“Outlaw Artists of 18th Street” reads a sign above the booth Marcos Raya and his comrades have set up on Blue Island Avenue for Fiesta del Sol, Pilsen’s annual summer street festival. Raya’s selling posters of his murals and paintings for a buck or two apiece. One has a spaniel in sunglasses sprawled between a half-empty wine bottle and a ripped postcard of the Loop. Raya says the work refers to his “dog years”–the period in the 70s and early 80s when he was down and out in Pilsen, painting explicitly political murals inspired by the neighborhood while wrestling with his own personal demons, leading what he calls “la mala vida, the bad life, the gutter boho life.”
But times have changed, and now Raya’s in a festive mood. Friends and strangers stop by to say hello, showing great respect to the man who painted their history and heroes on the walls of Pilsen. He shakes hands, speaks alternately in Spanish and English, and autographs some posters. One man lifts his young son up above the crowd to get a better look, saying, “This is Marcos Raya, artista!”
Raya was born in the Mexican town of Irapuato and moved to Chicago in 1964 when he was 16 years old. As a small boy, he met the muralist Jose Chavez Morado in the provincial capital of Guanajuato, 50-some miles northeast of his hometown. He describes Morado as “one of the last great muralists” of the revolutionary period that included Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
“I still have this image of him working on a mural in this public building, covering huge areas with explosive colors,” Raya says. “I talked to him about how he mixed his paint and his beautiful images. Muralists were men you could talk to and relate to. They painted history and denounced war, political corruption, you name it. And they were also active politically.
“The beautiful tradition that we have in Mexico is that art takes on a social-political dimension,” he says. “You become a public figure. You are the spokesman of the proletariat, of the oppressed. It becomes a collective dialogue–you speak for the people through the walls you paint.”
Chicago was a hotbed of the community mural movement in the United States when Raya first met Ray Patlan in 1972. Patlan, a Vietnam vet who helped start the Pilsen community center Casa Aztlan, had spent the last three years working with youngsters from the neighborhood on large public murals. Raya was painting his own mural at the time, Homage to Diego Rivera, outside of a grocery store. It had been four years since Mario Castillo and a team of youths painted the first Mexican-American mural in Chicago, Metaphysics (Peace), on the side of the Urban Center for Progress at 19th and Halsted. Historians trace the birth of the U.S. community mural movement to the previous year, when William Walker and about 20 other black artists, musicians, and writers painted Wall of Respect in 1967 at 43rd and Langley “to honor our black heroes and to beautify our community” (it was later destroyed in a fire). Three years after Wall of Respect, Chicago had 30 street murals; seven years later there were 130.
While inspired in part by the civil rights movement and leftist politics, the intense activity in Pilsen was fundamentally fueled by the rise of Chicano consciousness. Beginning in 1965 with the founding of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, the Chicano movement brought pride and a strong sense of identity to disenfranchised Mexican-Americans. Chicano art was supposed to be un nuevo arte del pueblo, “a new art of the people.” It sought to engage the community. Influenced by the Mexican mural tradition, artists picked up their brushes and went to work on the barrio walls, painting the stories, struggles, and hopes of the people.
“It was like a mini-Mexican revolution on the streets,” recalls Raya. “Culture is one of the ways of changing the status quo, and the movement injected a consciousness of culture into a working-class neighborhood. There were progressive groups all over, fighting for empowerment. We fought the bad conditions of the neighborhood. We fought for immigration and workers’ rights, housing, building the Benito Juarez High School. We painted the streets as a way of showing our anger and confusion–so close to the Loop and so goddamn fucked up.”
Though Raya gained attention for his public murals, he was still hard at work in his studio, painting or assembling more personal products. “I have worked with political art, but I always try to retain my own identity,” Raya says. “I have always seen myself as a painter who paints murals, not a muralist in the true sense of the word.”
