In “Policia! Mira como trabajan tus impuestos cabron!” (“Police! Look How Your Taxes Work, Bastard!”), one of Carlos Cortez’s black-and-white woodcuts that hang in the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum as part of its permanent collection, a woman nurses an infant as she’s being arrested by two skulls wearing dark visors and helmets. In the more benign “Ars lunga, pito breve, sin safos No se mueve!” (“Art Lives Long, Penis Short, Without Feeling It Doesn’t Work!”)–a self-portrait of Cortez smiling as he sketches his wife, Marianna–skeletons lurk in the background.
Cortez’s sarcastic bite is also apparent in his recent collection of woodcut prints and poems De Kansas a Califas & Back to Chicago, which centers on a road trip he took with some friends and a deaf white dog:
In the roadside cafe
A stuffed Mountain Lion stands
With a hand-lettered card,
“Thank you for not touching!”
You have already been touched!
Cortez, who’s 69, says he blends the techniques and styles of the German expressionists with themes from the ancient Aztecs and modern Chicanos. “The German expressionists, and Edvard Munch, are my saints–right along with Diego Rivera and Jose Guadalupe Posada,” he says.
That mix has a parallel in his own family. “I have a Mexican Indian Wobbly father and a German socialist, pacifist mother. My father had been a traveling delegate for the Industrial Workers of the World, and he happened to be in front of a socialist meeting peddling one of the IWW’s English-language periodicals, Industrial Solidarity. My mother was coming to this meeting with a colleague of hers, who immediately started berating my father for peddling his stuff in front of one of their meetings. My mother said, ‘No, he has a right to promote his ideology every bit as much as we do.’
“To prove her point she bought a paper from him. The old man was very impressed and was able to track her down. He paid her court for two years, being very proper and very gentle. They got married, and I came forth in 1923.”
Cortez was raised in Milwaukee during the Depression, and his parents sacrificed meat and cigarettes to make sure he had milk and oranges, and pencils and paper to draw with. They also passed on their radicalism, and Cortez later spent three years in prison in northern Minnesota for refusing to serve during World War II. “I made a decision that I would never be part of a military organization, even though there was the option of noncombat service within the military,” he says. “My parents were quite supportive. My father said he would go to prison instead of me, and I said, ‘Cut it out. The only thing that would happen is they’d send us both to jail.'”
After he was released Cortez moved back to Milwaukee, where he took a series of jobs: in construction, in a small imported-foods shop, in a chemical factory. He also started drawing cartoons for the Industrial Worker, but soon learned to do block prints. “Many radical papers–not having advertising, grants, or angels who are rich radicals–operate on the brink of bankruptcy. So Industrial Worker couldn’t afford to make electric plates out of line drawings. I saw that one of the old-timers was doing linoleum blocks and sending them in because the paper was being done on a flatbed press. I started doing the same thing, and each issue would have one of my linocuts.”
When the price of linoleum became too steep, Cortez started using wood. Used furniture was easy enough to find in any alley. “There’s a work of art waiting to be liberated inside every chunk of wood. I’m paying homage to the tree that was chopped down by making this piece of wood communicate something.”
Cortez later became an accomplished oil and acrylic painter, though he continues to prefer the woodcuts. “I love to paint, but the relief graphics mean much more to me. When you do a painting that’s it, it’s one of a kind. But when you do a graphic the amount of prints you can make from it is infinite. I made a provision in my estate, for whoever will take care of my blocks, that if any of my graphic works are selling for high prices immediate copies should be made to keep the price down.”
In the late 60s Cortez married Marianna, who’s Greek, and moved to Chicago, where he became involved with local Mexican muralists and other Latino artists. At first he wondered if he would fit in, since he’s half German, but he was “welcomed with open arms.” He’s now a member of Movimiento Artistico Chicano (MARCH), the Mexican Graphics Workshop, the Chicago Indian Artists Guild, and other organizations.
“I’ve always identified myself as a Mexican,” he says. “I guess this was a result of my early years in grammar school. 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.'”
When the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum expressed an interest in purchasing Cortez’s work, he said that because they were still in the barrio and didn’t charge admission he’d donate all they wanted. He has since donated 87 works. “Art should be free,” he says, “like the air.”
Last January Cortez had a heart attack, and now he’s on a strict diet. “Well, I tell you, if I didn’t have my art, my poetry, my interest in music, and if I didn’t have the companionship of Marianna, I’d say ‘Fuck these restrictions.’ I’d say, ‘I’m going to enjoy my nice, greasy burritos, tacos, and sausages. I’m going to enjoy my bourbon.’ Like, who wants to live to be 160 on rainwater and buttermilk? I miss rich food. I miss the feel of 100-proof trickling down my throat. But there’s a lot of ideas I want to bring up. As I keep working out ideas, I keep getting more ideas. So I’m going to go out kicking and screaming.”
Cortez’s work always fills one wall of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, 1852 W. 19th; hours are 10 to 5 Tuesday through Sunday, and admission is free; call 738-1503. Some of his work is also up at Okee-chee’s Wild Horse Gallery, 5337 N. Clark, through July 31; hours are 12 to 6:30 Tuesday through Friday and 10 to 6 Saturday. Cortez will read from his poetry at the gallery this Friday, July 23, from 7 to 10 PM; admission is free; call 271-5883.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Tappin.