Remembering Carlos Cortez as Poet

Marc Zimmerman Publicado 2015-08-01 04:24:12

Carlos Cortez, Photo: José Gamaliel González


Commemorating 10 years since the death of a Chicago Mexican icon

This article commemorates Carlos Cortez the Chicago Chicano writer and artist, during the tenth year since his death.  His friend poet Carlos Cumpian will host a gathering on Thursday, August 13, 2015 7-9 p.m. at the coffee house Café Urbano at the corner of Elston Ave. and Avers Ave. The poetry and words of Cortez from an interview recorded about one year before his death will be featured in this presentation. An ofrenda for Cortez, arranged by David Pesquera, will also be featured in this year’s Mexican Day of the Dead exhibit held by the National Museum of Mexican Art, starting September 18, 2015  6 - 8:30 pm.




A small green leaf
Breaks its way
Thru a crack in the pavement,

Glories briefly
In its new-found freedom,
then withers;

But the root beneath
Stronger and stronger
(Cortez 1990: 55)


Canto al Pueblo

Carlos Cortez was born in Milwaukee in 1923, the son of a Mexican Indian father and a German mother. He moved to Chicago in 1965, where he became a fixture in Chicago Latino cultural life as a graphic artist and poet. Cortez’s formal education as an artist was “very minimal, consisting only of high school classes and a few night classes at local galleries;” but the fact is that Cortez’s artistic style, deriving from the kind of cartoon work which made José Guadalupe Posada famous in early 20th Century Mexico, extends the grotesque gallows humor found in much Mexican art through the grim expressionism of Kaethe Kollwitz on into the contemporary Chicano/Latino world. While Cortez may well be remembered far more for his linocut and woodcut graphics than for his verse, he exhibits some of the same virtues in both media; and it may indeed be said that in some ways, Cortez translates radical Mexican traditions (including graphics) into populist verse. All of his works are part of his unique place in the overall U.S. Chicano world as the most overt follower of an anarcho-syndicalist tradition which in the hands of the Flores Magón brothers, was one of the extreme forces in the panorama of ideologies and orientations fundamental to the Mexican Revolution.

Cortez is not an example of an artist who finds politics but of one whose whole life orientation, then, would make art a means of political and humanistic communication. His graphics speak in a striking direct manner, often helped out with words. Bold, cartoonlike images ridicule corruption and exploitation and hail the struggle against these forces. So too his many poems. “I write poetry because [it’s]...another form of communication,” he says. “The social forces of repression and the consequent forces of rebellion have long influenced my writing as well as [my]...other forms of expression” (Cortez 1988).

Parental influence and early experience during the depression and World War II led to his joining the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). An understanding of Cortez’s participation in the IWW or Wobblies, is central to understanding his graphics, his poetry, and above all his contribution to Chicano and Latino cultural life through Chicago’s Movimiento Artístico Chicano (MARCH), with which he would be identified from the mid-1960s on. As Cortez notes, the IWW was “the initial force motivating my expression, and participation in any other type of movements were but a logical extension of that.” This is to say that, in spite of clear continuities between Mexican radical traditions and Cortez’s contributions, his initial orientations were not specifically Latino; and he sees what are now his Chicano/Latino, as well as his Indianist and other, dimensions are overlays on what is essentially a “Wobbly humanist populism.”

As a popular working class Wobbly poet, Cortez was not without a certain degree of recognition even prior to his connection with specifically Chicano or Latino group or movement. His “Outa Work Blues” was included in the IWW’s Little Red Song Book and distributed to the more than fifty IWW chapters throughout the world; the poem was reprinted in Walter Lowenfels’ Poets of Today (1964). His most comprehensive poem, the one which anticipates all the others, is his hymn to oppressed Indians, Mexicans, Swedish labor organizers, tyrannized Jews, Haymarket Germans, brutalized U.S. and Caribbean Blacks: “Where are the Voices?” First published for the 1960 May Day issue of The Industrial Worker, the poem only later appeared in one of the major Chicano publications, El Grito del Sol, and then in the First Canto Al Pueblo Anthology. The reverse process occurred with one of his most important expressions of Indian roots, “This is the Land,” published as his contribution to the 1979 issue of Abrazo, MARCH’s first publishing organ and later reprinted in Scott Foresman’s highschool textbook, The United States in Literature (1979). The essay which follows attempts the most detailed look at his literary work to date, examining Wobbly connections, but focusing primarily on the Latino and specifically Chicano dimensions of his achievement.


