Alejandro Alvarado raised his clenched fists and bared his teeth through a black and yellow luchador mask. A Little Village native and former construction worker, Alvarado has worked as a guard at the National Museum of Mexican Art for over five years. Slight and soft-spoken, with rectangular glasses and an easy smile, Alvarado loosened up as he tried on the selection of masks in the museum gift shop, mugging for our photographer’s camera. As guard supervisor his responsibilities include monitoring the rotations of the guards and working the reception desk, but he claims that his conversations with visitors are what keep the job interesting.
“The people are the best part. I look through the visitor logs and people come from all over: Alaska, Europe, Australia. People ask us about the art, the neighborhood, where to eat around here. And we get to meet the artists too, up and coming artists from around Chicago.”
Chief Development Officer Erika Carey insists that one of the distinguishing factors of the institution is that guards are encouraged to interact with guests. While this might seem like a pat statement to tell a reporter, the playful, familiar rapport between Carey and Alvarado suggested there might be something to it.
Alvarado led us through the winding rooms of the museum, commenting on the works as we walked and pointing out surprising details. He noted that the intricate tapestry of animals and geometric patterns in The New Awakening by Santos Motoaopohua de la Torre de Santiago is composed of over 2 million beads and that Luis Olay’s precise replica of Diego Rivera’s Nude with Calla Lilies is made entirely of feathers. We stopped in front of one of his favorite works, Mario Castillo’s The Ancient Memories of the Mayahuel’s People Still Breathe. The oversized canvas features overlapping human figures, wild fauna, and stone images of Aztec deities set against a background of bold diagonal lines. Alvarado appreciates the work for its bright palette, dynamic composition, and one odd little fact that the viewer would probably not guess on first sight: Castillo mixed his own semen into the acrylic paint.
“He’s literally putting himself in his art,” Alvarado said, smirking.
“You could say he puts a lot of pleasure into his artwork,” Carey responded.
The two burst into laughter.