René Arceo.”Carlos Cortez Koyokuikatl: The Man and Artist” Part 1

René Arceo Publicado 2015-09-07 05:53:47

Copy-edited with a preliminary note by Marc Zimmerman.


Carlos Cortez. Photo, Isaura Gonzalez (197–). Courtesy of Arceo Collection.


Preliminary Note


Part I of this essay appears as David Pesqueira puts his final touches on an ofrenda in memory of Carlos Cortez for the NMMA Day of the Dead opening, Sept. 18. René Arceo’s “Carlos Cortez Koyokuikatl: The Man and Artist,” is an essay which has never appeared before and appears now in edited form some ten years after Cortez’s death. Based on a series of interviews he conducted with Cortez on 8/26/98, 2/18/99, 2/24/99 and 5/13/99, Arceo’s essay was drafted during 1998-99, with a “final draft” dated 5/25/99. It was originally written when Arceo was still artistic curator at what was then called the Chicago Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum and is today the National Museum of Mexican Art (the NMMA); it is an essay which the Museum has graciously enabled us to publish with corresponding images at this time.

The essay was meant to serve as an orientation, explanation and critique in relation to a proposed catalog of Cortez’s work, to be coordinated by Tere Romo and based on the Museum’s major Cortez exhibit, Fanning the Flames (1997). However, Arceo left his position and the catalog never materialized as originally conceived, although it is clear from Arceo’s draft that the images had already been selected, ordered and numbered. With Arceo no longer on hand and the catalog project seemingly put on hold, the museum commissioned art historian Victor Sorell a professor and dean at Chicago State University, to serve as editor of what turned out to be an important volume, Carlos Cortez Koyokuikatl: Soapbox Artist & Poet: A Catalog (Chicago: Mexican Fine Arts Museum. 2002). In putting together his edition, Sorell cited Arceo’s essay; but he had no authorization to include the essay in the book. It is the LACASA Chicago Latino Arts Series which now benefits from the article’s not having appeared before.

As a teacher and artist coming into his prime, Arceo became too involved in a wide variety of projects to find another venue for his essay, perhaps hoping that another opportunity would some day appear. We of LACASA Chicago have wished to honor Carlos Cortez’s contribution; and the publication of this essay fulfills that wish. We remain ever ready to offer our modest abilities and resources to any tribute undertaken by the NMMA as the institution to which Cortez donated and entrusted the most complete set of his art works and plates. We are also sure that many other talented Chicago Latino artists and artist groups would be happy to contribute what they could to the ongoing project. In the meantime, LACASA’s Chicago Mexican Artists Group decided to edit and publish this modest text as part of our Chicago Latino Artists Series (CLAS). We do so with great pride and pleasure, because we consider Arceo’s essay valuable in its own right, especially since it is one written by one very special and knowledgeable artist about another. The essay contains many insights about Cortez’s work we have not seen elsewhere. In addition, his essay draws on extensive interviews Arceo conducted not only with the artist but his very perceptive and knowledgeable wife, Marianna Drogitis, a woman of Greek background much respected and loved in the Chicago Latino Arts community.

In our editing work, wherever possible, we have drawn on the images Arceo refers to and we also at times sought to supplement Arceo’s choices with a few further prints and personal photos. In addition, because Cortez died some years after the completion of Arceo’s draft, we have changed the tense form and made other secondary changes that seemed required in our present context. Still, the essay shines as it was originally drafted — a valuable appreciation of one major print artist by one of his most significant contemporaries and heirs in the Chicago Latino arts scene.

In preparing this piece for publication, René and I wish to thank Carlos Tortolero, Cesareo Moreno and Dolores Mercado of the NMMA, the family of Marianna Drogitis, represented by Theodora and Despina Katsikakis, and Carlos Cumpián of MARCH, for making the publication of this essay possible, for giving us their publication permission and providing digital reproductions of Cortez’s works to which Arceo refers, plus a few others which round out Arceo’s portrait. —Marc Zimmerman