His Writing and Books

If Cortez’s Mexican father was as singer and orator, it was his German working-class mother who wrote poetry. While he would sometimes use corrido and other Mexican forms, he would show himself to be more at home with Indian storytelling patterns, blues and white folk forms. His Spanish is occasional, and not deep-rooted. While his graphic mentor is Posada, his poetic models are not to be found in Mexico or in the U.S. Latino tradition, but rather in such communal and popular English language bards and scribes like “Robbie” Burns, Jack London, Robert Service, [and then] the early Wobbly poets. Throughout the fifties, he followed the rise of Beat Generation writers like Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Snyder, and perhaps his biggest writer-hero, Kenneth Patchen. The Beats “were the ones who caused me to say, ‘Hell, I can write shit like that too.’”

Following his influences and impulses, Cortez is an American anarchist poet, a soap box poet as he likes to call himself with a strong counter cultural thrust rooted in a hostility toward big capital, but also toward any forces (including then and now existing socialisms) which he sees as destructive to human cultures, human creativity and human potentiality, as well as to relations among humans and between humans and the natural world. “All forms of literature of whatever ethnicity have influenced me,” he writes, confirming this view.

Because of my own background and the subsequent external consequences that have influenced my choice of identity, I have particular interest in Indian and Mestizo poetry, as well as any other group [which shares] similar experiences ... I do not consider myself “Latino,” “Hispanic,” “Herspanic” or whatever. I happen to be one who uses poetry as a means of expressing certain strong feelings; and had I been born of a different parents resulting in an entirely different frame of identification, I no doubt would still be expressing myself as strongly with whatever ethnic pride that I may have. [Cortez 1994]

As a Wobbly, Cortez’s perspective is ultimately internationalist; and there is no doubt but that Cortez’s specifically Latino and Indian identifications, especially in his overtly Wobbly poems, must be considered in light of this international vocation. Indeed the Mexican references emerge merely as part of a pattern involving many cultures. The question becomes, why is it that his artwork seems more in the Mexican tradition than his poetry? Probably because it was easier to hold on to the visual world than the linguistic one, given his mother’s ethnic background and his father’s intense involvements outside the home. To be a writer in the U.S., even a marginal one, meant taking on what one could in language. And most of Cortez’s early work remains more distanced from a Mexican verbal medium, more tied to the Anglo traditions mentioned above.

Nevertheless, as a collection, Crystal-Gazing the Amber Fluid gives a somewhat misleading impression of his early production. Left out are his most famous panoramic poems like “Where are the Voices?” and “This is the Land,” as well as his haiku and haiku-like forms. Most important for our purposes is the exclusion of almost all of his Afro-American and Latino-inflected poems, so that this focus seems far less crucial than a concern with working class Swedes, Italians and others. While highlighting his versatility and breadth, the collection perhaps misrepresents the weight of his more specifically non-Native American minority ethnic interests in relation to his concerns with justice, work and ecology.

Looking through the old Industrial Worker issues (as opposed to the collection of 1990), we find, interestingly enough, that his earliest work draws most on the blues and has at least some specific Afro-American historical reference — even if he tends to subsume race to class questions. The first poem he published (September, 1958) was “Blues for a Busdriver.”

The driver takes a weary glance
In the overhead mirror
Seeing for the thousandth time
His equally weary load
Of wage slaves.