Now, after years of eeking out a living, Raya has started to achieve wider recognition outside of Pilsen. He was one of only two Chicago artists (the other was Carlos Cortez) to be included in the monumental exhibit, “Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985,” which opened in 1990 at UCLA’s Wright Gallery and toured the country through 1993. Within the last three years Raya’s paintings, installations, assemblages, photographs, and painted furniture have been featured in four Latino art exhibitions that have traveled Mexico, Japan, and the U.S. He was one of 20 artists in the Mexican Fine Arts Center’s 1993 survey of contemporary Chicano art, “Art of the Other Mexico: Sources and Meanings,” and his work was shown in a half dozen regional shows last year alone. The Legacy of Manifest Destiny, a large painting combining images from his outdoor art, capped the recent exhibition “Healing Walls: Murals and Community,” a history of Chicago’s public mural movement at the Illinois Art Gallery. Raya’s found-object installations are in the Mexican rasquachismo style, using whatever’s at hand. Currently he’s working on an installation that will be featured in “Art in Chicago, 1945-1995,” which will open in November at the new Museum of Contemporary Art.
Raya’s studio work often has a disturbing psychological edge. “Art from the dark side of the street, the nightmares of barrio existence,” he says. “I would like to paint beautiful things. But I don’t know why I am what I am–painting the dark side. I think it comes from my background . . . Catholic, surrealistic, ethnic. Sometimes I wish I was a normal guy, but then my work would be extremely empty.”
What’s remarkable about Raya’s recent success is that he’s had to overcome a great obstacle. For many years critics, curators, and gallery owners would refer elliptically to Raya’s personal problems, writing only that he struggled with illness, or that he was sick much of his life. But his extended drinking bouts were pretty much of an open secret in the local Latino art and mural community, and it prevented him from getting some jobs: he was said to be unreliable, difficult. In private conversation, some of Raya’s peers speak of picking him up off the street and taking him home, or rescuing him from bars and checking him into hospital detox wards and treatment centers (“vacations,” Raya calls them). His battles with delirium tremens have helped to give some of his art a harrowing, hallucinatory intensity–they’re like fever dreams come to life. Clearly, his art’s descent into a Bosch-like underworld was accompanied by a descent into the dark night of his own soul.
“You’re in El Trebol Lounge listening to mariachis and having a couple beers, and eventually you wind up in the alley,” Raya says. “You’re doing OK, then boom–you end up with bums on the street.”
Rene Arceo, a curator at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, helped organize a 1990 retrospective of Raya’s work, but he’s guarded when discussing Raya’s future. “He’s been through all kinds of ups and downs, oftentimes more downs than ups,” Arceo says. “The problem is when he tries to go way beyond the things he’s reached so far. He dreams, when he’s doing well, of becoming better known, but then he goes through setbacks. Then he’s back on his feet again.
“I prefer the art installations, the art objects, the little boxes. I’m not too crazy about some of the easel paintings. But his three-dimensional pieces really grab me–he has the magic power to make it happen in that media–like his bottles wrapped and tied in twine, which have to do with the feelings of being alcoholic. They’re like bottles that have life, and the life in them wants to get out, but it’s self-contained, imprisoned. That relates to his own being, and it really touches me. . . . He has great potential, but there are problems he has to deal with.”
Raya’s cramped studio near 19th and Carpenter, which he’s had since 1980, is on the bottom floor of a small frame house still owned and inhabited by one of Pilsen’s few remaining Czech families. The place is a trip. A quirky visual funhouse crammed with castoffs, collectibles, and kitschy knickknacks. It’s often hard to tell what’s art and what isn’t: decorated mannequins, painted furniture, gas-mask kits, Mexican ritual objects, obscure appliances, birdcages, cheesy statues and figurines, photos of Frida Kahlo, posters of masked Mexican wrestlers, wooden cabinets of surgical supplies, and erotic photo-collages revealing a definite fetish for Cindy Crawford. Raya transforms this raw material, collected from junk shops and the street, into art installations with a redemptive power, recollecting his own personal and cultural history. In the catalog for the traveling exhibit “Ceremony of Spirit: Nature and Memory in Contemporary Latino Art,” critic Amalia Mesa-Bains writes that Raya’s installation work “depicts an aesthetic of residue that speaks of the danger and violence, the illness and mourning, that touch the edges of his life.”
Raya says his childhood in the farming town of Irapuato was a magical time of year-round celebrations, “collective fiestas filled with music, alcohol, masks, and the Catholic church. Most celebrations were not Catholic in the full sense of the term, but pagan. Everybody got drunk. Doors had stickers saying, ‘We do not accept communist or protestant propaganda.’ Every Sunday when my father took me to church, I would go and make faces at saints. I thought they were ugly, barbarous, long-haired, just plain out of this world. My street had character. I could look out my window and see prostitutes, boxers, singers, proletariats, just like here.”
