On a hot afternoon in early June, artist Marcos Raya stood on a ladder propped against a concrete wall on 18th Street and applied a fresh coat of gray paint to one of the oldest surviving outdoor antiwar murals in the country. The artwork, Fallen Dictator, shows a crowd of gun-toting revolutionaries—including one carrying a placard of Che Guevara—standing behind the upended statue of a Latin American military leader. A car rolled by, honking its approval. "So many people have thanked us," Raya said.
Fallen Dictator is a familiar sight to northbound travelers on Western Avenue. It's part of a larger multipanel political mural called Prevent World War III, which was created guerrilla style in the summer of 1980 by ten prominent midwestern muralists. They painted it in response to Ronald Reagan's prospective election, and with it, the looming threat of nuclear war and other global and environmental disasters.
The mural was prescient. Raya, 68, recalled that just after he completed Fallen Dictator in September 1980, former U.S.-backed Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza Debayle—who'd been overthrown by Sandinista rebels a year earlier—was assassinated in Paraguay. "And now look at what's happening this moment, with democracy threatened in South American countries," Raya said. "That's why this mural is so today."
Raya returned to retouch and update Fallen Dictator from time to time, adding references to racist immigration policies and U.S. involvement with narco-states. But this spring he received a $10,000 commission to restore all ten panels and hire a small crew. The endowment comes courtesy of the 25th Ward Art in Public Places Community Arts Initiative, the same program responsible for the street art on a nearly two-mile-long stretch of the retaining wall, which angles along 16th Street to the east.
A survivor from the era of the grassroots People's Art movement, Prevent World War III is one of a number of community murals in Chicago that have remained relevant long after much of their imagery has faded. It was the result of a spontaneous call to collective action. Muralist John Weber invited a number of his artist comrades to paint on the Burlington Northern (now BNSF) railroad embankment wall after Reagan won the Republican presidential nomination. Muralists from Pilsen, the rest of the city, and Wisconsin—including Carlos Cortez, José Guerrero, and Caryl Yasko—heeded the call. The crew didn't seek the rail company's permission. Weber directed the effort, while Mark Rogovin—who'd soon after cofound the Peace Museum—contributed the filmstrip design, a reference to Reagan's acting career.
The mural's successive panels unspool like scenes from a bad disaster movie. As part of the anti-nuke, anti-Reagan theme, artists addressed such issues as political corruption, perpetual warfare, industrial pollution, corporate greed, capitalism, and populist uprise. "I always find it exciting to come back and do this," Raya said. "I've been criticizing how murals went more mainstream. You lose a lot of freedom to be political."
That hasn't been an issue for Raya. He's a key player in the Chicano mural movement who painted many of Pilsen's iconic walls in the 1970s and '80s—the Casa Aztlán exterior at 1831 S. Racine is a surviving example—and has long been an internationally exhibiting artist. In recent years he's become better known for his surrealist paintings and installations than for his work on the streets. Yet revisiting Prevent World War III has rekindled his activism. "More than any other time in the United States," he said, "there should be a cultural resistance against what's happening in the world today."
For the restoration, Raya tracked down old photographs to use as guides for color and content, but he's added contemporary touches. Volunteer Mirella Campos replaced an image of Reagan and then-president Jimmy Carter wrestling over a missile with one showing Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton doing the same thing. On the day I visited, assistant Amanda Mudrovich, 33, was lettering signs held by protesters in a section that had originally been rendered by Aurelio Díaz. Over faded text she painted no to gENTRIFICATION, AFFORDABLE HOUSING IN PILSEN, and STOP POLICE BRUTALITY.
Mudrovich, Raya's girlfriend and an artist who'd never worked on a mural before, noted that many of the street-art and spray-can pieces she sees in Pilsen "don't make you think."
"You have a responsibility for it to mean something," she said, "to reflect the views of the people—for it to mean something more than just decorating a wall."
Raya agreed. "A lot of people, young and old, came by and said, 'These are the kinds of murals we need these days.' " v