Latino Art in Chicago 1920-1970

Marc Zimmerman Publicado 2016-04-04 09:11:05

On the eve of the LAN Conference: A state of the art “Pre-History"


This essay is based on research conducted by the Chicago Latin@ Arts Series (LAS) and its most developed branch, the Chicago Mexican Art Project (CMAP), groups which I coordinate in my role as director of LACASA Chicago. The essay stands now as the definitive essay on the pre-history of Chicago Latin@ art until further research leads to significant revisions. A summary of our finding, including many additional images, will be presented at the Latino Art Now (LAN) conference April 7-9 In the version for El BeiSMan, I have deleted footnotes, bibliography and all images except those presented. MZ



In all the many studies recently appearing about Chicago’s Latino population, very little attention has been played to the question of cultural production. Of course there have been several studies of the most famous Latina writers. But probably the more important aspect of Chicago Latino culture, the development of a great number of visual artists, has gone generally unnoticed until quite recently. And the fact is, that without a consideration of the writers and artists our picture of Latino Chicago remains incomplete and distorted. Indeed, the artists and writers known and studied are among several other leading figures in what in some ways represented a Chicago version of east coast-west coast and southwest developments, but in other ways represented something beyond them, constituting a virtual Latino emergence that would ultimately find repercussions throughout the Midwest and beyond. The failure to take adequate account of this dimension of Latino experience and to integrate it into the broader study leads in fact to a distortion of that experience, its history and the future potential for Latino development in local and broader contexts.

Focusing on the visual arts, we know that several generations of artists have emerged, each group developing in relation to the others, and seeking new directions. In addition, studies of a few of the artists, organizations, movements and trends have emerged, in the work of Victor Sorell, Bertha Husband, Jeff Huebner, Olivia Gude, John Weber, Franky Piña, and a few others. However, the origins, the overall scope and the implications of the initial emergence and development of Latino arts have not been studied in any coherent or systemic way.

As far as the early development of Latino art in the city, the earliest indication we have found comes in Juan R. García’s Mexicans in the Midwest: 1900-1932. Tucson: U. Press of Arizona 1996), a text cited by Olga Herrera to highlight and enrich her effort (the first) to develop a comprehensive history of Midwestern Latino arts, in her book, Toward the Preservation of a Heritage: Latin American and Latino Art in the Midwestern United States. (South Bend, IN: Institute for Latino Studies: U. of Notre Dame, 2008).

Even before Herrera’s book, Pots of Promise (U. of Illinois Press, 2004), a rich collection on the Mexican potters at Jane Addams Hull House, edited by Cheryl Ganz and Margaret Strobel, focused on the key contributions of Jane Addams Hull House to the development of Chicago Mexican handicraft and other matters relevant to our topic. More recently, Sarah Kelly Oehler’s They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration 1910-1950 (Institute of Art of Chicago, 2013) gave us additional perspectives. These works and others to be cited below help to map out the basis of a relatively coherent “pre-history” of the development of Latin American and Latino art reception and production in Chicago.However tentative, no matter how still imperfect, and no matter how much more seems to be required for a full and accurate history, the effort in what follows is to present a narrative of what we know at this time. As such, this paper will plot some of the initial dimensions of Chicago Latin American and Latino art history in relation to the development of Chicago’s Latino communities and the struggle for creative space in the midst of adverse conditions (see).


Latin American Art and Influences in Chicago in the 1920s and 30s

From Oehler’s study, it becomes clear thatseveral Chicago artists grew interested in Mexican and Chicago Mexican life, mural and print art. One, German-American artist Hermann Menzel, was fascinated by the Mexican presence in Chicago and painted several subjects, including his well-known Mexican Pool Hall.


Hermann Menzel, Pool Hall. IAC, reproduced in Oehler 2013 (see). 


Jewish American artists Morris Topchevsky, Mitchell Siporin, Max Kahn, Misch Kohn, and Eleanor Coen traveled to Mexico, got to know several of the leading artists and carried out work on Mexican themes showing the influence of Mexican art and life. Topchevsky formed a close personal and artistic relationship with Diego Rivera, and produced many paintings on Mexican topics.


