Battling Fridas | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Battling Fridas 

Jose Gonzalez, one of the fiercest proponents of the city's Latino art scene, is almost ready to bury the hatchet with the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. But first he has a little score to settle.

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Last year, when the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum announced plans to mount "Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and 20th Century Mexican Art: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection," artist Jose Gonzalez took it as a challenge. The 69-year-old Pilsen resident started organizing his own show, calling and writing dozens of artists in Chicago and around the country, inviting them to submit works related to the two Mexican icons.

"I wanted to revive myself again," explains Gonzalez, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, diabetes, a heart condition, and the effects of a stroke. "I've been in the ashes, and I've risen up from the ashes. God has been with me. I pray every day and every night to Jesus and God. I've been sick, but I've been recovering, except I've been very weak." Gonzalez, who keeps his ailments in check with medication, has a little trouble talking, though his speech isn't as slurred as it was several years ago. Until he was knocked out by illness, Gonzalez was a tireless promoter of Latino art and social causes.

"Diego y Frida #2," as Gonzalez has named his exhibit, opens Friday, March 28, at La Llorona gallery on Webster and runs through April 7. The "#2" is because Gonzalez has staged a show of Rivera and Kahlo-themed work once before; it ran concurrently at Artemisia and Prairie Avenue galleries in 1987. That was the same year the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum opened in Pilsen, eclipsing Gonzalez's dream of building his own Latino arts institution. "I wanted to show them up," he says. "Carlos Tortolero considers me a has-been. I wanted to prove that I'm not." He adds, "But it's not revenge."

Jose Gamaliel Gonzalez was five years old in 1938, when he and his parents and sister left their farm in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, and migrated to East Chicago, Indiana. His mother worked as a clerk at Inland Steel for 35 years. His father left the family to return to Mexico.

Gonzalez got interested in art in grade school, and while at Washington High School began drawing portraits of family members and figures from photographs. In the 50s and 60s he worked as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer for a variety of Chicago ad agencies, including ones that handled accounts for Zenith, Admiral, and Motorola. "I had a lot of money," he says. With it, he and his mother bought a house in Gary and later another in Hammond, where Gonzalez worked out of an attic studio.

In 1966 his father died, and Gonzalez drove down to Guanajuato. He ended up staying for six months, attending the famed Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende, where he took classes in "art, murals, frescoes, painting, whatever" with teachers who'd studied under muralists like David Alfaro Siqueiros, known for his strident Marxism and his spray-gun technique. When he returned to the States, Gonzalez received a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute. He earned a bachelor's degree there in 1970 and went on to pursue his MFA at Notre Dame, also on scholarship. But except for "Los Tres Grandes"--Rivera, Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco--Gonzalez was dismayed at the dearth of Latin American artists in the books he was studying.

He became an activist in 1971, when a group of Notre Dame students had problems getting permission to hang an exhibit called "The Chicanos Have Arrived." They organized and demanded a space; although they finally got one, the show--believed to be the first featuring Mexican-American artists ever mounted in the midwest--was taken down ahead of schedule. Angry, Gonzalez left Notre Dame without his degree. He says he realized that "the only way to promote Chicano art was for Chicanos to do it themselves."

Back in Hammond, he helped found Movimiento Artistico Chicano--MARCH, for short--while organizing for Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers in 1972. Initially MARCH was an ad hoc coalition, staging exhibits, rallies, and floats that called attention to lettuce and grape boycotts, the plight of farmworkers, and the "fight against racial prejudice and injustice," says Gonzalez. When he moved to Pilsen in 1974, MARCH grew to include painters, poets, musicians, and teachers, all working toward "advocacy, awareness, and promotion of Chicano/Latino art and culture."

