By Kari Lydersen

In politically charged Pilsen, a fiesta is never just a fiesta. This weekend’s Fiesta del Sol has grown from a corner party at Blue Island and 18th Street 27 years ago to a huge neighborhood bash with corporate sponsors and political undercurrents. In the mid-80s Danny Solis was executive director of the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council, and he ran the fiesta. Today he’s the 25th Ward alderman, and many Pilsen activists and Pilsen Neighbors leaders say he’s trying to kill the fiesta.

Solis (who failed to return repeated calls for this story) had a bitter break with Pilsen Neighbors in the late 80s, leaving it to become director of the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), which Pilsen Neighbors had organized under his leadership. In Pilsen’s ongoing battles over gentrification and development, UNO and Solis are allied with prodevelopment forces and Mayor Daley while Pilsen Neighbors has cast itself as antigentrification and antimachine. In particular, the two sides are polarized by Pilsen’s tax increment financing district, with Solis supporting it while Pilsen Neighbors plaster the neighborhood with flyers that say, “Pilsen Si, TIF No.”

Fiesta del Sol is Pilsen Neighbors’s most visible community activity and main moneymaker–planning starts over the winter and by June consumes almost all the staff’s time. During the past few years, say Pilsen Neighbors leaders, Solis has tried to undermine the fiesta and deprive the community group of the financial and community support it attracts.

In late June Pilsen residents were still wondering where this year’s fiesta would be held, or if there’d be one at all. Last year construction of a Mexican-themed plaza at Blue Island and 18th forced the fiesta to move from its usual location to Cermak Road between Throop and Morgan. This was a clearly inferior location, planners say, offering less visibility and less access to 18th Street businesses, and marred by debris from nearby construction and industry.

“It was not the same on Cermak,” says Oscar Iracheta, owner of Laredo Auto Parts on 18th Street, who campaigned to go back to Blue Island. “There was a lot of dirt and dust blowing while we were serving food and open drinks. It was very unhygienic.”

“It was dead over there [on Cermak],” says Rey Lopez Calderon, business director of Pilsen Neighbors. “One of the main selling points is usually that it’s on the main strip.”

Pilsen Neighbors leaders have suspected that construction of the plaza last year was timed to kick the fiesta off Blue Island. Early this year Solis–who as alderman gets to approve the site–told those leaders they couldn’t go back there; he said the neighborhood’s business owners and residents didn’t want it.

“That’s a blatant lie,” says Iracheta, who’s president of the 18th Street Business Association. “He said most of the businesspeople are opposed. I only know of two who are. We have the signatures of over 95 percent of the business owners, who want the fiesta on Blue Island. He knows the fiesta is a fund-raiser for Pilsen Neighbors so he wants to do all he can to eliminate the fiesta.”

“There are a couple business owners who don’t support it but they don’t live in the neighborhood,” says Lopez Calderon, mentioning two groceries that would be harder to reach during the fiesta. “They’re not part of the Mexican community–they make a killing off the neighborhood but when it comes time to support it they’re not there.”

Because Solis had made it clear that he wouldn’t allow the festival on Blue Island, says fiesta coordinator Jose Aviña, Pilsen Neighbors expected to return to Cermak. In mid-March, however, the Mayor’s Office of Special Events told Pilsen Neighbors that Cermak was out–the Illinois Department of Transportation had judged the site too close to the ongoing reconstruction of the Stevenson Expressway. Special Events suggested Harrison Park and the adjacent strip of 18th Street between Ashland and Damen.

“Every department told us it would be just fine there–the mayor’s office, IDOT, the police,” says Aviña. “We were already advertising it there and getting ready. We would have been happy with that site.”

On April 23 the bottom fell out of the Harrison Park proposal. City Hall and the Park District withdrew their support after the local park council decided it was worried that the fiesta would ruin the grass.

“They came up with this reasoning that it would be detrimental to the sod,” says Lopez Calderon. “I was originally a physicist and I don’t understand scientifically what they were saying. To me it just sounds like they’re stalling. That looks political to me.”

Pilsen Neighbors members suggest Solis was behind the park council’s opposition; Aviña says he can’t blame Solis directly, but adds, “You know how those things work.” Aviña and other Pilsen Neighbors leaders say Solis has been uncommunicative and uncooperative throughout the permit process.

