Artist Jose Guerrero leads a 2008 tour of Pilsen’s murals—including his own. Credit: (John J. Kim/Chicago Sun-Times)

A hand-lettered sign on the front of the historic APO building in Pilsen offers free printmaking classes—just call Jose Guerrero. For local residents, Mexican-American artists, and scores of students and teachers across the region, Jose Guerrero was an ever-present force in Pilsen, painting some of the neighborhood’s murals and, for more than three decades, leading well-known mural tours.

The hand-lettered sign is still there. But Jose Guerrero died October 7, after a long battle with colon cancer, leaving murals, mural fragments, and reams of prints to his friends, fellow artists, and other allies to go with their memories.

Jose was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1938 and came to Chicago in 1964. He worked at the Sunbeam appliance plant and later spent nearly two decades working for the Chicago Park District. But Jose was always an artist. He joined the mural movement in the early 1970s, and later became a printmaker, eventually one with his own press, workshop, and classes.

When I met Jose in the summer of 1973 he was painting a small mural at 18th and Racine, kitty-corner from the murals of Casa Aztlan. Jose was still working at the old Sunbeam appliance factory; in his spare time he drew cartoons for People Get Ready, a left-wing rank-and-file newspaper distributed to a handful of factories on the far west side.

Si Se Puede—as Jose titled the mural—was rough but dynamic, inscribed with the United Farm Workers’ slogan in red letters.

Guerrero completed his first mural, Si Se Puede (Yes We Can), in 1973.Credit: (Courtesy of Chicago Public Art Group)

For the next year and a half we worked together on murals inside the United Electrical Workers’ union hall on South Ashland. The UE was one of the few independent, progressive, and democratic unions, and our murals reflected its worldview. At the top of the stairs we depicted a group of evildoers: a Ku Klux Klansman holding a noose, a Nazi, and a greedy, buffoonish boss sitting on a pile of workers with a factory in his hand. Jose added a Texas Ranger, a group viewed by many Mexicans in his home state and across the southwest as repressive.

We studied and borrowed compositional tricks of the great Mexican masters—Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco—to make interior corners, hand rails, stairs, and columns fit naturally into the flow of the mural. Jose had to work around his shift at the plant, and I around the classes I taught at Elmhurst College. The UE could barely keep its lights on, so the union paid only for our materials. But we were both happy to have the rare opportunity to practice mural composition on the aging plaster walls of a late 19th-century building.

We used a quote from Frederick Douglass for the mural’s title: “Without struggle there is no progress.” Douglass’s words fit our intentions—to use art as a tool to shape a better world. Those words apply well to the whole of Jose’s art.

Over the summer of 1974 we redesigned and repainted a mural at Division and Hoyne that had been defaced. Unidos Para Triunfar/Together We Overcome addressed neighborhood gang violence, depicting two hands—one brown, one tan—clasping in unity, set alongside a procession of community members carrying a coffin and another group of people breaking up a fight.

Our 1980 collaboration with Lynn Takata and a team of youths was the first monumental cement relief mural made in Chicago. For the People of the Future/Para La Gente del Futuro, at North and Springfield Avenues, depicted a massive two-and-a-half-story-tall agave with a tile mosaic in its center and a hand holding out a flag embroidered with pre-Columbian symbols.

Jose also collaborated with other artists on groundbreaking murals during this era.

Guerrero in a self-published brochure from the early 90sCredit: (Isaura Gonzalez)

One was Fruits of Our Labor, a large celebratory mural on North Avenue painted in collaboration with Cynthia Weiss and Celia Radek. It featured male and female workers tending to the fruits of a giant tree, its branches snaking around the building’s many windows.

And Jose collaborated with Oscar Martinez on a mural called Smash Plan 21, which railed against the now largely realized efforts to redevelop—and thus gentrify—large sections of the city north, west, and south of the Loop.

Guerrero started leading tours of Pilsen murals in 1980, introducing this work to students from around the midwest. Teachers and students returned year after year to see their favorite murals and hear Jose’s commentary, a unique blend of Mexican and Chicago history, accounts of class struggle, and wry humor.

Jose continued leading tours weekly until last year, when he became too ill to continue.

“Jose spoke and listened, and he really wanted to instill an appreciation for what these murals are all about,” noted Art Olson, a teacher whose students attended the mural tours and helped paint some of the murals. He remembered that Jose was always quick with “a corny joke, or humbly subtle. He was a profound teacher to me.”

Jose also applied his efforts and energy to printmaking—the other art form that has historically given ordinary people access to images—as early as the mid- to late-70s. He was first introduced to the medium by Carlos Cortez, a beloved artist, activist, and poet who mentored and inspired many artists. Jose immersed himself in linocut printmaking at Taller Grafico Mexicano, the Mexican Print Workshop, which was later renamed Taller Mestizarte, and then renamed again in honor of Carlos Cortez.

Jose became especially interested in two-color block printing, occasionally adding a third or fourth color by hand-inking other parts of the print. His style favored a kind of chiaroscuro with many fragments of black, rather than large solid areas. His blocks have an overall angular spikiness; he filled up whole compositions with insistent, swirling textures. Among the Mexican masters he had closer affinity to the twisting energy storms of Jose Clemente Orozco than the calmer, plumper structures of Diego Rivera.

Jose eventually established his own taller in the same building as the Casa de la Cultura Carlos Cortez. He named his workshop Obrero Press—Worker Press—and gathered around him his own circle of students and disciples. His wife, Margaret, became increasingly involved with the workshop’s management, and often made her own prints.

In 1995 Jose participated in a portfolio organized by fellow Pilsen muralist Hector Duarte. (Portfolios gather together prints by multiple artists on a common theme, with each participant getting a full set, and with at least one set reserved for exhibition.)

Guerrero shows off a mural inside Pilsen’s Saint Pius Church in 2008.Credit: (John J. Kim/Chicago Sun-Times)

This portfolio honored the 100th birthday of Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros and a visit to Chicago by renowned Siqueiros scholar Alberto Hijar. Jose began to organize his own portfolios in the early 2000s, starting with one on the theme of “Cantinas and Honky-Tonks.” 

In 2014 Jose organized what proved to be his last portfolio. Entitled “From Where We Stand, We See No Borders,” it included 20 prints by as many artists around the theme of borders and immigration. It was shown twice in Chicago that year.

In May, Israel Hernandez organized a retrospective of Jose’s prints at Prospectus Art Gallery in Pilsen. In a review of the show for In These Times, reporter Kari Lydersen described the crowd of viewers at the opening—almost all had been touched by Jose’s prints or tours. She highlighted how Jose’s prints placed the local struggles of regular people in a larger global context, and how they conveyed a confidence in human dignity and “ebullience.”

That last word, ebullience, points to one of the unusual touchstones of Guerrero’s character: “While Guerrero’s politics are bold and radical, his demeanor is soft-spoken and full of mischievous, sometimes endearing corny humor,” Lydersen wrote. Jose was “brave, funny, humble, generous, brilliantly talented,” she added.

Jose was a fully political artist; none of his work could be said to be only personal. He presented ordinary people in their quotidian comedy and heroism. His work commented on both Chicago and world events, but always with the human presence. He was unique, and he is already missed.

Jose Guerrero is survived by Margaret Guerrero, his wife of 52 years. A commemoration is planned for later in the year. John Pitman Weber is a muralist, printmaker, and founder of the Chicago Public Art Group.