His father Jose was a musician and artisan who died in Irapuato in 1979. “We all saw his talent, but life was hard,” says Raya. “There were too many of us, and we were poor, so he could never make anything big out of his talent. He lived the world of the musician, living in nightclubs and late-night drinking. He spent time with music so he could spend time working with wood. I always said that whatever he didn’t finish, I’ll carry on. . . . I guess I’m like my father, living the bohemian life. I saw my father drink a lot when I was a kid. He died of drinking.”
Raya’s mother, Angela, was born in Springfield, Illinois, and she moved to Irapuato in 1932 when she was eight years old. She had four sons and four daughters; Marcos was her fourth child. After his parents divorced, Raya’s mother moved to Chicago in 1950, settling in the Little Italy neighborhood, which had a growing Mexican population. She worked in a factory making motors for electrical appliances (the plant has since relocated to Mexico), and still lives in the same house near Taylor and Miller streets. All of Raya’s siblings had moved to the Chicago area by 1970, and now live in Blue Island, Little Village, or Taylor Street (one brother died ten years ago).
Raya says he had a rough time when he first came to the U.S. to live with his mother in 1964. He quickly learned how to defend himself from the neighborhood’s Italian “street clubs” and joined the Taylor Barracudas, a Mexican clique. “It was so ugly here, extremely gray, dirty buildings and streets, big empty lots where the university is.” Most of Taylor Street’s Mexicans had moved on to Pilsen, and Raya took his first job washing dishes for 50 cents an hour at a 24-hour restaurant near 18th and Blue Island.
“Tex-Mex music was always on the jukebox,” he recalls. “People came in late at night. There was this whole heavy atmosphere in Pilsen of too many cantinas, too much drugs. I realized that 18th Street looked like Tijuana in the 50s–I thought I was in the set of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. There was a strong smell of heroin and alcohol in the air, a sense of danger everywhere–drugs, gangs, shootings. I’d just come from Irapuato and I was very scared.”
Raya attended Crane High School, where an art teacher named Jeff Gottlieb got him interested in art. Gottlieb took Raya to the Art Institute. “He was like my savior,” Raya says. “He put me on the right track.” In 1967 Raya moved to Old Town; he lived in an apartment above Mother Blues, a club where Junior Wells often played, and worked at an art gallery in Piper’s Alley. “I was introduced to artists, nightclubs, blues, jazz, happenings, poetry, literature. I went to an antiwar be-in in Lincoln Park. It was totally different from Taylor Street. It gave me an introduction to what was happening in the world, a different type of reality.”
Upward Bound, the program for inner-city youth, landed Raya in classes at the Windsor Mountain School in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he studied painting and drawing with Allen Thiekler, a conservator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I was the only Mexican, and I couldn’t communicate with anybody,” Raya says. “I was more sympathetic to the blacks, who were angry at their oppression. I was not aware of the Chicano movement. I was influenced by the current culture of the flower power movement a little, all the talk about the war in Vietnam and racial tension. But I couldn’t call myself a hippie. Droppin’ out, peace and love–that wasn’t me.”
Raya was able to take monthly trips to New York, where he often went to the Museum of Modern Art. “Their International Surrealism exhibit in ’68 knocked me out of my shoes,” he says. “Ever since then, I have not been the same. I was shocked by Duchamp’s ready-mades. I learned from him to stay away from formulas, not to be mechanical, that there are always possibilities to create new things. I read a lot of French literature and philosophy.”
Raya sprouted an afro like Jimi Hendrix and experimented with psychedelic drugs while drawing in his notebook. He decided to evade the draft by moving to Mexico City in the late summer of 1968. He hung out with art students at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, though he didn’t attend classes. He’d arrived just in time. The school was one of the centers of student protests in that tumultuous year. “Our aim was to have a public dialogue with the president of Mexico to discuss the problems of Mexican society,” says Raya. “But his response was force. I was in the demonstrations. The army blocked the streets. The university was the only place to hide, the only free zone in the city.” The university had enjoyed administrative autonomy for nearly 40 years, but the government ordered the military to occupy the campus in early September. On October 2 students assembled in a downtown plaza, and the military opened fire on the crowd. The official tally placed the death toll at 50, but England’s The Guardian newspaper reported there were at least 325 killed. Thousands of students were injured, and thousands were jailed.
