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Chicago's Mexican Museum Remains a Model of Success


CHICAGO — Don't call Carlos Tortolero a Hispanic.

"It's just wrong," says the director of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum here, which officially opens its expanded facilities today. " 'Hispanic' has to do with Spain, with being a colony. 'Hispanic' is just an attempt to make us Latinos all walk and talk the same.

"There are 23 countries in Latin America, all beautiful, all different."

How Tortolero prefers to be identified, what he hears as a clarion call, is Mexican. And it's that pride and focus on his heritage that has served to fuel his years at the museum, set on a patch of stubby grass in the heart of Pilsen, a port of entry for thousands of Mexican immigrants.

There are other Latino museums in the United States--the Museo del Barrio in New York, the Mexican Museum in San Francisco and the Bacardi Museum of Latin American Art in Miami, to name just three out of about 20--but none has had the kind of success that Chicago's has achieved in its 19 years.

The opening of its new building--adjacent to the current facility, giving the museum more than 70,000 square feet of space (including its satellite youth museum and radio station, also in Pilsen)--is a culmination of Tortolero's commitment to showcase the immensity, diversity, depth and beauty of Mexican culture.

According to Jacqueline Atkins, executive director of the Museums-in-the-Park consortium, the Mexican fine arts facility is still the smallest of its nine members (the Field Museum of Natural History is the biggest, with 880,000 square feet). But a spokesperson for the American Assn. of Museums says the museum's $4-million budget puts it into the category of a "large" museum rather than "mid-size" or "small."

Throughout the years, while other Latino organizations struggled to become inclusive of each and every Latin American nationality, Tortolero stubbornly resisted, underscoring the need for a place for Mexican arts from both Mexico and the United States.

"Listen, it's not that I'm not Latino," says Tortolero, a short, stocky, blue-eyed 46-year-old with a reputation for being hyper and relentless. "I'm Latino, of course. But I'm Mexican first. When Mexico loses in the World Cup matches, I instantly root for Brazil. But if Brazil loses and Spain keeps going, I really don't care anymore."

Already the largest Latino organization in the U.S. before the expansion--and only one of two ethnically oriented museums accredited by the American Assn. of Museums (the other is the Studio Museum of Harlem)--it had more than 112,000 visitors last year (of which, according to different surveys, between 38% and 43% were not Mexican), close to 1,000 annual school group visits, and more than 2,500 original pieces in its permanent collection. Moreover, the museum--which doesn't charge admission--has never operated in the red, unlike, for example, the financially strapped Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture in Los Angeles.

"We're a cultural platypus--a mammal that lays eggs," says Tortolero. "We exist in both worlds--as a fine arts museum and as a community center. That's why we've always insisted on being a 'center museum,' not one or the other. And we always involve the community--in everything. The new space was designed by Adrian Lozano, a Mexican architect--he's done all our designs, always. And the construction crew included a couple of guys right from the neighborhood."

Since 1982, when Tortolero and a group of fellow teachers at Bowen High School envisioned the museum, it has been his baby. What was most important to him from the very beginning was the concept of "first voice"--the idea that communities have a need and a right to tell their own experiences firsthand. That often meant taking on mainstream institutions, and even potential donors, who had already had exhibitions or programs on Mexican culture.

Against the indifference of the mainstream cultural scene, the ridicule of most of the Latino arts community that considered the vision of a Mexican museum too narrow, and even the suspicions of a lot of the Mexican community who didn't quite understand the group's idea of a place that was both a fine arts showcase and a community center, the museum founders began to put on their own programs, establishing a track record for producing quality shows and lively debate.

In 1987, the group persuaded the park district to let it take over an old boat craft building in Pilsen and--over the objection of some residents who worried about losing open space in an already overcrowded community, as well as Friends of the Park--the museum opened its doors.

Since then, the museum has created a first-of-its-kind sister museum agreement with Mexico City's Museo del Temple Mayor (which is what's allowing it to bring the rare "Bat God" sculpture to open the new expanded galleries), launched WRTE (a radio station staffed and operated by neighborhood teens) and Yollocalli Youth Museum, curated original traveling exhibitions featuring everything from calendars to surveys of Chicago artists, and created two important annual festivals, the Del Corazon performance showcase and the Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz gala.

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