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Professor Jason Ruiz receives grant to create digital archive of Pilsen murals

| Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Hundreds of murals cover the walls of homes businesses, schools, public buildings and train stops in the Pilsen neighborhood in the lower west side of Chicago. The murals depict the culture of the large Mexican population that blossomed in Pilsen in the 1960s and continues to live there today.

However, visitors to the National Museum of Mexican Art located in Pilsen may find that information on the murals is lacking.

Associate professor of American Studies Jason Ruiz recently received a $50,000 grant from the Whiting Foundation, an organization that provides support to cultural heritage writers and researchers, to address this issue. Ruiz said he plans to create a digital archive and the first-ever mobile app devoted to the murals of Pilsen in partnership with the Historic Urban Environments Lab (HUE) at Notre Dame. The project aims to preserve the murals and share them with the public, he said.

“A lot of people go to the National Museum of Mexican Art because of its location asking for information about murals and muralism, and they don’t have many resources to offer people,” Ruiz said. “One of the things I’m really excited about in building this project is equipping a cultural institution that’s already there with the types of tools that I can develop through my own archival research and the tools built by HUE.”

Photo courtesy of James Sweet

A mural painted on a house in the Pilsen neighborhood in the lower west side of Chicago acts as a tie to the culture of many residents.

Ruiz first came in contact with the murals while teaching a class on Latinos in Chicago and Northern Indiana at Notre Dame. He then took a trip to the Pilsen neighborhood to look at the murals.

“I developed a walking tour, and people started asking me to give it for their classes,” Ruiz said. “Then the American Studies Association asked me to give it at a conference. I developed a little bit of expertise in the murals, and then my friend and colleague Jennifer Parker, who is the co-director of the HUE project, contacted me.”

Parker then proposed applying some of the tools her team at HUE had already developed to further Ruiz’s mural project.

“The Pilsen project, I thought, was a natural connection for us,” Parker said.

Parker said HUE takes traditional library resources and archives them to build websites and related mobile applications.

“Public artwork is temporary, and so creating a lasting connection and record of the public artwork is crucial to understand the development of the neighborhood and the city,” Parker said. “We continue to look at ways to take these particular areas of interest and build them into tools that will allow people to study them further.”

While the website will store the large amount of information Ruiz and his partners on the project are collecting, the app will serve as a discovery tool, offering customizable walking or driving tours of the murals.

Ruiz said he and his team are conducting interviews with artists and searching for pictures of buildings and murals in Pilsen from the past.

Intern Irma Rodenhuis, who is assisting Ruiz in the project, said she spends a lot of her time conducting archival research online.

“It’s a lot of hunting in archives and just hoping you’ll find something,” Rodenhuis said.

The topics of the murals are very diverse, but Ruiz said Catholicism — especially images of the Virgin of Guadalupe — and immigration are two popular themes.

“Pilsen has always been a home to immigrants, and the murals are a reflection of that,” Ruiz said.

Pilsen has historically been home to new immigrant communities, Ruiz said. Long before it became home to a predominantly Mexican community, it was settled by Eastern Europeans.

Ruiz said he believes the preservation of the Pilsen murals is important to document how artists have made their mark on the area. Nowadays, due to rising costs of living, many Mexicans are moving out of Pilsen, causing a cultural shift in the neighborhood. Ruiz seeks to protect and preserve the murals and empower the locals of Pilsen to celebrate muralism.

“I think that murals are especially provocative politically and I think that they do a lot of work in terms of making a statement about what it means to be Latino in Chicago or Latino in general through art,” he said.

Ruiz and Rodenhuis both emphasized the uniqueness of murals as an art form in that they are free to view and incredibly accessible to the public.

“Sometimes I think that the public might think that real art is in a museum, real art is expensive to look at or access,” Ruiz said. “If you can get to Pilsen, you can look at a hundred pieces of art in one afternoon. They’re extremely accessible, and sometimes people mistake accessibility with a lack of value.”

All of the resources Ruiz and HUE are developing will be free and open to the public, including the app, he said.

Parker said HUE’s mission is grounded in providing their applications to the public for free.

“Hesburgh Library’s mission is connecting people with knowledge,” Parker said. “And it’s very important to me that that knowledge be free.”

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