“Art was his way of making an impact”
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 the Mi Raza Arts Consortium, and his murals were once on city walls. He died on August 20 at the age of 89 after a long illness.
Gonzalez was born near Monterrey, Mexico in 1933 and grew up mostly in northwestern Indiana. He studied art at programs in Chicago, San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, and the University of Notre Dame before settling in Chicago in the 1970s.
During Gonzalez’s time at Notre Dame, he became involved with the burgeoning Chicano art movement and began working at the intersection of art and activism, which his loved ones said led him to Chicago.
“He realized that if he were in Indiana, he probably wouldn’t have as much impact,” said Gonzalez’s daughter, Alicia Gonzalez.
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 González had murals in Pilsen, where he lived, but none have remained, his daughter said.
After the March, Jose Gonzalez founded the Mi Raza Arts Consortium or MIRA in 1979. Through this group he produced a cultural newsletter, MIRARTE, and a directory of Midwestern artists and arts organizations.
Jose Gonzalez continued to host exhibitions and cultural events, and he was prominent in drawing the city’s attention to the celebrations of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
It was during this time that close friend and later biographer Marc Zimmerman met Jose Gonzalez, Zimmerman said. After coming to Chicago to become 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 who was recommended to me as a key figure in the Chicago art world, certainly the Mexican Chicago art world and Latino 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 do it.”
“Art was his way of making a difference, and social justice was a key part of that,” said Alicia Gonzalez. “I think throughout his tenure, he just really wanted to make sure his community, the Latino community in general, was represented at all the tables.”
In 2010, Zimmerman wrote a book about Jose Gonzalez — Bringing Aztlán to Mexican Chicago — after being approached by Chicano national leaders who said he had to do it, 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’s your duty.’ I said, ‘This is ridiculous, but I think I’ll try.'”
By this time, Jose Gonzalez had been off duty for a while due to frequent hospitalizations. He lived in a nursing home and not being able to be active in the art world was tough for him, his loved ones said.
“I felt it was my job to help him leave a legacy, especially since he was feeling so down and frustrated,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve done my best to build his legacy so he won’t be forgotten. The executives who pushed me to write the book did the right thing, and I’m glad I stood up for them.”
Alicia Gonzalez said she hopes people can come together to remember her father’s legacy in Pilsen and the art scene across the city.
“Unfortunately, my father didn’t produce much art after the ’80s because he ended up dedicating himself to promoting others and just making sure Latinos had a voice and Latinos got a spot 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 own career.”
Events celebrating the life of Jose Gonzalez will be announced shortly by the family.
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