This year’s Chicago Humanities Festival took us on a tour of the complex facets of contemporary citizenship with more than 130 events across the city that culminated in the inaugural “Pilsen Day”. At Sunday night’s closing, the theme of citizenship was explored through a discussion with the author of the graphic novel City of Clowns, Daniel Alarcón. It was followed with live musical performances by Dos Santos: Anti-Beat Orquesta, Sones de México and Sonorama at Thalia Hall.
“I love going places where I don’t belong,” said author Daniel Alarcón to moderator Coya Paz at the National Museum of Mexican Art. “My journalism leads to invented worlds.”
This idea of identity surfaces in his book City of Clowns which tells the tale of a journalist named Oscar Uribe, whose estranged father has just passed away. Uribe, mourning and trying to find out about his father’s death, has been assigned a new project which requires him to delve into the bizarre yet fascinating underground life of Lima, Perú’s street clowns. The author beautifully demonstrates the duality of these masked citizens who are highly visible, while at the same time erased behind the costume that helps them make a living. Uribe also experiences chaos as he has to hide behind a mask in order to investigate the underground world of the performers.
City of Clowns explores Lima’s carnivalesque atmosphere and its portrayal as a city of kioskos where citizens are fed daily doses of political propaganda with limited access to real or valuable information. It highlights the people’s sense of power when the politics begin to shift, while painting the ruthless crime committed by groups of kids known locally as “piranhas”.
Later at Thalia Hall, some of us wondered why Pilsen and its vast community of artists and musicians had not been highlighted before. More questions of citizen equality arose as newcomers to the area, and perhaps to the festival, mocked the traditions of the neighborhood’s music; as one of Sones de México’s artists danced the traditional folkloric art of zapateado, several guests in attendance imitated them with exaggerated foot-stomping, arms raised in flamenco poses while shouting olé, making stereotypical references to Spain and their distorted understanding of Mexican culture. It was beyond disrespectful to Latinos, but laughable to those participants uninterested or unwilling to learn about the city’s deep and diverse traditions.
Despite the ignorance of some visitors, the festival’s performers showcased an array of musical selections that are considered gems among music connoisseurs. Sonorama, a collective of music preservationists who bring vintage Latin music to life, provided a beautiful backdrop of traditional music on vinyl. Sones de México, on the other hand, specializes in Mexican son which includes regional styles like son jarocho, chilenas, huapango and more. The ensemble radiated on stage as it fused all these styles during their live performance.
Ending the night was Dos Santos: Anti-Beat Orquesta who is paving the way in coalescing traditional sounds with a modern take. The remaining attendees danced to their contagious version of psychedelic cumbia and Pan-Latin American rhythms. The band’s assortment of citizens from different parts of the world is felt through their unique, passionate and creative sounds. They brought a sense of peace to the crowd and any nay-sayers were quieted, eventually joining in what we normally do in our neighborhood, dance and revel in each other’s joy of simply being.
That’s one thing this festival was able to accomplish. We’re glad it happened in Pilsen.
Article by Sandra Trevino
Photos by Sandra Trevino