Carlos Cortez Koyokuikatl


Carlos Cortez was born on August 13, 1923 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin the son of a Mexican father, Alfredo Cortez and a German American mother, Augusta Ungrecht. Alfredo Cortez was a militant member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known also as the “Wobblies”[1]; he wasa construction worker; an itinerant delegate for the IWW, a soapbox orator during the 1912 campaign for “Freedom of expression” in San Diego, California; and a singer in seven languages. Augusta Ungrecht was a socialist-pacifist poet born in Racine County, Wisconsin. Cortez was raised in Milwaukee during the 1920’s and 1930’s. At age 20, he already belonged to the Young People Socialist League, the Socialist Party’s youth group. It was his participation in this group that eventually made him realize he was more of an anarchist than a socialist. From this time on he began to define the philosophical beliefs that shaped him as an anarchist which he explains as follows:

As an anarchist I am against all forms of coercion, repression and discrimination. I believe in absolute freedom. That is, each person has the freedom to do what each one desires as long as they don’t interfere with the freedom of others. Freedom also means respect for others as well as the compromise with others.

Almost fifty when he joined the Movimiento Artístico Chicano in 1973, Cortez was recognized as one of the oldest Chicano artists in the country — more than a generation older than almost all those identified as Chicano Movement pioneers. In fact, one of the most famous of those pioneers, José Montoya, once told Cortez “You were a Chicano way before anybody identified himself as a Chicano.” [2]

It is clear his parents’ influences were profound. As the only son, he inherited from his mother an appreciation for poetry, along with pride in being Mexican. From his father he inherited the love and talent for languages, labor activism and love for music. Cortez had a significant music collection that he started during his years as a record seller, and he continued to collect music as of 1999 when I interviewed him. His collection is composed of Folkloric music from Latin America, Europe and the United States, including the Anglo-Saxon and Black music traditions. The regional mestizo and indigenous music of Mexico is the largest part of his collection. When Cortez speaks about his father he always does it proudly explaining how he looked and includes that he was of indigenous blood, especially Yaqui — one of the 56 indigenous groups located in the Northwestern part of the country. Cortez narrates for us how his parents met:

Soon after the WWI, my father passed through Milwaukee. My mother shared with me how on one occasion when she attended a Socialist Party meeting with a friend they came across an indigenous-looking guy selling the IWW newspaper. Her friend Clara exclaimed to the Indian, “Why are you selling your newspapers out in front of our meeting?” My mother defended him stating that there wasn’t anything wrong with him selling his papers, that he had a right to promote his ideology and that, if they believed in theirs, they shouldn’t be afraid to compare it with others. To prove her point, she bought a newspaper from him. This action impressed my father to the point where he took a good look at her and started paying her court. Two years later my old man popped the question.

Cortez was raised speaking German. His father insisted that his mother speak to him in German so that when he was ready for school, he would already know it. His mother agreed to do this given that his father was also fluent in German. Thus, Cortez’s second language was English. Spanish followed, influenced by his father’s many Mexican friends who visited often.

In addition, Cortez heard a lot of spoken Italian since the majority of the family’s friends were Italian. Italian proved to be crucial in his life since it originally became the only means of communication between him and his life-long companion Marianna with whom he would later learn his fifth language, Greek.

Cortez grew up in Milwaukee; and it was in Milwaukee in the 1950s where he attended a recital by Flamenco dancer José Greco and there met the woman who would later became his wife. Greek on both sides, Marianna Drogitis had come to visit her brother in Milwaukee in 1957. Cortez had known Marianna’s brother whom he had befriended while working in a record store. The record store specialized in Greek, Mexican, and Puerto Rican music which satisfied the musical interests and needs of the diverse Milwaukee community. After meeting Marianna, Cortez stayed in touch with her for a period of nine years, communicating through the Italian they both knew. Once Cortez’s parents died in 1966, he decided to sell the house he had inherited and then visit Marianna in Greece. When he returned Marianna accompanied him. They had already made plans to live in the States.

Cortez’s adolescent years were spent exposed to diverse languages and cultures. It was common to come across Jewish people, African-Americans, Native-Americans, Italians, Mexicans, etc. in his home. His family frequently visited indigenous groups in Northeastern Wisconsin where they considered his father a brother because of the respect he had for them and his own apparent indigenous features and complexion. His family was frequently invited as special guests to pow-wow celebrations — events that tourists would have to pay to attend. In the Wisconsin Dells area Cortez’s father was considered an Indian, a brother, one of them. Consequently, his family was treated as any other indigenous family there. During his primary school years, when in the presence of his father with the opportunity to observe his father at ease, Cortez suddenly realized his mestizo father with his indigenous features truly looked Indian. This experience became a revelation to him, as it reinforced his own sense of identity. During this time he began to create proud portraits of indigenous people.