A month later, there was “Late Evening Working Stiff Blues,” and sometime later, “City Central Blues” (the only blues poem included in Crystal-Gazing Amber: 16), “Blues for a Fisheater,” “Outa Work Blues,” “More Blues by C Red,” and “3 A.M. Blues” (included in Cortez 1997: 30) — just to mention a few. True, many of these blues don’t sound or feel much like blues, there’s no keeping to the rhythm or pattern, and like most of early Cortez, the work is very uneven, with some lines that work or half-work and others that clunk along as he makes one political point or another. Sometimes, though, he keeps more or less to his rhythm and to his blues form, and gets something better:

Well it’s a long time on the street
And the rockin’ chair money’s all gone,
It’s a long, long time on the street
And the rockin’ chair money’s all gone,
I’m down to rollin’ my own
And pickin’ butts off the lawn.
“Outa Work Blues” (IW, Oct. 31, 1962)

As for the Latino dimension, it is true that Cortez published no vast array of Mexican or Chicano-based early poems; and Crystal-Gazing in a sense both represents and compensates for this by the very limited Mexican referentiality of “Requiem for a Street” (1990: 27-28) or “Adios Tecopita” (19-21). Rather symptomatic is the absence of direct Mexican reference in his New Mexico “A-bomb” poem, “Peace Walkers” (39) or his L.A. poem, “City of Angels” (26-47). “Requiem for a Street” of course includes references to several groups displaced by the planners of the new campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and among them are the Puerto Ricans. But this slight reference points to how the collection underplays the Latino references available from his early work.

There are indeed several references to things Puerto Rican and even Mexican-Puerto Rican syncretisms (there’s even a “Corrido Borricano” — reprinted in Cortez 1997: 34-37) representative of his early Milwaukee Boricua ties more than his Chicago life. There are critical poems addressed to Fidel Castro. There are poems on undocumented workers, and on other dimensions of Mexican life. However, it is true that what is most emphasized in his Latino/Mexican field of references and what connects most fully with his IWW stance and his poetry is the Indian aspect of his Mexican and U.S. identity. And this of course emerges in “Adios Tecopita” which, title aside is more specifically Indian than Mexican in tone and orientation, and in the cumulative impression which emerges from a consecutive reading of Crystal-Gazing Amber.

While much of Cortez’s identification is with his parents’ proletarian past, he also emphasizes, and perhaps exaggerates his father’s Indianness. He himself identifies with Spanish, Mestizo and Indian dimensions of his roots, but it is the latter which most marks the ethnic quality of his work. Cortez started realizing the Indian side of his identity during his World War II Sandstone Prison incarceration, perhaps as a rejection of German roots in the midst of Midwest and above all Milwaukee German Nazification trends. That Indian identity grows from his early IWW work (he formally joined the organization after his prison release in 1947) to his more recent mature work. It is primarily from the stance of an invented role as an Indian sage that Cortez looks upon what the white bosses have done with Chicago, the Midwest, and the continent and what they are trying to do to the world. It is from the standpoint of this sage, then, that Carlos Cortez at times uses pen names — first, C.C. Redcloud (this at least as early as 1962) and later, Carlos Cortez Koyokuikatl, or “Song of the Coyote” — the “spirit name” given him by a Spanish and Nahuatl-speaking Indian in the early 1980s.

The “Coyote” had come to take on negative connotations in Mexican lore, linked to the often corrupt and mercenary border-runners bringing people and contraband across the border. But for the Native Americans, Cortez insists (1994) the coyote was a more positive figure, part of nature, and expressive of freedom and other positive qualities. It is through his effort to reinscribe a positive Indian identification that Cortez bridges the gap from his Mexican father’s world to one in which he himself is the elder and wiseman — the ironic, pithy, bemused and rueful voice of Indians and Mexican mestizos who are witnesses to and victims of the White Man’s manipulations of the earth.

Cortez notes that he had the Indian identification from his childhood. But, he adds, “My generation played down our Indian side. Getting by was getting by white. Spanish sounds better than Mexican or Indian.” In effect, emphasizing Indianness is Cortez’s way of critiquing the racism of his own ethnic group, and of positioning himself in a critique of all dimensions of European imposition in the New World. This is the image that emerges from the materials selected for Crystal-Gazing Amber Fluid, especially in the second half of the collection, in such poems as “Requiem Chant for a Half-breed Warrior” (42-44), “Three Spirits” (49-51) and “The Downfall of Disease-Giver” (52-53). These poems, along with the final one, “Speranz!,” point to the deeper values guiding Cortez’s work and point to aspects of his work that achieve further treatment in his second book; still other dimensions emerge in the poems collected in the 1997 volume, and in the still-uncollected poems which round out his overall literary opus.


