Casa Aztlan

1831 S. Racine Avenue, Chicago, IL 60608

Photo by Grae Rosa, 2008. Copr.
© Photo by Grae Rosa, 2008.

The former Casa Aztlan, now Pilsen Co-Living, was a pillar for the Mexican-American community in Chicago’s Lower West Side. Originally known as the Howell Neighborhood House, this settlement house served 19,000 newly arrived European immigrants from 1905 onward. By 1970, the name was changed to Casa Aztlan as it served primarily Mexican and Latinx families. The new name came from the Aztec (Mexica) origin myth - the Aztec believed that their ancestors migrated from Aztlan to Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico in order to found their capital of Tenochtitlan.

In 1981, Humberto Salinas, executive director of Casa Aztlan, wrote in the Chicago Tribune that by 1971 Casa Aztlan had become the “center of artistic creativity in Chicago'' as it housed and trained local musicians, dancers, actors, and graphic artists to perform or exhibit their work throughout the city. Salinas also wrote that a common theme within the classrooms and hallways of Casa Aztlan was “one culture, one continent,” and that “Mexican heritage is indigenous to North America and part of the common background shared by all on the continent.” 

Casa Aztlan was not only a hub for artistic creation, it also served its community by providing a range of social services such as health and family counseling programs, legal advocacy, and workforce training. Casa Aztlan also held a number of after-school programs for the community’s youth: a silk screening workshop to train students in graphic design and poster printing, ballet folklorico dance and music classes, Kapulli Koakalko workshops which presented exhibits on Aztec culture to Chicago’s diverse communities, Teatropello theater workshop, and an experimental mural workshop that produced over 30 murals in Chicago by the early 1980s. 

Throughout the 1970s, Casa Aztlan faced many financial problems as it relied on third-party fiscal agents to cover most of its expenses. Many of those fiscal problems would come back to haunt the center throughout the 2010s. By 2012, Casa Aztlan was severely underfunded. Developers employed a common tactic they use when they want valuable real estate property: reporting building code violations so they can get building inspectors to cite dilapidated buildings. Casa Aztlan was cited a number of times, further wreaking havoc on Casa Aztlan’s already dismal finances. 

In 2015, a company bought the building and turned the community center into luxury apartments. Gentrification hammered the final nail in Casa Aztlan’s coffin when the developers whitewashed the iconic Caza Aztlan mural. The first iteration of Caza Aztlan's entrance mural had been painted in 1971 by Pilsen muralist Ray Patlan and his disciples. Pilsen muralist Marcos Raya and neighborhood youth repainted and maintained Caza Aztlan's iconic mural after Patlan's mural began to fade. In 2001, Mary Lackritz Gray, author of A Guide to Chicago's Murals, referred to Caza Aztlan's exterior murals as a "neighborhood landmark."

Community residents were outraged by the whitewashing of Caza Aztlan's landmark murals and organized a vigil mourning the loss. After local and nationwide backlash, the developers were forced to restore the mural. Today, Caza Aztlan's iconic mural once again graces the former entrance of the building, but the people who live there are not Casa Aztlan alumni.

This photo by Ted Lacey shows Caza Aztlan's entrance mural as it appeared in the mid-1990s. Photo published in "A Guide to Chicago's Murals" by Mary Lackritz Gray, University of Chicago Press, 2001. 

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