The Struggles and The Effects of War


During WWII, Carlos Cortez was jailed for two years at the Sandstone Federal Correctional Institution in Minnesota because he was a conscientious objector (“because I did not believe in killing other human beings…”).[3]In 1944, at age 20, Cortez received an official draft notice. When he didn’t show up at the draft office, the FBI went to his home and arrested him. His uncle had to get a loan against his farm to pay the $2,000 bail so that Cortez could be free while awaiting trial. His objections to the draft were based on economic and humanitarian reasons which implied he would never shoot at another draftee. Cortez comments: “Someone questioned me if I was in favor of Hitler to which I responded, if someone can guarantee me a sure shot at him no one would have to draft me. But to shoot at another draftee, never.” The years in jail were years well spent since he had the opportunities to make contact with other objectors (these included Black Muslims and members of Jehovah’s Witness) have access to a good library and further develop his drawing skills by utilizing as models images from magazines like National Geographic. During the years he spent in detention, he learned Italian with a teacher who, like himself, had opposed being drafted into the army. This teacher taught Italian to those prisoners who were interested in improving or learning the language. Cortez was able to use the Italian he learned later when he worked mostly with Italians in the construction industry. By the year 2000, however, Cortez had forgotten most of the Italian he had once known.

After being released from prison in 1945, Cortez and his father worked in the construction labor force through the Hod Carriers Union. Later he joined the then diminishing IWW organization. During this time Cortez started to produce cartoon drawings which, through the process of photo engraving, were reproduced as illustrations for the IWW’s newspaper. By the beginning of the 1950’s, he began to contribute articles, comments and reviews of films and records. Soon after this, his own poetry began to get published. He maintained his connection as graphic artist, poet and illustrator with the IWW newspaper for five decades. At the end of 1950’s he began to contribute his first linocut images to the paper since the IWW could no longer afford the increasing costs of photomechanical reproduction.

During the decade of the 1950’s, McCarthyism, the cold war, the Korean War, the impact of international espionage and the hysteria over the consequences of the atomic bomb were strong influences which contributed to the instability of progressives and unionists in this country.[4] Senator Joe McCarthy, who represented Cortez’ native state, through his “subversives persecution committee,” was shown capturing and processing the ‘subversives’ among the union leaders associated with the IWW militant traditions. For Cortez, these experiences reaffirmed his convictions to the point where he, instead of backing up, duplicated his efforts and participation during the following decade. The IWW members or Wobblies were active in the areas of economics, art and literature. Cortez, as a Wobbly, rejected the Communist Party, Marxism and the popular fighting front from the 1930’s and 1940’s because he felt they were limiting art and culture through a form of censorship.

It is worthwhile to draw some parallels and make some comparisons here between the IWW artists and those artists in México pursuing similar goals. On an organizational level, a similarity between the IWW and the 1940’s Popular Graphics Workshop (TGP) was twofold: the close relationship between the objective and the themes of the art work produced by both groups and the political activities members became involved with. The difference between the two groups was that the TGP was an organization created by the Lázaro Cárdenas government (President of México from 1934 to 1940) and subsidized by them. Membership was exclusively for printmaking artists. On the contrary, the Wobblies were economically self-sufficient counting as their sole support their membership fees. In their case, artist members represented only a small portion of their total membership. Cortez always believed in and was affiliated with collectives, from his early years with the IWW, his incursions with MARCH – Movimiento Artístico Chicano (Chicano Artistic Movement) and the Chicago Mural Group. Cortez also came to meet some of the TGP members over the 1990’s decade.


José Guerrero, “I’ll drink to that.” Photo. Amara Betty Martin.


Cortez’s life in 1970s and 1980s was characterized by his activities in the group MARCH, and his poetry, published for years in IWW publication found its way into several journals and books. Independently and through his association with the Chicago Mural group, now known as the Chicago Public Art Group, he became involved in muralist activities. During this period he painted murals, a long-awaited dream, on his own and with other muralists. By then he was known for his artistic and community contributions, being specifically recognized as a muralist, poet, cartoonist, illustrator and, above all, as a printmaker. During the 1980s he began to exhibit his works on a regular basis at alternative spaces, such as Objects Gallery, Galería Ink Works, Prairie Avenue Gallery, Galeria Kalpulli, Guild Bookstore, Viva Aztlán and Fiesta del Sol community festivals in addition to the events sponsored by MARCH. As a prolific artist, Cortez always had some new and fresh work to exhibit. Among local Chicago artists, the annual showing of his new works related to the Day of the Dead had become an anticipated event. In 1985 Cortez baptized his printing press as “Gato Negro Press” with which he published the catalog for the touring exhibition entitledWobbly: 80 years of Rebel Art.

