Until several years ago, anyone could show up at Marcos Raya’s cramped studio, poke around, fork over a few bills, and leave with an original painting, collage, or assemblage. People knew a good deal when they saw one, and Raya usually needed the money.

He also kept a barrel full of empty liquor bottles, wrapped and tied with twine, to give away or to sell for practically nothing. They were mementos from what Raya calls his “dog years,” the period in the 1970s and ’80s when he was down and out in Pilsen, leading what he calls “la mala vida.” At the time he was known not only for his political murals and nightmarish paintings but for hanging around 18th Street with his drinking buddies, most of whom, he adds, are now dead.

“I’m lucky and happy I’m still here,” says the 52-year-old Raya, the subject of a Reader cover story four years ago this month. “I must have died a thousand deaths back then. Because I was young, idealistic, and politically motivated, I thought my role as an artist was to help society. Pilsen was in total need of social services, and living in a working-class neighborhood turned me into a lumpen-proletariat bohemian. Most of the time I didn’t think about what would happen to me–if I’m gonna die poor, if I’m gonna die on the street–but it came to my mind sometimes when I was hanging myself around the lampposts.”

The turning point came in late 1996, when Museum of Contemporary Art curator Lynne Warren included his surreal, menacing mixed-media installation Night Nurse in the exhibit “Art in Chicago: 1945-1995.” The 17-foot-long installation–composed of mannequins, masks, surgical supplies, Mexican bric-a-brac, cabinets, and street detritus, as well as a self-portrait of the artist as a hospital patient on life support–evokes the delirious fever dreamscape of la mala vida.

“Of all the surprises of the project, Marcos was the best,” says Warren. “Everyone responded to his extraordinary installation–the guards, the crew, the MCA staff, the janitorial staff, members of the press, the public, top international curators, collectors. None of my friends had ever heard of Marcos, and most didn’t quite believe he has lived in Chicago most of his life and shown his work here for years. He has a lot of admirers out there now.” Night Nurse is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

But what was news to local museum professionals was already known to scholars of the mural and Chicano art movements. Raya was a familiar presence in Pilsen, where he had taught painting at the Casa Aztlan community center in the 1970s and ’80s and several of his street murals are landmarks. Even during the bad days, he was always working, painting or constructing artworks that plumbed the dark night of his–and Pilsen’s–soul. Latino galleries and the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum showed his art, and in the 1990s his work was included in four exhibitions that traveled throughout the U.S. and Mexico. But by and large he was still relegated to a cultural ghetto.

The MCA show brought Raya some institutional credibility and a new audience. In 1997 the self-styled outlaw artist of 18th Street was picked up by River North’s Carl Hammer Gallery, and last year the Smart Museum purchased one of his paintings for its collection of surrealist art. Now Raya’s making good money for the first time in his life. Reveling in his newfound fame, he dumped his clunky van for a used silver Jaguar and early last year moved into a spacious East Pilsen studio that’s twice the size of his apartment. Not bad for an artist who, like Diego Rivera, has had to reconcile his stridently Marxist roots with the demands of the fickle art market.

“You can say it’s luck,” says Raya, “but I found some wonderful people who helped me and who believe in what I’m doing. And that just gave me more strength. I feel like an upcoming old artist–I feel like I’m in my 20s, like I’m starting all over. I look back at all those years of constant struggle, and now it feels wonderful, it feels really great….You have to pay some price. Nothing is handed to you on a plate.”

Raya arrived in Chicago from Irapuato, Mexico, in 1964, when he was just 16 years old. His paintings, collages, and three-dimensional works present an idiosyncratic hybrid of Mexican folklore, American pop culture, and Modernist ideas–for example, a traditional ofrenda becomes an assemblage of desecrated Catholic images. But his work has more affinities with dada and surrealism, infused with elements of Chicago-style pop expressionism, anticapitalist rhetoric, and rasquachismo, a Mexican art term that means using whatever is at hand. Yet he bristles at being branded a “Latino” or “outsider” artist.

“I don’t know where you would fit this kind of work,” he says. “I have a big problem when somebody asks me to be in a ‘Hispanic month’ show. Fuck that, man. Obviously you can see some Mexican imagery. But I’m not trying to portray how Mexican I am–I’m just working with ideas. I don’t want to be boxed into this minority bullshit. I’m not some primitive, folkloric character.

“There was a time when I used to paint Che Guevara as a saint, but times change. Even if there was a Chicano movement now, why would anybody want to paint Che and Zapata forever? You get stuck in one time capsule and stay there.”

For the last several years Raya has been looking to the future. In his current exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center, “The Machine and Other Personajes”–his first major show in ten years–Raya brings together old and new works in a variety of media that mostly explore the sociological impact of technological change. Combining human figures and mechanical forms–“the idea of fusing flesh and metal”–Raya views the new machine age with a mix of skepticism and hope, the same impulse that prompted his most political art more than a quarter century ago.

“There is this fetish for technology to the point where people actually think we are going to reach utopia,” says Raya. “But I’m aware that this society is headed toward fascism because of speed, control, machines, consuming, the military. I’m thinking we will eventually lose our humanity and become totally mechanized. But I also think some machines are great–they can save your life. The machine does miracles, and it is the scientist today who makes miracles, like in medicine. There is little left for the artist nowadays because machines are creating the dreams come true. So it’s up to me as an artist to analyze the role of the machine in society. Will we survive the new millennium? Probably not. But who knows? There’s always a chance.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.