Homage to Carlos Cortez, linocut, 1998-1999 by René Hugo Arceo 


Cortez’s Style and Evolution

Consistency of rhythm and form are obvious problems in Cortez’s rapidly written early poems; another problem is diction. Writing too fast, worrying more about what than how he communicates, Cortez doesn’t seem to grapple enough with language. Words sometimes break suggested rhythms and tonal unity. Usually it’s a big Latinate word that sloshes against the gutsier ones and makes a bit of a mess. With his longer poems, there’s too much chance for Cortez to mess up and lose all rhythmic and poetic continuity. The result is often a mass of verse that doesn’t work or only half works, with some decent lines in a series of flattened out, broken up ones. At times the broken rhythms or diction patterns are intentional, as he evokes his Indian sage persona as counterposed to rhythms and norms corresponding to urban modernity. And it is also true that among his best poems are some relatively long ones. But Cortez is usually most at home in fragments or in short, pithy forms, some of which carry a punch line.

Studying Japanese culture (and having other Japanese contacts) in the 1960s, Cortez wrote several haiku and haiku-like forms, and some of them are pretty good at catching certain moments, or even matters touching not only on politics but urban/rural and other forms of cultural dissonance:

Wise little pigeons
they know
How to decorate
The courthouse.
(“Springtime Haiku,” 4, IW, April 12, 1961)

Dawn merging
With a street light
At the bus stop;
Somewhere a rooster
Crows ......
(“Morning Haiku,” IW, Sept. 11, 1963)

After days of cold rain;
Thru the haze
Peers the ghost of
(“Seattle Haiku,” IW, Dec. 4, 1963) 

And there are his little vignettes that express working class feelings:

You with your million
evil green window eyes,
You swallow me every
evening; And puke me every
morning. ... Damn you.
(“3rd Shift,” IW, June 6, 1960 — reprinted in Cortez 1997: 16)

Or ones about Chicago that give us a real sense of place:

Winter morning
The factory whistle
Stabs the sky
Like a knife.
(“7 Windy City Haiku, 4, IW, Jan. 11, 1961) 

In a chilly alleyway
Off West Madison Street,
Santa Claus is an old man
With a dirty beard
Passing a bottle of cheap Muscatel
To his buddies.
(“Windy City Christmas,” IW, Dec. 18, 1961)

The absence of Cortez’s haiku and haiku-influenced works from Crystal-Gazing Amber mitigates against an adequate representation of his poetic capacity and breadth. And Cortez had long planned to right this imbalance by publishing a collection of such materials in the near future.

There is also a sexy erotic Carlos Cortez, but this Carlos is never separate from the poet who, starting in the late 50s is taken by the contrast between the city and nature, who recreates indigenous legends, who bemoans the smog and dirt, the acid rain, the radiation and fallout, the gradual extinction of species, and the racism and pretensions of his contemporaries, including those Latinos who attempt to deny their Indian or black blood. His growing critique encompasses all those who would destroy all that is worthy and creative in the world.