A year later Raya was back in the United States, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A largely white art community had taken over part of the city, and Raya felt it treated the indigenous population merely as local color. Cantinas were one of the few places left for the city’s Mexicans. Raya says he spent some time in jail for painting graffiti slogans. “I wrote on the barrio walls ‘Burn All the Cantinas!’ because all I saw were Chicanos deep in poverty and alcoholism,” he says. “I was angry at white, middle-class colonizers who had invaded everything and made it a land of art colonies. A cop said to me, ‘If you don’t like this country, why don’t you go start a revolution in Mexico?’ I said, ‘I just came from there, and a revolution was happening.”‘
Raya was back in Chicago by 1970, and he painted his first mural, We Shall Overcome the Ruins of Fascism, inside of a barber shop at Taylor and Racine. The mural featured the figure of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Raya moved to a 17th Street studio in Pilsen in 1972 and began drinking a quart of beer every night. “I felt like the Invisible Man,” he says. “Lonely, no friends.” But he soon became active in el movimiento.
The Chicano political movement–with its rallies, strikes, marches, and boycott–was accompanied by an explosion of populist cultural expression. After Mario Castillo, now a Columbia College art professor, painted Metaphysics (Peace), murals became one of the most important artistic activities in the Pilsen neighborhood. Casa Aztlan, founded in 1970, was a focal point for the community; Ray Patlan, now an art teacher in San Francisco, created a mural cycle there from 1970 to ’73 that’s now regarded as a masterwork of the Chicano art movement (after a small fire, Raya and Aurelio Diaz added some interior panels in the late 70s). Most of the murals were collaborative efforts among several artists–sometimes working with neighborhood residents–and there was also a great deal of interaction between artists of different disciplines. Activist cultural organizations such as MARCH (Movimiento Artistico Chicano), founded by Jose Gonzalez, brought Latino art to a wide variety of venues in Chicago and the midwest (the group survives today as poet Carlos Cumpian’s MARCH/Abrazo Press).
Just as the revolutionary public painters like Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros played a special role in Mexican society from the 1920s to ’40s by informing an often illiterate populace, Raya and the other Pilsen muralists assumed a similar position in communicating with the immigrant, Spanish-speaking residents of the neighborhood.
Many of the landmark murals Raya participated in painting during the past two decades–the Casa Aztlan murals, the untitled Dvorak Park mural, A la esperanza (“To Hope”), Prevent World War III–are in the People’s Art and Chicano Art history books, and have helped to make the Pilsen area one of the pre-eminent pockets of socially conscious murals in the U.S. The destroyed Dvorak Park fieldhouse mural, executed with Diaz, Salvador Vega, and Juanita Jaramillo in 1976, was a direct attack on U.S. immigration agents, la migra, who carried out the government’s war on Mexican immigrants and their families. It was a pure political manifesto on the streets.
“I’ll tell you why it made sense to me, fighting against la migra in those days,” explains Raya. “They rounded up people and took them out of factories, just like today. Sometimes owners would call la migra so they wouldn’t have to pay workers.
“One day an illegal immigrant got shot, and the doctors wouldn’t treat him because he didn’t have papers. We stormed the clinic and demanded that these things wouldn’t happen again. Now it seems that all these gestapo tactics are back again.”
Pilsen was also home to the local chapter of the Brown Berets, a paramilitary group similar to the Black Panthers. “They were the muscle of the movement, mostly former gangbangers and Vietnam vets who felt they should do something about the community,” says Raya. “They patrolled the streets, confronted the police, collected food from merchants, did community organizing. They ran the People’s Clinic, with the aim of helping poor people. I painted a mural in there, too.”
Raya moved into a studio near 19th and Throop in the summer of 1974. But it wasn’t long, he says, until the building was taken over by gangs, drug dealers, and junkies, and he had to move out. “If I would’ve had a camera and filmed everything that I saw there,” he says, “it would’ve made Andy Warhol look like Pinocchio.”
