each other grow, and that’s what the National Museum of Mexican Art is: it’s a beautiful flower, there’s a garden of us, and this is how our garden can bloom.”
Whether by giving space to nonprofits like Madrigal’s, catering food from neighborhood businesses, or encouraging youth artistic and political engagement through Yollocalli, the NMMA plays an important role not only in Pilsen’s culture but in its general well-being. However, in Tienda Tzintzuntzán, the museum’s gift shop, a humble Tortolero demurs at the praise of his friends and colleagues.
“They lie, they lie, they lie,” he chuckled.
Tortolero moved to Chicago from Mexico as a young child. In 1987, he and a group of fellow CPS educators opened the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum with a small budget and an emphasis on accessibility, education, and social justice. Thirty years, a name change, and countless expansions later, the National Museum of Mexican Art sees 130,000 visitors annually, is home to one of the U.S.’s largest Mexican art collections, and was the first Latinx museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. The museum’s president is charming, bespectacled, and a gifted storyteller. He pauses occasionally to chat with friends and donors, but always returns to our conversation without missing a beat.
“We show the beauty of Mexican art and culture from both sides of the border, from ancient times to the present,” said Tortolero. He makes clear that amidst the museum’s growth and development, its core principles have not changed.
“I have this weird philosophy,” he began. “I do believe that everybody’s equal. It’s not a slogan.” While the museum is focused on Mexican art sin fronteras, Tortolero hopes to draw in a range of people through its exhibits and programming. And whether it’s through fostering youth programs like Yollocalli or encouraging children to visit the museum, he describes intergenerational engagement as a vital part of the NMMA.
Tortolero grins as a group of children yell out in the background. “People call us the baby carriage museum,” he said. “I like that.”
While he sees retirement in his future and says that he’ll “be gone for sure thirty years from now,” Tortolero places high expectations on the NMMA. As Chicago neighborhoods contend with Trump administration policies, he believes that institutions like the one he leads need to be more vocal than ever. “Artists need to speak up,” he said. “Arts administrations need to speak up. As long as racism persists we have to be out there making sure we speak out against it.” He cites A Day Without a Mexican, a film directed by Sergio Arau and sponsored by the museum, as an important example of artistic protest.
And like Madrigal, he links the museum’s bright future with community support.
“One time I saw a father and son near the donation box, and they were speaking Spanish,” he begins. “The father is dressed in, you know, working clothes, so they don’t have a lot of money, and the father gives his son a dollar and the son puts it in. So the son asks, ‘Why are we putting in a dollar, you told me it was free?’ and the father says, ‘We want to make sure it’s free for everybody.’ That dollar means a lot more symbolically than the big grants.”
Meanwhile, Yollocalli director Vanessa Sanchez works to bring the NMMA’s community support full circle by providing educational and career support for youth in Pilsen and Little Village. “We’re trying to take into consideration some of the issues that these young people face, such as financial issues or having difficulty applying for whatever reasons,” she said. “We’re considering making a scholarship or some way to help fundraise for these young people.”
On the dance floor, the pachanga continues at peak energy. Children hold hands and spin in circles, NMMA employees slice a beautiful cake topped with a fondant ojo de dios, and Efrain Lopez, who has worked as the museum’s carpenter for twenty-eight years, serves up homemade aguas frescas. Beneath a slideshow listing thirty years of museum milestones rests the DJ booth, where Sonorama’s Edward Baca spins a vibrant soundtrack for the scene.
Baca is one third of Sonorama, a trio of self-described “vinyl heads” who seek out classic Latin American music of all genres. The DJs play parties, publish podcasts, and host a weekly show on Lumpen Radio. Although Baca doesn’t have a long history with the museum, he admires its support of local businesses as well as local art, recalling a 2015 fundraiser for well-loved, burnt-down restaurant Nuevo Leon. He also finds artistic encouragement in its collections.
“It expands your mind when you realize there’s this giant long history of Mexican art and Mexican-American art and Chicano art,” he said. “Just being here and seeing that work you’re just supported, your ideas and inspirations are reinforced and pushed forward.”
Elizabeth Garcia, an incoming student at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s medical school, expresses a similar sentiment. She first came to the NMMA while working as a mentor in nearby schools and noticed students’ excitement at seeing familiar figures like the Virgin of Guadalupe represented within a museum context.
“I think they like looking at things that reflect them in some way,” Garcia said. “It’s fun to go to the museum and see a cool dinosaur, but their eyes lit up more when they saw a reflection of themselves in art that they saw here.”
Garcia also believes that the NMMA’s ability to foster personal and political engagement makes it a source of strength for her community. While gentrifying actions like the recent painting over of the Casa Aztlan murals by real estate developers upset her, she said that visiting the museum always helps her feel better.
A center for action, a source of encouragement, a space for healing—the National Museum of Mexican Art fulfills vital roles in Pilsen and beyond. As the pachanga crowd spins to Sonorama tracks and Lopez passes out the last few aguas frescas, Garcia’s words come to mind: “It’s here, it’s here to stay, and it’s something that you can’t erase.”
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