Rick Majewski moved to Chicago to study photography at Columbia College in 2008, when digital was edging out film and disruption was the order of the day in journalism. “I wanted to be a photojournalist at the worst possible time,” the 30-year-old says. Despite the gloomy job prospects, Majewski pushed on. He’d been inspired by a road trip he took before moving to Chicago, during which he went to Baja California, with a photographer friend who’d traveled extensively through Mexico. “The farther [south] you got the better it was—the people were cooler, the food was better,” he says. “That started some wheels turning.” He discovered that Mexico had an annual fireworks festival in Tultepec, some 30 miles north of Mexico City, and it became his dream to go there and photograph. While at Columbia, he was working at Starbucks, and a fellow barista told him that if he was looking for a similar party atmosphere with tons of fireworks, he should go to Pilsen.
On the Fourth of July in 2010, Majewski took the Ashland bus to 18th Street. “There appeared to be absolutely nothing going on and I thought, Ah, this sucks.” He walked east and began to hear popping sounds. “I turned a corner and there was a family on the sidewalk grilling, a small swimming pool in the street, and kids shooting off fireworks.” He started taking photographs. “I was welcomed immediately,” he says. As the sun went down, more families came out of their houses and apartment buildings. People started blocking off the streets with garbage cans or vehicles. He’s returned every year since, camera in tow.
With his images of Pilsen on the Fourth, Majewski says he’s attempting to document the extraordinary gusto with which the predominantly Mexican-American community celebrates Independence Day. Of the residents who are immigrants, he says, “they’re very proud of where they came from, and they’re very proud to be in this country.” American flags are hoisted, Mexican food is served up, and amateur fireworks displays erupt on block after block.
When he began the series, Majewski was sensitive to the perception of him as a young white member of the creative class parachuting in to take photos. For the most part, he’s been accepted with open arms by residents, many of whom offer him beer or something to eat off the grill. But last Fourth of July, he was teased for being part of the gentrification that’s now so visible in the neighborhood. “It was all in good fun, although there was some truth to it,” says Majewski, who moved to Pilsen in 2014. Still, over the years he’s developed relationships with his subjects. “I’ve photographed some families for five years, so they know me and I know them, and it’s almost like a tradition. I’ve seen their kids grow up, and they’re always happy to show me their fireworks,” he says. “Even though I’m not family, on the Fourth of July they welcome me in.”
Where will he celebrate the Fourth this year? “I can’t imagine being anywhere else but Pilsen,” he says. “I won’t go to a fireworks show and sit on a picnic blanket. Why would I want to watch fireworks that are so far away when I can get up close and feel them in my chest?” —Ruth Lopez