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!
Cultural Advocate and President – Chicago Mariachi Project
The Chicago Mariachi Project has its base in Pilsen. Founded in 2013 by resident Alvaro Obregon, this non-profit organization teaches youth to play mariachi music as it seeks to “elevate” it as an art form and a component of the Mexican heritage. “I feel that there is cultural responsibility for those of us that are on this side of the border to maintain those roots alive,” said Obregon, who is the president of the organization.
Keeping the Mexican roots alive has been part of Obregon’s story. Raised in Pilsen, he has always been passionate about the arts, but his work in the community first took off as an organizer. “For a while I went off and I wanted to change the world. But I realized that if I worked in my community, I could change my world,” he said.
In the early 1990’s Obregon received a letter from the city that would change the direction of his life and cause him to emerge as a leader. “We received a letter saying they were going to knock down all our homes because they were going to build a new school,” said Obregon. Residents living across from Harrison Park organized themselves and, with the help of The Resurrection Project, found a new location for the school that is now known as Orozco Academy.
Obregon would continue to volunteer his time in the community. He became one of the founding leaders to establish the Pilsen basketball league known as The Resurrection Basketball League (RBL). The summer sports’ program “takes back” gang hotspots across the community by holding basketball games on these streets. It became so successful that it inspired a similar program, Hoops in the Hood, in other communities.
Later, Obregon joined The Resurrection Project as a full time staff, helping to coordinate various cultural events in Pilsen. His aim was to bring musical acts to the community that are an integral part of the Mexican tradition. “It’s our cultural legacy. We have to ensure that our young people grow up with that cultural identity,” he said. “Yes, they are from the United States but they have Mexican roots.”
Obregon helped to launch “Tardes en el Zocalo” which is held annually in late August at the plaza on 18th and Paulina. In the process he has supported artists such as Sones de Mexico Ensemble and Tarima Son by giving them local exposure.
Chicago Mariachi Project Courtesy: CMP
Obregon now works as the Director of Constituent Services for Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. But his passion for the Pilsen community remains at the center of his work.
Mariachi music is recognized by UNESCO, but for many people it’s just the background music at a Mexican restaurant. It isn’t appreciated in its true form, Obregon said, and the Chicago Mariachi Project seeks to change this. In just two years, the program has expanded to form part of the Chicago Public Schools. It is now an elective course at Benito Juarez Academy. It’s the only school program in the city that offers a mariachi class. Participating students get to meet renowned mariachi musicians and even travel to music conferences across the country.
Obregon’s face lights up when he talks about the Chicago Mariachi Project. It’s the support of the parents and the love of the youth that has helped make this program successful. “I tell these youth, ‘you are the heirs of this great cultural tradition.’ We are passing on something that has no price. When I see these youth play, I see them play with ganas and love. That fills my heart with joy and pride.”
Interview by Luiz Magaña
Photo by Luiz Magaña
Editor’s Note: The author of this piece was an employee of The Resurrection Project at the time of publication.