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Local artist aims to ‘Protect Little Village’ with public art that celebrates mask wearing

Silvia Morales’ latest work is a hyperlocal spin on the city’s “Protect Chicago” campaign that aims to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus — she calls it “Protect La Villita.”

Silvia Morales, who created a mural with her students that promotes unity and safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic, poses for a photo in front of the mural at 2500 S. St. Louis Ave. in the Little Village neighborhood.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Silvia Morales detested creating art as a child, and she probably would still feel that way today if not for an art teacher in high school.

“That teacher helped me find that I not only had a passion in something I thought I hated, but she showed me I had a future career in it,” Morales said.

Now, the 20-year-old herself is pursuing a career in art education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is beginning to make a name for herself in Little Village’s public art scene.

Morales’ work largely is commentary on social injustices and the need for unity among Black and Brown people on the Southwest Side. Her first major mural was painted with her own students outside Ald. Mike Rodriguez’s (22nd) office and calls for harmony between Little Village and Lawndale residents.

“The mural is kind of, in a way, a message for accountability to ourselves and the need to build unification beyond the divide we constructed between us over the years,” Morales said. “It came about because of the struggles that came from the summer of civil unrest that we were going through not just locally but nationally.”

Morales’ latest work is a hyperlocal spin on the city’s “Protect Chicago” campaign that aims to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus; she calls it “Protect La Villita.” Her campaign aims to place 250 posters in businesses, on street poles and pasting the image on brick façades.

“I continue to see my community members fall to the struggle of COVID-19 and want to use this as a platform to get people to understand that no one is immune to it,” Morales said. “In our community, we need to be protecting not only ourselves but our neighbors, too.”

Silvia Morales, who created a mural with her students that promotes unity and safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic at 2500 S. St. Louis Ave. in the Little Village neighborhood, stands in front of the mural while holding posters that she displayed around the neighborhood.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Little Village has consistently had one of the city’s highest rate of infection since the start of the pandemic nearly a year ago.

The posters feature bright and “fun colors” with the Old English font that is a staple of the neighborhood. Some also have residents photographed wearing masks.

“I wanted to use the beauty of Little Village to show the beauty in protecting each other,” Morales said. “I am looking at wearing a mask as sort of a celebration for protecting one another. I mean, by wearing a mask it is somewhat of a heroic act that should be celebrated.”

Ald. Rodriguez has supported Morales and her public art because he sees it as a form uplifting his ward.

“Silvia represents the best of our community and our ward. She’s young, aspiring smart and super talented,” Rodriguez said. “Public art is community development and investing and providing opportunities in young leaders like Silvia is investing and giving opportunities to all our community.”

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.

A poster created by Silvia Morales that promotes safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic is displayed on the window of PAWS Chicago Medical Center and Lurie Clinic in the Little Village neighborhood, Friday afternoon.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times