Raya says that an idealistic refusal to join “the system” led to his inability to sell his work and pushed him down the long slide toward the dog years. “There was no market for my work around here,” he says. “Most of the people here don’t have money. I didn’t want to work, join a factory. My mother worked all her life in a factory, so I told myself, I don’t want to end up working like that. No, I’m going to be an artist. I had some odd jobs, but I really wanted to continue painting.”
That Raya was finally able to make a living through his art is remarkable, considering its overtly political and darkly personal nature. Proud of his “populist, working-class roots,” he’s never actively sought gallery representation. Raya says he likes working in the barrio, where he can deal directly with people who rarely, if ever, visit art galleries or museums. “I wouldn’t find myself comfortable anywhere else,” he says. “How can I pretend to be something I’m not?”
One of the few local art dealers to show Raya’s work is Deanna Bertoncini. Her favorite painting is the stark 7 a.m. Sunday Morning, which shows a man slumped over a table, his hand resting on the barrel of a gun. It’s not clear if the man has passed out while contemplating suicide or if he’s already pulled the trigger. “It’s the most autobiographical painting I’ve ever seen an artist do,” she says. “When I exhibited it in my Milwaukee Avenue gallery in ’88, a collector type wanted to buy the piece, but he didn’t know if he could live with the idea of the gun in there. He wanted to know if the artist could paint it out. I literally had to bite my lip to keep from laughing. That painting reminds me of Marcos Raya in so many ways, painting things that are uncomfortable. . . . It takes courage to paint the truth at whatever moment this was in this man’s life. . . . He’s exposed himself in his work in a very open, very real way.”
Buyers of Raya’s work usually come to his studio, cash in hand. They might be collectors of Latin American art, or maybe they’re locals looking to secure his services. Raya paintings adorn many businesses in the Pilsen-Little Village area–fruit markets, warehouses, offices, and restaurants; Hacienda de los Gutierrez, a restaurant on 26th Street, is a veritable shrine to Zapata. Raya lives from sale to sale, commission to commission. Though there are lean times, he gets by. Mostly, he points out, nobody else gets a piece of the action.
“I want to enjoy my freedom of producing as much work as I can demand of myself, achieving what I can achieve,” Raya says. “In a gallery, your name will be put up for sale, and you might end up working for them, like supply and demand. Then the individual artist becomes like a little factory. In the long run, you might get wealthy, but you might get caught up in the kind of work that sells. I would find myself in a very strange situation.”
But what about Diego Rivera, a Communist Party member who often exhibited in upscale galleries and painted anticapitalist murals commissioned by wealthy industrialists?
True, Raya says, but he’s not Rivera. “I always had trouble putting my political statements on the streets because nobody would finance them. But if I was wealthy enough from my studio work, maybe it would allow me to paint a mural about the history of the United States, its big dark side. It would be like asking Oliver Stone to do a movie on the life and times of J. Edgar Hoover.”
While Raya’s critical of some Pilsen artists whom he feels have abandoned “the reality of the neighborhood by doing typical artsy-fartsy stuff,” he nevertheless admits that his aesthetic–“sacrifice to the movement and a commitment to the neighborhood, in contrast to art for art’s sake”–contributed to his poverty. In the 1970s and 80s, Raya says, he volunteered as an art teacher and paid for murals out of his own pocket. He could hardly sell a painting. But now he needs to make a living. After all, he and his companion, Rosa Maria Salazar, have bought a house, and he has to pay part of the mortgage. “I don’t wanna be a fuckin’ dog anymore,” he says.
Yet Raya doesn’t regret his past. “I don’t think it’s stupid to be young and idealistic, where you refuse to sell out,” he says. “If I wanted to make a lot of money, I wouldn’t have gotten into the arts in the first place.” But he maintains that he’s already sacrificed economic gains to the cause of social justice and that he wouldn’t be as good an artist today if he hadn’t gone through the dog years. “What matters is that you’re doing what you like to do and you are also creating. That’s the most important part of someone’s life. But if you want to work on your own terms, you sometimes pay a price.”
Outside of his studio door, Raya has written “Painting sometimes can be a dog’s life, but it’s the only one worth living.”
