How Mexican Chicago Remembers Tenochtitlan

This is the second installment of Finding Nowhere, a three-part series from the new Public Books Antiquities section that envisions what the ancient world looks like beyond Greece and Rome. Read series editors Stephanie Wong and Sarah E. Bond’s introduction here.
500 years have passed since the fall of the Aztec capitol. But like that city, Pilsen’s power lies not in its buildings, but in its people.

This past summer, August 13, 2021, marked the five hundredth anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlan. The city was the ancient capital of the Aztec (Mexica) people. Tenochtitlan’s fall in 1521 resulted in the tragic killing or capture of an estimated 40,000 Indigenous civilians; the ongoing occupation of Indigenous territory for the past five hundred years; and the genocide of Mesoamerica’s Indigenous peoples at the hands of the Spanish Empire and the Catholic Church. The cataclysmic event continues to shape the contemporary Mexican nation, the present-day metropolis of Mexico City (built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan), and the rest of the colonial Americas.

Two thousand miles to the north of Mexico City sits Plaza Tenochtitlan, a public plaza in Chicago’s historic Pilsen neighborhood. Originally designed by Mexican architecture students as part of an exchange program between the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) and the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana Azcapotzalco (UAM), the plaza sits on the busy six-corner intersection of West 18th Street, South Blue Island Avenue, and Loomis Street. An obelisk in the plaza is topped with the Escudo Nacional Mexicano (Mexican coat of arms) sculpture, a golden eagle on a prickly pear cactus devouring a rattlesnake.

Today, the plaza serves as the location for many rallies, press conferences, and a farmer’s market. On a daily basis, it also provides a congregating space for people without adequate housing or looking for day jobs. Though named after the ancient capital of the Aztecs, the plaza connects to Mexico—and Mexican Americans—in more than name.

Left: 18th and Blue Island intersection (1912), image via Chicago History Today; right: Plaza Tenochtitlan at the same intersection (2019), image via Google Maps Street View.

My own relationship with the sculpture at the heart of the plaza began to change during my young adult years. In the process, it transformed from a symbol of Mexican imaginary into a representation of community resistance. This was reinforced as I began to participate in Coalition of Immokalee Workers marches in the plaza back in 2006, and, most recently, during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations after police murdered George Floyd in 2020.

In recognition of the five hundredth anniversary of Tenochtitlan’s fall, my friends and I created a map and organized a series of free community events, Chicagotlan: Finding Tenochtitlan in Chicago. We invited Latinx, Indigenous, and Mexican American youth and Chicagoland residents to contemplate and commemorate this catastrophic and world-changing event. Our goal was to facilitate an exploration of Chicago’s cultural and educational resources to gain a better understanding of the history of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec (Mexica) capital’s enduring legacy. We collaborated with the Field Museum so as to view its nonpublic collection of Aztec artifacts from the Tenochtitlan region. And we highlighted that the Newberry Library has an original map of Tenochtitlan based on the eyewitness account of the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés.

We also wanted to explore the ways Chicago and Tenochtitlan continue to speak to each other across space and time. The two cities’ connections include ancient conchero ceremonies (Aztec dance), which are still practiced by Nahui Ollin Huehuecoyotl on a weekly basis in Pilsen’s public parks. The Art Institute of Chicago displays the coronation stone of Moctezuma II, the tlatoani (Aztec emperor) killed during the initial stages of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. One of my tasks was to write a brief description of the plaza. I chose to build and expand on Chicago-based journalist Mauricio Peña’s plaza history overview. I decided to look in the archives and interview local community and international leaders to find answers to the questions I asked myself anytime I was around the eagle obelisk.

Map of Tenochtitlan, printed 1524 in Nuremberg, Germany. Colorized woodcut. Left: Gulf of Mexico (south at the top, part of Cuba on left); right: Tenochtitlan, with west at the top. Image via Wikimedia

When I was a child, my mom would commute from the southwest side of the city to Pilsen so we could attend an after-school parent-child bilingual literary program at Rudy Lozano Chicago Public Library, just across the plaza. A few years later, I remember ditching class with my friends from Whitney Young Magnet High School and carefully navigating the gang boundaries of the neighborhood. We’d stop by the Casa de Pueblo grocery store across the street from the plaza to buy a pop and snacks. I would admire the águila (eagle) atop the obelisk, up close and from afar.