Pilsen Neighbors brought a delegation to Solis’s June 16 “ward night” to ask for the 18th and Blue Island site. But the ward night had been canceled and the office was dark and locked. “After he failed to return our phone calls, failed to return our faxes, missed appointments with us, and avoided us, we started just dealing with the mayor’s office,” says Aviña. Eventually, he adds, Solis proposed 21st Street and Carpenter, a site Pilsen Neighbors wouldn’t consider.

“That little corner he wanted to throw us in was absolutely horrible,” says Aviña. “It’s not well lit. There are security concerns. It’s gang infested. There are broken sidewalks and broken glass on the street. People wouldn’t want to attend there–vendors have said they wouldn’t go there. The fact that he was so firm on having it there tells you something. He doesn’t want us having this festival.”

When spring turned to summer Pilsen Neighbors still had no permit for any site, and by now they were well inside the 45-day advance-notice period that the city normally requires. Margaret Jones DeNard of Special Events, which issues permits to community groups planning festivals and provides them with technical support, says she has no idea what was going on behind the scenes.

“I certainly wouldn’t know about the political side of it,” she says. “From what I understood we were just looking at traffic issues. We didn’t know if the construction on the Stevenson would cause traffic problems on Cermak, but from thinking about it over the past few months we realized it wouldn’t. I thought everyone would be happy with the Cermak location.”

City Hall and IDOT did some surveying, and on June 28 DeNard’s office finally issued a permit allowing the fiesta to set up again on Cermak Road. By no means is everyone happy. Pilsen Neighbors has been circulating petitions asking Solis and the city to return Fiesta del Sol to Blue Island next year. They say they’ve collected almost 3,000 signatures.

On June 9, when there was still a glimmer of hope that this year’s festival could return to 18th Street and Blue Island, Pilsen Neighbors staged a rally there complete with free T-shirts, banners, and a mariachi band.

“We support having the fiesta here,” said McDonald’s community rep Sandra Ruiz, holding a Fiesta del Sol banner. “We should bring it back here to its roots. After building this plaza it would be crazy not to have it here.” But the mariachi band was soon competing with the shouts of three vocal opponents of the fiesta. Lucy Gutierrez, her daughter Judy Villarreal, and Judy’s husband Paulino Villarreal, all lifelong local residents, declared themselves “held hostage” by the fiesta and afraid to leave their homes. They live near 18th and Laflin; an honorary street sign a block away at 18th and Bishop salutes Lucy’s late husband Raymond, who spent a career as a boss in Streets and Sanitation.

“At fiesta we have men like this,” Judy Villarreal said, pointing to a red-faced man in a Bulls T-shirt.

“They’re always talking, urinating, causing trouble. For four long nights we are held hostage to this nightmare of prostitution, gangbanging, drugs. And in all their long years, Pilsen Neighbors has never given anything back to the community. They just make money off Fiesta del Sol.”

“With fiesta there’s always trouble,” added Paulino Villarreal, who asked that his quotes be attributed to his son Paulino Jr., who “sent me to speak for him.” He said, “Gangbangers come from all over pimping with their hats on and harassing innocent bystanders. People come back from fiesta all happy and then find out that their house is burglarized. Then police from other communities are brought in and they start pushing people around.”

Police harassment is a common complaint at Fiesta del Sol, and last year some Pilsen residents organized a “cop watch”: they informally monitored the police who patrolled the fiesta. No significant trouble was reported by either the cops or the cop watchers. Pilsen Neighbors argues that the hooliganism the Villarreals objected to is a permanent problem in Pilsen, not one stirred up by Fiesta del Sol.

“The urinating and drinking has nothing to do with fiesta,” says resident Cesar Garza, who dislikes the Cermak location because “dust blows in your tacos.” He says, “Cars go by with boom boxes and gangbangers take over the street all year. If we’re going to complain about that let’s get Solis and the mayor to do something about it. But don’t take away from our tradition of fiesta.”

Pilsen Neighbors organizers say Gutierrez and the Villarreals are of a family with a long political history, one with favors to repay. “We know these people and they know us,” says Aviña. “We know why they’re here. They were put up to it by Danny Solis.”

Judy Villarreal scoffs. “No one tells me what to say,” she says. “I speak for myself. I don’t need anyone to pull my strings. I speak from my heart when I say, ‘No Fiesta del Sol.'”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.