Carlos Tortolero smallHow do you introduce your kids to other cultures during a family vacation? In Chicago, a trip to the National Museum of Mexican Art is a good way to start.

The National Museum of Mexican Art is the largest Latino cultural institution in the United States and the centerpiece of Chicago’s Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood, an artistic wonder in itself.

The National Museum of Mexican Art, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2012, has 6,500 pieces in its permanent collection and galleries that display a rotating series of temporary exhibits on the vibrantly colored walls of the museum.

Like Mexican culture itself, the museum is welcoming, kid-friendly and family-focused.

And admission is free because founder Carlos Tortolero believes in the “really radical concept [that] the arts are for everybody,” which can only happen if the arts are free. “In this economy, people are trying to figure out how to feed their families three meals a day. I don’t want to take money from those parents.”

Art_smallExploring Mexican History through the Arts

Given Tortolero’s background as a high school history teacher, it’s no surprise that the museum’s permanent exhibit explores the history of Mexican culture.

“Mexicanidad: Our Past is Present” explores the history of Mexico in five stages: Pre-Cuauhtémoc Mexico, Colonial Mexico, Mexico from Independence to Revolution, Post-Mexican Revolution to Present-Day Mexico and The Mexican Experience in the United States.

Mexican Heritage Outside the Museum

Tortolero admits the museum might attract more visitors and Chicago tourists if it was located downtown near the city’s other world-class museums. But, he said, the museum’s neighborhood location is another cultural asset–it allows visitors to immerse themselves in Mexican culture outside as well as inside the museum.

“When people come here, they’re not just visiting a museum. They are visiting a community.”

Garage door in Pilsen smallIndeed, the blocks around the museum are filled with Mexican restaurants and shops and the walls of many buildings are covered in colorful murals that depict Mexican historical and cultural figures. Two nearby neighborhood schools–Cooper Dual Language Academy and Orozco Community Academy–are decorated with gorgeous mosaics. Even the sides of houses, fronts of churches and doors of garages are covered in murals.

Only Accredited Latino Museum

For its first 20 years, the museum was called the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. The name was changed to the National Museum of Mexican Art in 2006 to reflect the fact that it is a national treasure, he said. At the same time, the museum became the first Latino museum in the country to be accredited by the American Association of Museums.

Only about 4 percent of museums in the country–generally the larger, better known ones–are accredited.

Getting to Pilsen

The Pilsen neighborhood is on the near South Side of Chicago, about five miles from the Loop. The Pink Line L train stops a block from the museum at 18th Street. If you drive, parking is free but hard to find in this densely populated neighborhood, particularly on weekends. You also can take a cab from the Loop, but cabs don’t patrol this area, so you’ll need to call when you’re ready for a ride back downtown.