A Brief History of Mexican Art in the City

A Brief History of Mexican Art in the City


The present piece is a greatly modified version of a section of the introduction to José Gamaliel González: Documenting the Work and Life of a Chicago Mexican Artist. Chicago: LACASA, 2012. If you would like to read a different perspective about the Mexican-Chicano arts development in Chicago, follow the link to the article in Spanish "Pilsen, el arte y la continuidad de Chauvet."

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The first systematic efforts in the arts emerge from the churches or the mutual aid societies. However there is insufficient documentation of early arts developments in Chicago’s Mexican communities. In the work of the early University of Chicago anthropologists who wrote on these communities (people like Anita Edgar Jones, Robert Cuba Jones, Lois Wilson and Robert Redfield), there are hardly references to artistic works or efforts. This is also true of the writers on Chicago Mexican themes from the 1920s into the new century.

Some Chicago Jewish and African artists, like Morris Topachevsky and Elizabeth Catlett, traveled to Mexico and painted pictures showing the influence of Mexican art and life.[1] And some Mexican artists like Enrique Alferrez came to the city, did some significant work, but moved on.[2] But what signs have we of Mexican art developing in the city in relation to the growing immigrant community? There are some drawings in the studies of Manuel Gamio and Charles Taylor about Mexican worker migration that show scenes of Chicago, but we aren’t sure Chicago Mexicans drew them. Studio photographers were taking pictures that now have historical, anthropological and perhaps even aesthetic value. In the thirties and forties photos were taken at the Jane Addams Hull House of area Mexicans who participated in ceramic-making classes and workshops. One of the photos shows the Mexicans at work on pots in front of a mural which Chicago Mexican architect Adrián Lozano did for Hull house—perhaps the first indoor Mexican mural of the city, and one showing some clear influences of Mexican muralism and its impact on WPA muralism in the U.S.[3] Two of the potters, Jesús Torres and José Ruíz, tried but failed to develop artistic careers after their Hull House years. We can also find some journals that show graphic art images of Mexican immigrant life, some of which may or may not have been produced by Mexicans in Chicago. However, there is no clear indication of something that points to an artistic or literary trend or movement, prior to the late 1960s and early 1970s—only sporadic efforts by community groups and individuals connected to community centers, to churches and other locales.

By the late 60s, two northside Chicago groups emerged—the Puerto Rican Art Association, and then The Association of the Latino Brotherhood of Artists,” or ALBA. Led by Chicago Rican poets David Hernández and Salima Rivera, as well as visual artist Gamaliel Ramírez (but also including a few Mexicans) ALBA began to make their mark in reaction to the Puerto Rican Division Street uprising and related and more national Latino trends emanating from New York and elsewhere.[4] Meanwhile on Chicago’s southside, María Almonte and María Enríquez de Allen had been practicing traditional arts, making altars and flower displays long before the 1970s; but now a new generation of southside Chicago Mexicans began to develop what would emerge as a virtual movement involving musicians, artists, writers and other cultural workers who came to see themselves as Chicanos. Some of them formed theater and singing groups, putting on Chicano plays and singing música norteña and corridos; others begin to draw on national models to write Chicano protest literature or develop Chicano-style art works. Then, in the mid-1970s, Mario Castillo, and Ray Patlán did their first public murals. Reacting to the Civil Rights dimensions of Chicago 1968, etc. and linking up with national trends, Castillo, Patlán and then others like José Guerrero, working with John Weber from the Chicago public arts group, and then Ricardo Alonso, José González, Óscar Moya, Marcos Raya, Sal Vega, José Antonio Aguirre, Ricardo Vargas, Aurelio Díaz, and others became affected by the icons and stylistic tendencies identified with the artistic dimensions of the national Chicano movement most notably expressed in the work Southwest Chicano painters, as they developed one mural after another.[5] By the mid-70s, Alejandro Romero arrived from Mexico City and applied his studio painting skills to the making of striking community posters as well as a few murals; Milwaukee-born Carlos Cortez who had moved from Milwaukee to Chicago in 1968, now became drawn into the bourgeoning public arts fervor by adding his own brand of wood-cut making which drew on José Guadalupe Posada and Käthe Kolowicz to the mix. Women such as Marguerite Ortega, Juanita Jaramillo, Dulce Pulido and Yolanda Galván also joined in, as Mexican art began to take off.

