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Restore the Mural;
Revitalize the Community!

History of the Mexican-American Worker by Ray Patlán, Vicente Mendoza and Jose Nario (1974 – 75)

Whitewashed Wall; Hidden History

By Laura De Los Santos

            I was kindergarten age when I remember a mural being installed near my home. I passed that mural several times a day for decades. The images on that wall inspired countless conversations between grandpa and I about when he had picked cotton and beets, worked as a gandy-dancer for the railroads and how he ultimately became a welder, labor organizer and union president at Allied Steel and Conduit in Harvey, Illinois.

            Curiosity and excitement filled me when we drove by and saw the men painting. The only image with which I was familiar was the Virgen de Guadalupe. The Virgen was an important part of our lives (grandma’s name was Lupe) and in the lives of our community. December 12 was a day equally as important as Christmas and Easter in my Roman-Catholic home. While I loved Easter and Christmas, December 12, was special because many people including myself wore traditional Mexican clothing made with brightly colored fabrics, ruffles, sequins and ribbons. I loved my traje de china Poblana and proudly wore it to church. After mass everyone gathered in the church basement, breaking bread alá Mexicana with chocolate, atoles, champurrado, and pan dulce.

            All of the other images were new to me. “What is that picture about Grandpa?” I would ask. Grandpa never tired of telling me the same story over and over again. “Who’s that?” I would inquire. Sometimes he said he didn’t know but I think maybe he just didn’t want to taint my world with the reality that the United Farm Workers organized because workers were poisoned and abused. Maybe he didn’t know how to explain the image of a newborn infant being torn from its mother’s arms. What he did seem to know about was that men and women of Mexican origin had provided labor that helped the U.S. become a world power. We were therefore an important part of the U.S. history and economy, “and don’t you forget it, hi’ija.”

            Then one day we passed the nearly completed mural and saw that buckets of paint had been thrown at the mural. Now known as a hate crime, this was probably my first awareness of acts of racism and violence. To my six year-old eyes it was like a miracle that the mural was quickly repaired. The mural was located on the corner of Olde Western Avenue and Broadway for twenty-three years.

            Even though the images were fading they could still be seen into my adult years. I have since learned that the average life of a mural is about 10-12 years without retouch. It can be argued that the mural lasted so long because it was protected from the elements by being on the north side of the wall. Well, I see it as the ancestors not letting the past be forgotten.         

            Fast forward to 2006 when I was completing my bachelor’s degree and had managed to get into the Honors program. As part of the program requirements I had to conduct primary research to demonstrate my skills as a researcher and my competence as a writer. It was suggested to me that I select a topic that was meaningful to me. I chose to research the mural that lie beneath several coats of paint on the north side wall of 13337 South Olde Western Avenue, Blue Island, Illinois. The story that follows is the result of archival research, personal interviews, and to my surprise, a review of the literature that specifically discusses the mural of Blue Island.

            In 1974, Blue Island community member and artist Jose Nario and fellow Blue Islander and President of the Latin American Advisory Council, August Sallas sought to create a mural on an exterior wall of a privately owned building that “would speak to the sizeable population of some 2000 Mexican Americans living, working and paying taxes in Blue Island.”[1]Mexican communities had emerged in Blue Island during the early Twentieth Century along several railroad lines. [2]While these settlers and generations of their descendants and compatriots helped Chicago develop into a major metropolis through their labor on railroads, in the meat packing industry and in the steel factories, their presence was largely ignored and relegated to city’s margins. The History of the Mexican-American Worker brought to light the Mexican presence and participation in Chicagoland’s and United States’ economies and histories through images of meat factory workers, railroad workers, steel workers and farm workers. The new mural would document and publicly proclaim the presence of the working class Mexican community of Blue Island.

 Just a few years prior, Chicago artists and community members began a movement within the city’s African-American and Latino neighborhoods “that spread across the country and around the world…” [3] The community mural movement was a means by which groups that had been largely ignored by mainstream society could make themselves and their issues visible. [4] Murals on publicly visible exterior walls gave people a voice, making these murals “the most democratic art the United States has ever produced.” [5]

Sallas acquired the support of Illinois Steel W.A., the Illinois Labor History Society and the Illinois Arts Council and Chicago muralists Raymond Patlán and Vicente Mendoza were recruited to work with Nario.[6] Shortly after the artists began to work, painting was brought to a halt by city officials and police threatening to fine and arrest the building owner and artists. According to the city building inspector, the black eagle emblem of the United Farm Workers was an advertisement that required a permit, contingent on city approval. Recently returned from a of tour duty in Viet Nam, artist Ray Patlán had been trained to defend American ideals with his life, so without hesitation he asked the officials what they thought the mural was advertising. The city building inspector declared, “your race.”[7]