Morris Topchevskhy, Mexican Boy. IAC, reproduced in Oehler 2013.


Meanwhile Siporin acknowledged the influence of José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros on his work, including his murals at Lane Tech High School. “Trough the lessons of our Mexican teachers, we have been made more aware of the scope and fullness of this the soul of our own environment.,” he said “It was they, he said, who suggested the application of modernism toward a socially moving epic of our time and place.” His mural art would later have its effect in the 1960s, on Lane Tech student Mario Castillo. 

Influenced by Orozco, but turning to the portrayal of women, Coen was perhaps the first woman to paint murals in Mexico—above all in San Miguel de Allende. In addition, she, her husband Max and the other Jewish artists were drawn to El Taller de Gráfica Popular (the TGP), and developed work which drew on José Guadalupe Posada, Leopoldo Méndez and other major Mexican graphic artists. However, none of them developed as intense a relation with the TGP and Mexican art as the Chicago-based African American painter Elizabeth Catlett. She and her first husband painter Charles White traveled to Mexico City and drew on the dominant artistic currents in their subsequent artistic work. Back in Chicago, Catlett divorced White and then returned to Mexico, married TGP artist Francisco Mora, developed work for the group and on her own, and became a Mexican citizen in the process.


 Elizabeth Catlett, La presa. IAC, reproduced in Oehler 2013.


A special case of an artist with ties to Chicago and Mexico is that of Madrid-born painter, Julio de Diego who produced several excellent paintings in Chicago in the early 1930s, moved to Mexico for some years (Max Kahn and Eleanor Kahn drove down with him), and became friends with Mexico City-based Guatemalan painter Carlos Mérida (he married and later divorced burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, did murals traveling with the Rose), and joined anti-Fascist causes into the 1940s). (See; also).

Some art teachers, critics and collectors like IAC affiliates Robert Harshe, Daniel Catton Rich, Katharine Kuh and Florence Arquin, promoted Mexican and Latin American art bringing Carlos Mérida, Mexican photographer Manuel Bravo Alvarado and a few other key artists to the city, purchasing numerous prints by Posada, Méndez and others from the TGP, as well as a modest assortment of paintings by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, Alfredo Zalce, Rufino Tamayo and others for the Art Institute.

It should be noted that much of the Latin American and Latin American-influenced art work mentioned here which ended up at the IAC was mostly kept in storage and out of sight, to the point that hardly any of the Latino artists who were to attend the SAIC over the years, let alone Chicago Latinos and others, even knew of their existence in the Art Institute. But what do we know about the action of other less mainstream arts organizations? What about those Latin American and Latino artists who came to study and grow in Chicago? And then, above all, what about those Chicago born or bred Latino art students who were beginning to emerge out of the Chicago turf itself?

According to Oehler, other art organizations also took a special interest in Mexican and Latin American art:

The Arts Club of Chicago included Mexican modernism in its programming … and repeatedly displayed work by Mexican artists, including solo exhibitions of paintings by [Adolfo] Best Maugard in 1921, Orozco in 1934 and … Tamayo in 1937. Likewise, the Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago … hosted a lecture by Topchevsky in 1930 on the contemporary art of Mexico. … [In addition,] in 1938 the gallery of the Artists Union displayed the works of the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (… or LEAR), a Communist group founded in 1934 ... to promote revolutionary art, particularly the graphic arts, as a means of fighting fascism. The Artists Union also dedicated an issue of their journal, The Chicago Artist, to the topic of LEAR … This included an article by Siporin that described LEAR (which would soon disband) and introduced the TGP, which formed as a LEAR splinter group (Oehler 2013: 38-39). 

As for artists coming to work in the city, Herrera notes how in the 1920s, “Hispanics had already begun to establish a presence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago” (SAIC), as an increasing number of Mexicans thinking of art as an occupation and career came to the city and enrolled.”

