Friday, September 17, 2021

Rebel Worker and Icon Carlos Cortez Inducted into Chicago Hall of Literary Fame


I am more than thrilled to learn that my old friend, Fellow Worker, and mentor Carlos Cortez will be honored Sunday, September 19 as one of four inductees into the Chicago Hall of Literary Fame in a ceremony at the Cit Lit Theater, 1020 West Bryn Mawr Avenue from 7 to 8:30 pm.

Carlos might not we well known to the general public, but he is a revered figure in the labor movement, especially with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and in the Latinx and Native American arts communities.  He was perhaps best known for his lino and woodcut posters and illustrations. For him art of all types was inseparable from social activism and was meant to be easily accessible to ordinary people.  He could have made a fortune and been far more widely recognized as a fine artist if he sold his posters in signed and numbered editions.  Instead, he printed them himself in unlimited numbers by silk screening on what ever paper stock he could scrounge and were sold for a few dollars or more likely given away.  In fact, if he discovered there was a commercial market for his prints that were being re-sold by dealers and galleries, he would print more just to keep the price down.  Much of his work has been archived, preserved, and displayed and displayed at Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art, which he helped nurture.

Carlos Cortez was honored at a retrospective exhibit at Chicago's National Museum of Mexican Art.

But he is being recognized now as a writer.  He was also a roll-up-his-sleeves, plain spoken poet who published three collections in his lifetime who shared his work at poetry readings and slams around the city avoiding the establishment to find venues where the excluded and outcast could be included.  He performed his pieces at union meetings and on picket lines, at rallies and benefits, and for those who gathered in the informal salon he kept open in the former Northwest Side neighborhood storefront where he made a home with his beloved wife Marianna. 

Most of his work first saw print in the Industrial Worker with which he was associated for more than 40 years. 

Born in Milwaukee on August 13, 1923 to a German Socialist mother and a Mexican indio/mestizo IWW member Father.  He was steeped from the beginning in working class culture and revolutionary values.  He took seriously the old Socialist admonitions not to allow governments to divide workers and turn them against each other in imperialist wars.  During World War II he refused induction into the Army and spent nearly three years in the Federal Prison at Sandstone, Minnesota—ironically the same prison where I was held for the same offense for draft resistance during the Vietnam War.  After the war he worked in various factories.

In the late 1950’s he decided to come down to Chicago to become more involved with the IWW where there was both an active general membership branch and the union’s General Headquarters.  He volunteered his time helping out at GHQ where Fred W. Thompson then the Editor of the Industrial Worker began to use his contributions of both illustrations and writings.

Carlos did many versions of this poster  of IWW songwriter and martyr Joe Hill including editions in Spanish and Swedish.

Soon he was contributing several pieces each issue—articles, essays, folksy polemics, and occasional verse.   Short musings, observations, and yarns were printed as a regular feature column The Left Side.  Other pieces appeared signed as CAC, C.C. Redcloud, Koyokuikatl, and his IWW membership card number X321826.

When he first came down he was still known as Karl Cortez as his mother called him, but has he immersed himself in the city and connected to the Mexican and Chicago communities, he became Carlos and adopted the big hats, and flowing moustache and sometimes goatee which became his trademark.

By the late 60’s Carlos took over as editor of the paper and in 1970 I began my regular contributions to its pages.  Later we reorganized the staff as collective and eventually I assumed the editorship while Carlos continued his contributions.  When we lost office space to do the layout and production, we did it at a table in Carlos and Marianna’s apartment.  When that place was remodeled by their landlord they stayed with me and then Secretary Treasurer Kathleen Taylor in our near-by fourth floor walk-up apartment in the building dubbed Wobbly Towers for a few months.

At an IWW party in the mid-70's Carlos, center, chatted with New York anarchist writer Sam Dolgoff while I listened to Kay Brundage, former wife of College of Complexes Janitor Slim Brundage.

Meanwhile Carlos and I both worked as custodians at Coyne American Institute, a trade school on Fullerton Avenue.  A few years later when I was homeless Carlos returned the favor and I stayed with them for some time enjoying Marianna’s strong espresso in the morning and hanging with Carlos over Wild Turkey in the evenings in the large gallery-like front room that served as his workshop and gathering spot.   Almost any evening was an education.

It is really a tribute to the Industrial Worker as a working class institution that Carlos is being honored for the work that largely first appeared there.

During those years Carlos became a founding member of the Movemento Aristico Chicano (MARCH)—the first organization of Latino artists in the city.  With his close friend Carlos Cumpián and others meeting in the comfortable front room, he built an organization which mentored many young artists, spread “the culture”, and helped foster the re-birth of the muralist movement in the city.  He also became an early supporter of the Mexican Fine Arts Center now known as the National Museum of Mexican Arts which became the repository of many of his works and has the largest collection of his extensive production in the world.  He was also active with the Chicago Mural Group, Mexican Taller del Grabado (Mexican Graphic Workshop), Casa de la Cultura Mestizarte, and the Native Men’s Song Circle, a Native American group out of the American Indian Center.  Through that association, he came to mentor and encourage young Indian artists with the same passion he dedicated to the Chicanos.  In fact, there was no artist or poet of any race who was not welcome in that home, as long as they were ready and eager to serve the people’s needs and not “art for art’s sake,” a notion he found repugnant and elitist.

