In early May, I went down to Humboldt Park to look for a mural by Hector Duarte that I’d heard about. I did find that one (more on that later), but I also stumbled across this mural at LeMoyne and Rockwell.
It is titled Rompiendo las Cadenas/Breaking the Chains and shows brown, black and white hands breaking the chains of racism, injustice and poverty.
It also depicts a woman reaching out from the window of a burning building…
and smiling children hold up roses, seemingly representing the future once the chains are broken.
I didn’t really know what to make of the mural and filed the photos away. Then, recently, I came across a picture of it in my research — it is thought to be the oldest community mural in the US that exists in its original form!
It turns out that Rompiendo las Cadenas was painted in 1971 by John Pitman Weber and neighborhood residents. Weber co-founded the Chicago Mural Group with William Walker in 1970 and continues to be very active in Chicago public art. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, teaches at Elmhurst College, and is one of the foremost experts on the community mural movement. He literally wrote the book on it.
Humboldt Park has been a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood since the 1950s. In 1966, the Division Street riots were sparked when a Puerto Rican boy was shot by a Chicago police officer. The riots led to the founding of a number of Puerto Rican rights organizations that began working to combat racism and injustice in Humboldt Park. The woman in the burning building seems to be a reference to the arson that was widespread in the neighborhood at that time.
The logo at the top of the mural…
turns out to be the logo of the Latin American Defense Organization (LADO). LADO no longer exists, but I learned that it was active in the 1960s and 1970s working on housing, education and health issues. All of this history was new to me…I feel like an archaeologist unearthing Chicago’s history through its murals!
This piece is now 39 years old and is in remarkably good condition (it’s never been restored). Sadly, the neighborhood is still very much in the grip of racism, injustice and poverty. The kids with the roses seem a long way off.