D.I.Y Cultura:  Chicago's Contemporary Mexican-American Cultural Movement


The Situation

Chicago’s contemporary Southside is currently the home of many brown and black communities of color.  Often of lower income and working class backgrounds, these neighborhoods have a large growing number of young people many times referred to as “marginalized” or “at-risk youth.”

The many labels attached to our communities often focus on poverty, dysfunction, undocumented immigrants, gang activity and violence presented in the local media to represent our identity.  The lack of respectful and empowering stories in mainstream media has an effect to diminish our cultural triumphs and reduce our people to derogatory or limited depictions for the world surrounding us.

Contrary to limited media representation and facing the adversity of underserved communities, it is these same regions in the Southside of Chicago that have brought about an artistic cultural yearning that takes initiative to service its needs for music, art, education, beautification, dialogue, entrepreneurship and cultural nourishment.  This is a perfect moment to put a spotlight on the people and the movement that has been growing in activity and positive community engagement.

The current movement happening in the neighborhoods of Little Village/La Villita and Pilsen reflect the persistence, the drive, the community, and the hustle of the art movement that has been growing for decades the movement of “Do-It-Yourself Cultura.”

The Movement

The D.I.Y. Cultura movement focuses on driven individuals, community organizers, industry disruptors, grassroots artists, music festivals and art collectives, pop up storefront art galleries, street art, musicians, journalists, writers, activists and cultural “hustlers.”  With the abundance of creativity it would seem that we are confronted with a new renaissance in the Mexican-American neighborhoods.  This movement derives from conversation, plan of action, mobilization, and execution.

Most of these initiatives take place out of the need to fill a gap or desire.  It would be too easy to call the movement Chicano but not all cultural provokers are aligned with a particular manifesto or activist allegiance.  For all the diversity that exists in our neighborhoods and our people we share in common the pragmatic approach to provide art as a source to reinforce our presence.  Some of our cultural workers strive to address or resolve social injustices, others seek to find a platform to express emotion with a vibrant voice or aesthetic.  We share similarities in geography and perhaps our ethnicity and lineage, however that does not make us all align with identical approaches.  Our movement is multifaceted and manifests in the streets, schools, homes, and within our vocabulary and language.

Our movement challenges and celebrates identity as we grow in population and diversity.   For all the various definitions, categorizations, and academic analyses D.I.Y. Cultura is still subject to change and remains elusive from manifestos because it’s too busy planning for the next project.  In academia there is an obsession to validate the existence of an art movement using theory and philosophy to propel the culture into a more elite standard. It is out of oppression, restraint, and being often overlooked that our communities organically formed methods to address these concerns.  Chances are if you work or live in the hoods and organized a grassroots music festival, a pop-up art festival, a traveling musical event, a non-profit with socially beneficial concerns, and fundraisers, you are part of the D.I.Y. Cultura.


A Word From The Movers and Shakers

Villarte organizers “Do It Ourselves” because we have no choice – there are no professional galleries in Little Village. As such, each year dedicated volunteers create pop-up galleries with the help of local business owners. The artists showcased range from professionals with MFAs who grew up in or have other ties to the neighborhood to self-taught artists in non-traditional areas like Graffiti, to immigrants who are experts in traditional artesania.

Villarte is now in its 10th year and thankfully more passionate individuals have decided to “Do It Themselves” and create opportunities for local artists to display their talents.

By “Doing It Ourselves” we celebrate our community – no one can do it for us.

Laura Nuñez, VILLARTE organizer/co-founder


I didn’t have the resources that most artists had, at least most established schooled artist. I had to look for opportunities from local artists and friends, definitely from outside the realm of any school or any educational system. It’s hard to figure [things] out and produce things on my own but I always figured out a way, and to me that’s what being an artist is all about– learning and growing, expressing oneself without letting limitations that can be worked around get in the way.

JASSO, street artist


I started a D.I.Y. MFA cohort with four other art educators. We agreed to be accountable to each other for two years. We met monthly for the first year and bimonthly in the second year. It was great to keep each other motivated and share our individual growths, failures, and shifts in our own self-identified goals.

Miguel Aguilar/KANE ONE, graffiti artist


We are taught at an early stage in life whether through school or our upbringing, that we are either our own boss creating the work that will sustain us, or a worker maintaining a job to survive. I don’t ever remember anyone teaching me that I could create work I enjoyed and was passionate about, that would sustain me. It was only when I engulfed myself in the D.I.Y. culture of crafts, art, and workshopping, that I embraced the reality that is kept from us at an early age. That you can do what you love and make a career of it. It’s scary when you’re used to a “stable income” from a “stable job”, but once you’re over that hump of fear, the stable work you create for yourself brings you the stable income.

The D.I.Y. culture is very much a culture of creative community, people either learning from each other to accomplish things or helping each other to move towards greater goals and accomplishments. I’ve learned the D.I.Y. culture is a community of its own; a very creative one at that, not just visually, but in every aspect of making a living and sustaining a living.

 Teresa Magaña, Pilsen Outpost Co-owner


In general, the D.I.Y. movement is a movement of love for our community and those that share it with us. It strives to create a safe space for people to share, build and celebrate our locality and culture.

Hector Herrera Yepez, Founder of VILLAPALOOZA


For me, D.I.Y. is a cultural mentality helping people create the world in which they want to live, and doing so on their terms. With CumbiaSazo, we have an event series that plays out like a party on one hand, but for our group is also an autonomous experiment for expressing and exploring a vision for the world we want to live in. By bringing a community together on a dancefloor to share particular music, traditions, poetry, dancing, art, food, and culture for example, the event invites people to get to know others, interact with our themes, and add ingredients and ideas to this vision so it benefits everyone. We tend to avoid outside funding to keep the organizing process autonomous, and everyone is encouraged to do what they believe in their authentic way, whether it’s artists performing or exhibiting through their chosen craft, or people busting out weird moves on the dance floor. We don’t tell anyone how to “do” it, we just collectively Do-It-Ourselves by adding the ingredients.

David Márques, Co-Founder of CumbiaSazo!

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