Although I was born in Mexico, I was raised in Chicago after the age of one. The Pilsen plaza helped create a spatial connection between the United States and Mexico. I was reminded of visiting my family in Fresnillo, Zacatecas, as a teenager during the summer or Christmas vacations, especially going to the similar plazas that dot the landscape of many towns and cities in Mexico. In these plazas far from Chicago, we played games, flirted with other teens, and did quintessential teenage mischief during long breaks from school. Adults, meanwhile, sat on benches surrounding the obelisks, which were usually of Mexican heroes or the colonial founders of the town. In my hometown, the 188-year-old obelisk had a Mexican coat of arms atop it. But symbols and places are not static—nor is our relationship with them.

Jardín del Obelisco in Fresnillo, Zacatecas, Mexico (winter 2021). Image by Ismael Cuevas, Jr.

The history and meanings imprinted on the structures of urban spaces are often overlooked and untold. Every day as I walk on sidewalks adorned with the Aztec calendar or bike on la diez y ocho (18th Street) from my apartment to my local panadería or taquería, or on my way to the 18th Street Pink Line train station, I wonder how this beautiful sculpture on a public plaza came to exist. Most people are unaware that the triángulo is called Plaza Tenochtitlan, since the small plaque bearing its name is hidden in the bushes nearby.

The purpose of this essay is to illuminate and attempt to untangle the complex contemporary history behind the construction of the plaza. I don’t seek to condemn or commend the actions of individuals involved with the plaza. Instead, I want to find the missing pieces that will serve to tell a more complete story to future generations. How did the plaza and sculpture come to fruition? What local and national or international events surrounded conceptualization and construction of the plaza? What meaning does the plaza have for its neighbors? Was the streetscape project part of gentrification? Or was it a beautification symbol for an immigrant community? The answers to these questions help us to reconstruct the rich history of the Mexican community in Chicago.

Black and Brown unity action departing from Plaza Tenochtitlan, Pilsen, Chicago (summer 2020). Image by permission of Mateo Zapata

Origin of Plaza Tenochtitlan

A century-old, working-class neighborhood and port of entry for immigrants, Pilsen is also known as la diez y ocho. Between 1996 and 1998, some of Pilsen’s young residents, decked out in Starter jackets and Nikes, celebrated the Chicago Bulls’s second three-peat NBA championship with occasional gunshots aimed at the air. At the same time, Pilsen was at the center of an urban redevelopment project that reignited spirited community debates. As the prospect of gentrification once again made its way into daily conversations of residents, the neighborhood was in the midst of a tax increment financing (TIF) proposal. It included a streetscape proposal inspired by the connection between Mexico City and Chicago that would transform the public infrastructure of the predominantly working-class Mexican American community.

In 1996—in what seems to be a right of passage for some Chicago politicians—the Latino political establishment in Pilsen suffered a loss due to a corruption scandal. The 25th Ward alderman Ambrosio Medrano pleaded guilty to charges of bribery. Upon his resignation, the powerful mayor Richard M. Daley handpicked and appointed Daniel Solis as new alderman of the 25th Ward. In a conversation with me, Solis, who is under federal investigation, admitted that “there was a lot of tension,” and many community organizations and people didn’t “welcome his appointment.”

Perhaps in response to that tension, when the interim aldermanic elections of February 1997 loomed on the horizon, Solis announced plans to add streetscape architecture with iconography of Mexico to the commercial strip of 18th Street. In fact, when he had filed his nominating petitions with the Chicago Board of Elections on December 9, 1996, he told the Chicago Sun-Times that he wanted to turn la diez y ocho into a “street of pride” for Mexican Americans living in Chicago. Solis also told a Tribune reporter at the time that “the same way [nearby] Greektown and Chinatown were done to represent the ethnic heritage that’s here, that’s what is going to happen on 18th Street.” He was referencing the Chinese paifang gateway on Wentworth Avenue and the Greek-inspired façades of restaurants on Halsted Street. During our own conversation, Solis reiterated that he “wanted to build, with the people that [he] worked with, including the [community] organizations, Pilsen as the hub for Mexicano and Mexican American culture in the city of Chicago.”