One early-arriving artist was sculptor Enrique Alferrez, who had fought in Pancho Villa’s army and in Chicago, took SAIC classes, but latched on to several building projects in the city, where examples of his work can be seen in what is now the Playboy Building at 333 N Michigan Building and the Palmolive Building. As Grossman noted in an article written by Ron Grossman (Chicago Tribune. 12/20/1985, Section 5, p. 1). “Chicago was a place where an unlettered peasant boy, like himself, could make the rite of passage into the heady world of modern art. Alferrez got to hang out with Ben Hecht, Carl Sandberg and Meyer Levin before leaving Chicago and establishing himself as an important artist in New Orleans, where he lived into his nineties.”


Ron Grossman, first page of his article on Enrique Alferrez. (Thanks to René Arceo and John Hollister for leads about this artist.)


Citing Jacinto Quirarte (Mexican American Artists. Austin: U. of Texas Press 1973), Herrera provides some information about other artists who came to the city: 

Antonio E. García, who was born in 1901 in Monterrey, Mexico, … attended SAIC on a scholarship between 1927 and 1930, winning prizes in 1929, before settling back in Texas where he continued his art work, taught art at Del Mar College and led art workshops in Mexico (Quirarte, 41–42). A contemporary of García, Octavio Medellín, who was born in the town of Matehuala, Mexico, in 1907 and moved to San Antonio, Texas, in 1920, enrolled in evening art sessions at SAIC throughout 1928 (Quirarte, 49) and went on to a notable career in North Texas. Perhaps one of the better known [Latino] artists attending SAIC at this time was José de Rivera, who relocated to Chicago from Louisiana in 1924 and enrolled in evening classes with John W. Norton in 1926 after several job stints in tool and die making factories. De Rivera developed his own sculptural style … influenced by Bauhaus philosophy and artists Lazslo Moholy-Nagy, Rudolf Belling, and Oscar Schlemmer …. [He] would stay in Chicago until 1931, and his association with the Midwest continued well into the 1970s. He received the Watson F. Blair Prize from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1957.

As far as specifically local development, the first sporadic efforts to promote art education and practices appeared, with great limits, in Mexican-attended schools and churches and then the mutual aid societies which emerged as Mexicans sought to do what the other institutions were doing all so poorly. However there is insufficient documentation of early arts developments in Chicago’s Mexican communities. In the work of the early University of Chicago students who wrote on these communities, with the one exception of Jones and Wilson (see Fig. 6), there are hardly any references to artistic works or efforts. This is also true of almost all the studies written on Chicago Mexican themes from the 1920s into the new century. And this is why Juan García’s work on the Midwest is so important because, it provides at least some information about early arts efforts in Chicago’s Mexican neighborhoods.

Herrera summarizes García’s account of the earliest developments yet uncovered:

Beginning in 1921, and increasingly after 1924, Hull-House served as the meeting place for the Sociedad Fraternal Benito Juárez. Hull-House became a key partner in the development of community by renting out meeting space during weekends to cultural groups such as Banda Mexicana de Chicago and the Mexican Orchestra and to social clubs such as the Cuauhtémoc and Azteca mentioned above (David Badillo in Ganz and Strobel 2004, 40). It also served as headquarters for the theater groups De León, and Nieto y Rodríguez Mexican Troupes and as meeting space for organizations such as the Sociedad Hispano Americana and the Mexican Art Association. … Meanwhile, in 1925 the Círculo de Obreros Católicos was founded in Chicago. Among its cultural activities were the sponsoring of cello concerts, poetry readings and according to … García, “exhibitions of original works by prominent Mexican artists including those of muralist Alfredo [sic] Siqueiros” (García 1996, 169). Moreover, Obreros Católicos had a very active theater group called El Cuadro Dramático that featured nine productions between March 1927 and May 1928. It also published Los Amigos del Hogar, a newsletter that kept the community informed about the latest news, issues, and events. A similar cultural organization, the Sociedad Fraternal Benito Juárez, was also established around this time, counting among its members: doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. In response to a common perception that these two organizations were elitist in nature and served only the needs of the middle class, other groups were soon after organized to appeal to the working class. The Sociedad Cuauhtémoc, El Círculo Azteca, and the Mexican Fraternal Society were sponsors of patriotic celebrations in Chicago that instilled in the working-class community a continued sense of Mexican nationalism and belonging. The proliferation of Mexican organizations led to an attempt to bring them together on March 30, 1925, under the Confederación de Sociedades Mexicanas de los Estados Unidos de América. However, the umbrella organization was marred by internal conflicts and dissolved after only two years (García 1996, 185).