Behind the wheel of a recently purchased second-hand van, Raya cruises down 18th Street, the backdrop for many of his paintings. He stops in front of Casa Aztlan, just south of 18th on Racine, and explains how he moved into a studio there in 1975. He was an artist-in-residence at the center on and off for a decade, leading painting and mural workshops for neighborhood teens. Raya also built studios for other artists on the building’s third floor.
“It was like my contribution to the community,” he says of his Casa Aztlan years. “I don’t think you should just go to high school, go to college, get a degree, and then go on with your life and forget where you came from.”
Raya strongly believes that teaching mural painting to inner-city youths can help steer them away from what he calls the “war zone.”
“When you’re a young person, you need some kind of direction,” he says. “So when I get kids to work with me, I try to explain that painting is not just painting. I don’t just give them brushes and have them paint like a monkey in paint-by-number Aztec designs. I don’t want to be just a babysitter. I try to make them understand that they can be the architects of their own destiny. It would be too simplistic and unreal to think that through mural painting I could put everybody on the right direction. But out of 20 kids, I could maybe work with five to seven kids, create a consciousness in their heads of what they can achieve in society. Then you can create a mural where you send a message of hope to all the young people. Another thing I tell them is that artists gotta come down to earth and make a living like everybody else.” Raya says some of his students have gone on to become artists in their own right. “Some of them teach now, too.”
Raya and area teens painted striking exterior murals at Casa Aztlan from 1975 to ’79; they’ve become a neighborhood landmark and a highlight of Chicago mural tours. The murals depict pivotal figures from Chicano and Latin American history, as well as some pre-Columbian imagery and motifs. Raya worked on the murals, located on the facade of the building and in the courtyard, throughout the 80s, always adding new designs and figures, until completing the job in the summer of 1993. There are images of Zapata, Kahlo, Chavez, and revolutionary leaders Che Guevara and Cesar Augusto Sandino. There are images of Benito Juarez, the popular Mexican president who resisted French rule in the 1860s, and Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec king. Also pictured is Rudy Lozano, a union organizer and community activist who was slain by an unknown assailant at his Pilsen home in June 1983.
“He was really committed to his cause, and we have to keep his image alive,” says Raya, who also painted a mural of the activist for the Rudy Lozano School, 1501 N. Greenview, four years ago. “He was one of the martyrs, and we don’t have martyrs from those years. His name rang all over.”
Casa Aztlan executive director Carlos Arongo explains that Raya was commissioned to repaint the facade to signal the center’s renewed commitment to the neighborhood in the face of the nation’s growing anti-immigration mood. “His artwork is important, unique, reflecting the concerns of the people,” Arongo says of Raya. “He’s always controversial, he hasn’t been co-opted. But we have to look at what can be done in this political climate, especially after the approval of Proposition 187. We speak through our murals and we have to put more of what’s going on right now on the walls.”
Raya pulls the van up alongside the viaduct at 18th and Western, the site of Prevent World War III. He was one of about two dozen muralists who painted the wall in 1980, at the dawn of the Reagan era. The mural is faded and flaking away now, but it was notable in its time: organized by members of the Chicago Mural Group, it was the city’s first great collaborative antiwar mural since Vietnam–and the last. After rounding up a variety of artists and scouting for locations, they commandeered the viaduct, and each participant was given free rein. Raya’s contribution shows a group of marchers stepping over the fallen statue of Nicaraguan general Anastasio Somoza Debayle.
“I hired a friend, not to help me clean the brushes or to paint, but to watch my back,” he says. “When I was painting, I had my back to the street, and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. A lot of people would drive by and call me all kinds of names–‘fuckin’ communist,’ shit like that. I was painting Che Guevara, I was painting an anti-Somoza mural, I was dedicating the panel to the Sandinistas. . . . Reagan had just become the president, and people were beginning to feel like it was the 50s again. I kinda got paranoid, and I thought that maybe any moment I could get shot in the back, that some asshole, some crazy bastard, would come by and shoot me.”
Raya didn’t get shot, but he was surprised to learn that Somoza was shot down in Paraguay days after the painting was completed. Yet the coincidence was hardly a harbinger of good fortune. “When I finished painting the mural,” he says, ” I ran out of money and ended up on the street again.”
