Berwyn resident Carlos Tortolero said he founded Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art more than two decades ago to increase understanding and appreciation of Mexican culture and that of the rest of the world.
Tortolero, 54, has dedicated his life to increasing awareness of this culture, starting from his work as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools and now reaching beyond the local community as the head of a nationally known museum. The 23-year Berwyn resident will be recognized for his work by the Illinois Humanities Council next month, with its 2008 Public Humanities Award.
"I think about how fantastic the Mexican culture is, but how ignored and misunderstood it is," Tortolero said. "Mexican culture has not been told properly from the beginning and our goal was to preserve and share that culture."
Tortolero said his museum has something to offer everyone but is particularly relevant for educational groups. The museum sees more than 1,600 groups of school children each year, he said, and has curriculum tie-ins for teachers of language, history and art subjects, among others.
"It’s about presenting a balance of what the world is and we don’t do that," Tortolero said. "I’m not saying Mexico is better, but we propose that every culture is beautiful and produces something important to the world. Mexico is part of that mix and people should see it and celebrate it."
Tortolero has been able to give back to his hometown and the Berwyn and Cicero communities directly through his work with the museum, through the Yollocalli initiative. The effort is an education and career-training program for teenagers and young adults aimed at increasing their understanding of and ability in the arts and offers free classes to Morton High School District 201 students.
Kristina Valaitis, executive director of the Illinois Humanities Council who was born and raised in Cicero, helped select Tortolero as this year’s recipient of the annual award. She said the council chose him for the impact he’s made upon civic life in Illinois through the humanities, particularly upon citizens of Latino heritage, like many residents of Berwyn and Cicero.
"He’s enriched our understanding and appreciation for Mexican culture and how the humanities can provide a context for the arts," Valaitis said. "As important as any of those things, he’s created an institution that not only challenges visitors to look and appreciate, but to discuss."
The museum has grown into the largest Latino arts institution in the country and the only Latino museum to be accredited by the American Association of Museums, which regularly turns out exhibits that tour the United States and Mexico.
"We have to see there’s a world out there and the U.S. is not the center of it," Tortolero said. "We want to show that culture is fantastic, that it’s something that brings people together, and that’s what America ought to be about. That should be the dream, but I don’t think it is."
To learn more about Mexican culture, visit the National Museum of Mexican Art at 1852 W. 19th St., Chicago, free of charge from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.