By 1929 Hull-House was regularly hosting “Mexican Fiesta” on Thursday evenings for “a number of Mexicans who live in the neighborhood and also in other parts of Chicago [who] meet in the dining room where Mrs. Britton of Hull-House, the Mexican Consul and others receive them” (Hull-House Papers 1929, 13). By this time also, Hull House was already developing its Mexican crafts and pottery project as part of its Americanization program for Mexican immigrants—a program that would continue developing even more intensely during the Depression years. (cf. Ganz and Strobel: 31-49) The ample collection of Hull house visuals [especially the photos of Wallace Kirkland] provides us examples of the different crafts pursued by Mexican participants; and beyond the many photographs of many crafts, the collection includes some examples of linocuts by perhaps the first Chicago Mexican artist yet uncovered—William L. Ortiz. Born in Mexico and working in the Hull House program, Ortiz carried out his woodcuts there, presenting aspects of South Chicago, but also the Mexican section of the Halsted Street immigrant corridor, where he attended Hull House classes. There are at least three linocut drawings of Mexican Chicago attributed to Ortiz dating from the late 1920s and reproduced in a pamphlet by Robert C. Jones and Lois Wilson, The Mexican in Chicago; however perhaps his most striking image is one “intended to portray the Mexican Yesterday and To-day. Yesterday, a peon in the fields of Mexico, today a worker in the steel mills of Chicago.”


William L. Ortiz. Cover image for Jones and Wilson, The Mexican in Chicago. (see other woodcuts at this link)


The 1930s

During the Depression, Chicago Mexicans experienced high levels of unemployment and the repatriation of significant numbers; but the thirties also witnessed the continuing development of Jane Addams Hull House potters and the Mexican participation therein. So, Herrera notes how “from its pool of students Hull-House Kilns recognized the talent of Mexican ceramists Jesús Torres, Miguel Juárez, José Ruíz, Camilo Fuentes, and Hilarión Tinoco who by 1931 became art instructors and assistants in the Kilns yard. (Ganz and Strobel: 78).

Countless photos were taken at the Hull House of area Mexicans who participated in ceramic-making classes and workshops. One of the photos shows some of the Mexicans in front of a mural which Chicago Mexican architect Adrián Lozano had done for Hull house—perhaps the first indoor Mexican mural of the city, showing some clear influences of Mexican and WPA muralism in the U.S.


Hull House Mexicans sitting in front of Adrián Lozanos mural—Progress in Mexico. Reproduced in Ganz and Strobel, and in Herrera.


Lozano may have produced other artwork which future research should explore, though here we should note his contribution in designing the Benito Juárez High School and the extension of the National Museum of Mexican Art building.

Here is not the place to discuss the work of the potters themselves, their Mexican “cultural capital” and the techniques following models provided by Adolfo Best-Maugard and their several non-Mexican teachers—all of this so well discussed and contextualized in the volume edited by Ganz and Strobel.

At least three of the potters, Ruíz, Juárez and Jesús Torres, tried to develop artistic careers during and after their Hull House years, and a few examples of their work may have survived. In this respect, Torres is clearly the standout. Word has it that his wife, María Francisca Araujo, was ashamed of her husband’s “feminine artistic interests.” However, it seems it was she who encouraged him to leave Mexico, to develop as an potter and then pursue an artistic career into and beyond the 1940s; and perhaps this encouragement combined with his talent, enabled Torres to establish himself as a professional artist developing skills even in fresco painting as part of his impressive repertoire of talents (did he do murals?). And it was his widow who kept many of his art works, correspondence, etc. As of now, he and Lozano stand as the first two Mexican and Latino artists to establish careers in the city.

