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Historic Murals Depicting Neighborhood's Puerto Rican Past to Be Restored

By Kim Bellware | November 29, 2012 2:02pm

HUMBOLDT PARK — When the Latin United Community Housing Association acquired its first two affordable housing properties at Borinquen Bella, the buildings came with bonuses: a pair of historic murals.

But more than 20 years later, LUCHA found it had acquired something else: an unspoken duty to preserve the beloved works of art, called Honor Boricua and Rompiendo Las Cadenas, even as the buildings behind them crumbled.

"The buildings need so much restoring, and that includes a lot of brick work and tuck pointing,” said Zoë Lukens, LUCHA’s development assistant. “The buildings are getting major rehabilitation, but it would essentially destroy the murals on them.”

Like many Chicago neighborhoods, the ethnic, economic and cultural makeup of Humboldt Park has been changing, but the murals remained a visible link to the neighborhood’s Puerto Rican past.

“[The murals] are a reminder, especially when you go into parts of the neighborhood that are totally gentrified, of our people’s fight,” said muralist and Humboldt Park resident John Vergara. “People will drive by and see those murals and at least realize this is a Puetro Rican neighborhood. It’s identity. It’s like when we go to Chinatown, we know we’re in Chinatown.” 

For LUCHA, the residents of the Borinquen Bella (“Borinquen Beauty”) properties, and the Humboldt Park community, losing the murals was unacceptable.

“It’s important those murals are restored,” said Vergara, 39. “They’re important because they have a lot of history in the neighborhood. They mean a lot to the people [here], especially to those who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”

With the rehabilitation project imminent, LUCHA pressed to find a way to save the murals. Lukens applied for a bevy of grants, ultimately securing support from the Illinois Arts Council, The National Endowment for the Arts, the low-income housing tax credit syndicator, the National Equity Fund, and Chicago-based Harris Bank.

Though funding was essential, LUCHA and its allies secured perhaps the most important support of all: help from the original artists. Hector Duarte and John Pitman Weber will oversee and contribute to the restoration of their murals, while at the same time teaching a new generation of Humboldt Park neighbors about their cultural and historical significance.

Facing the northeast corner of Rockwell and Evergreen, Pilsen-based artist Duarte’s Honor Boricua has been faded by the elements since its installation in 1992. Representing the cultural movement and exchanges between two countries, the mural depicts the Puerto Rican flag unfurling from Old San Juan to Chicago.

A few blocks north, on the corner of Rockwell and LeMoyne streets, sits one of the oldest surviving murals in the US, Weber’s Rompiendo Las Cadenas (“Breaking the Chains”). In it, Weber depicts the struggle of Humboldt Park’s Puerto Rican residents, even illustrating the arson epidemic of the ‘70s when the community saw as many as three fires a day. Lukens said the mural was so respected in the community that it has had only one minor graffiti incident since its installation in 1971.

Lukens said during the building rehabilitation, area students will add a temporary mural erected over the construction on plywood boards donated by the building crews. Working with neighboring organization Architreasures, and students from Graffiti Zone, Josephinum Academy, Pedro Albizu Campos High School, and Barreto Boys and Girls Club, Vergara will lead the young Humboldt Park residents in adding their stories to the ones started by Duarte and Weber.

“It’s important for the youth to learn about their culture and their heritage," Vergara said. “Get the youth involved, and they’ll respect their culture more.”