The Pilsen neighborhood was undeniably Mexican for the larger part of the 20th century, but it would be difficult to understand the scope of our presence in Chicago just by browsing the archives of the city newspapers.
The news covered the neighborhood crime, county-level politics and eventually the art. But the nuances and small triumphs of the daily life in Chicago barrios like Pilsen were rarely documented. When being “illegal” was still a cause of fear, shame and trauma, it’s clear why our history felt isolated and kept in the shadows. As a matter of fact, that’s where the artists came in. Homegrown painters, photographers, taggers and writers took up the task of saying on behalf of their community, “We were here. We are here.”
Therefore, when I heard that a photo book about Pilsen had been published in Japan, out of all places, it struck me as strange, but not too strange. Maybe a foreign lens was capable of looking past the racist and political commentary of the time. Maybe the photographer, who was an immigrant himself, felt like an equal next to his subjects or at least sympathized with their lifestyle. I wasn’t sure.
So I found him on the internet and we exchanged some e-mails. His name is Akito Tsuda and he captured Mexican Pilsen in the 1990’s.
This interview has been edited for clarity. Please keep in mind that English is not his first language.
Chicago Voz: Tell us about yourself and how you came to Chicago.
I was born and raised in Japan in 1966.
I went to Winnetka, Illinois to work as live-in housekeeper in 1989. My previous employer in Sydney, Australia told me about a job opportunity in their relative’s house in Illinois.
I did not have any intention of visiting the U.S. when I first left Japan, but I ended up living in the Chicago area from 1989 to 1994.
I have been living in Osaka, Japan since leaving the U.S. and I have never had a chance to re-visit Chicago.
What motivated you to take pictures of the Pilsen neighborhood?
I saved money and enrolled in college after arriving to the U.S. I was a sophomore at Columbia College Chicago, going for a Bachelor of Arts in Photography and Social Science, when I made my first visit to Pilsen in 1990.
I didn’t know almost anything about the neighborhood when I first went. I didn’t even know the neighborhood was called Pilsen until making several visits. I was attracted by the presence of people on the street. I remember many people were sitting on their front door or steps and their tolerance and open mind towards my activity. It was the people who motivated me to repeatedly visit Pilsen.
What years did you take the pictures? How many did you take?
I took pictures from 1991 to 1994. I have not counted the number of pictures I have taken. However, I spent as much time as possible in Pilsen except for attending school or work. Visiting Pilsen was more than enough fun for me and I did not need to go any other places. In fact, I know almost nothing about downtown Chicago and nothing about any other American cities.
Do you remember what blocks, streets, or areas of Pilsen you shot your photos?
I covered from Halsted to Western, 16th Street to Cermak. I remember visiting many places: 17th between Racine and Carpenter, May St., Throop, Allport, Loomis, Morgan, Sangamon, Cullerton, Blue Island, Ashland, Paulina, Wood, Damen, Leavitt, Oakley, 18th, 19th, 21st etc… Great experiences at each street.
Do you remember specific places in Pilsen like restaurants, parks, etcetera?
I needed to save money for my photography, and I could not afford visiting restaurants or bars at that time. So I do not know much about the commercial district of Pilsen. My favorites places were the alleys. I liked walking on alleyways in various parts of Pilsen.
How did you explain to residents what you were doing?
I think I asked people to help me with my school assignment. I do not remember explaining the detail of my photography to people. I might have lacked understanding of people’s true feelings. However, I felt many people invited me in with an open mind and accepted my requests of taking their picture.
I wished that I could speak Spanish and better English to share my thoughts with people, but I never felt any difficulty since the younger residents helped me when I needed language support. I assume some people might have wanted to hear a more clear explanation of my photography, though.
Did anyone prohibit you from taking their photo? Any difficulties?
Although I was trying to avoid stereotyping the people in the neighborhood, I cannot deny that I was interested in taking photos of sharp-looking faces, especially in my early visits. I wanted to impress teachers and other students with my boldness. I was immature. My interest was more on ‘making a good photo.’
I was declined on a few occasions when taking a picture spontaneously on the street. But I never had a difficult time. I’ve learned from those experiences and became more conscious about my behavior with the camera.