During the early 1980s, in a formal ceremony lead by the Nahuatl spiritual guide Tlakaele, Cortez adopted the name Koyokuikatl (Coyote Song in the Aztec language, Nahuatl). Cortez had met Tlakaele through the local prolific muralist Aurelio Díaz. Tlakaele had chosen a name for him, but Cortez had already chosen a different name which held special significance for him. The name Koyokuikatl or Coyote Song had come to him during his years in prison where he would frequently hear coyotes crying (singing) in the night. To him this symbolized freedom, the embodiment of the freedom he hoped for. Later Cortez and his wife Marianna opted to celebrate their commitment to one another with an indigenous wedding ceremony presided over by Tlakaele, blessed by the smoke of sacred copal resin, cedar and sage. Marianna had agreed to this ceremony under the condition that, within one year, Cortez would be baptized and married in Marianna’s Greek Orthodox religion to which he agreed. Usually Cortez didn’t use his adopted name to identify his poetry. He does, however, carve directly onto the wood or linoleum plate, his initials CAC (Carlos Alfredo Cortez), and when he signs his prints, he does so by drawing the outline of a sitting coyote to honor his adopted name.

Cortez’s persona had a strong physical presence and radiated from him as the poet, printmaker, grandfather without grandchildren, cacique, storyteller, educator, agitator, communicator, illustrator, critic, activist and community artist.

His artwork and figure always caught my attention since the first time I met him in the early 1980s. Through his presence and physical appearance he projected a sense of peace, tranquility and knowledge as only a grandfather or a mature person could do. Cortez lacked arrogance, was devoted to his craft and shared with others the best of himself without expecting something in return. His total work was intended to be shared and to support the needy, those who have the fewest opportunities in life. He was someone who not only didn’t retreat from his philosophical principles, but who lived what he preached. I can think of two examples which directly relate to these aspects of Cortez’s persona. The first example is how he always sold his works at the same price to all customers whether they were indigent people at the community cultural festivals in Pilsen or wealthy art collectors at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The second example has to do with his conscious decision to create original multiple prints which could reach broader audiences instead of creating unique, one of a kind works of art such as paintings or sculpture. In this way his prints were available at a lower cost to a larger number of people. When we observe his work it becomes evident his priority was not to produce a highly and technically processed print — something pretty, or a commercially attractive product. He did not even concern himself with utilizing acid-free paper, which can extend the life of a print for generations; rather his priority is to duplicate and massively reproduce his images and messages. In a way, the fact that he produced prints is clearly not an end for him but was, instead, the means by which he reproduced his messages. Prints are more then merely a practical aspect of his life’s work where the technique used is irrelevant as far as the art works’ function and content. Thus we can deduce that the priority is the image and the inherent message combined with the natural and artistic touch Cortez imbeds in his works.

To respond artistically to his world, Cortez determined to be up to date on the news and events happening around him, especially those affecting, directly or indirectly, matters related to workers, farmers, and Chicanos-Mexicans. The latter was the community to which he devoted much time and effort through his social, labor and political activities. His information sources were not the traditional mainstream commercialized sources which owed themselves to the interests of a consumerist society. He depended on alternative and politicized media preoccupied with reflecting his own ideals and philosophical principles. Cortez’s response to mainstream news was to analyze it critically according to his vision and perspective of the contemporary world. An experienced individual, Cortez developed clear and unbreakable convictions. This is reflected through his work and actions, such as the frequent donations of his works, time and labor for the humanist, social or political causes he considered important.

