On Chicago’s Southwest side stands a community enriched with Mexican influences from its restaurants, businesses and well-known art district. Through efforts from its community, Pilsen showcases its cultural pride and works to assist neighbors and new residents from Chicago and the surrounding areas. Casa Aztlan, a community center and nonprofit organization in the heart of the neighborhood, at 1831 S. Racine Ave., offers those services to help residents in the area and people who relocated to the United States from another country.
Carlos Arango, executive director of Casa Aztlan, said although the center focuses on the Pilsen community and the Southwest side of the city, some residents travel from all over the state of Illinois and as far as Indiana for services. The organization helps about 12,000 people year in various capacities, said Arango.
Casa Aztlan is an established figure in the Pilsen community that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and is one of the oldest organizations that fights for social justice. Its roots stem from 1970 when Mexican immigrants migrated in large numbers and settled in Chicago. Originally, Casa Aztlan served as a Bohemian settlement house in the late 1800s. From the Howell Neighborhood House to the Neighborhood Service Organization, the community organization made a shift and changed its name to Casa Aztlan, reflecting a part of the community’s Mexican and Aztec heritage.
Arango said Casa Aztlan is a place where people can find comfort as they adjust to a new way of life, as well as a place where they can inform themselves.
“This is one of the only centers where people can get organized and express themselves culturally,” said Arango. “It’s important for immigrants to become informed about issues so they can get acquainted with society and participate in issues that involve social justice.”
With the effort to help residents adjust and stay connected with their families worldwide, the community center offered a special service this month for the holiday season. Casa Aztlan teamed up with Cricket Wireless to give Chicago and surrounding area residents the opportunity to call their family members all over the world free of charge.
The organization provides a number of other services for residents to use. These services include Community and Economic Development Association (CEDA) of Cook County, children and youth programs, counseling, immigration services, mediation workshops, a public computer lab, a Residential Hardship Fund and Weatherization services. Classes offered at Casa Aztlan include citizenship, computer skills, adult ESL classes, GED preparation, and literacy courses.
As a part of the organization’s mission, which is to help provide self-determination and a sense of empowerment to others, Casa Aztlan also couples the education services with festivals, exhibitions and art classes to celebrate the arts of the Mexican culture. Cultural murals cover the multicolored walls throughout the community center. On the second floor of Casa Aztlan, Calmecac Gallery exhibits artwork from local, national and international artists, which is also sponsored by the City of Chicago’s After School Matters Program.
“The founders of Casa Aztlan couldn’t agree on whether or not the center should be an art center or an advocacy organization for social justice,” said Arango. “As you can see, 40 years later, the issue was never resolved. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it at first, but I’m realizing it can be a good thing to join the arts with advocacy.”
Arango joined the organization in 1986 when he moved to Chicago and filled the role of executive director in 1994. Prior to his move to Chicago and the Pilsen community, Arango lived in Los Angeles where he relocated after he moved from Mexico. Through networking connections and before he moved to Chicago, Arango said he knew about Casa Aztlan because the center is well-known for its advocacy work with immigrants and residents.
One of the more recent reasons Casa Aztlan is a staple in the Mexican community on a national and international scale is the community center’s march on immigration reform in 2006. City officials, such as Mayor Richard M. Daley, joined more than 500,000 community members and activists in Pilsen on this issue. Arango said members of the community, as well as local immigrants, look to the federal government for support and representation on important issues in their communities such as U.S. immigration amnesty, among others.
Although some political officials participated in this historical event at Casa Aztlan, Arango said he doesn’t believe the local and city government collectively offer enough assistance to help with the maintenance, daily operations or services of the community center, whose building is over 100 years old. As a nonprofit organization, the center is funded by donations from community members, in addition to local and state contributions.
“It’s a struggle day by day,” he said. “We do understand times are difficult for everyone today. I guess this is the cost we sometimes have to pay for being independent.”