A Million Years’ Struggle: On Carlos Cortéz Koyokuikatl's “Coyote’s Song”

By Elizabeth HensonJanuary 18, 2024

A Million Years’ Struggle: On Carlos Cortéz Koyokuikatl's “Coyote’s Song”

Coyote’s Song: Collected Poems & Selected Art of Carlos Cortéz Koyokuikatl by Carlos Cortéz Koyokuikatl

CARLOS CORTÉZ KOYOKUIKATL wore a thousand sombreros. He was a legendary Chicago printmaker, poet, muralist, mentor, and revolutionary Wobbly organizer, but above all he was the abuelo (grandfather) of the Chicano Art Movement in Chicago from the 1970s until his death in 2005. Cortéz is best known for his wood and linoleum block prints, which have circulated for decades as posters and illustrations. Many of these you have probably seen, like his best-known work, a series of heroes surrounded by long, hand-chiseled quotations: Lucy González de Parsons, the Tejana labor leader whose husband was hung with the anarchist martyrs of Haymarket Square in 1877, exhorting workers to occupy the factories; the Mexican revolutionary anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón, in prison stripes, excoriating art for the sake of art; Ben Fletcher, the Black longshoreman who organized integrated Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) locals up and down the East Coast; and Joe Hill, the itinerant Wobbly singer-songwriter, “murdered by the judiciary in collusion with the mine owners who wished to silence his songs.”

Until this past spring, most of Cortéz’s poetry was lost to the public, having only been printed in IWW’s newspaper Industrial Worker and a variety of out-of-print publications. Alternatively, his long poems like “Where Are the Voices?” were meant to be declaimed, read aloud, on picket lines, at rallies, at slams around the city.

Editors Carlos Cumpián and David Ranney have now given Cortéz’s work a second life in a volume containing 90 poems and 23 prints and other images, with commentaries by Cumpián, René Arceo, and Fred Sasaki. Sasaki, creative director of Chicago’s Poetry Foundation, provides a brief introduction emphasizing Cortéz’s mission: to encourage people to use their creativity to “stop the wheels from turning.” Cumpián, a teacher and poet, and René Arceo, director of the collaborative Arceo Press, in another introduction and afterword, provide a wealth of memories, from the story of Cortéz’s parents meeting to his long association with Indigenous people, his impressive home library, his love of music, and his linguistic abilities.

Cortéz grew up steeped in left-wing culture—his father was a Mexican Wobbly from Sinaloa and his mother a German socialist—then he was further radicalized in jail, condemned to 18 months in Sandstone Prison for refusing to serve (“shoot fellow draftees”) in World War II (a “gang fight for power and wealth”). When he emerged from prison, he joined the IWW, the Wobblies, and the One Big Union, and got a job at a record store. He moved to Chicago in the late 1950s.

Cortéz took art classes in high school and a few more in night school. From his first days with the IWW, he contributed illustrations to the Industrial Worker, using discarded furniture and linoleum floor tiles for woodcut and linocut blocks. His images are direct, confrontational, meant to communicate; they portray a history of struggle. They are frequently crowded, as crowded as jail cells after a crackdown or families in tenements. The faces look straight at you, demanding that you do the right thing. Art was Cortéz’s form of activism.

Cortéz championed hand-pulled prints over photomechanical reproduction, initially because it was cheaper, but eventually the physical labor suited him. Printmaking is hard work: images are carved out by hand, then reproduced manually on a flatbed press. Cortéz named his press Gato Negro—for the IWW symbol of a black cat—and kept it at his house. He reveled in uneven inking and broken lines, and he printed on any paper at hand. His work is “rascuache,” a Chicano term for “homemade,” in the pejorative sense. He refused to produce “fine art” but worked to undermine the allure of the beautiful object as an article of consumption.

Cortéz’s images tell stories. Field Workers shows two campesinos bending to work with short-handled hoes—which the United Farm Workers finally succeeded in banning in 1975—among endless rows that point to the snowy peaks of California’s Sierra Nevada. The lines around their elbows and knees are exquisitely rendered, in a rare show of decorative grace. In Día de la Raza, an Indigenous family stands in front of a pyramid, holding a picture of a Spanish friar. Before the ‘Disappearance, Cortéz’s depiction of the military arrest of a Guatemalan man, was commissioned by the man’s wife. The image portrays a family in their home, confronted by skeleton soldiers with menacing weapons; the woman’s husband is bound and kneeling, pointed out by a hooded informer, and two children cower behind the wife.