While producing his artwork Cortez focuses on the consequential and transcendental nature of his works and their iconographic messages rather than on limited running or numbered editions. His intention was not to produce hundreds or thousands of numbered prints for broad distribution through a commercial gallery system. This is a key aspect he shared strategically and philosophically with the Taller de Gráfica Popular (Popular Graphics Workshop) or TGP. The TGP was a printmakers’ collective established in Mexico City in 1937 with the invited participation of the most prominent artists in Mexico. Among them were its four founders — Leopoldo Méndez (1902-1969), Alfredo Zalce (1908-2003), Pablo O’Higgins (1904-1983) and Luis Arenal (1908-1985) in addition to artists like Alberto Beltrán, Arturo García Bustos, Elizabeth Catlett, Mariana Yampolski, Fernando Castro Pacheco, Francisco Mora and Francisco Dosamantes. During the first three decades of the TGP’s existence all these artists contributed to create, quantitatively and qualitatively, a graphic renaissance which paralleled the Mexican Mural Renaissance. Their works traveled in touring exhibitions to every corner of the world influencing artists in other latitudes, who were subsequently inspired to create similar printmakers’ collectives.[5]

The adoption of realism as the preferred aesthetic ideology of the TGP did not force it into the narrow confines of photomechanical reproductions of reality. There was experimentation with the meaning of the prints. Through this vehicle artists expressed their humanist, social, political and economic concerns affecting many places of the world. Their graphics dealt with subjects such as opposition to WWII, to the fascism of Mussolini and Franco, to Hitler’s Nazi party and ideology. Their art pronounced them against the reach and consequences of nuclear power and in favor of peace, farm workers, rural cultural workers who contributed to the economic and industrial development, and the teachers who shape the future generations of citizens. It lent general support to the efforts and struggles for social justice throughout the world.[6]


The Printmaker and His Influences


When interviewing Cortez about what motivated him to create art and when he began to think about art, he responded:

I always did some kind of drawing as a small kid. I grew up during the big depression and my parents always saw that I had drawing materials available to use. My father would go without cigarette to make sure I’ve materials. It was something where I had developed an aptitude and a liking for making pictures. My parents weren’t like others who would say; OK that is very nice, when are you going to do something useful? So, through grammar school I drew, illustrated lessons and make poster projects. In high school I attended art classes where I learned linoleum relief graphics (circa 1939-40). The class will put out a booklet from the students every year.

Later when I lived by myself and worked in construction I decided to take some unaccredited evening art classes as a means of self discipline. While I was making good money, as a young person I didn’t want to just burn a hole in my pocket and spent it on a lot of frivolities. Through these classes I learned sculpture, oil painting and figure drawing. Years later when I started to do cartoons for the IWW paper they could no longer afford to make plates from drawings. I saw there was an old timer from California who did linoleum blocks like this (pointing to his own) and I thought I could do the same thing.

The linoleum blocks came already mounted on wood and were the right height for use in a high type press. Linoleum was a resilient and durable material which allowed one to print as many as 30,000 prints and more. When the reproduction process changed again and offset printing was adopted, Cortez returned to drawing illustrations for union posters.

After having worked for forty years as a construction worker, vendor of records, book seller, factory stiff and janitor, I no longer have to punch a time card, and I find myself involved in the most productive phase of my life.

While Cortez always knew he was inspired by and enjoyed making art, it was not until he retired that he was able to completely devote himself to his artistic production. He credited his German mother for having helped him develop his “raza” consciousness:

Even though I resembled my German mother more than my Mexican father, being the only Mexican in a school full of whites made me mighty soon realize who I was. But it was my German mother who started my Mexican consciousness. She said, “Son, don’t let the children at school call you a foreigner. Through your father you are Indian and that makes you more American than any of them. [7]

As a child, while supported by his parents, he showed a strong interest in printmaking, drawing and painting to which he was exposed during his high school years and the night classes he took for a couple of years. It was precisely there that his teachers were the first to tell him two things. On one hand, his early works shared some characteristics and similarities with the work of José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949). Orozco was just one of the three great Mexican muralists whose works Cortez had never seen. He then began researching and learning about them. Soon he learned about the strength in his parents’ cultural heritage. He was pleased to realize that Mexican history didn’t begin with Hernán Cortes’ conquest but, instead, dated back in time for thousands of years. During this true period of research, Cortez came across José Guadalupe Posada and the many other artists who utilized the calavera or skeleton image. However, he would not learn the Day of the Dead tradition, its meaning and use of calaveras and the varied richness of this tradition until later.