Raya met his companion Rosa Maria Salazar in 1981 on a bus to Washington, D.C., to attend a protest march against U.S. intervention in El Salvador. A native of Monterrey, Mexico, who grew up in Cicero, Salazar’s owned a small Little Village realty company for four years. She and Raya bought a house together several years ago. While Salazar wasn’t with Raya during his darkest years, she has seen his dark side. On more than one occasion she has felt compelled to take away his money and keys and has barred him from coming home.
“It’s not easy,” Salazar says. “It’s been very, very difficult. His mother left him at two, and he grew up alone, with his father. He came here at 16, a lonely boy. That’s why I think he’s like that. He’s a very sensitive man, and maybe that’s why he drinks. Then he goes into withdrawal and gets extremely nervous, and then he gets OK. He’s OK for awhile, and then he goes back into the cycle again.” She says a Pilsen doctor–“a very kind man, a very sweet man”–once told her that Raya would die if he continued drinking. But the doctor died two years ago, and Raya’s still here. He included a painting of the doctor in the installation Night Nurse.
“Marcos is always collecting little things that are nice and sweet–toys, little pieces of plastic, a shoe, the head of a doll, a little glass,” she says. “He comes and brings them, and I keep them. I don’t throw them away, even though people think they’re garbage. Little by little, he adds more things, and they keep on growing and accumulating. Then he puts a whole installation together. He calls his clients, and they come and buy them.
“Some people in Pilsen can’t handle life–the pressure, the reality of what you have to go through. They don’t know what to do. There’s a lack of responsibility, and people are unable to cope with the problems. It’s easier to get away from problems than deal with them. Marcos cares about everything; most of his work is concerned with social problems–a lot of people suffering, alcoholism, immigration, politics.
“I care for him deeply,” she says. “He’s like a little kid. I feel so sorry for him, it breaks my heart. But I have to draw the line. When he drinks, I tell him he can’t come home. The people he’s with are drunks, drug addicts, criminals. I get very scared and tell him he has to stay in his studio.”
Raya rarely talks about his dog years, his “Nixon-to-Reagan years,” the periodic streaks spent drinking in 18th Street cantinas and in desolate alleys. He’s worried people will get the wrong idea; it’s not liked he literally lived in the streets for more than a decade. “There were always people to help me,” he says. “I always had girlfriends. I often had a good time. There was always work to do, and I always had a studio, a place to sleep at night. My drinking buddies never had a home–they slept in alleyways, doorways. When it was ten below, I always made sure the bums had a place to lay on my floor.”
Raya drives the van down an alley and points out different spots where he and his drinking buddies used to build fires, share food, and pass bottles of Mad Dog or Night Train or cheap port. In one weedy back alley–a site he says his drinking buddies dubbed “Raya’s Alley”–a group of disheveled men sit glumly and suck on bottles in brown paper bags. They notice Raya and wave.
He talks about his longtime street compadre Manny, a Cherokee who used to work on Loop skyscrapers until he fell victim to the bad life. Raya has dedicated a number of his artworks and Day of the Dead altars to Manny’s memory.
“I first met him when I was doing the mural in Dvorak Park, in ’76, ’77,” Raya says. “He used to live there. In five years, he became a very old man. Thirteen years ago, he was dead. My old drinking buddies, one by one, they’re all dead. They never reached their 45th birthdays. Even when they were alive, they were phantoms, not human like you or me. Two were frozen to death, one was beat up dead on the street, one was found under a sidewalk, another was run over by a car. . . . Nobody knew they died, nobody claimed their bodies. The only other people who knew they existed were the people who drank with them.”
Raya’s work, like that of many artists of Mexican descent, often mocks death with a macabre sense of humor. During the dog years, Raya himself mocked death. He says he’d been mugged and beat up a couple times, knifed twice, and accidentally shot at in his studio by a “coke-crazed gangbanger” who quoted from the Bible. The bullet, he says, missed his feet by inches. Nearly everyone you talk to says it’s a miracle Raya’s still alive, much less making art.
“You have to be drunk or crazy to walk the streets at night here–there are too many crazy things going on,” he says. “I couldn’t get away from visiting the gates of hell now and then–it gets my demons out. It’s like a snake. When I drank, I got rid of my own skin and started all over again, started working again. The reason why I’m not dead–I don’t know why. I am surprised I am not dead. I’m just glad I didn’t die.”