Such matters provide the basis for De Kansas a Califas & Back to Chicago (1992), his tour of U.S. waste and wonderland, of indigenous being and Chicano doing, his integrative poetry and art seeking to map out a counter-turf to the results of Anglo-American western expansion. As the book’s title suggests the poems were drafted on a trip Cortez took with his friend Joel Clilmenhaga and his wife (as well as their deaf dog) “in the closing months of 1992” (Climenhaga 1991, 5). Here we have a book which integrates Cortez’s art work and verse. The main theme is the destruction of the environment, and a reaffirmation of an idealized relationship between Native Americans and nature. Re-inscribing Indian identity is an effort at healing through poetic evocation. The process involves conjuring up lost nature, evoking the buffalo, the California Condor, the Mojave Dessert, the high Sierras, Machu Picchu in the Andes. Here the technique is close to that of the early haikus cited above, most of the poems drawing on short lyric stabs, jabs and lunges, punch lines sometimes in bold caps and exclamation marks, like NOW! or THERE! But the poems are also sprinkled with whole phrases in Spanish, as well as some Indian phrases; there are almost as many Mexican as Indian references. And the collection closes with a jeering tri-lingual evocation of Columbus’s (or Colón’s) so-called “discovery,” “Día de la Raza.”

Writing of this volume, Cortez’s friend Antonio Zavala points to the poet’s evocation of “the solitude and beauty of the desert, the Tenachapi Mountains and the Chicano culture of California”; Zavala praises the haikus which are part of the text. “I can’t recall a small press book as beautiful as this one,” he writes. “It is a perfect book from a great poet and artist. From cover to cover you can tell that it was a labor of love” (1993: 4).

Logically the latest Cortez volume, Where are the Voices?, published by the Wobbly outlet, Charles H. Kerr (1997) is closer to Crystal-Gazing than it is to the MARCH collection. Several (though far from all) of the early Wobbly newspaper poems left out of Crystal-Gazing, and indeed, a few haiku-inflected and Latino-centered poems appear, along with some newer material this critic had never seen before. The book includes a generous selection of graphics and the best introduction that has appeared in any of his books. It has the further virtues of giving us some of Cortez’s sharpest topical poems on mine disasters, Vietnam, crooked cops and labor heroes, as well as some poems in a more panoramic, epic vain, such as the well-honed “And the Buzz of the Flies Grows Louder” and, finally, the title poem — a Whitmanesque/Wobbly articulation of social history, first published on May 2, 1960, and subsequently republished in various places — a work which stands today as an elegy for class-war dead, intensely sad at constant loss by worker partisans (Green: 7) and one of the great achievements of Cortez’s work as a Wobbly and people’s poet.

The Carlos Cortez Koyokuikatl who came to his maturity in Chicago is a writer whose vision, already shaped in the upper Midwest, is then affected by and contributes to the emergent Chicano movement. His contribution to Midwest and Chicago Chicano and Latino identity is in his radical internationalist vision, and also his characteristically slow-paced, ironic Indian voice which achieves a wry dissonance with urban rhythms, vocabulary and norms. This is the Carlos whose basic orientation was to influence his younger friends, Carlos Cumpián among them, and whose socialist idealism, indigenist/anarchist radicalism and ecological anti-urbanism were to serve as essential parts of the Chicago Latino emergence.


The Growing Appreciation of Cortez’s Work and Achievement

Writing of his friend and fellow Wobbly, Eugene Nelson noted,

This man is a genius at living, and his face is a poem, his whole being is a poem. For there are few people, a fortunate few (Walt Whitman was another) whose vivid lively love of life and all the world is so great that it overflows through their eyes and glows from their face [1990, 5].... If there were a position as chief advisor and arbitrator for the world I would nominate him for the post. For he loves the world and living things more than any one I know. [9]

Referring to Cortez’s specific relation to Chicago’s “Latino-Chicano art scene,” Antonio Zavala notes “It’s hard to imagine [that scene] without the presence and contributions of Carlos A. Cortez.” Referring to the poet-patriarch’s heart-attack in 1993, Zavala concludes:

All his admirers wish him well and wish to thank him for the great inspiration he has given to many of us with his art and the example of his art.

Indeed, the back cover and opening page of his new book are replete with praiseworthy evaluations from several poets. To just cite a few from the back page, Penelope Rosemont notes:

The art of ... Cortez draws from the same springs as that of José Guadalupe Posada and George Grosz, his poetry from the same roots as Robert Burns and T-Bone Slim, but all that he does is uniquely his own — a ‘One Big Union” of diverse inspirations: cultural, ecological, revolutionary.