MARCH never had more than a dozen active members--Mario Castillo, Carlos Cortez, Carlos Cumpian, Victor Alejandro Sorell, and Salvador Vega are among those still working in Chicago--but it defined Chicago's Latino cultural scene over the next several years. The group sponsored murals (like those at Benito Juarez High School), poetry readings, publications, panels, concerts, and gallery shows. Its biggest claim to fame was a series of high-profile exhibitions that Gonzalez helped bring to Chicago: the Mexposicions.

The first Mexposicion--a name coined by Gonzalez--was mounted in 1975 at the University of Illinois' Circle campus and featured 25 paintings by artists from Mexico City's Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes. To bring the show here, Gonzalez worked with a Mexican government liaison in Michigan who'd heard about MARCH. "It was the first time there had been a show of Mexico's greatest artists in Chicago," says Gonzalez, who recalls armored trucks picking up the artwork at O'Hare and an alarm system being installed at Circle's A. Montgomery Ward Gallery. The second Mexposicion, staged in the same venue a year later and cocurated by Gonzalez, showed photographs taken by Augustin Casasola during the Mexican Revolution. The third, held at the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center in 1978, featured work by women artists. During this time Gonzalez also helped curate exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Field Museum.

It was during Mexposicion number two that Gonzalez met Mary Kay Vaughan, a Mexican history instructor at Circle. They married that year and had a daughter, Alicia. The couple separated a year later.

MARCH dissolved soon after the National Endowment for the Arts appointed Gonzalez to its newly formed Hispanic Task Force in 1977. (The group's publication arm, March Abrazo Press, has been kept alive by poet Carlos Cumpian.) Gonzalez was also working full-time as a housing coordinator for Hull House in Uptown and serving on the board of the Chicago Council on Fine Arts (a forerunner to the Department of Cultural Affairs). As director of the Hispanic Task Force's midwestern region, he and 22 others spent three years preparing a report on the needs and concerns of Latinos. As a result the NEA increased funding for community-based organizations and art education programs, says Gonzalez. A handful of MARCH staff members went to work at MoMing Dance & Arts Center, whose space MARCH had used to stage some events.

Gonzalez's stints with the NEA and the city led him to believe that all Latinos--not just those of Mexican descent--had to put up a united front to get their fair share of the arts funding pie. So in 1980 he founded the Pilsen-based Mi Raza Arts Consortium (MIRA) to create links among Latino artists and arts organizations. "He networked with people all over the country," recalls Sorell, now an art historian and associate dean of the college of arts and sciences at Chicago State University. "Had it not been for him, a lot of things might never have happened."

The group's main forum was Mirarte, produced several times a year from 1982 to 1990. With Gonzalez as editor, writer, photographer, and designer, Mirarte spotlighted Latino cultural events in Chicago and around the country and kept its readers informed of grant opportunities. Gonzalez's editorials crusaded for more representation, more money, more venues. He hobnobbed with actor-activist Edward James Olmos and befriended Harold Washington while volunteering for his mayoral campaign.

In 1982 MIRA initiated a campaign of its own--for an independent, community-based Latino cultural arts museum in Pilsen. Spearheaded by Gonzalez and Sorell, the museum would feature Chicano and Latin American art, with a focus on local work. That same year another group, headed by Bowen High School teachers Carlos Tortolero and Helen Valdez, founded a nonprofit group to establish an institution that would feature the "Mexican fine arts."

Battle lines were drawn between the longtime community activists and the "outsiders," as Gonzalez called them. Over the next several years each camp sponsored exhibits, performances, and other events to raise visibility and funds. But the Mexican Fine Arts Center wound up generating a broader base of support, and in 1986 the group signed a lease with the Chicago Park District to occupy a former boat-repair shop in Pilsen's Harrison Park.

Early on, Gonzalez and other activists claimed that the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum focused on art and artists from Mexico at the expense of local and Mexican-American artists. Embittered by the fact that two newcomers had succeeded where he had failed, Gonzalez couldn't bring himself to patronize the museum for many years.