Carlos used Marianna as a model often as a personification of the spirit of revolution in Industrial Worker illustrations like this May Day linocut.  He reveled in her voluptuous body, which sometimes got him in trouble.  

A lifelong bachelor, in the early 60’s a Greek friend told him that he should meet his sister.  The trouble was that she was still in Greece.  The two corresponded through her brother for a while.  Carlos saved his money, quit his job, and crossed the ocean as a passenger on a freighter.  He met Marianna Drogitis, a lovely young woman who was, however, by the standards of her culture, a spinster having rejected several suitors.  The two fell in love despite not speaking a word of each other’s language.  They communicated by gesture and the few words of German they had in common—she had learned the language in occupied Greece where members of her family were active in the Resistance.  They returned to the U.S. on another freighter, married, and settled into the happiest marriage I have ever seen in a Chicago apartment in 1965. 

When I proposed to Kathy Brady-Larsen in the early 80’s, Carlos was pleased to make a drawing of the two of us with her daughters Carolynne and Heather for the invitations I designed.  He and Marianna danced happily at our wedding party at Lilly’s on Lincoln Avenue.

By 1981 Carlos’s heart forced him to retire from wage slavery.  It gave him more time to dedicate to his artwork, poetry and causes.  Unfortunately, it also put a strain on Marianna who took extra work to make up for the lost income.  Despite sometimes working twelve hours at two jobs, she always had a smile for any of Carlos’s many guests, and a pat on the cheek for the old man.

Carlos's best known collection of poetry was issued by Charles H. Kerr, the revered Socialist publishing house.

Carlos, although best known as a graphic artist and for his work on the Industrial Worker, was also a poet.  He would do occasional readings at an old haunt, the College of Complexes, in coffee houses, at radical bookstores, and wherever his friends gathered.  He wrote three books of poetry, including De Kansas a Califas & Back to Chicago, published by March/Abrazo Press, and Crystal-Gazing the Amer Fluid & Other Wobbly Poems, published by the old Socialist publisher Charles H. Kerr & Company.  Carlos was President of the Kerr Board for 20 years, a title he detested.  He also edited, wrote the introduction to, or contributed to several other books.

Carlos was devastated when his beloved Marianna died in 2001.  I last saw him at her memorial.

His health deteriorated rapidly after that, and he was often confined to a wheelchair.  He continued to greet a steady parade of visitors and admirers to his studio home and participated in the planning of new exhibitions of his work, including one in Madrid sponsored by the anarcho-syndicalists of the Confederacion National de Trabajo (CNT.)   He suffered a massive heart attack and was confined to his bed for the last 18 months of his life.

On January 17, 2005 Carlos died, surrounded by friends and “listening to the music of the Texas Tornados.”

His long-time friend Carlos Cumpián will speak about him at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

The Chicago Hall of Literary Fame describes its mission thusly:

Chicago is not a city that can be crisply explained, neatly categorized, or easily understood.

Yet through our literature we strive to define our place in the world. Our literature speaks to our city’s diversity, character and heart. In our literature can be found all we love and hate, frozen snapshots of our vast terrain over the years, commentary on our ever-changing culture. In our literature can be found who we are and what we do and where we do it. The value and character of our city is not only reflected in but shaped by our great books.

Our mission is to honor and preserve Chicago’s great literary heritage.

Unlike other cultural institutions the Hall of Fame does not just honor world famous authors but takes pains to highlight authentic and diverse voices.

Other honorees this year include Black novelist Frank London Brown whose work describing life in the Projects in the late 1950’s included novel Trumbull Park and the short story McDougal.  He was also a machinist, union organizer, and was director of the Union Leadership Program at the University of Chicago.  He enjoyed some fame as a jazz singer as appearing with Thelonius Monk. Brown died young in 1962.  Jeannette Howard Foster was an educator, librarian, translator, poet, scholar, and author of the first critical study of lesbian literature, Sex Variant Women in Literature in 1956. She was also the first librarian of Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s Institute for Sex Research, and she influenced generations of librarians and gay lesbian literary figures. She died in 1981.  Gene Wolf was a science fiction and fantasy writer noted for his dense, allusive prose as well as the strong influence of his Catholic faith. He has been called the Melville of science fiction. Wolfe is best known for his Book of the New Sun series—four volumes, 1980–1983—the first part of his Solar Cycle He died in 2019.

Carlos will be in good company.

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