Sandra López has recently explored his evolving career in an essay developed for the NMMA. According to her study,

Torres was born in the village of Silao, Guanajuato, Mexico on June 29th, 1898. Known for its rich arts and crafts community, Silao was central for artists and craftsmen, including Torres’ own father who made and sold leather material and goods. The omnipresence of creative self- sufficiency and production would foreshadow Jesus Torres’ own success. In 1924, Torres and his wife … traveled via Golden State Line towards the United States in search for better job opportunities. Initially settling in Texas, the couple moved according to the prospect of work. Maria found employment in Domestic labor and Jesus worked in road maintenance, while also enrolling in English and Studio art classes at the Jane Addams settlement home, [where he drew on his Mexican craft experience and his new Hull House lessons to become a major potter and then a teacher in the Hull House pottery project.]


Jesús Torres, at work as potter—photo from the Hull House Collection, used as cover image for Pots of Promise.


However, Torres quickly transcended the convention of potter and craftsman; developing skills and attributes that would help him achieve regional and eventual national acclaim. The Jane Addams Settlement home [served as] the central link connecting Jesús Torres and Edgar Miller [who had] partnered with artist Sol Kogen in developing the Artist studio complex at 155 W. Burton Place. Miller enlisted local artisans and craftsmen to collaborate in the development of the studios including … Torres, who was selected by Miller in 1936 to designthe interiors and the ceramic tile work of the home, as well as the carved doors and copper crown using Aztec motifs and design elements that contrasted with the impulses of Miller’s craft. Thesuccess of the partnership brought attention to Torres, who would soon acquire a following of his own, [receiving commissions] to design interior spaces within Chicago and cities neighboring, rendering restaurants, department store windows and museums. Torres would also design decorative objects such as lamps, head masks and even jewelry! (see; also)

In 1940, Torres was commissioned to design the interiors of 5 railway cars for the Rock Island- Southern Pacific Railway. The cars carried passengers on various routes throughout the southwest, California and Mexico, including Mexican immigrants traveling from Mexico to the United States, mirroring the immigrant experience of Jesús and María’s immigration in 1924. Torres spent an average of 150 days constructing the Mexican themed cars. Vermillion green walls with murals of Mexican landscapes and adobe fountainheads are lined by Copper trims and carved furniture. In the years which followed, Torres went on to become a fine metal and wood craftsman who used his skills and techniques to adapt to American culture, learning English, becoming a citizen and excelling in his chosen field until his early death in 1949.


Torres at work in the 1940s.


According to López, 

[Torres’] work fused together his creative knowledge from his upbringing in the traditional craft community of Mexico, to the rigor of works developed within the industrial city of Chicago. Torres created marketable objects for American consumers who expressed a budding interest in Mexican Modernism and folk culture. The hybridity of the objects rendered reflected the immigrants’ experience of adjusting to a new social landscape. … [His] success was to bridge his version of the popular culture of his homeland with the European Bourgeoisie culture of the United States. Unlike Diego Rivera, he approached his craft as a “Mexican- born Indian” who had professional aesthetic training in the United States, focusing on pre-colonial imagery rather than revolutionary themes.


Other Developments in the 1940s and 50s

Other than the story of the Hull house potters, we have not yet uncovered much about Chicago Latino arts in the 40s and 50s. We know that María Luisa Penne Rullán de Castillo (1913–2005), from Ponce Puerto Rico, studied at the Pratt Institute in New York, got her B.A. at the U. of Puerto Rico in 1939, was hired to teach at Pratt, and then went on to get her M.A. at the SAIC between 1945 and 1947, studying mainly with Constantine Pougialis and going for her doctorate at Columbia, before returning to Puerto Rico to continue her work as artist and arts promoter. Today considered an early Puerto Rican feminist artist, she founded and then directed the art department at the UPR Mayaguez until 1961, and then founded the department at the Universidad Interamericana in San German, which she directed until 1981. Some of her artwork can be seen in the collections of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico. One piece we have found in the Instituto, “Retrato de una Dama,” is dated 1947 and may have been done in Chicago; reproductions of other pieces dating from the same period, including at least one water color specifically identified as portraying the Chicago area, and a striking nude woman, appear in a catalog we have just found in the town of Humacao. Was she the first professional Latina or Puerto Rican woman painter to carry out work in Chicago?