But he kept making art: portraits of Mexican revolutionary leaders and cultural icons, Chicano heros and celebrities, civil rights activists, and artistic idols like Vincent van Gogh, as well as depictions of neighborhood people and scenes. Many were exhibited in 1998, when Pilsen's Taller Mestizarte print workshop honored Gonzalez with a retrospective tribute.

Emiliano Zapata is a hero of Gonzalez's, and in 1977, chagrined that the Art Institute kept a large painting by Orozco of the assassinated revolutionary leader in storage, Gonzalez led a picket in front of the museum until officials agreed to display it. "Every two years I go and check if it's still up, and it is," says Gonzalez. And a print Gonzalez made of Zapata was included in the landmark UCLA exhibition "Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985," which toured in the early 90s but didn't stop in Chicago. Among Gonzalez's proudest achievements was his seat on the show's organizing committee.

About a decade ago, says Gonzalez, "I began losing energy and couldn't move around as well." His hands trembled, and he found it hard to write, much less draw. He didn't know what was wrong until he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. In the mid-90s, just after moving into his current apartment, near 18th and Carpenter, Gonzalez suffered a heart attack while taking a shower. His landlord, who lives in the apartment downstairs, became alarmed by the prolonged sound of running water, found him, and called an ambulance. Since then Gonzalez has had a stroke and been beset by diabetes and blood problems. His mother, with whom he was close, died in 1999. And last December, shortly after he curated a small show of local Latino artists at Pilsen's Revolucion Cafe, Alicia, now a law student at DePaul, brought her stressed-out father to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. "I've been depressed, but I'm not depressed anymore," he says.

He claims organizing "Diego y Frida #2" has rejuvenated him, although the cost of mailings, phone bills, and transportation has strained his $698 monthly social security income. For that reason, he's thinking about starting yet another nonprofit as a vehicle to stage art events. Gonzalez has learned to write again, and he's been drawing a lot more, too, creating portraits of Rivera and Salma Hayek (who played Kahlo in the recent film) for his show. "I feel like I'm gonna live to 106," he says.

His attitude toward the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum has relaxed as well. He concedes that in recent years the museum has "worked hard" to be more community-minded, acknowledging the contributions of local artists with exhibits, collections, cultural and educational programs, mural sponsorships, and a youth museum and radio station. Some years ago he told me that its founders deserved credit for focusing on their goal, acknowledging that maybe he'd spread himself too thin. "It didn't matter who built a museum," he said--Latinos needed to create more arts institutions.

He started going to exhibits there in 1993, when he turned 60 and qualified for a less pricey senior membership. "I've forgiven them," says Gonzalez. "I shook hands with Carlos. Not a real strong handshake, just a shake." Two years ago, Tortolero invited Gonzalez to the museum before it opened its new wings and offices and gave him a personal tour.

"We knew he'd been sick, so we had him come over," says Tortolero, who concedes that he and the activist hadn't always agreed about the museum's mission. He hadn't heard about the alternative Diego and Frida offering, but says he's glad that Gonzalez is healthy enough to put up a show. "More power to him. If it's gonna get him going again, I think it's fantastic. The more art that gets shown, the better--no one institution can do it all."

In a way, Gonzalez already has a museum: his disheveled apartment, where three decades of his life's work is a potential treasure trove for future archivists. There's a tall file cabinet in the dining room, half-hidden behind a table full of newspapers, periodicals, posters, photographs, and documents as well as artworks--his own and other people's. More papers and art lie on the floor. One side room is stacked with boxes. In another, dozens of Gonzalez's own framed pieces are propped along the walls and laid on the carpet.

"I can't file any more things--it's impossible," says Gonzalez. "I was depressed for a while about what's going to happen when I die--who's going to get this, how are they going to find things." But he's decided to give everything to his daughter, who says she will donate what she can "to an art history archive."

"My dad gave himself away to art," says Alicia. "He could've done a lot more to make money, but he chose to sacrifice everything for the people. He taught me how to be selfless and absolutely love what you're doing."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen J. Serio.

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