What was your favorite experience photographing Pilsen?
I did not tell people how to look at the camera. Also, I could not ask because of my low-skilled English and Spanish. But people sensed my interest and cooperated with me. Each encounter made my step lighter and gave me a joy to walk in the street
It was a delightful experience whenever I was allowed to take a picture inside people’s homes. But the most unforgettable experience was the time I spent next to Tom who lived on May St. I enjoyed being with him and I learned how to live well from him.
He was an old man in his 70’s living with dogs. He welcomed me to his place anytime I wanted and it gave me a lot of relief. We did not do anything special, just walked and talked. But those experiences are not just memorable, they have been teaching me the meaning of life.
He is special and his story will follow after releasing my Pilsen book.
How would you describe the people of that time and place?
People’s tolerance helped me a lot. I think people did not care much where I came from. Some people probably thought I was from China which was no problem with me. I did not ask people to introduce me to their family members nor their friends for photographing. However, many people in Pilsen invited me to take a photo inside of their homes.
Thank you for trusting me. Those warm receptions encouraged me to continue walking and taking photos in Pilsen.
What did you do with the pictures?
I got to show about 30 pictures in my school and a few pictures in a magazine on one occasion. That’s it. I preferred to keep these pictures to myself.
However, I decided to share them on Facebook after knowing the possibility of bringing these pictures to the people who stood in front of my camera.
Pilsen is changing. Many of the families you took pictures of are now gone. Some moved on their own and others are leaving because it’s getting expensive. What do you think of that?
This is very sad to hear. People must not be forced out of their living spaces. Those private developers need to understand the importance of having consensus from the local people in Pilsen.
Why did you decide to publish a book?
I almost felt like I achieved my goal by sharing these pictures with the people I found on Facebook, so in the beginning I was not very keen on making a book format. Publishing a book is really time consuming as well as expensive.
I did not need to publish the book to promote myself, but I became more aware of the changing faces of Pilsen and started to think about the importance of archiving the life of Pilsen in the early 90’s in print.
Making the decision to publish was not easy since recovering the costs will be challenging, but hearing positive feedback and the support from people who care about and love Pilsen encouraged me to self-publish the book.
What was the process for picking which pictures to add to the book?
It has been very difficult selecting and editing pictures since all the pictures are meaningful to me. My first idea was to do an 80-page book. But re-reading and considering all those messages I received on Facebook, it became impossible to make the book that size.
So I decided to expand it to 124 pages, about 140 pictures. The book became a large volume, but there are still important pictures that I could not fit in the book.
The positive messages from the audience shaped my editing. For example, I would not have selected Fiesta del Sol pictures since my main interest are pictures taken in private atmospheres. But I kept seeing the words “Fiesta del Sol” in Facebook comments. Ultimately, selecting pictures of Fiesta del Sol gave the book more depth.
What made you choose the title made me better than before?
Just expressing my thoughts about the Pilsen neighborhood. Spending time in Pilsen helped me to grow as a person. The title’s meaning reminds me to live up to Pilsen’s name.
What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
If reading (seeing) this book creates conversation between people and helps to bring an intimacy to Pilsen, that will be meaningful to me. If these pictures become meaningful to people who love and care for the neighborhood, my publication will have been rewarding.
How can we order a book?
The book is available at my website. It will be shipped from Japan securely.
[Update: The book has sold out. More copies will get printed in 2016. Please check his website for updates. Also note that not all pictures featured in this article are included in the book.]
Will you visit Pilsen again?
I would love to visit Pilsen again.
If I can exhibit these pictures at Pilsen (or Chicago), that would be great and I will try that.
Please let us know, I can definitely help you with that. Any final thoughts?
As I have mentioned before, many of these photos should have been shown to the people when they were taken. Some people must have been looking forward to seeing those photos at the time, but I could not meet their expectations. In fact, I made some promises to show photos but I failed to deliver those promises. It was mainly due to my self-consciousness about my work, which made me hesitant to show my photos at the time. Showing these pictures is long overdue and I am thankful to all of you who have been giving me warm responses despite the long absence. Thank you Pilsen!
Article by Jackie Serrato, Editor @hechaenchicago
Photos by Akito Tsuda