“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 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, in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, and at the University of Notre Dame before settling in Chicago in the 1970s.

During Gonzalez’s time at Notre Dame, he became involved in the burgeoning Chicano arts movement and began working at the intersection of art and activism, which brought him to Chicago, those close to him 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, José González co-founded El Movimiento Artistico Chicano, known as MARCH, which organized prominent exhibitions for local, national and Mexican artists. He also turns 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 this group, he created the MIRARTE cultural newsletter and directory of Midwestern artists and arts organizations.

José González continued to host exhibitions and cultural events and was prominent in bringing the entire city to the celebration of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

It was around this time that close friend and eventual biographer Mark Zimmerman met Jose Gonzalez, Zimmerman said. After coming to Chicago to be the coordinator of 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 the Mexican art world in Chicago and the Latino world 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 got into politics because he “realized he had to.”

“Art was his way of making an impact and social justice being a key part of that,” Alicia Gonzalez said. “I think all along he really wanted to make sure that his community, the Latino community as a whole, had representation across the board.”

In 2010, Zimmerman wrote a book about Jose Gonzalez — “Bringing Aztlan to Mexican Chicago” — after he was approached by national Chicano leaders who said he should do it, Zimmerman said.

“I never expected to write a book about 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, ‘That’s ridiculous, but I guess I’ll give it a shot.’

By this point, Jose Gonzalez had been out of action for some time due to frequent hospitalizations. He was living in a nursing home and not being able to be active in the art world was hard on him, relatives said.

“I felt it was my job to help him have a legacy, especially since he felt so defeated and disappointed,” Zimmerman said. “I did my best to build his legacy so that he is not forgotten. The leaders who pressured me to write the book did the right thing, and I’m glad I succeeded for them.”

Alicia Gonzalez said she hopes people will come together to remember her father’s legacy in Pilsen and the art scene throughout the city.

“Unfortunately, my father didn’t create 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 own career.”

Events to celebrate Jose Gonzalez’s life will be announced by the family soon.

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