Does he feel as if he wasted 10 to 15 years of his life? Or that he could’ve been an art contender if he could do it all over again?
“I don’t feel like I lost so much time,” Raya says. “When I was extremely broke after a drinking binge, I always found a client, a commission, and I’d get paid for my lost days out drinking. I would’ve created more things, but it doesn’t bother me. It’s part of my life, and I can’t hide what I am. I feel like I’ve just come out of the war zone and now it’s time to work. I feel like I’ve collected a lot of baggage from all my trips, and now it’s time to go through the baggage–recollect and analyze the contents.
“My dog years,” he adds, “were an inspiration for me to continue to survive.”
In 1977 Raya had a son, Marcos Jr., with a girlfriend; they split up three years later. Marcos Jr. still lives with his mother in Pilsen and recently graduated from Benito Juarez High School. He’s now thinking about going to art school.
“The only thing that made sense out of those years was that she gave me a son,” says Raya. “It wasn’t a mistake. Junior is an extension of me in all possible ways. He’s a terrific poet, an honor student, a musician. He plays in a Mexican rock ‘n’ roll band, the school band. The last time I went to his room, it looked like my studio. I’d like to be alive when he starts to produce things.”
On the way back to his studio Raya drives past A la esperanza (“To Hope”), a large mural about the importance of staying in school painted outside Benito Juarez High School. Designed by Jaime Longoria, the mural was completed in 1979 by Raya, Salvador Vega, Oscar Moya, Malu Ortega y Alberro, and Roberto Valadez. Raya and Vega restored it two summers ago. “Every time I pass by here, I feel life, light, humanity, hope,” Raya says. “It makes me feel like I want to do more murals. To me, it is like the start of a new beginning, because it shows that there is hope to rebeautify and uplift the spirits of a poor neighborhood.”
Raya points to a wall where he hopes to do a large mural, perhaps next summer, with community funding. “It will be a message to Pilsen’s youth,” he says. “It will be about the neighborhood, about everything. I want to show young people that there is the wrong way and the right way. There is the wrong way of drugs, gangs, guns, crime, dropouts, and the right way of staying in school, of knowing what you are and where you’re going in society. I don’t want to play the role of a preacher, but I think I know what the hell I’m talking about. It’s up to teachers and parents to give their kids some direction. The war zone just isn’t in this neighborhood, but in the whole world, and it has a tremendous negative impact on our youth. All these people here with no skills, 95 percent of them poor, sometimes illiterate–sometimes it’s like fighting a guerra within a guerra.”
Raya’s plans reveal a renewed sense of purpose. He’s grown more confident as he’s come into his own as a formal painter. “I’m 47 years old,” he says, “and I feel like I’m just starting to paint, like I’m just starting to get somewhere.” He thinks the time is ripe for a second mural movement. “Through art we could maybe change the state of things in this neighborhood, make another public dialogue. We can use it to humanize the environment, to fight back. If Pilsen is going to be resurrected, artists should be invited to the table. The artist has a responsibility to his community, and we should be part of the process of beautifying and rebuilding Pilsen. There are lots of political things happening now–Chiapas, Proposition 187, la migra–that we could be putting on walls. Murals cause people to become conscious of their problems, and people need to regain their sense of identity and political empowerment. You got to tell the people something is wrong, right?”
Raya emerges from a back room in his studio carrying his latest painting. It’s called Los ijos de la mala vida (“The Sons of the Bad Life”). He says it took him over a year to complete, but it was “20 years in the making.” The realistic acrylic painting depicts seven of Raya’s late drinking buddies posing for a group portrait. An uneasy dawn breaks behind them: another day of drinking on 18th Street.
“They could’ve stopped if they wanted to,” Raya says. “They were ghost dancing, thinking that alcohol wasn’t going to kill them. But they knew they were going to die. It was their choice. They’re not heroes or victims, but what they are, what they chose to be. Now they’ve turned into phantoms, still walking the streets, and I feel like when I die I might join them.”
Raya says at one point he’d included his own portrait in the painting. But convinced he was back in the world of the living, he decided to paint it out. Instead, he added the image of a stray dog that was adopted by one of the group. “Even the dog,” he says, “is dead.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Cynthia Howe.