Carlos A. Cortez, who helped bring attention to Mexican and other native peoples through his labor-oriented art and writings, died of heart failure in his sleep on January 18. He was 81.At a ceremony at Casa Aztlan in the late 1970s, Cortez was given the name Koyokuikatl by Aztec elders. His friend, Carlos Cumpian, said the name means “singing coyote.” In 1975, Cortez joined José G. Gonzalez to found the first Mexican arts organization in Illinois, Movimiento Artistico Chicano, march, inc.
Following almost two years of imprisonment for being a conscientious objector during World War II, Cortez soon pursued membership in the Industrial Workers of the World (iww) union. He was a columnist and editor for the iww union paper, The Industrial Worker, from the late 1950s to 2005 and the author of four books. Cortez’s support of the iww or “Wobblies” was central to the theme of many his wood and linoleum cut graphics, critiquing US labor history and honoring those struggles that went unnoticed by the mainstream culture, by producing provoking images of the working class and people of color. Cortez’s work has been exhibited in Mexico, Germany, and the Museum of Modern Art (moma) in New York City, and in 1994, some of his work was acquired by the National Museum of American Art in Washington D.C. Many in this art world considered Cortez an abuelo, meaning grandfather.
For myself, actively engaged in the present generation of Latino/a artists in Chicago, Cortez’s presence will be greatly missed. I had the opportunity, with other budding artists, to interact with Cortez. He had an open mind and heart, and remained infuential into his later career, still exhibiting and preaching his “Pacifist Activism”.
Cortez’s work continues as a reminder of the importance of the artist in society. Cortez consistently portrayed the non-violent position of his activist parents as a theme in his linoleum cuts. To portray the truth of history, Cortez once said in an interview: “And it would be useless to say to someone who has no particular sociological convictions that they should be sociological in their art. That would be something like the forced “People’s Art” of the Soviet days. It has to come from the heart, from how one feels. A lot depends upon the awareness of the artist in question. If the artist is only interested in the commercial world, well, then sociological, humanitarian concerns are not for them.” 1 This text is an excerpt from a text that originally appeared in Extra News (March 2005) and Subaltern.org(March 2005).
1. Carlos Cortez in an interview with Christine Flores-Cozza of Big Monkey Press.
Images from: Where are the Voices? and Other Wobbly Poems Edited and Introduced by Carlos Cortez, 1997
Bold Images Exhibition Catalogue, Elmhurst Art Museum
Viva Posada! A Salute to the Great Printmaker of the Mexican Revolution Edited by Carlos Cortez, 2002
The Wobblies: A Graphic History of the IWW, Edited by Paul Buhle and Nicole Shulman (Verso Books)
For a complete list of titles by Carlos A. Cortez, contact Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co.: 1740 W. Greenleaf Ave. Chicago Il 60626