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 individuals 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!
Artist and Executive Director – Elevarte Community Studio
Giselle Mercier came to Chicago from Panama in 1984 to study art. She didn’t know the city would become her permanent home, but after accepting a position as an education coordinator with what is now the National Museum of Mexican Art, she found herself unable to part with Pilsen. “I fell in love with the Mexican community here,” she said. “They were very open to accept me and I am thankful to them.”
As a woman artist it was challenging for her to enter the local art scene, especially in the Latino community which is “very patriarchal” and really values male artists. But she said that times have changed and “as women we are opening the doors for ourselves, not waiting for the art world to do it.”
So Mercier eventually landed as the Executive Director of Elevarte Studio, formerly known as Pros Arts Studios, a community-based organization out of Dvorak Park fieldhouse that uses the arts as a creative channel for youth. One fun fact is that Elevarte is fully staffed by women. And their events, like the annual We Are Hip Hop festival, are completely organized by young people.
“Hip-hop is a unifier,” Mercier said. “It will unite people who are in constant struggle.” That’s why the annual festival attracts young residents from all over the city and keeps growing every time.
The organization offers more than 250 paid internships a year. They don’t use the old term “at risk” to refer to their young participants, but rather “at promise” which translates into a safe space for persons who have potential and can rely on adult allies. At home many young people take on the role of adults, whether as breadwinners or caregivers, and Elevarte becomes a refuge for them.
As a result of a what Mercier calls “aggressive gentrification,” Elevarte is looking to provide spaces in other low-income neighborhoods such as Brighton Park, Back of the Yards and McKinley Park. But she believes that Pilsen is organized enough to slow the pace of this phenomenon and is hopeful that the Mexican community will be able to retain most of its cultural and artistic essence.
For her part, Mercier plans to move back to Panama within the next year in order to develop local art projects just like she did in Pilsen for more than 25 years.
Interview by Paolo Cisneros and Jackie Serrato
Photo by Jackie Serrato