New Little Village sculpture celebrates arriving immigrants: ‘We underestimate how courageous people are’

The work by Chicago-based artist Salvador Jiménez-Flores was made after Flores won the Chicago Sculpture Exhibit’s Richard Hunt Award. It’s one of 42 the exhibit is installing this month.

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Salvador Jiménez-Flores, who created “Caminantes,” a nine-foot sculpture that commemorates migrants and their migration journey through the symbolism of feet and cacti, stands beside his sculpture at Manuel Perez Jr. Plaza in the Little Village neighborhood, Friday, May 19, 2023.

Salvador Jiménez-Flores, who created “Caminantes,” a 9-foot sculpture that commemorates migrants and their migration journey through the symbolism of feet and cacti, stands beside his sculpture at Manuel Perez Jr. Plaza in the Little Village neighborhood, Friday, May 19, 2023.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A wayfaring sculpture, 9-feet tall with shining bronze feet that give way to a nopal-green, cactus-shaped body, landed in Little Village on Friday.

The piece, named “Caminantes” (Spanish for “wayfarers”), is by Chicago-based artist Salvador Jiménez-Flores and was unveiled Friday in Manuel Pérez Jr. Memorial Plaza in the 4300 block of West 26th Street.

Flores, a native of Mexico who now teaches ceramics at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, made the clay and cast-metal sculpture to honor Chicago’s immigrant community.

“It’s a celebration of the courage of the immigrant people that have made it to Chicago and decided to set up roots,” said Flores, 37.

“Caminantes,” a 9-foot sculpture by Salvador Jiménez-Flores, who commemorates migrants and their migration journey through the symbolism of feet and cacti, is displayed at Manuel Perez Jr. Plaza in the Little Village neighborhood, Friday, May 19, 2023.

“Caminantes,” a 9-foot sculpture by Salvador Jiménez-Flores, who commemorates migrants and their migration journey through the symbolism of feet and cacti, is displayed at Manuel Perez Jr. Plaza in the Little Village neighborhood, Friday, May 19, 2023.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Flores made the piece with funds from the Chicago Sculpture Exhibit as the winner of its Richard Hunt Award, which grants emerging and mid-career level Chicago artists with $10,000 to create large-scale public art installations across the city.

The Chicago Sculpture Exhibit established the Richard Hunt Award in 2021 with the namesake Chicago artist to foster diversity in Chicago’s large-scale public art scene. Flores is the second winner of the award.

Flores’ sculpture is one of 42 the Chicago Sculpture Exhibit is installing in May. The pieces were chosen from among 105 submissions and will be on view for a year.

The Exhibit was founded in 2001 by former Ald. Vi Daley (43rd) to bring public sculptures to the Lincoln Park neighborhood, but its reach has extended across the city with works from local and international artists.

“Caminantes,” a 9-foot sculpture by Salvador Jiménez-Flores, who commemorates migrants and their migration journey through the symbolism of feet and cacti, is displayed at Manuel Perez Jr. Plaza in the Little Village neighborhood, Friday, May 19, 2023.

“Caminantes,” a nine-foot sculpture by Salvador Jiménez-Flores, who commemorates migrants and their migration journey through the symbolism of feet and cacti, is displayed at Manuel Perez Jr. Plaza in the Little Village neighborhood, Friday, May 19, 2023.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Flores’ sculpture was unveiled at a small ceremony attended by Daley, Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd), Jennifer Aguilar, executive director of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce, which facilitated bringing the sculpture to the park, as well as other artists and bystanders.

The sculpture has a personal resonance for Flores, whose father was in the bracero migrant worker program, but the artist hopes it also inspires new arrivals.

“We underestimate how courageous people are to leave behind everything they know for an uncertain dream,” Flores said.

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Little Village has long been a port of entry for immigrants, and Rodriguez welcomed the arrival of Flores’ sculpture.

“A good, strong community is also about art. It’s about inspiration. It’s about young people who see themselves in the art,” he said, adding that he saw the community’s strength in the worn feet and beauty in the cactus.

The sculpture’s unveiling comes amid the city’s own migrant crisis after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began sending immigrants to the city from the Texas border.

Already, more than 8,000 immigrants have sought refuge in Chicago, prompting former Mayor Lori Lightfoot to declare a state of emergency.

“Go four blocks that way, [and] we’ve got 200 immigrants seeking refuge at Piotrowski Park,” said Rodriguez, pointing south past the sculpture to where the city has converted the fieldhouse into a temporary shelter for the new arrivals. “And now you have a piece here that speaks to their journey.”

Immigrants sheltering temporarily in Chicago neighborhoods have faced pushback in some parts of the city, with some residents suing the city to stop the move, but Rodriguez said his largely immigrant and Spanish-speaking ward has welcomed them.

“I hope they stay and become a fabric of our community, as Mexican immigrants did decades ago, and eastern European and Polish immigrants did a generation before them,” the alderperson said.

None of the newer arrivals was on hand Friday, but Wetcho Coco, a native of Mexico and a longtime paleta vendor, happened upon the unveiling as it was happening.

Coco, 70, immigrated “many, many years” ago, he said, and now relies on hot days to drive up demand for the cool, tasty treats he sells. He stopped jangling the cart bells to admire the sculpture.

“A lot of people will come to take photos,” Coco imagined, “and they’ll remember our culture, the things of Mexico.”

Wetcho Coco, a native of Mexico and longtime Little Village paleta vendor, observes the unveiling of a sculpture that celebrates Chicago’s immigrant community. 

Wetcho Coco, a native of Mexico and longtime Little Village paleta vendor, observes the unveiling of a sculpture that celebrates Chicago’s immigrant community.

Michael Loria/Sun-Times

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

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