Jose David, the coordinator and caretaker of Casa de Arte y Cultura “Calles y Suenos,” isn’t happy with the way this paper handles the Spanish language. “Why does the Reader not use accents and –? Are they that Anglocentric, those motherfuckers? The fact is, when you put ‘Calles y Suenos’ it means ‘streets and sounds.’ It changes completely. With the – it means ‘streets and dreams.’ I’m gonna start a campaign.” He laughs. “I know how to play with their guilt.”

Actually he has better things to do. As the organizational nucleus of Calles y Suenos–a large and fluctuating group of artists, performers, financial contributors, and volunteers dedicated to filling an “artistic void in the Latino arts community”–David spends most of his time trying to keep the place afloat.

But just try to separate art from politics, and off come the gloves. “We are not just culture,” he says. “Culture is tied to politics. Here in the U.S. they try to separate the two. But we don’t take that shit. We came up with the idea to present an alternative movement within the Latino community because we were not happy with the way the dominant culture folklorized us.”

For years the group has sponsored exhibits, films, readings, and performances in various spaces around town, but two years ago it moved into the first floor and basement of a three-flat in Pilsen. David lives in a small loft behind the exhibition area, which is filled with work donated by artists such as Elizam Escobar, Miguel Cortez, and Rebecca Wolfram. A painting on the wall by Guillermo Jimenez depicts the first Calles y Suenos show, a multimedia exhibit held in an empty lot on 17th Street in 1990. “Six months ago someone offered me $2,000 for that. I needed $500 for the rent, but I said no. I’m always behind on the rent. We don’t sell art. The idea is to raise the cultural level–and not just of Latinos. You don’t have to be Latino to exhibit or perform here as long as your art has quality or says something about contemporary human or world issues.”

David, who was born in 1945 in San Lorenzo, Honduras, a small town on the Pacific coast, says he has been an activist from the time he was a boy. His father, a schoolteacher who was part of a conspiracy to overthrow dictator Tiburcio Carias Andino, died in exile in El Salvador when David was seven. Later he moved to Tegucigalpa and began working with labor unions and the student movement. Because of his political activities, David’s family felt he didn’t stand much of a chance in Honduras after a military coup overthrew Ramon Villeda Morales in 1963. One week later he found himself on a plane to Chicago, where his sister lived. “This was very ironic,” he says. “Three or four days before I came I was in front of the presidential palace with thousands of people, burning the U.S. flag.

I have an anarchistic approach to life. Countries and religions don’t mean anything. I transcended all that shit.”

David found work in a series of jobs in north-side factories, one of which, he found out later, built parts for B-52 bombers. For two decades he also worked for various leftist causes–though he never stuck with one for very long. “People on the left called me a dilettante,” he says.

In the mid-80s he was still working with the Puerto Rican independence movement, but he was becoming disenchanted with what he saw as an impotent, paternalistic, and racist left. “Some of these groups had a very rigid authoritarian discipline, and it was very hard for me,” he says. “I have my commitments and ideals, but I just hate that discipline–whether it came from the right or the left.”

At an exhibition at the now-defunct Axe St. Arena collective in 1985, he fell in love with the work of the jailed Puerto Rican painter and writer Elizam Escobar. Escobar’s ideas about cultural autonomy inspired David, who began curating and producing his own exhibitions and performances. “I always had a passion for the arts, but I was so involved in politics that I didn’t have time. When the so-called socialist countries collapsed I did not want to become an alcoholic or a drug addict or hopeless. It was my response to the question, What do we do now?”

After returning from a trip to Cuba in 1990 David and painter Miguel Jimenez decided they’d had enough of mounting shows at other people’s galleries. The two gathered a group of like-minded friends and took over the abandoned lot on 17th Street. Their first show, “The Other Side of Madness,” incorporated art, performance, music, and talks by victims of torture in El Salvador. They hung paintings on trees and fences. More shows followed, and in the winter they produced multimedia shows at the HotHouse and the Near Northwest Arts Council. By 1995 they’d saved enough money to rent out their own space.

“When we got this place it was a mess,” says David. “Most of the stuff here is found objects. I come from the third world. If you don’t have a hammer–fuck, use your shoe. We do accept help, but it has to be unconditional.” When the group decides to put on a show he gets on the phone and delegates responsibilities–writing a press release, printing a flyer, putting up drywall, raising money. He paints apartments to cover the rent.

David says he rarely has time to perform his own work–elaborate interpretations of the works of poets such as Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca with music, scenery, props, and costumes. On one occasion he performed Neruda’s “Walking Around” with musicians from the punk band Los Crudos. Though he gets around to performing such pieces only two or three times a year, every other Thursday he introduces an older poet to a group of young poets that gathers for an open mike. “They often write about youth violence and gangs and drugs,” he says. “I say you can’t be limited to that. I try to explain to them that their work should not be limited to victimization. You have to see other things.”

David has accumulated a large archive of artwork, photos, flyers, and videos documenting Calles y Suenos’s work, and he’s looking for a more secure institution with the right priorities to preserve it all. “Gentrification is coming, so this place is gonna disappear. In a couple more years this will be $3,000 to rent. Some yuppie will come and open an art gallery. These paintings have to become public patrimony. What about the next generation that is coming? They’ve gotta know what we are doing.”

Casa de Arte y Cultura “Calles y Suenos,” 1900 S. Carpenter, is sponsoring two bands, Raiz Viva and Ram Raf, at 8 PM on Saturday, July 19; a donation is suggested. At 8:30 on Thursday, July 24, poet Sulima Moya will read her work in the space, after which an open mike will be available; a donation is suggested. And paintings by Mario Flores will be on display through Saturday, July 26–noon to 5 Saturdays and Sundays or by appointment. Call 312-243-4243.

–Mike Sula

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jose David photo by Nathan Mandell.