            After the project failed to acquire the necessary approval, each and every member of city hall was brought to federal civil court in their official capacity, and as individuals, by August Sallas, the Illinois Labor Historical Society and artist Ray Patlán and the Chicago Chapter of the American Civil Liberty Union became involved.   The court ruling in favor of the plaintiffs became a nationally recognized precedent setting decision reaffirming artists’ civil rights. The ACLU considered this case a “precedent setting decision upon which muralists freedom hinges, now sanctioned in the mural’s completion.”[8], [9]

            I got an “A” on my paper and graduated in 2007, however, my “obsession” (my husband’s words) with the mural did not stop there. I had come to know many of the artists that were involved in the mural in some aspect, especially Ray Patlán. Most of these artists had become internationally known for their craft. Throughout the years Ray would let me know that he had been contacted by this person or that person in regards to the mural. Sometimes these people reached out to me, sometimes not. On several occasions he asked me to follow up with someone. I obliged him out of my respect.

While I still wanted badly to see a new mural installed, by the time I was in graduate school I realized I needed to move on when I was presenting this work at a national conference being held in Seattle, Washington.   I ran into the professor with whom I had begun this project during my undergraduate studies. She congratulated me for winning the scholarship that paid for me to attend the conference but then proceeded to tell me that I had become a bore and needed to find a new topic. So, I moved on. Thanks professor.

However, as Al Pacino eloquently stated in Godfather III, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” In May 2016 Ray Patlán called to tell me about a group of guys from Blue Island who were organizing to restore the mural. He had them call me and at Ray’s urging I met with Alderman Jairo Frausto. I have since been working with La CAUSA to have this mural restored.

            Under the umbrella of the Blue Island Arts Alliance, La CAUSA is working with several organizations and individuals at making the restoration of The History of the Mexican-American Worker a reality. Our kick-off event will be July 23 at the Blue Island Beer Company and a silent art auction will be held on August 20 at the same location.

Some of the contributing artists whose works will be for sale or auction on August 20 include:

Ray Patlán, Diana Solis, Robert Valadez, Ricardo “Naco” Gonzalez (from Blue Island; his mural can be seen on the exterior wall of Tenochtitlan), Pablo Ramirez, John P. Weber, Robert Valadez, Diana Solis, Milton Rogovin, Mark Rogovin and Marcos Raya and the list is growing. We hope that you’ll help La Causa by donating or purchasing artworks, making monetary donations or by attending our events.

Blue Island Beer Company

13357 South Olde Western Avenue

Blue Island, Illinois 60406

(708) 954 – 8085

[1] Victor A. Sorell, “Barrio Murals in Chicago: Painting the Hispanic-American Experience on Our Community Walls,” Revista Chicano-Riqueña Vol. 4 Issue 4 (October 1976), 50-72: 55.

[2] Harry A. Jebsen, “Blue Island Illinois: The History of a Working Class Suburb.” (PhD diss., University of Cincinnati, 1971), Anita E. “Mexicans in Chicago” (master’s thesis, University of Chicago, 1928), Paul S. Taylor, “Mexican Labor in the United States; Chicago and the Calumet Region.” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1931).

[3] Illinois State Museum Society. Healing Walls; Murals & Community, A Chicago History. CD-ROM, 1996.

[4] Eva Cockcroft, James Cockcroft and John Pitman Weber, Toward a People’s Art: The Contemporary Mural Movement (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press) 1977 and 1998.

[5] David Conrad “Community Murals as Democratic Art and Education, “Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 29 No. 1 (Spring 1995) 98-102: 98.

[6] Sorell 1976:56.

[7] Personal interview by Laura De Los Santos with Ray Patlán conducted August 6, 2006.

[8] Memorandum Opinion and Judgment Order, Latin American Advisory Council, et. al., Plaintiffs vs. Richard W. Withers, et. al., Defendants, No. 74 C 2717. U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, November 22, 1974.

9 Alan W. Barnett, Community Murals; The People’s Art (Philadelphia: The Art Alliance Press 1984), 432.

For additional sources on the mural see:

Davalos, Karen Mary. Exhibiting Mestizaje: Mexican (American) Museums in the Diaspora. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001: 70.

Kanellos, Nicolás ed. Reference Library of Hispanic America: The Hispanic American Almanac. Detroit: Gale Research Inc. 1995: 542 – 543.

Chicago Sun-Times, September 13, 1974.

Chicago Sun-Times, September 15, 1974.

Chicago Tribune, September 20, 1974.

Blue Island Sun-Standard, September 20, 1974.