By this time, the Pilsen barrio, drawing on Mexicans displaced from the Hull house/Taylor Street area by the development of the University of Illinois, had begun to take off as the most important center of Mexican cultural life in Chicago. In effect, a struggle develops in Pilsen over the use of space in the barrio, not only for murals but also for centers of community economic, political and cultural mobilization against city planners, gentrifiers and speculators. The struggle for civil rights, the Vietnam War, in which Patlán served, also played their part in the growing militancy of Pilsen Mexicans which extended to Little Village and other areas throughout the city. At one point, mexicano leaders decided that their main community center should be called Aztlán, the primary term chosen during the Chicano movement to articulate the Mexican space that was lost and must now be reclaimed by Chicanos and more newly arrived Mexicans. All this to say that the “Chicano” identification processes that are lived out in California and elsewhere now affected the form in which mexicanidad emerged as a force of resistance in Chicago’s Mexican communities during the last years of the first Richard Daley, and during the years before the election of his son.

It was at this juncture, too, that José Gamaliel González, a Northwest Indiana artist who had much prior experience in Chicago arts study and had entered activist politics in Northwest Indiana, made his definitive move from the Indiana steel mill area back to Chicago with the aim of bringing a militant Chicano spirit to the least Chicano and most Mexico-centered city of the Midwest. González had studied with Ray Patlán in Mexico, and with Mario Castillo, as well as muralist/activists John Pittman Weber and Mark Rogovin, at the Chicago School of the Art Institute. Joining student activist Gil Cárdenas in the formation of a Chicano student group in 1970 at Notre Dame, González sacrificed his MFA chances for his Chicano political commitments, joined the United Farmworkeers movement and helped found Latino organizations in Indiana. His move back to Chicago came he and photographer Efrain Martínez dreamed up a new organization, the Movimiento Artístico Chicano, or MARCH with the goal of forging a more militant approach to promoting art from Mexico and from the barrios of Mexican Chicago—an approach that would relate Mexican art to local struggles as well as to the national Chicano and Latino struggle and its artistic dimensions. MARCH brought together Patlán, Castillo, Ortega, Vega, along with Salvador Domínguez, Rey Vázquez, Francisco Sánchez, José Nario and Francisco Blasco, as well as art historian Victor Sorell and others as core members, with others like Aguirre, Vargas and far southside sculptor Román Villarreal joining in as time went by. By this time, Chicago Mexican activism took a nationalist turn, focusing less on labor questions than the overall conditions and struggles in Chicago’s ethnic enclaves, less on assimilation and more on cultural affirmation and resistance. In this context MARCH launched its first a series of art exhibits centering on Mexican and Chicano art; in 1977, members produced an impressive calendar; bringing in Marta Ayala, Carol Keating, Carlos Cumpián, and Salima Rivera, as CETA workers, the organization also founded a small journal, ABRAZO, where early poems of Cumpián, and other young writers began to appear. Art became more public, murals proliferated throughout the key Mexican area–Pilsen, and beyond; the Chicano label gained a certain degree of recognition and brought some “minority funding” enabling people like González and the others mentioned, to win the monies their projects required.

Chicago Mexicans had been much more tied to a Mexican world, whereas Wisconsin and Indiana Mexicans were more tied to U.S. national trends, and especially what was happening in the overall Chicano movement. It is therefore no coincidence that MARCH leaders were from Indiana and Milwaukee, and that the key MARCH literary activist to emerge was Carlos Cumpián whose father had participated in the Chicano movement in San Antonio. It is also true that in this period, the home-grown Mexican artists far out-numbered the ones from Mexico.