María Luisa Penne, Mujer Desnuda, Chicago 1946. Cover image, Cat. Casa Roig, Humacao, PR. 1998. (see)


We now know for certain of two additional artists who emerged and had much greater local presence and impact: Puerto Rican Rufino Silva and Mexican Luis Ortiz Mendoza. Herrera notes how, born in Humacao on October 3, 1919, Silva won a fellowship from the government of Puerto Rico to study art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) from 1939 to 42. After graduating, he traveled extensively throughout South America, then served in World War II, settling temporarily in Milwaukee in 1945 where he joined the Layton School of Art as an art instructor. He then moved to Paris in 1947 where he used his G.I. Bill to study and receive a certificate from L’École de la Grand Chaumière, returning to the Midwest in 1951. He had his first solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1952; won the Clusman art prize in 1955 and in 1959 became an art instructor at SAIC where he taught figure drawing and painting until September 1982 when he retired and was offered status as professor emeritus, a title he declined to accept.

In effect, Silva was the first Latin American and Puerto Rican to hold a fulltime, tenured position at the SAIC. Several of his students, including Cuban American artist Paul Sierra, went on to become important artists in subsequent years. Sierra has suggested that Silva was a contradictory figure who coupled his personal independentista politics with an apparently apolitical artistic production which tended toward a kind of architectural grouping of human bodies and faces in some ways reminiscent of German expressionism. He apparently kept his distance from Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, though he at least once served as judge at a Casa Aztlán art show; he also seems to have had considerable trouble with SAIC officials which may explain his refusal of emeritus status on retirement. Over the years, his work appeared in several group shows, and he exhibited his work twice in Puerto Rico, in shows arranged by Ricardo Alegría, the island’s leading cultural protagonist and director of the Instituto de Cultura puertorriqueña, an alumnus, incidentally, at the University of Chicago. Alegría apparently negotiated a few sales from the first show which took place in 1967; he authorized the sale by the Instituto of perhaps Silva’s best painting along with four finely executed prints—works now housed at the Instituto’s National Gallery.


Rufino Silva, Acontecimiento con fotógrafo, Chicago, 1967. Col ICP (Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña).


The Latino Arts Series (LAS) group has acquired professional black and white images from this show and another which took place in 1972, as well as the copy of the official reproduction of the painting chosen for purchase by Alegría and presented here. However, clearly a study of Silva’s considerable body of work, stored by his son Peter Silva some ninety miles from Seattle, is still in order.

Raised in a working class family in the Halsted/Taylor Street neighborhood, Luis Ortiz is the first offspring of Chicago Mexican working class immigrants we now know of to become a professional artist in Chicago. Early in his life, he became a professional circus acrobat, then fought in World War II and soon after, used his G.I. Bill to attend the SAIC and launch a colorful career as a professional artist hobnobbing and exhibiting with some of the leading Chicago artists of his generation even while supporting his wife and two children by holding regular working class jobs.

At the center of his abundant artwork was his fascination with human faces, painted in different colors, usually grotesque and always seeming about to say one thing or another about the absurd human scene he apparently saw around him. Ortiz continued painting into the 1990s. Working with Ortiz family members and with the help of the NMMA, the Chicago Mexican Art Project (CMAP), a key branch of the Latino Art Series (LAS), has recently succeeded in digitalizing much of his surviving and unsold artistic production.


Luis Ortiz, an atypical landscape with forms, 1966. Col. Errol Ortiz, Chicago


A final artist we now know of to emerge in the 1950s is Gregorio López Colunga, who came from Mexico City in 1956 and, who, assisted by his sister, Carmela, “painted various murals in businesses and private homes.” His son, Miguel López Lemus, claims him as “Chicago’s first Mexican muralist”; but Adrián Lozano’s Hull House mural dates from the 1930s.


The 1960s and Beyond

The Cuban Revolution brought Paul Sierra, José Bernal, Tulio Vásquez and Eladio González to Chicago. Sierra arrived in 1961, studied at the SAIC with Rufino Silva and others, participated in several Chicago Latino shows and developed his work as a painter with a national reputation and as the years went by.


Paul Sierra, Portrait, 1970s, showing Silva influence. Paul Sierra Col.


