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Chi Lives: the art of the Wobbly

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When a snowstorm struck the city one December in the early 1970s, the rank and file showed up to work at the Richardson Company chemical factory on time. The plant manager, supervisors, and line foremen--who all lived in the suburbs--didn't arrive until late afternoon. At the end of the day, the plant manager shook hands with the workers in the packaging unit and thanked them. Afterward one worker, Carlos Cortez, remarked to his foreman that the plant would be better off without managers.

"If not enough of us show up and they can't transfer enough guys from other departments, we all go home with half a day's pay," Cortez remembers saying. "None of them showed up and the factory ran smoothly. In fact, smoother than ever. We didn't have the bosses breathing down our necks."

Cortez has spent his working life as a laborer, but he's better known as an artist and poet. A longtime affiliate of the Industrial Workers of the World, a charter member of Movimiento Artistico Chicano, and an anarchist, he's advocated for workers' rights, environmental preservation, and social justice through murals, cartoons, posters, and poems since the late 1940s.

The self-described "half-assed professional artist and writer" was born in 1923 in Milwaukee; his Mexican father, Alfredo Cortez, was a traveling delegate for the IWW. In the early 1920s he'd crashed a Socialist Party meeting in Milwaukee to peddle IWW literature and one of the attendees, Augusta Ungerecht, a poet and pacifist, bought a pamphlet. After dating for over a year, they married.

Carlos Cortez started drawing while attending a rural Wisconsin elementary school and moved on to linoleum-block prints in high school. He joined the Socialist Party's youth section after graduation and, during World War II, spent two years in a federal prison in Minnesota as a conscientious objector. After his release in 1945, he returned to Milwaukee and joined the IWW.

"When I got out, my ideology had taken a turn," he says. "I believed less and less in electoral politics. I believed more in direct action through labor organizations....So I'm a strong believer in unionism. Not the business unions, but direct action on the part of the workers themselves."

Although Cortez refused to fight he considers himself loyal to his fellow citizens. "If it's to prop up some government and the moneymen behind them, I'm not a patriot," he says. "But if it's to fight for the rights of working people, to fight against the exploitation of our natural resources, like deforestation or pollution of the waterways, I'm a patriot. I'm a lover of the land."

A Chicagoan since 1965, over the last half century Cortez has regularly contributed reviews, art, and poems to the Wobblies' house organ, the Industrial Worker. He plunged into poetry in the 1950s, inspired, he says, by the beats. His poems--three collections of which he published between 1992 and '97--are simple and straightforward, drawing on the Wobbly traditions of protest song, satire, and storytelling. "You with your million / evil / green window eyes," reads the short poem "Third Shift." "You swallow me every / evening; / and puke me every morning. / Damn you!"

Cortez's Chicago murals, including his panel in Prevent World War III, at 18th and Western, are faded but still present. His lasting legacy, however, may be the innumerable scratchboards and prints he's produced over the years. (When linoleum became too expensive, he switched to cedar, trolling alleys for discarded dresser tops and wardrobes.) His work has been widely exhibited--he was one of only two Chicago artists included in the massive exhibition "Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985," which toured the country from 1990 through '93--and the walls of his west Lincoln Park home are covered with his posters of labor heroes such as Joe Hill, Lucy Parsons, and Cesar Chavez, as well as prints chronicling the lives and struggles of anonymous workers. La lucha continua, a print once exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art, depicts a peasant demonstration in Bolivia. The figures, including a pregnant woman and two skulls with torsos, carry a red banner with the title's rallying cry.

Now 78, Cortez says he's "entering the most productive phase of my life." Apart from some nude studies (many of his wife, Marianna, who died last year), Cortez's work has rarely strayed from his activist agenda. "An artist, whether visual or nonvisual, expresses that which is closest to him or her," he says. "To try to express something else would not be genuine."

Cortez will read from his books and display his artwork at Northeastern Illinois University's student union building, 5500 N. Saint Louis, on Monday, April 1. The free event, sponsored by the school's Apocalypse Literary Arts Coalition, starts at 7 PM. Call 773-442-4582 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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