Now, it is true that Alderman Solis and city officials were vocal supporters of these ideas. But even so, they were not the intellectual authors of the “Mexification” of the street. Instead, it was architecture students from UAM in Mexico City. But you wouldn’t know that if you simply walked to the plaza—the history of its creation remains largely uninscribed in the space.

Even the plaque on the obelisk only acknowledges the sculpture of the Mexican coat of arms sitting atop the obelisk. Missing is the story of how the triangle plot was developed into its current form, and what this story reveals about the plaza’s relationships across time and space.

Was the streetscape project part of gentrification? Or was it a beautification symbol for an immigrant community?

In 1993—four years prior to the donation of the sculpture and construction of the plaza—a group of UAM students, led by their professor, Jorge Legorreta, visited Chicago. While there, they scheduled a meeting with Ellen Baird, then dean at UIC. It was a productive meeting: UAM and UIC agreed to explore ways to work together on faculty and student exchange programs, and they did so for years to come.

UIC kept its promise and applied for a grant. Professor Mark McKinney, Associate Dean Vince Paglione, and undergraduate student Gerardo Cerda were sent to Mexico City to explore the possibility of creating exchange programs with universities in the Mexican capital. After visiting Universidad Nacional Autonóma de Mexico (UNAM), UAM, and other elite universities, the UIC delegation chose to work with Professor Jorge Sanchez from UAM, who they felt was the best match for the Chicago and Mexico City partnership.

McKinney finalized the partnership in 1994 by receiving a $25,000 grant through the U.S.-Mexico Fund for Culture, with the goal of creating a joint study on affordable housing in both cities. The architectural study involved UIC architecture students designing a new building at a public housing complex in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood, which had lost 600 dwelling units during the catastrophic 1985 earthquake. In exchange, the UAM students designed an affordable multi-unit housing building less than a mile away from the Pilsen plaza. This included a green-space entryway, a market, and a community center, inspired by bicultural Mexican and American identity.

The UAM design would later influence the construction of the Alivio Medical Center, along with Casa Morelos and Casa Maravilla, both affordable-housing units built in partnership by the community organization The Resurrection Project and the city of Chicago. The green-space entryway to the neighborhood—of El Paseo, as it is now know—is still under debate. Today, community residents fear that construction of El Paseo will displace neighbors, in a similar fashion to the “606” rail-to-trail that displaced working-class Puerto Rican homeowners—due to increased property taxes and higher housing prices—on the north side of Chicago.

I spoke with Alda María Zizumbo Alamilla, currently a professor at UAM, who was part of the original group of undergraduate architecture students that created the designs for the Pilsen community through the UIC-UAM exchange program. Zizumbo said that, in August 1995, she and the other UAM students presented the renderings and dioramas of affordable housing to residents at the Rudy Lozano Library. The attendees were so enthusiastic about their work that neighbors asked the UAM students to create another proposal: this time, to rehabilitate 18th Street in Pilsen.

The UAM students returned to Mexico, where, harnessing the synergy from the positive feedback received in the community meeting, they began working on beautification recommendations for the main commercial strip in Pilsen, which had been deteriorating over the past century. As 1996 was coming to an end, the students created renderings that included a plaza with a fountain and a flower mosaic inspired by a popular Mexican color palette, bricked onto the 18th and Blue Island intersection.

