Welcome to Chicago Voz’ inaugural 18 on 18th Street, an annual series that profiles 18 people from the Pilsen community. This series will feature residents, leaders, artists and small business owners who have contributed their time and skill toward the betterment of Pilsen. Various names were nominated and voted on by our editorial board and they will be released throughout the month.
While there are many influential Pilsen people to choose from, one criteria was to highlight people who are not media regulars. Chicago Voz will profile those who have not received proper media recognition for their work, but are nevertheless the unsung heroes of our community. Congratulations to Pilsen’s 18 on 18th Street!
Painter and DJ – The People’s Karaoke
Pablo Serrano is the Karaoke Guy in Pilsen. Behind the flashing lights and the crowds he attracts multiple times a week, he’s a very thoughtful, creative and slightly introverted person.
As he puts it, he was “raised in Pilsen but made in Mexico,” because his mother was seven months pregnant at the time his parents immigrated from Durango in 1979.
Pablo went to Jungman Elementary and was told he had the grades to apply to a presumably better school outside the neighborhood. His experience at LaSalle Language Academy and then Whitney Young High School gave him a wider perspective of the city that shaped his work.
As a kid he wanted to be an architect after seeing the Sears Tower, so he would stay up late at night to recreate illustrations from comic books. While many of his friends went on to do graffiti, his growing awareness of Chicano muralism inspired him to do something more meaningful.
He obtained a Bachelor’s in graphic design from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and worked as a substitute teacher at Benito Juarez and Farragut academies. Struck by the stories of hardship he heard from brown and black youth, regarding deportation and gangs for example, he went for a Masters of Education at the School of the Art Institute.
His participation in the 2005 student walkouts at Farragut resulted in his dismissal, along with 24 other teachers for not dissuading the students from speaking out on the unstable school administration. “I gave up on the classroom being where I wanted to operate because it was too limiting and authoritarian.”
Two weeks later, he threw his first karaoke party with an open mic. He started DJing every year for his birthday and was getting requests from friends who wanted to borrow his equipment or were asking him to play at special events.
In no time Pablo was playing regularly in Pilsen at Martin’s Corner bar, Caminos de Michoacan Bar, Simone’s Bar, Lalo’s Restaurant on Maxwell, and Harbee’s Liquor and Tavern, in that order.
His dad was a Pedro Infante fan who always did karaoke at home, but “it wasn’t called karaoke,” he said, “they were just pistas.” Through karaoke, he learns where people come from, what songs they think are classics, the music that means a lot to them and their parents, and “cómo se desahoga uno,” how one copes.
His popularity in Pilsen continues to grow and it reflects a deeper need in the community. He thinks it speaks to a lack of entertainment venues for young people of color. On almost any night, you will find Pablo bringing the community together through song.
Interview by Jackie Serrato
Photo by Jackie Serrato