An altar sculpture in the National Museum of Mexican Art. Photo courtesy of the Getaway Guys.

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To celebrate the Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates the Mexican victory over the French on May 5, 1862, we Getaway Guys do not need to go to the village of Puebla, where the battle was fought. Instead, we head to the National Museum of Mexican Art (www.nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org) in Chicago‘s Pilsen neighborhood at

1852 W. 19th Street

. Its large permanent exhibit features exceptional artwork combined with fascinating displays highlighting Mexico‘s history from pre-Colombian to modern times.

The NMMA has one of the largest collections – approximately 6,000 objects – of Mexican art north of the border, most of which is of recent vintage. But there are notable earlier works such as “The Virgin of Guadalupe” by Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768), oils on canvas, c. 1740-1768; “La Purisima,” anonymous, polychromed wood with fabric and gilding, c. late 18th century; and “The King and His Conscience,” anonymous, oil on canvas, c. 19th century. Of more recent vintage are a compelling 1995 acrylics-on-canvas by Marcos Raya called “Sons of a Bad Life” and the provocative “Mother Earth,” by Salvador Vega, acrylics on canvas, 1973.

The museum occupies a former City of Chicago field house, recently expanded and tastefully remodeled. Founded in 1982, the NMMA (formerly The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum) is the only U.S. museum (American Association of Museums-accredited) solely devoted to the art of Mexico and Mexican artists living in the United States.

The Getaway Guys have visited the NMMA on several occasions over the last couple of years and have seen a number of shows, including the annual “Day of the Dead” exhibition that typically opens in early September and closes in mid-December. With commissioned works specifically designed for this spectacular exhibition of great diversity and interest, the “Day of the Dead” show is an absolute “must-see” in Chicago. The 2008 show was terrific, and the Getaway Guys bet the 2009 will be fabulous, too.

The museum stages very scholarly shows based on borrowed works from prominent U.S. and Mexican collections. Starting with “An Homage to Orozco” in 1984 and extending to “En Tus Manos,” an exhibition of silkscreen monoprints investigating the reality of Latinos and AIDS, in 2007, the NMMA explores a wide spectrum of art and life related to the Latino community in Chicago and elsewhere. Currently it is hosting “Miradas,” a stunning display of Mexican art from the Bank of America’s collection. Running through Aug. 30, the exhibit includes works of Jean Charlot, Carlos Merida, Martin Ramirez, Diego Rivera and Francisco Zuniga, to name
just a few.

Two other temporary exhibits are under way. The first, “Chicago Figurativo,” features prints from NMMA’s permanent collection by 12 Chicago Mexican Americans. This show runs through May 24. Another wonderful exhibit is called “Muralla sobre lienzo,” a massive, 150-foot long work-in-progress by Hector Duarte; this one runs through June 28.

Last but not least, the museum has a fine gift shop. Neil has a soft spot for its array of silver jewelry, and Alan goes for the weirder masks. Both like the sculptures based on the Day of the Dead theme.

The last time we visited, we ate lunch beforehand. The Pilsen community has several noteworthy Mexican restaurants, according to Alan. But Neil, not a major fan of Mexican cuisine, steered the Guys to the new and funky Simone’s,

960 W. 18th Street

, recommended to him by his Evanstonian neighbors. Simone’s is decorated with real pinball machines hanging off the walls and chandeliers made of bottles, among other oddities. It features both Mexican and other fare to satisfy both Guys’ tastes. The food is delicious, the service excellent and the prices reasonable.

After our visit to the NMMA, we could not help but stop at Kristoffer’s Cafe and Bakery, 1733 S. Halstead, for the best pastel de tres leches we have tasted. Alan forgot about his waistline concerns, and Neil about his feelings regarding Mexican food.

Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, that offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.