On the other hand, an art teacher in one of his night art classes identified elements that Cortez’s work shared with the German Expressionist Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945). Cortez then went to do research again, and to his surprise he saw how, in addition to Kollwitz, his work shared elements with Edward Munch. In 1971, Cortez traveled with Marianna to Oslo, Norway to visit the Munch Museum. As they approached the museum, Marianna commented on the fact that he was shaking. He agreed with her exclaiming, “This is a pilgrimage for me.” Such is the sense of affinity that one artist can experience with another and how deep the feelings can be from one artist to another.

Cortez’s encounter with Mexican printmaker and illustrator José Guadalupe Posada led him to the graphic production of the TGP previously described. The artistic contributions and the art works left by all these artists continued to have an influence on Cortez’s works. He had the opportunity to travel, meet artists, and see their originals works in the United States, Germany and México. However, Chicago had its own contemporary Posada in Cortez who, as Posada did decades earlier, reflected much of the life of a people, not only of Mexican immigrants but of workers in general.

Posada is considered the father of Mexican modern art; he was the first artist to create an original and new direction, a sort of new strain that emerged from the predominant European colonial art canon, which subsequently crystallized and formed the foundation for Mexican Modern Art. A prolific artist, Posada produced an estimated 20,000 images including lithographs, lead engravings and especially relief prints or zincographs. Posada can be easily identified by his playful and at times satirical calaveras that are now known in much of the world. He was one of the first Mexican artists to pictorially depict poor Mexican workers and peasants and to show how in death, the Mexican elites (religious leaders, politicians and even artists) shared the same fate as every one else. So, in “La Catrina,” Posada portrays death as the great equalizer.

Posada’s classic image, has penetrated Mexican popular and fine art and has influenced fine artists from many countries. This image has become one of the most representative images of Mexican identity. This is without a doubt one of the most famous calaveras which is reborn year after year in the minds of every generation of artisans.

It is within this context and within this artistic frame and tradition that Cortez places himself. As one of the artists influenced by Posada, Cortez takes his turn in continuing the graphic tradition in the U.S. and, in this way, pays homage to this illustrious artist. One of Cortez’s sharpest works is precisely a 1981 print dedicated to the memory of Posada titled “Homage to Posada”(fig. 1).


Fig. 1. Carlos Cortez.Homage to Posada/Homenaje a Posada1981, linocut, N.N. / linóleo, S.N., 35” x 23 1/8” (paper size), National Museum of Mexican Art Permanent Collection, 1992.117, Gift of the artist, photo credit: Kathleen Culbert-Aguilar.


With his singular style, Cortez brought Posada back to life in a certain and expressive portrait shown carving several calaveras. Unlike his own death, lonely and abandoned, Posada is depicted with his loyal companion, his famous creation, “La Catrina.” The skeleton projects a sense of tranquility and affectionately rests her arm over Posada’s shoulder. Cortez’s intention seems to have been to bring them together as a couple, as impossible as this may seem. However, in Cortez’s graphic virtual world this becomes real. They are shown as a congenial couple, relating to one another, with support and understanding. The skeleton reflects support and understanding while the image of Posada reflects sincerity, dedication and certainty. We should note that in his last years, Cortez edited a volume in tribute to Posada.

Beyond Posada, Cortez shares ideological coincidences and graphic affinities with Leopoldo Méndez. In the Mexican graphic tradition the artistic figure who inherits Posada’s graphic tradition is Méndez who is conscious of Posada’s artistic contributions, the encounter with Mexican art and the social-political criticism of Posada. He develops a body of work that equally reflects upon the time and place he lived in. Clearly affected by German expressionism, Méndez was also influenced by the futurists and opened his work up to surrealism; but he learned to always respond to the class and ethnic conflicts of workers.[8] Although he did important works in lithography, woodcuts and murals, Cortez, like Méndez did before him, expressed himself almost exclusively through linocut prints.

There is one particular work Cortez seems to have taken from Méndez, updating its content and maintaining the format and composition references. It is a woodcut called “Construyendo escuelas” (Building Schools) in which Méndez utilized a vertical, elongated format to create an “S” like composition.

