PILSEN — Jose Gamaliel Gonzalez was passionate about uplifting and connecting Latino artists in Chicago, his family and friends said.
The artist founded El Movimiento Artistico Chicano and Mi Raza Arts Consorcium, and his murals could once be seen on city walls. He died on August 20 at the age of 89 after a period of illness.
Gonzalez was born near Monterrey, Mexico, in 1933 and grew up mostly in northwest Indiana. He studied art in programs in Chicago, San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, and the University of Notre Dame before settling in Chicago in the 70s.
It was during Gonzalez’s time at Notre Dame that he became involved in the burgeoning Chicano art movement and began working at the intersection of art and activism, which led him to Chicago, loved ones said.
“He realized he probably wouldn’t have as much of an impact if he was in Indiana,” said Gonzalez’s daughter, Alicia Gonzalez.
Once in Chicago, Jose Gonzalez co-founded El Movimiento Artistico Chicano, known as MARCH, which organized prominent exhibitions for local, national, and Mexico-based artists. He also turned to public art, working on mural projects and designs for T-shirts, buttons, flyers and posters.
Jose Gonzalez had murals in Pilsen, where he lived, but none remain, his daughter said.
After MARCH, Jose Gonzalez founded the Mi Raza Arts Consortium, or MIRA, in 1979. Through that group, he produced a cultural newsletter, MIRARTE, and a directory of Midwest artists and arts organizations.
Jose Gonzalez continued to host exhibitions and cultural events, and he was prominent in bringing citywide attention to the celebrations of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
It was during this time that close friend and recent biographer Marc Zimmerman met Jose Gonzalez, Zimmerman said. After coming to Chicago to be the coordinator for the Latino Student Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Zimmerman’s job required him to make connections with the Latino community off campus, he said.
“One of the first people I met and was told to meet as a key person in the Chicago art world, certainly in the Chicago Mexican and Latino art world in general, was Jose Gonzalez,” Zimmerman said.
In addition to his art, Jose Gonzalez was involved in local politics, including campaigning for former Mayor Harold Washington. His daughter said Jose Gonzalez went into politics because “he realized he had to.”
“Art was his way of making an impact, and social justice was a key part of that,” Alicia Gonzalez said. “I think throughout his time he just wanted to make sure that his community, the Latino community in general, had representation at all tables.”
In 2010, Zimmerman wrote a book on Jose Gonzalez — “Bringing Aztlan to Mexican Chicago” — after being approached by national Chicano leaders who said he should, Zimmerman said.
“I never expected to do a book about Jose — he was a friend and I’ve worked with him on several projects,” Zimmerman said. But they said: ‘No, it is your duty.’ I said, ‘That’s ridiculous, but I think I’ll try.'”
By that point, Jose Gonzalez had been out of commission for a while due to frequent hospitalizations. He was living in a nursing home and not being able to be active in the art world was difficult for him, loved ones said.
“I felt it was my duty to help him have a legacy, especially since he felt so defeated and frustrated,” Zimmerman said. “I did my best to build his legacy so that he is not forgotten. The leaders who pressured me to do the book did the right thing and I’m glad I did it.”
Alicia Gonzalez said she hopes people can come together to remember her father’s legacy in Pilsen and the citywide arts scene.
“Unfortunately, my father didn’t produce much art after the ’80s because he ended up devoting himself to promoting others and just making sure that Latinos had a voice and Latinos had a place in different museums,” she said. “Many, many artists in the city would not be where they are today if my father had not sacrificed his career.”
Events to celebrate the life of Jose Gonzalez will be announced soon by the family.
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