From Immigration To Gentrification, New Pilsen Documentary Spotlights Neighborhood's Deep Activist Resolve

By Stephen Gossett in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 19, 2017 2:35PM

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WTTW / 'My Neighborhood: Pilsen'

Everything converges in Pilsen. In an ambitious new documentary project produced by WTTW about the neighborhood, the historically Latino enclave is a petri dish for a whole constellation of issues: immigration, affordable housing, changing community dynamics, land use, access to health care, DIY arts culture, you name it. But the hour-long film—which is called My Neighborhood: Pilsen and has a premiere screening on Thursday ahead of its public-television debut next week—plays like a celebration of the community’s grassroots activism and wellspring of human spirit more than catalog of roundtable-ready topics.

The doc captures the neighborhood—and by extension, a broader political context—in its extended moment of transition, telling the story through the lens of primarily five Pilsen residents. Collectively, they chart multiple generations of Latino advocacy. There’s Alma Silva, a tireless community organizer at St. Pius V parish, who guides local mothers even as she’s saddled with anxiety for her DACA-recipient children. There’s Raul Hernandez, co-founder of the iconic Resurrection Project, which helps develop affordable housing units for low-income people. There’s a young graduate of the Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy who actually never uses the “g” word but is hyper-aware of the gentrification signifiers that surround him. (“They’re vintage shops, not thrift shops anymore,” he deadpans knowingly.)

“We wanted to spotlight the work of homegrown institutions and networks of empowerment,” says Producer and Co-Writer Dan Andries.

The documentary gives us a peek into the relentless mobilization of community pillars like Mujeres Latinas En Accion, the oldest Latina-serving not-for-profit social service group in the country, and Alivio Medical Center—“a place where,” as Andries tells Chicagoist, “you can walk in, speak Spanish, not have papers, not have insurance and get help.”

The documentary, which was filmed between August and mid-November last year, shows a particularly soft-touch deftness with how it approaches redevelopment in the neighborhood and the anti-immigration fears that soon become sadly realized by the election results. A tour inside the property of what once housed the beloved Yollocalli Arts Reach and is now a Giordano’s pizzeria bears all the bemused gallows humor it should; and the “incredible, very real scene” of a mother explaining the bitter realities of then-candidate Trump’s immigration policies is as potent as Andries warns me it is.

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WTTW / 'My Neighborhood: Pilsen'

But the film goes beyond the traditional screen approach as well, encompassing a “three-tiered initiative” that will include a host of supplemental digital content, soon to be available here and community outreach. “The goal of the larger framework is to initiate useful conversations across the city about community empowerment. We want to help generate engagement with solving the challenges that are inside different places in the city,” Andries said.

That self-empowered streak comes through in the film’s form, too. “There’s no host, no narrator. All the voices in the documentary are the voices in the community,” Andries points out, underlining the filmmakers’ attempt to not unduly impose their own narrative. Producers included alternating English and Spanish subtitles, also, so speakers of either language can follow regardless of which is being used at a given moment onscreen.

Not that such a thing could hold any of the film’s subjects back anyway. As one Alivio coordinator puts it in the film, “We’re not at the mercy of anyone. People know that we’re all in this struggle together."

Andries said he hopes to be able to produce similar neighborhood focuses for communities like Englewood, Chatham or Back of the Yards in the future with his team, which here includes veteran Chicago journalist Jackie Serrato as Assistant Producer and WTTW colleague Liz Reeves as Co-Writer and Associate Producer. “We’ll see how this one goes.”

You can see for yourself when My Neighborhood: Pilsen debuts on Thursday, at Benito Juarez Community Academy (1450 W. Cermak Rd.) at 5:30 p.m. A panel discussion will follow. (RSVP here.) The film airs in Chicago on WTTW11 on Thursday, April 27 at 7 p.m. It will also be available to stream on the network’s digital platforms. The documentary airs on Univision (WGBO 66) on Sunday, April 30 at 10:00 am.

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WTTW / 'My Neighborhood: Pilsen'