Left: Original renderings of a proposed Mexican-inspired contemporary water foundation on the triángulo plaza at 18th Street and Blue Island; right: Aerial view of a proposed brick mosaic depicting a flower using a palette of Mexican-influenced colors on the actual street at 18th and Loomis (1996). Image by permission of Alda María Zizumbo Alamilla

Two days after Daniel Solis won the interim aldermanic elections in February 1997, he held a press conference. Solis told reporters that, through the allocation of as much as $4 million from TIF funds and private sources, he would work to fund the construction of the business district (18th Street) over the next two years. Additionally, he would use approximately $521,000 in Empowerment Zone federal funds from the Clinton administration awarded to the city to begin the streetscape project.

Just a few months later, in spring 1997, UAM students continued their observations of the bustling six-corner intersection of 18th Street, Blue Island Avenue, and Loomis Street—what I, as a child, would later know as Plaza Tenochtitlan. The Mexican architecture and design students, now led by Zizumbo, who had recently graduated and been appointed project coordinator, found a “lack of identifiable urban elements such as monuments or fountains of popular or nationalistic character from Mexican architecture.”

UAM students wanted to capture the spirit of Mexican influence found on the storefronts that lined the commercial corridor. Zizumbo remembers that they also wanted to ensure that their renderings would “provide the physical design of public spaces so that the Mexican community would feel rooted to their customs in order to feel more at home.” A spatial connection between Chicago and Mexico was always the guiding force.

By the end of June 1997, UAM students returned to Pilsen and presented their updated designs to a packed house of over 80 local residents and businesses at the Rudy Lozano Library. Instead of a fountain on the plaza, students proposed a tower decorated with indigenous motifs. They also added trees and native plants to the nearby, industrial Cermak Road and Canal Street. Zizumbo recalls that in the course of that year, she was offered a job at Chicago City Hall working with the Department of Buildings and Department of Planning on Development (DPD) as the person who would turn the student proposal into a reality. DPD officials awarded the contract to update the student designs of the plaza and meet city code to Alphonse Guajardo and Associates. Guajardo, born in Mexico and raised in South Chicago, was a regular campaign contributor to Alderman Solis and was appointed by Mayor Daley to the Community Development Commission to design many public buildings throughout the city. Solis told me that Zepeda Construction Services Inc., one of the largest Latino-owned contractors, was in charge of the construction of Plaza Tenochtitlan.

Simultaneously, Pilsen residents began to organize against the TIF proposal spearheaded by Solis, whose funding was set to finance the new plaza—which was later stripped from the TIF district map. Chicago government officials were working on a proposition to designate the Pilsen industrial and commercial corridor as a TIF district, in order for the neighborhood to be redeveloped. Historically, when redevelopment happens, property values go up; consequently, property taxes go up, too. Revenue streams from property taxes are then used to update public infrastructure and subsidize further development in the district.

Short, hand-drawn animation video about tax increment financing and gentrification in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. The program was created by teens from Casa Aztlan in collaboration with CAN TV in April 1994. Image by permission of CAN TV

Carlos Arango, who was executive director of Casa Aztlan at the time, spoke to me over coffee. The “problem was not the beautification streetscape project,” he explained, “rather, the amount of people that would be displaced,” given the rise in property taxes.

And so, throughout 1997 and 1998, Pilsen community organizers like Teresa Fraga, president of the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council, became concerned about “saving homes and community.” They rallied hundreds of neighbors to demand a moratorium on the TIF district launched by Solis and Daley at City Hall. There were months of protest and even a delay in implementation, due to a court order citing lack of Spanish translation at community meetings. And yet, despite this community opposition, Solis voted to approve the Pilsen TIF. The plan was passed in the Chicago City Council in June 1998, and the consequences are still unfolding today.


Gifting the Escudo Nacional Mexicano

In October 2021, Chicago and Mexico City celebrated 30 years as Sister Cities. A plaque on the obelisk notes that the eagle sculpture, Escudo Nacional Mexicano, was donated in May 1997 by Mexico City mayor Oscar Espinosa Villareal via the Sister City Committee. Over a Zoom call, Espinosa retold to me the story of how the águila sculpture atop the obelisk ended up in Pilsen.