Bernal arrived in 1962, working first for Marshall Fields, gaining some fame and income as an artist, winning a SAIC MFA in 1970, and then going on to an ample career as a self-defined postmodernist, until his death in 2010—at which point he donated much of his considerable body of finely honed art work was donated to the Parkinson Disease Foundation. Arriving in 1965 “for political reasons,” Vázquez developed his sculpture work while holding down a job at the University of Chicago. González, of Afro-Cuban and Chinese descent, arrived in 1968, attended the SAIC and established himself as an important painter and sculptor in the 70s and well beyond. (See María Masud.)

Others came to Chicago in the 1960s and would soon participate in what would become a growing artistic movement. First, María Enríquez de Allen moved from Allende, Mexico to Texas and then, with her children including her artist son Mario Castillo, she arrived in Chicago in 1963. She soonbecame an arts and crafts teacher for children and adults [and] along with Chicago Southside mexicana, María Almonte, began exhibiting her artwork, including quilts and paper flower creations, which would receive numerous awards during the 1970s and 1980s. According to Herrera, her work “attained national prominence as part of the feminist recuperation of traditional women’s production in the domestic realm that integrated crafts and art.” Surprisingly she seems to have been a creative artist in her own right.


María Enríquez de Allen, Fantasy Garden. (see)


Many Spanish surnamed artists yet to be researched show up on the roster of group shows and art school partipation in this period. One, Thomas Garcia from Alhambra, California attended with SAIC, studying with Rufino Silva and others from 1965 to 1968 participating in group shows and then in a one man show at the Gilman Gallery (Herrera: 45) before returning to California. Around the same time, Carlos Cortez came in from Milwaukee and would develop his career as a Chicano linocut artist, poster maker and sometime muralist. Soon after, Marcos Raya and others arrived. Several young Mexican artists also attended the SAIC while continuing to relate to questions of community. Errol Ortiz, son of Luis Ortiz Mendoza, attended the SAIC in the early 1960s and began his work as an artist in the line of the Chicago imagists.


Errol Ortiz, Matching Birds, 1966. NMMA Col.


María Eniquez’s son Mario Castillo, graduated in the late 1960s, as did José Gamaliel González and Ricardo Alonzo; and Castillo became known as a young muralist and painter even as other artists of varying nationalities and ethnicities began painting murals expressing their concerns, their identifications and aspirations. 

According to Herrera:

It was not until the late 1960s that the first manifestations of what is now referred to as Latino art would appear in the Midwest. A critical mass of artists born in midwestern states and recent arrivals from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba and other Latin American nations converged in major cities in the region. What would become the Latino artistic community began to take root in the 1960s with some established artists and a new generation of art students who would have important roles in the later part of the 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Some took part in the political activism that characterized this period of US history.

People’s rebellions emerged throughout the world, manifested in the U.S. by the Civil Rights and anti-war protests, and for Latinos especially, the struggles of the United Farmworkers’ and the overall Chicano movement as well as increased Puerto Rican protest against the island’s colonial status along with U.S. Rican welfarization, lumpenization, and discrimination. Things grew especially tense in Chicago with the Puerto Rican uprising of 1966, growing activism in the Mexican community, and then the demonstrations which broke out in relation to the Democratic Presidential Convention of 1968. As local conflicts heated up, so did the question of public art and overall empowerment. In this context, the contemporary mural movement began in Chicago and spread from city to city in spring 1967 when the Organization for Black American Culture (OBAC) painted the walls of an old two-story building with themes centered on key community leaders; and Bill Walker coordinated the painting of several panels for “the Wall of Respect” dedicated in late August (cf. Cockcroft, Weber, and Cockcroft 1977, 46, cited in Herrera 2008).

These developments ignited public art activity which quickly spread to Latino artists who resurrected ideals and orientations stemming from the Mexican mural movement and developing new artistic directions. A key figure in all this was the young Mario Castillo. As he writes many years after the 60s:

I really haven’t done that many murals, but since I was the first Mexican-American in the U.S.A. to start painting murals for the new public art movement in 1968, I’m in history books related to this movement. Actually it was in 1964 at Lane Technical High School in Chicago, when I first started to paint murals. The mural [I] worked with a team of students, received an award in 1965 and it was mounted in the main office at Lane Tech. There I was surrounded by major fresco works and WPA murals. At the time I was also aware of the pre-Columbian frescos of the Maya and Teotihuacanos and the three major Mexican muralists. (see)

The mural of 1968 was “Metafisica”; the following year came, “The Wall of Brotherhood,” — both works using a special iconography that would differentiate his work from later Chicago Latino muralists but mark his future work as a studio artist.