Closely related to MARCH were several of the Puerto Rican and other Latino artists on the northside; then too there were people like activist/singer Chuy Negrete and his sisters, who formed “Chispa,” and young Chicana writers like Castillo and Sandra Cisneros began to emerge. In Little Village, Carlos Heredia originated the journal, Imágenes, which published Ana Castillo and others in Spanish and English; Len Domínguez also published some of the Chicago Chicano writers in his general, non-ethnic journal Nit and Wit; so did the journal Ecos, at the University of Illinois in Chicago and Indiana University’s Third Woman in the 1980s. However, by far the most important journal emerging in the was Revista Chicano-Riqueña, the first national journal uniting Chicano and Puerto Rican artistic and literary concerns, founded by Luis Dávila with the fiery Greek-Puerto Rican Professor Nicolas Kanellos at NW, a young Greek-Puerto Rican editor/critic, with González serving as artistic editor. Revista came out with an important mural issue and then a special number, Nosotros, edited by Chicago Rican poet David Hernández and presenting literature and plastic art work by several members of ALBA and an emergent Rican organization, Taller, but also featuring poetry and art work by Yolanda Galván. Meantime, theater began to flourish, with Kanellos founding the Teatro de Desengaño, while others formed Teatro Trucha, Teatro Latino etc. Community photographers Diana Solís and Roberto Arredondo joined Arredondo among the most active Mexican artists. Ana Castillo and Sandra Cisneros began to achieve national recognition, and other writers like Carlos Morton and Ken Serritos emerged; subsequently, in the 1980s Raúl Niño, Luis Rodríguez, Ray González, Alberto Urias, Brenda Cárdenas and other Chicano came to the fore; as did countless numbers of recently arrived Mexicans and Latin Americans writing in Spanish would be part of the scene. Victor Parra and other Chicago Latinos formed musical groups and appeared in clubs and special community venues, as well as on radio and tv. And the number of visual artists arriving from Mexico and growing up in the neighborhoods would grow exponentially over the next several years. In sum, Mexican and Latino arts achieved a kind of takeoff or renaissance by the late 1970s, in which there was a search for both national and increasingly pan-Latino affinities and initiatives.

Casa Aztlán

Casa Aztlán emerged as a communitarian cultural and educational space clearly enunciating the Chicano trend in the community by its name and also by the exterior mural art (involving Ray Patlán, Marcos Raya and others), which brought together Chicano and Mexican, Latino and Latin American heroes, with Aztec iconography covering almost the entire building. Then, the struggle over exterior and interior murals for Benito Juárez High School soon became another central concern. Clearly, MARCH was the greatest single organized force in the Mexican arts community during the 1970s, with major exhibitions held around the city, involving the work of Mexican masters, along with that of national and local artists in shows which attracted great numbers of individuals, as well as busloads of young people from different schools and organizations in the Chicago area. The success of MARCH was also marked by the fact that González was elected as Midwest representative to the Task Force on Hispanic American Arts, which sought to network and improve Latino arts development throughout the U.S. But partially because of his dedication to regional and national concerns, González lost control of MARCH, which became a more specifically literary group, under the leadership of Carlos Cumpián and Carlos Cortez, while González left the organization to work on a major arts project and to launch his new organization Mi Raza Arts Consortium, MIRA.

The stories of how MARCH rose in the 1970s and how MIRA developed in the 1980s only to lose out to a new organization, the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, now renamed the National Museum of Mexican Art, are key matters in understanding the history of Chicago’s Mexican and Latino arts emergence. Here I wish to note only that these stories took place in the midst of others—e.g., developments in the Puerto Rican community, the emergence of other arts groups, galleries, and publications in Mexican Chicago throughout the many years which followed. The early developments took place when the arts infrastructure existing today did not exist; they took place in a hostile political atmosphere and developed initially as a new wave of politicization swept through the Latino communities, leading to struggles over the arts and pressures which led to the development of that minimal infrastructure that has made recent developments possible, even as city politics changed and as new leaders struggled against growing forces of disempowerment and gentrification which affected the core communities where Chicago Latino and Mexican arts developed. 

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[1] See Sarah Kelly Oehler, They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration 1910-1950. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2013.

[2] See Ron Grossman, “Sculptor’s youth is written on the skyline of Chicago” Tempo. Chicago Tribune, December 20, 1985: 1 and 3.

[3]See Cheryl Ganz and Margaret Strobel, ed. Pots of Promise. Urbana, Illinois: U. of Illinois Press,2004.

[4] For a brief treatment of ALBA, see Olga Herrera, Toward the Preservation of a Heritage: Latin American and Latino Art in the Midwestern United States. Institute for Latino Studies: U. of Notre Dame, 2008: 51-52. Further on in the same book, see Herrera’s treatments of MARCH, MIRA and the Mexican Fine Arts Museum.

[5] See Victor Sorell, ed., Chicago Murals: Yesterday and Today (Chicago Council on Fine Arts, 1979); Alan Barnett Community Murals: The People’s Art (Chicago: Alliance Press, 1984); and Olivia Gude and Jeff Huebner. Urban Art Chicago: A Guide to Community Murals, Mosaics, and Sculptures (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000).

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Marc Zimmerman. Professor Emeritus Latin American and Latino Studies (LALS), U. of Illinois at Chicago. World Cultures & Literatures-Modern & Classical Languages (WCL-MCL), U. of Houston. Director Global CASA/LACASA Books.