E. Donald Two-Rivers notes that Cortez’s work “has always been a source of inspiration for younger native poets.” And Chicana superstar Ana Castillo writes:

Cortez is the better half of the twentieth century walking. Through his words and woodcuts Cortez is a delightful and important chronicler of labor movements, Chicano history and, of course, la vida. We do well lending him an ear, an eye, a moment of our busy time. This is how we prepare to be human — by stopping to pay respect, to learn from, make use of the gifts an artist and activist among us has for so long so generously offered.

It is Rosemont’s view that is most developed in Archie Green’s introduction to Where Are the Voices, the clearest exposition to date of Cortez’s place in a yet-to-be fully articulated IWW or “Wobbly” aesthetic, as applied to literature. Green notes the lack of any “study attempting to frame Wobbly artistry with questions of origin, form utility, and meaning. In short,” he asks, “ in what physical setting, and out of what inner impulse did a miner, logger, waitress, or weaver compose a poem or draw a cartoon to be shared with fellow workers?” Pointing to how IWW transformed the verbal slur hurled against them into an ironic affirmation of their identity, Green emphasizes Wobbly distance from dogmatic and hierarchically bound Communists. He also notes how Cortez’s graphics and poems portray labor heroes who constitute “a lineage by which outsiders can judge his contribution.” Pointing to how Cortez “built upon the achievements of José Guadalupe Posada, Art Young, Kathe Kollwitz, Edvard Munch and other artists involved in social movements,” Green notes how Cortez perfected linocut over other print-making skills “because the Industrial Worker’s old flatbed press could not handle electroplate.” Tellingly, he “read[s] this pragmatic turn to linoleum as a metaphor for much IWW expression — close to the bone” (6).

While acknowledging Cortez’s start as a poet in his reaction to the “verbal pyrotechnics of San Francisco beats,” as well as Cortez’s debts to Whitman, Patchen and Sandburg, Green notes that Cortez’s poetry also has ties to a Wobbly tradition of “songsters and word smiths” — adding to Rosemont’s evocation of T-Bone Smith such names as Ralph Chaplin, Harry McClintock, Arturo Giovannitti, Joe Hill, Ralph Winstead, Jim Seymour and Vera Moller (6-7).

And (here his core insights), Green notes:

Although a body of criticism by reporters eyeing IWW art from within the labor organization does not exist, we infer an informal Wobbly esthetic by examining the work of Cortez and his predecessors. Together, they favored the vernacular voice but rejected the stereotyped dialect and stilted portraiture of elite approaches to a romanticized underclass. Realism won out over abstraction in most IWW expression, but not to the extent that its creative souls failed to experiment with the modernism of Joyce or Picasso.... [7]

Green argues that Wobblies, who rejected Communist Party/Popular Front politics in the 1930s-40s, did not find “midbrow” nationalism or patriotism in art appealing”; nor did their definition of socially atuned art lead them into some kind of socialist realism aesthetic. This, Green suggests, helps explain the openness to “varied forms” in Cortez’s work: “haiku, ballad, blues, parody, ode, traditional-tale-as-poem.” It also helps to explain, perhaps, how Cortez the Wobbly could simultaneously contribute to Native American developments and, above all (and here Green connects with Ana Castillo’s view) to the rise of the Chicano cultural-political movement in the U.S. As Green puts it:

If one thread need be isolated to unite [the] disparate parts [of Where are the Voices and Other Wobbly Poems, and Cortez’s literary opus], it should be the expansion of Wobbly sensibility beyond the anarcho-syndicalist stress on work as the principal lever moving life. From their organized beginning, IWW activists embraced the cause of women workers and workers of color. Thus, Wobblies internalized issues of gender and ethnicity long before craft unionists, as well as many radicals, faced these challenges. The Cortez poems ... register the widening of labor’s vision beyond the shop floor. [8]

Looking back at his relation to the Chicano cultural movement and its development, Cortez concludes:

There’s no such thing as a modest artist, we’re all exhibitionists and self promoters. But I must’ve brought something to the movement to help it to grow. I’m optimistic about its future, its going great guns. And I guess it’s rather fortunate that so many of us worked so long in obscurity from the dominant culture so that we didn’t become trapped in commercialism. We’ve had to grow by ourselves, but now we can take on, be influenced by, but also influence the rest of the world. [Cortez 1994]

In 1994, Cortez was featured in Bill Miller’s article in an issue of Montgomery Ward’s trade magazine; he was invited by the Smithsonian Institute to discuss his work; the poet was even the subject of a poem in Carlos Cumpián’s Latino Rainbow (1994). His days of obscurity and apparently his heart trouble behind him at for several years to come, he celebrated his seventieth birthday with a new creative outburst. “I believe now is the most productive phase of my life,” he commented (Miller 1994: 25). As noted above, the summer of 1997, as the artist/poet approached the end of his seventy-third year, his work was virtually consecrated by a well-organized retrospective on his graphic work, the publication of his third poetry volume and a series of readings and articles celebrating his achievement. Then, in his supposed twilight years, Chicago’s Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum launched a new show of his work entitled “Fanning the Flames,” which then went on national and international tour. Meanwhile he was preparing new drawings, new poems and new contributions to Chicago and national Chicano and Latino cultural development.

As he grew older, he became known in many Mexican communities and he would be invited to exhibit in festivals and exhibits; he would also hold writing and arts workshops in various schools, museums and universities. By the time of his death in 2005, he was heralded as a father of Chicago Latino and Mexican cultural production, the subject of countless homages and retrospectives, and an iconic figure for Chicago’s National Mexican Fine Arts Museum to which he bequeathed all his graphic blocks on the condition that his reprints be sold at popular prices. The grassroots Mexican arts group, Taller Cultural Mestizarte, changed the organization’s name to Taller cultural Mestizarte Carlos Cortez, and placed a picture of him on the front door of their locale on 18th Street, in the heart of Chicago’s best known Mexican neighborhood, Pilsen. The celebration of his contribution continues now in the tenth anniversary of his death. 



A revised version of the Cortez pages in Zimmerman 1989, this essay is based on my complete texts (Zimmerman 1999 and 2008) as cut and edited for publication in El BeiSMan. For the sake of brevity, this version excludes an extended biographical section but includes an examination of Cortez’s books in articles by Miller, Nelson, Zavala, Green, etc., and my interview with him in May, 1994, as well as subsequent conversations. A full consideration of Cortez’s life and roots can be found in Victor Sorell, ed. 2002.


Short Bibliography

Climenhaga, Joel. 1991. “Foreward.” In Cortez: 5-6.

Cortez, Carlos. Crystal-Gazing the Amber Fluid and Other Wobbly Poems. Chicago, Charles H. Kerr. 1990.

_____. De Kansas a Califas & Back to Chicago. Poems and Art. Chicago. March/Abrazo Press 1992.

_____. Where are the Voices? & Other Wobbly Poems. Chicago. Charles H. Kerr. 1997.

Green, Archie. 1997. “Carlos Cortez and Wobbly Artistry.” InCortez: 5-8.

Nelson, Eugene. 1990. “Introduction”. In Cortez: 5-9.

Sorell, Victor, ed. Carlos Cortez Koyokuikatl: Soapbox Artist & Poet: A Catalog. Chicago. Mexican Fine Arts Museum 2002.

Zimmerman, Marc. “Transplanting Roots and Taking Off: Latino Writers in Illinois,” in Writers in Illinois, John Hallwas, ed. Urbana, IL. Stormline Press 1989: 77-116.

_____. 2008. “Carlos Cortez” in Nicolás Kanellos, ed. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Latino Literature. Vol. I. Westport, CT. Greenwood Press: 278-80.


Marc Zimmerman is author of U.S. Latino Literature (1992), Defending their own in the Cold: the Cultural Turns of U.S. Puerto Ricans (2011); he has edited volumes on Latin American/Latino transnational processes, Latinos in U.S. cities and Chicano art in Mexican Chicago. He is currently developing essays on Chicago Latino writers and artists, as well as stories on his Latino and Latin American experiences.



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