Chicago Creatives: William Estrada

María Vazquez, Managing Editor

William Estrada is an educator and an artist, who was born in the city of Escondido, Southern California. Before living in Chicago, he and his family moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, and then to a small town called Francisco De Rivas, as well as, San Jose De Las Moras. His parents, sisters and him, moved to the South-West of Chicago in the late eighties. Now, William continues to advocate for his community through education and art.

William Estrada

In high school, William was not interested in school and he was not one of the best students. In fact, he stated, “I had not had a great relationship with high school and high school had not had a great relationship with me.” Art, however, was something he was really good at. He enjoyed art because it gave him a sense of permission.

William: “I was really interested in my teachers as human beings, but I was not necessarily interested in what they were teaching me and how they were teaching, you know. But art, art gave me this opportunity to make and to like break rules and not get in trouble for it. It gave me the opportunity to explore my culture and not be ashamed of it.”

William’s interest in art was something he saw as a hobby, and as many beginning artists, he did not know that he could make a career out of it. However, that changed when one of his teachers told him about colleges that focused on art-making. William began to see college as an option. In addition to that, his parents gave him a choice, “you either go to college or you work in the factory with us” and although William is “very proud of them and for all the work that they did” he did not want to do the same thing as his parents, so he decided he wanted to go to college. Just like many first-generation college students, he had to learn and understand how to navigate the college journey on his own. He stated, “college was something that was instilled in us, but we didn’t necessarily know anyone that had gone through college that was close to us. But when push came to shove, you know, like my parents giving me that kind of ultimatum, I was like, I’m going to go to school. I’m going to go to college.” With college being his choice, William decided he wanted to pursue a career in art which led him to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for his Bachelor’s Degree. Although he enjoyed being there, it was still a “culture shock.”

William: “I went from an all predominantly, you know, Mexican block and high school to a predominantly white institution. It was extremely, extremely hard. You know, to be in a space where I thought I didn’t belong and because my high school experience, I hadn’t taken advantage of it. Like the reading, the writing, all of the academic pieces that come with college, I felt inadequate and I struggled a lot.”

William Estrada

Yet, when William was about 19 years old, his friend Star Padilla, now an art teacher in Hawaii, invited William to “teach with her at the Boys and Girls Club in Little Village” and with that experience, he “fell in love with it”. William stated, “I had no idea what I was doing, you know, and I was not that great, but I completely loved it. Working with students. I love talking to them. I love the curiosity and my own curiosity”. He then decided to go into the art education program at his school. Through art education, William began to experience a “sense of belonging that [he] had not experienced before.” William recalled that in elementary school, he would get in trouble, like detentions and extra work, for speaking Spanish. These experiences led him to reject his culture for many years and attempt to assimilate into the American culture. However, going into art education, it gave him the opportunity to reclaim his Spanish, relearn about his Mexican culture, and “question power structures. [He] could question teaching. [He] could question the role of art in society, the role of culture, like whose stories are told, whose stories aren’t told.” Now, William is a Visual Arts teacher at Telpochcalli Elementary. There he teaches “in Spanish, do[es] art programming around culture, around social justice” and is also faculty at the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois in Chicago where he does teacher training for any undergraduate students interested in becoming high school art teachers. Through teaching, William gets his students to start thinking beyond what is expected of them and start exploring their curiosities, this includes the “little pequeñitos” and those “a lot older than [him].”

William: “How do you want to be represented and what stories do you want to be? Do you want to tell about yourself? You know, how do we use art to explore how to heal our trauma? How do we use art as a way to organize and get to know each other? Get to know ourselves. How do we tell our own stories and the stories of our neighborhood to people that look like us, but then also that might not necessarily understand our own experience, you know? And what does it mean for us to explore between the binaries that we’ve been told exist between good and bad and really look at the whole of the complexities, you know, so, as a teacher that’s what I teach.”

William has been teaching for about 21-22 years and what he enjoys the most about teaching is talking, learning, sharing and collaborating “with so many amazing people of all ages.” One advice he has for other educators is, “listen to your students, listen to the students, know the communities that you’re teaching. Then the other one is don’t be afraid of sharing your own story and being vulnerable.”

William Estrada

In addition to being an educator, as mentioned before, he is also an artist. William has various projects, such as, the Mobile Street Art Cart which is “styled like a paletero cart”. Through this, he provides free art projects for different community members in different neighborhoods. Through this project, people do not only have the opportunity to do art but to also have conversations and address issues that each community faces, as well as, talk about the impact of art in the community— “it’s meant to kind of interrupt our daily lives.” He decided to have it styled like a paletero cart because paleteros, tamaleras, eloteros, etc. “bring people together from different ethnicities, from different parts of the city. I see them like our cultural ambassadors. They represent our costumbres, our culture. I want it to do that tambien. I want it to bring people together. I wanted to emulate that through the carrito.” William also has the Mobile Photo Studio which he uses to photograph families. Through a conversation with his mother, he acknowledged the expense of having a professional family portrait, so he wanted to provide that opportunity to his community. He started in 2014 in Little Village and North Lawndale after applying for funding to the Austin Foundation, this resulted in 40 portraits that summer. Then last year, he applied for more funding for more family portraits, which resulted in him photographing between 600-800 families. Through this project, he is not only taking pictures of families, but he is also giving them the opportunity to share “their stories. To claim their space and time, and to say like ‘Hey, aqui estamos’ or we’re here and we’re part of this story and you can’t tell the story without telling it about us tambien.”

William Estrada

Due to COVID-19, William has not been able to continue these projects because all of his “work happens outside, so it had to stop.” Right now he continues working with the Chicago Arts Collective to plan for the summer. However, when William found out that Pritzker was announcing that schools were going to be closed for the rest of the school year, he reflected that the work that he does, he loves, but that it is the interactions with people that make it better. “It’s the people I get to work with that I get to learn from, that I get to talk to and share my story.” Although this has been a challenging time for him, he expressed to his students to “be patient, be patient with yourself, be patient with others.” He also emphasized the importance of self-care, whether that is binge-watching a show on Netflix or Hulu. He suggested figuring out what self-care looks like for you. He also suggested reaching out to people during this difficult time— “just letting them know, like, I’m thinking about you, like, you’re important to me and I’m reaching out to tell you.” William referenced this as our collective power.

William: “Thinking about what can we do together, not only to survive pero tambien when we go back to ‘normal’, so things aren’t normal otra vez. We can’t go back to what existed. We have to think about what can we change? What do we have the power to change in order to make sure that we don’t go back to what existed before. And re-imagine what world we want for ourselves and what world we want for others. Power doesn’t come from taking the power from others.”

It was an honor talking with William, as well as, learning about his story and journey. He is an individual that not only continues to learn, but also shares his knowledge with other people, with his students and his community. Although he has faced different challenges, including the current pandemic, he continues to persevere with the power of art and his passion for teaching.

Enjoyed this interview? Learn more about William at

Special thank you to William Estrada for allowing this student publication to interview him and for continuing to advocate for many people through his art and his teaching.