Mario Castillo on the scaffold for The Wall of Brotherhood, 1969. Photo. José Gamaliel González


In that same year, 1969, Felicítas Núñez, a movement Chicana visiting from San Diego, and virtually without any prior artistic experience or training, painted a few iconic figures on the wall of the Young Lords’ People’s Church building. (She painted Puerto Rican nationalists, but added her own Chicana signature by also painting an image La Adelita). Was this the first Chicana to paint a mural in Chicago and perhaps even the U.S. as a whole?


Felicítas Núñez, Mural images on Young Lords’ People’s Church building Armitage Ave. 1969. Photo. John Pitman Weber.


The Chicago Latino political emergence and the Latino art emergence had now begun and would quickly spread to theater, literature and other artistic modes. The central theme of the early stages of that emergence in Mexican Chicago is how a group of cultural producers attempted to bring a uniquely Chicano/a perspective to the attention of a larger population that is largely-of Mexico origin and orientation and how at least certain sectors of this population took on specific national identity politics and, very quickly as well, pan-Latino positions as they sought to transcend the divide and conquer patronage tactics typical of Chicago politics and develop a more militant agenda inspired by the Chicano movement of the 60s and tied, locally, to the efforts to forge a militant independent Mexican and Latino politics in relation to the movement which would bring Harold Washington to power and would lead to the emergence of what would become the NMMA in the late 1980s

As this overall history developed so did the work of Chicago Latino artists. To the other figures we mention emerging in the 1960s and carrying over into the 1970s, 80s and beyond, we can add the work of Cuban American naïve artist Nereida García Ferraz and Brazilian muralist Mirtes Zwierzynski along with the Latino-related work of Mark Rogovin and John Weber (later Jeff Zimmermann would make his mark). Then focusing on Mexican public art, after the murals of Castillo and Núñez came those of Ray Patlán (including Casa Aztlán); of José Guerrero, Carlos Barrera, Vicente Mendoza, José Nario, of Marcos Raya and Sal Vega; of Ricardo Alonzo and José Gamaliel González; the Benito Juárez High School outdoor mural by Jaime Longoria with Maylu Ortega and Oscar Moya; the many murals of MARCH painter Aurelio Díaz, the CTA and school murals of Francisco Mendoza; the ever-innovative work of master muralist Héctor Duarte; the work of Jeff Abbey Maldonado; of the Pilsen and Villita spraypaint graffiti artists, and the community artists of every kind. (See.) And in all this we can’t forget the sculptures of Alex Garza and Román Villarreal, the linocut prints and posters of Carlos Cortez, or the swirling fanciful neo-Barroque poster work of Alejandro Romero—artists who also did some mural work. (See). And we would also need to explore the studio art of many of these Mexican artists, plus others like Errol Ortiz, Dan Ramírez, Rene Arceo, Juanita Jaramillo, Emma Yolanda Galván and Margueritte Ortega. And to all of these we would have to then add the Puerto Rican painters, Mario Galán, Aníbal Rojas, Oscar Martínez, Gamaliel Ramírez, Arnaldo Roche Rabell, Benjamín Varela, Jorge Félix, Raúl Ortiz Bonilla, Bibiana Suárez, Design and others who emerged over the years.


José Gamaliel González, Collage of Chicago Latino murals, 1976. González Col.


However, these and other stories of the Chicago Latino and Mexican social and art explosion are stories which are now told or still have to be told elsewhere—as are those related to perhaps additional early Chicago Latino artists and art work yet to be uncovered, and as are those of the veteran artists who continued their work as ever newer artists and artist groups emerged in the more than forty-five years of development which dates from 1970 to this day.


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.


De interés



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Juan Mora-Torres - 2018-06-12


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