Thanks to COVID and gentrification, Diana Solís captures the resilience of Pilsen


This story was originally published by Borderless Magazine. Sign up for their weekly newsletter to learn more about Midwestern immigrant communities.

PILSEN — During the coronavirus pandemic, longtime Pilsen resident Diana Solís began taking long, early morning walks around her neighborhood. As she took photos of the people and places in her community, she reflected on how her neighborhood on Chicago’s Lower West Side has resisted change, not only through the pandemic shutdowns, but also the effects of the violence and gentrification over the decades.

Now, Solís, a Mexican-born queer visual artist, photographer and educator, is publishing a book reflecting the resilience and complexity of Pilsen through images made of people and places during the pandemic. The limited-edition book, “Luz: Seeing the Space Between Us,” is slated for release in early September in English and Spanish. She is currently trying to raise $3,000 to cover additional publishing costs due to supply issues.

“It’s kind of a love letter to the community and a love letter to the practice of photography,” said Solís, who worked as a documentary photographer from the 1970s to the early 1990s for newspapers in neighborhood, publications in Spanish and as a freelancer for the ChicagoTribune.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Diana Solis
Diana Solis in Chicago in 1981.

It’s a return to photography for Solis, 66, who has spent the past two decades focusing on illustration and painting as well as her ongoing work as an educator. She has organized and taught several illustrations and photography, including workshops for mothers and daughters through Mujeres Latinas en Acción. Currently, she is working on a project on kinship and chosen family in the LGBTQ+ and Latinx communities.

Borderless spoke with Solís about his connection to Pilsen and his return to photography after more than 20 years.

In high school, I was anti-war. We wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, and we were really involved. Latino students, not all of us, but many of us, were more radical. We also had alliances with black students. So when I went to the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1973, I immediately joined political groups. It was part of my training, my interest in social justice issues. I have always been interested in doing work through my photography and artwork that somehow benefited the community.

There was a lot of intersectionality. We’ve had immigration issues, we still have, we’ve had housing issues, we still have, we’ve fought gentrification, Plan 21, we still have, environmental pollution, we we always have. Just back here you can see the tower of the old power station. I have been battling cancer on and off for over 30 years and am currently battling lymphoma. Many people in the neighborhood suffer from asthma or cancer. There were a lot of grassroots organizations and I grew up in that atmosphere.

Credit: Photo by Diana Solis
Delilah Salgado, muralist and teaching artist, in Chicago in 2022.

Fast forward to pre-pandemic and pandemic, to 2019 and 2020. I started walking a lot, even though we were told “don’t go out”. I was walking around six in the morning or seven in the morning so didn’t really run into too many people. If I did, we would cross the street because it was so scary to be outside. I took my cell phone and started taking pictures with it. In these walks, I saw the neighborhood like I had never really seen it, because I really slowed down. Once I started going out and shooting, I couldn’t stop.

I first started photographing buildings and locations and noticed fewer and fewer panaderias (Mexican bakeries) and grocery stores – everything was closing, shutting down or being taken over. I wanted to highlight people from different generations. I really wanted to attract people who had lived here a long time or had some connection to Pilsen. Some of them no longer lived here. Others have never lived here but have come here for different things such as cultural arts, not just food. Everyone in the book has a connection to Pilsen in some way.

Credit: Photo by Diana Solis
Panaderia Del Refugio closed on 18th Street in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago in 2022.

In the first spring of the pandemic, people were starting to go out and do things, but they were cautious. We all were. I was fascinated by the closeness I had to achieve, even though we were going through a pandemic. Often people talk about the photographer’s gaze – I was interested in their gaze on me and this communication that we have. It’s like talking a little, getting to know them. We both feel comfortable. They’re like, “What would you like me to do?” And I ask people, “Think about how you would like to be seen, not how I would like to see you or how someone else would.”

