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 Consortium, and his murals could once be seen on city walls. He died Aug. 20 at 89 after a period of illness.
Gonzalez was born near Monterrey, Mexico, in 1933 and raised primarily in northwest Indiana. He studied art at programs in Chicago, in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico and at the University of Notre Dame before settling down in Chicago in the ’70s.
It was during Gonzalez’s time at Notre Dame that he got involved in the burgeoning Chicano arts movement and started to work at the intersection of art and activism, which took him to Chicago, his loved ones said.
“He realized that he probably was not going to 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 exhibits 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, which is where he lived, but none remain, his daughter said.
After MARCH, Jose Gonzalez founded Mi Raza Arts Consortium, or MIRA, in 1979. Through that group, he produced a cultural newsletter, MIRARTE, and a directory of Midwest artists and art organizations.
Jose Gonzalez continued to host exhibits and cultural events, and he was prominent in bringing citywide attention to Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrations.
It was during this time that close friend and eventual 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 ties with the Latino community outside the campus, he said.
“One of the first people who I met and I was told to meet as a key person in the art world of Chicago, certainly the Mexican art world of Chicago and Latino more generally, 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 crossed into politics because “he realized that he needed to.”
“Art was his way of making an impact, and having social justice be a key piece of that,” Alicia Gonzalez said. “I think that throughout his time he just really wanted to make sure that his community, the Latino community at large, had representation at all tables.”
In 2010, Zimmerman wrote a book on Jose Gonzalez — “Bringing Aztlán to Mexican Chicago” — after being approached by national Chicano leaders who said he needed to, Zimmerman said.
“I never expected to do a book on Jose — he was a friend and I worked with him on several projects,” Zimmerman said. “But they said, ‘No, it’s your duty.’ I said, ‘This is ridiculous, but I guess I’ll try.'”
By that point, Jose Gonzalez had been out of commission for a while due to frequent hospitalizations. He was residing 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 have a legacy, especially since he was feeling so defeated and frustrated,” Zimmerman said. “I did my best to to build his legacy so he would not be forgotten. The leaders who pressured me to do the book did the right thing, and I’m glad I came through for them.”
Alicia Gonzalez said she hopes people can come together to remember her father’s legacy in Pilsen and the arts scene citywide.
“Unfortunately, my dad 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 had a place at different museums,” she said. “Many, many artists in the city would not be where they’re at today had my father not sacrificed his own career.”
Events to celebrate Jose Gonzalez’s life will soon be announced by the family.
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