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!
Chicano Muralist and Painter
Internationally known for his “Si Se Puede” poster, Robert Valadez is a veterano painter in Pilsen who has attracted a large following on social media with his viral images and Chicano wit.
His most sought-after paintings feature Mexican women. The “Si Se Puede” piece titled “Rosita” is reminiscent of the World War II poster known as “We Can Do it” with the American icon, Rosie the Riveter. Except Robert’s version shows a traditional soldadera woman flexing her arm muscle and holding a gun, eager to fight in the Mexican Revolution. To Latinas who may lack historical role models, this rendition represents their modern-day struggle as mujeres. First-time college students and working moms alike find Robert’s art to be empowering and accessible.
Robert’s been a lifelong Pilsen resident. At age 13, he was inspired to become an artist when he visited the now-closed Casa Aztlan for the first time. It was at Casa Aztlan that he learned about the Chicago mural movement and the painting scene in Pilsen. “It was very much related to the whole spirit of activism and the desire for social change,” he said. “They’re all intertwined. Community based mural painting is essentially an organizational tool for organizing youth and the community. When I saw them doing these huge paintings I decided I wanted to be a part of that.”
He came after the pioneers of muralismo such as Marcos Raya, Ray Patlán, Hector Duarte, Francisco Mendoza, and Salvador Vega, and they helped to inform his work. Robert encompasses characters in Mexican history, religious figures and pop icons, as well as images of everyday Mexicans. His style of portraiture harken back to the film posters of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. “I am very much a synthesis of various influences,” he said. “Like the Mexican pop art of the 40’s and 50’s. I like the Mexican muralists, the big guys. And I like the Chicago School of Art, they call them the imagists of the 1960’s.”
Local Pilsen businesses like No Manches Clothing and Don Churro Moro de Letran have commissioned his work. But his art is all over Chicago and other Great Lakes’ cities. A prime example of his classic large-scale murals will greet you inside Benito Juarez Academy.
“I consider myself to be a Chicago artist, a Pilsen artist. And my understanding of Mexico, the people, and the culture, is through an artistic lens,” he said. Robert rethinks American culture by making it relevant and beautiful to us as Mexican-Americans and Latinos in the Midwest.
See his more of his work at robertvaladez.com.
Interview by Luiz Magaña
Photos by Luiz Magaña