First, in 1991, the Sister Cities agreement was signed at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange by Mexico City’s mayor at the time, Manuel Camacho Solis, and Mayor Daley, as a way to promote tourism and business between the two cities. Just a few years later, Espinosa said, the “sisterhood” between both cities had a “very significant meaning” for his administration due to the important role of the Mexican community in Chicago. In fact, in 1997—according to ¡Exito!, a major Spanish-language newspaper in Chicago—of Illinois’s 1,182,964 Latinos, approximately 70 percent were of Mexican descent.

This was why, when he got on the phone with Daley, Espinosa told him that the Sister City agreement “should not be an empty accord.” It took some convincing; at that time, Espinosa reminded me, Daley was one of the most influential mayors in the United States. And yet, when Espinosa invited him to visit Mexico City, he agreed to come. But he did so under one condition: that “all social activities are on the sidelines, and instead we focus on the daily functions of the city.” According to Espinosa, Daley told him that he “could not believe how Mexico City, with a population of eight million, functions on a daily basis.” And so Espinosa fulfilled Daley’s wishes and took him a chambear (to work).

Daley’s visit to el Distrito Federal included various field tours. They observed the deep tunnel water management network, an extension of the subway system, one of the largest wholesale markets in the world, and an aqueduct being built through a mountain. Espinosa remembers that Daley had a “special curiosity” about how the waste management system worked. They also visited a landfill where garbage-dump dwellers sorted and sold recycled material for a living.

Toward the end of the visit, Espinosa and Daley were driving in the Cuauhtémoc Borough. At Daley’s request, they made an unscheduled stop in front of Borough Hall. As they walked across the esplanade, Espinosa recalled, a Mexican eagle sculpture caught Daley’s eye.

Escudo Nacional Mexicano, sculpture by Carlos Espino outside Cuauhtémoc Borough Hall in Mexico City that Mayor Richard M. Daley requested (November 2021). Image by permission of Mauricio Adair Chávez Reyes

After the trip, Daley wanted to return the favor, so he invited Espinosa to visit Chicago. Espinosa’s administration, as the former mayor writes in his blog, wanted to donate something “that would be appreciated and placed in a visible place and loved by the public.” Daley responded to Espinosa “almost without thinking,” telling him that “perhaps it was an excess, but that he wanted to request the Escudo Nacional Mexicano, similar to one that I had shown him in front of a Mexico City government building.” Espinosa writes that Daley promised to build a pedestal for the sculpture and requested the eagle because “he wanted to place it in the heart of the area where the largest number of inhabitants of Mexican origin lived, a community that, incidentally, represented one of his greatest [electoral] supporters.” Espinosa immediately ordered a replica of the eagle sculpture and had it sent to Chicago.

Carlos Espino sculpting the Escudo Nacional Mexicano (year unknown). Image by permission of Adriana Espino del Castillo Rodríguez

Curiously, nowhere in the plaza or on the obelisk is there any acknowledgment of who made the sculpture. But, at my request, Espinosa was able to track down members of his mayoral administration, who reminded him that the creator of the águila was actually Carlos Espino, a renowned Mexican sculptor with public art displayed across dozens of Mexican cities. With the help of my friend Paul Fitzgerald, I verified the authenticity of this claim by flying a drone thirty feet in the air over the obelisk looking for the artist signature on the eagle. There it was: Carlos Espino, Mexico, 1993.

Drone aerial view of the Escudo Nacional Mexicano (bottom center) looking northeast along Blue Island Avenue towards downtown Chicago. (January 2022) Image by permission of Paul Fitzgerald.

Espino has since passed away, but I was able to find and speak to his daughter, Adriana Espino del Castillo Rodríguez, via voice messages on Instagram. Neither his family, nor Carlos himself, had any idea that the Escudo Nacional was in Chicago. Adriana told me that they lost track of the sculpture after it was purchased for Mexitlán, a failed theme park in Tijuana, Mexico, that was later dismantled. The eagle sculpture on 18th Street is actually part one of a four sculpture series. The others are in the Cuauhtémoc Borough Hall, Veracruz State Congress, and UNAM Law School.

When my parents migrated to Chicago, they left siblings behind in Mexico. So too, it seems, did the Mexican eagle leave its own siblings south of the border.