For me, photography is knowing that when you’re doing this kind of work, it’s impossible for you to feel like you’re doing everything on your own, because without the people you work with or collaborate with , you wouldn’t be able to do what you’re doing. My work has always been done in communion with others. I prefer to work with them as collaborators rather than with my subjects. I feel like they feel they get a lot more out of it. I want them to feel like they have control over the type of work I do with them, rather than setting them down in a certain way.

Credit: Photo by Diana Solis
Piloto Nieves Ruiz, sculptor and artist, in Chicago in 2020.

The very idea of ​​seeing “the space between us” is to literally see the communication between two people. Or you could also say, see the landscape, see the building, but it’s mostly about people. There’s a lot of silent communication, if you want to call it that, between me and the person I’m photographing. Once we get really comfortable it becomes so much fun and we don’t have to talk anymore.

i arrived here [to Chicago] when I was eight months old. My father was here. He went ahead. He worked for Rock Island Railroad. And then he brought my mom and me from Mexico. We moved to Pilsen in the early 60s. I moved here to this apartment in 2006. I have wanted to live in this block since I was a child.

Credit: Photo by Diana Solis
Gregorio Gomez, Mexicano/Chicano writer and poet in Chicago in 2020.

For me, being a resident of Pilsen means embracing the community, the good and the bad. You have to say it that way. You know, this neighborhood was very different from where I grew up. I think it was a really tough place to live. When I was a kid, there was a bar on every corner. I’m not lying, there was a lot of violence. There is still violence all around us.

But we still found time to be kids. We played in Dvorak Park, we learned to swim, we went to the lodge, there were camping trips, there were all kinds of things. When you’re a kid, you try to have a good time. We also saw hard things. There were a lot of shootings, there was a lot of gang activity, a lot of housing issues.

Credit: Photo by Diana Solis
John O’Malley and the Patricia Macias-Rojas family in Chicago in 2020.

I think what I love most about Pilsen is that there’s a lot of this history of people being very resilient and also fighting for justice. This happened before this neighborhood even became predominantly Mexican, with the other groups that lived here before, the immigrant groups.

The Czech Bohemians, and even the Irish who were actually the first. All these people were fighting for better living conditions. Eastern Europeans, they had a lot of people who were involved in socialist organizations. Pilsen is therefore a unique district. And even though it’s been super gentrified now, it’s still a very strong community.

I live right next to the Senior Center. I thought I might end up there, because I grew up there and I need to find a place to live. I won’t be able to climb stairs, probably in eight years – my knees hurt already, you know? So, I don’t know if I will live here. It used to be a low-rent apartment, but not anymore. And there are no amenities here. They don’t fix anything. They just raise the rent, like a lot. So how much longer can I, with the money I earn, afford to live in this community?

That’s what saddens me, that maybe I’m one of those people who has to move, but that changes, right? And gentrification is everywhere. So what I love about Pilsen is the history, the people I grew up with, I feel like it’s really home. I lived in other countries and I lived in other places, and I liked them but I always came back here.

Credit: Photo by Diana Solis
Mike at Angel’s Tire Shop in Chicago in 2020.

Gentrification has significantly altered the visual landscape of the community. I think one of the things that struck me the most was the disappearance of Mexican bakeries. It really shocked me to see that there are hardly any left. I never liked pan dulce even when I was growing up, but I loved the smell of it and would go there buying it for my family or other people.

I want people to see their neighbors in my book. I want them to see themselves a bit in this book. I want them to know these people and their stories. I want people to know that we want to present ourselves with dignity.

I’m just happy to be alive because I’ve had a lot of contact with cancer. I am happy to do the work that I do. For the first time in my life, I’m doing what I really love doing and doing it almost full time. This almost never happens!

Diana Solís still needs $3,000 to get the book printed, due to rising costs due to supply issues. You can donate to help Solís publish his book via Zelle on
[email protected]Venmo @Diana-Solis-47 or contact her at [email protected] to send a donation check. His Page 3Arts describes what your donation will bring you.


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