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Pilsen Artists Seeking To Preserve Neighborhood History By Restoring Street Murals

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Take a stroll around Pilsen and one thing that stands out: vibrant murals on the walls of many buildings.

For neighbors, they're more than just paint. They tell the story of the streets.

As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, CBS 2's Marissa Parra tagged along with one artist on a quest to save his work.

Walking streets of Pilsen is like walking through a time capsule; its murals telling the story of its people, and there's a fight to preserve them

It may sound quiet, but this is an artist's conversation.

"It's like being in a trance, but this is the language," Salvador Vega said.

Art is a universal language for a pocket of Chicago where the English language doesn't always come first

"The arts really represents the people who live here," Diego Morales said.

Up and down 18th Street in Pilsen, the walls tell a story of the neighborhood's identity

"Gentrification, asking for affordable housing," Morales said. "Representations of our indigenous roots."

"Issues regarding Latinidad, national issues, Mexico," he added.

Morales has been a part of the 25th Ward effort to save and restore murals fading away.

For Vega, it's full circle: at 19 years old, he memorialized peace activist David "Boogie" Gonzalez, a reformed Latino gang member later killed in a drive-by shooting in 1973.

"To me it's a gift, to redo it," Vega said. "I was sought out by the sister of 'Boogie.'"

Over 45 years, time has taken its toll on the mural.

Now, with the help of the 25th Ward Arts and Culture Committee, Vega isn't just tracing his brushstrokes, he's making new ones.

"Retell the story that can be said with more impact," he said.

Born and raised in Pilsen, a proud Chicano, Vega said this isn't just his legacy, it's ours.

"This is the gallery, the urban gallery, the outdoor expression," he said. "Out here, it's for everybody. It's no longer mine, it's ours."

The arts and culture committee in the 25th Ward will be restoring other murals, but it doesn't come cheap.

In a statement, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said, "Pilsen's murals reflect who we are and where we come from -- they're very much a pillar of the Mexican-American culture that is Pilsen. But over the decades murals have been painted over and torn down, so that's why we've been intentional about working in partnership with the community to preserve our murals and foster."

The alderman said the ward's arts committee has:

  1. Developed a strategy to preserve murals across 16th Street and parts of 18th Street.
  2. Started planning with CDOT to design bike lanes and improve sidewalks to bring awareness about the beauty of our murals.
  3. Planned restoration of historic murals like the Boogie Gonzalez mural at 18th Street Station and started the process of taking inventory of murals in collaboration with the Chicago Public Art Group
  4. Helped local artists learn about the City's grants
  5. Intervened and prevented younger artists from painting over historic murals by connecting them with local art legends.

If you'd like to help fund the next project, you can donate to the 25th Ward Arts & Culture Fund.

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