More than a year later, Espinosa was no longer the mayor of Mexico City but was part of President Ernesto Zedillo’s cabinet as the secretary of tourism. Daley invited him, in his new role, to do an official unveiling of the plaza and the eagle sculpture on December 11, 1998. Espinosa remembers that “few ceremonies have been as emotional for me as that. Almost to the point of tears, we shared that sensation with the hundreds who attended, feeling as if we were in Mexico, with the intensity that Mexicans feel when they see the eagle devouring the snake in that American city.”

Guillermo Gomez, founder of local community organization Pilsen Alliance, was also present at the inauguration of the plaza. He told me in a phone interview that a Pilsen-wide contest was held for children in fourth through eighth grades to propose names for the plaza. It was his daughter, Adriana Gomez, who proposed to name the triángulo Plaza Tenochtitlan.

Adriana’s essay reflected on unexpected similarities between ancient and modern Mexico. It noted how the ancient Azteca fulfilled their prophecies of exile: they found an eagle perched atop a cactus and, consequently, founded their permanent capital—Tenochtitlan—on the spot. Adriana noted the similarities of these ancient Mexica to contemporary Mexican migrants moving to Chicago and settling specifically in Pilsen, which has been considered a point of entry for many early migrants and the current Mexican community. Former alderman Solis remembers that Adriana’s essay made a geographical connection between the ancient capital of Tenochtitlan and Pilsen by highlighting that “Blue Island pointed to downtown, which exemplified the immigration of Mexicans coming northeast into Chicago.”

Less than two decades later, what community activists had feared came true: the displacement of Latino families. Pilsen, according to a UIC study in 2016, had lost over 10,300 Latinos to gentrification. More than 90 multifamily buildings were demolished in the community.

Guillermo Gomez considers that his daughter’s naming of Plaza Tenochtitlan gives voice to the “community struggle [that] provided a counternarrative to the displacement that was happening in Pilsen” at the time and is still happening today. In a ceremony with current Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot that broke ground for an affordable housing project a few blocks away from the plaza, Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez said his strategy is “development without displacement.”

“Pilsen is a community where [Mexicanos] feel [they] had a big role in building,” Mrs. Fraga, the community organizer, told me. And the eagle sculpture on 18th Street serves as reminder of “poniendo nuestro sello [leaving our mark]”—even if “we move out of Pilsen or out of this world, the eagle will still be there.” Adriana, the sculptor’s daughter believes that if her father was still alive, it would “fill his soul … and make him very happy” to know that the first eagle he created is part of the Mexican identity in the US.

Five hundred years after the fall of Tenochtitlan, its story remains inscribed in the physical structures of cities across Mexico and the United States and in the imaginary of the Mexican diaspora. As the Pilsen neighborhood continues to evolve, residents and local leaders will be tasked with preserving its monuments, murals, and, most important, people. Acknowledging all the people besides elected officials who made this plaza a reality, as Guillermo Gomez suggests, can be an important first step.

Given that the Pilsen alderman and residents successfully lobbied the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards to delay a vote for a year to give the community time to consider the effects of landmarking a broader section of the Pilsen neighborhood, designating Plaza Tenochtitlan as a Chicago Landmark or including it in the National Register of Historic Places will cement the legacy of Mexicans and Mexican Americans and their contributions, not just to Chicago but to the country as well. If the iconic Mexican-inspired arch in the Little Village neighborhood two miles west of the obelisk has finally gained landmark status in the Chicago City Council, then Plaza Tenochtitlan should undoubtedly be recognized.

The capital of Tenochtitlan influenced multiple generations, both in Mexico and far beyond. So, too, will Pilsen—with a quaint but wonderful monument to that ancient, distant city—continue to be the epicenter and influence of Latino and Mexican American culture and art for the Midwest. But, like Tenochtitlan, Pilsen’s power lies not in its buildings, but in its people.


This article was commissioned by Stephanie Wong and Sarah E. Bond. icon

Featured image: Eagle seal in Pilsen, photograph by David Hilowitz / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)