In this way he breaks up the space to create several spaces where various stages of the school construction can be shown. In the upper scene, a man on a ladder paints a wall while three other men watch him. In the middle plane a group of men observe from the other side of the wall how a bricklayer places mortar on a brick. In the lower scene a group of workers prepare a window for the school building. In Cortez’s version “Waiting Vultures” (3) from 1987, he includes, in a similar format and composition, a series of scenes. The upper one shows a balanced contrast of black and white where the undertaker and the vultures patiently await death. The mid level includes four windows and a zig-zag composition echoing Mendez’s work, Cortez shows four different real life characters, some accompanied by a skeleton or a symbol of the forthcoming death. At the lower level area, he shows the loss of hope in an urban setting — possibly a solitary alley way in Chicago — represented by a masculine, seated figure accompanied by a Posada-like skeleton


Fig. 2. Carlos Cortéz, Waiting Vultures / La espera de los zopilotes1987, woodcut, N.N. / xilografía, S.N., 32 7/8” X 21 1/8” (paper size), National Museum of Mexican Art Permanent Collection, 1990.33, Gift of the artist, photo credit: Kathleen Culbert-Aguilar.


I showed Cortez these two works to verify whether Mendez’s piece had inspired him. He responded by stating he had never seen this Méndez print. Is this a mere artistic coincidence or an artist’s way of forgetting his visual sources and inspirations? What more can we learn about Cortez, his sources and his modes of artistic appropriation?


All Cortez’s art pieces included in Parts I and II of this essay are designated in a series of numbered figures (e.g., fig. 1, etc.) We reproduce them here through the auspices of the NMMA and the blessing of Marianna’s family. Included herein are a few images among those commissioned by one of Cortez’s prime affiliate organizations, the Movimiento Artístico Chicano (MARCH) of which I have been a member for many years. Arceo and José Guerrero contributed additional photos and drawings for Part I.  Thanks als go out to MARCH director Carlos Cumpián for his help.



[1] The most popular myth about this term according to Cortez is the following one. A Chinese cook, member of the IWW and in charge of feeding the members, would ask members while they showed him their IWW membership ID, “you I Wabble Wabble” because he could not pronounce “Doubbleu Doubbleu.” The myth apparently occurs all the way from the docks in California to the lumber camps from Washington state and British Columbia. It is also believed that the expression has to do with the fact that workers in these latitudes, originally from Eastern Europe, had a different sound for the letter “W” which to them sounded more like “V.”

[2]Shifra Goldman, “Mexican And Chicano Workers In The Visual Arts,” Dimensions of the Americas,p. 296. Goldman distinguishes between those artists identifying themselves as Mexican American or Chicano. By that score, as her Chicano artist son Mario Castillo reminded me when I interviewed him on 2/17/99, the oldest Mexican American artist in Chicago was María Enriquez de Allen who, born in June, 1907, came to Chicago in the 1960s and lived into her nineties.

[3]Eugene Nelson, Introduction to Carlos Cortez, Crystal-Gazing The Amber Fluid And Other Wobbly Poems, (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co., 1997), p.6

[4] John Pittman Weber, “Carlos Cortez,” Bold Images: Carlos Cortez, Artist And Poet. (Elmhust: Elmhurst Art Museum, 1998), p. 3

[5]Helga Prignitz, “Exhibitions index,” El Taller de Gráfica Popular en México 1937-1977, (Mexico City, INBA/ Centro Nacional de Investigación, Documentación e Información de Artes Plásticas, 1992).

[6] Francisco Reyes Palma, “Workshop of Popular Graphics During the Times of Cardenas,” Image Of México, exhibition catalogue, (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1987).

[7]Quoted by Aaron Cohen, in “Art People: Carlos Cortez, Mexican German Expressionist,” Reader. Chicago. July 23, 1993.

[8]Adrian Villagomez Levre, Jose Guadalupe Posada Aguilar, exhibition catalogue, 1989. The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, p. 11; Raquel Tibol, The Mexican Graphic Arts: Tradition and Individual Features, exhibition catalogue, Prints Of The Mexican Masters. 1987, The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, p. 5

[9] See credits at


René Arceo. A graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, received a BFA, majoring in printmaking, and a teacher certificate (k-12). The co-founder of Chicagos Galeria Ink Works (1984 – 1987) & Mexican Printmaking Workshop (1990 ), worked for the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum (1986 – 1999). Has exhibited widely in the Midwest, Mexico and Canada. His works are derived from conscious and sometimes subconscious experiences and are, to a great extent, the result of the spontaneous marks, colors and patterns that evolve into a final work.

Marc Zimmerman. Emeritus, Latino and Latin American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, director Global CASA/LACASA Chicago Books. Commentator and contributor to El BeiSMan.