The primary influence on Cortéz’s printmaking was José Guadalupe Posada, the satirical Mexican printmaker and political cartoonist, born in 1852. Posada appears in Cortéz’s 1981 print, Homage to Posada, wearing an apron and holding a zinc plate while his signature character, La Calavera Catrina (“The Elegant Skull”), a skeleton in a wide hat, grips his shoulder with long bony fingers.

Cortéz lived at the heart of the Chicano Art Movement. His home on the northwest side of Chicago was a perennial salon; its storefront gallery was always open, although both he and his Greek-born wife, Marianna, labored for low wages most of their lives. Generations of colleagues, students, friends, and fellow workers flocked to his side.

Cortéz’s poetry, like his woodcuts, remained untouched by the academy. Direct, vernacular, and often hilarious, it leaps from the page, marching, waving signs, didactic, transparent. He did not attend creative writing classes, but he covers every base within the left, from Hiroshima to broken treaties to Sacco and Vanzetti, along with the streets and factories of a gritty, windblown Chicago.

I imagine Cortéz dominating the stage, with his wiry build, black glasses, droopy mustache, and norteño sombrero, his voice rising and falling, evoking “a million years’ struggle.” These poems are invocations: he calls on Victor Jara, Joe Hill, Emiliano Zapata, and Christ in an effort to stir folks to action and raise the dead.

Cortéz read the Beats all his life, and shared their penchant for direct speech without embellishment. Some of his poems are short lyric bursts (“in the train-whistle night’s / angry hot breeze”), recalling the Beats’ insistence on recording the here and now, the present moment, in contrast with his longer declamatory works.

One of my favorite lyrics is titled “Communication,” which rants against experts who alone claim to comprehend Bach; the poem also quotes Cortéz’s immigrant mother (who never dug anything “more uplifting than / a wheezy Saturday night / Concertina”) listening to the Brandenburg Concerto from the kitchen and asking, “What are you playing there that sounds so much / like springtime?”

Cortez’s perennial themes include industry and environment, tidal waves and ocean liners, the buzzing of flies, and the humbling of nature. In the opening poem, “Progress,” Cortéz describes “roaring jets” drowning out birdcalls and “asphalt and concrete” covering the earth. “Requiem for a Street” describes the destruction of Maxwell Street, a central commercial district where immigrant foods and voices once mingled, wiped out in a burst of “civic improvement.” Cortéz provides a catalog of what was lost, recalling a “street of chianti, mazel and retsina, of ouzo, arak and tequila.” He denounces “the mechanical roar of the cranes and the mechanical thump of the large ball and the mechanical roar of the bulldozers directed from distant offices, committees and kickback artists with mechanical mentalities and mechanical hearts.” I imagine him reading this poem aloud, repeating “mechanical” again and again, invoking a place that is gone.

Cortéz’s verse bears witness and preserve the names of the dead. A long poem recounts a mine disaster in 1965, in Clinchfield, West Virginia, naming each of the seven miners killed in an underground fire and their surviving wives, then numbering the members of their households. Another poem, “Tragedia de Alonso,” recounts the story of a tunnel digger from Chicago, the best ever known, who died in a cave-in, undoubtedly because “the contractor was saving on materials.” This is poetry of denunciation, where Cortéz deploys his earlier training as a journalist.

Cortéz identified as Mexican and was encouraged by his exiled German mother to celebrate his Indigenous heritage. In the late 1970s, he was given the name Koyokuikatl, which means Singing Coyote, by Aztec elders. “I’ve always identified myself as a Mexican,” Cortéz said, according to Chicago Reader.

I guess this was a result of my early years in grammar school. Even though I resembled my German mother more than my Mexican father, being the only Mexican in a school full of whites made me mighty soon realize who I was. But it was my German mother who started my Mexican consciousness. She said, “Son, don’t let the children at school call you a foreigner. Through your father you are Indian, and that makes you more American than any of them.”

Cortéz was active in movements and organizations that bridged his various experiences and identities and lent credibility to his politically saturated creative work. In 1975, he joined José Gonzalez in founding the Movimiento Artistico Chicano (MARCH), the first Mexican arts organization in Illinois. He wrote continually throughout his life and collaborated with the Industrial Worker as a journalist, reporter, and editor, as well as illustrator, contributing the regular Left Side column. He used several pen names, such as his prison identification number (X321826) and C. C. Redcloud, after the Oglala Sioux warrior who resisted Indigenous dispossession. For 20 years, Cortéz was even the president of the board of Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, the legendary radical press.

Cortéz insisted on printing additional copies of his own work whenever the market price threatened to rise, struggling to keep his art from becoming a commodity. As he explained it: “When you do a painting that’s it, it’s one of a kind. But when you do a graphic the amount of prints you can make from it is infinite.”

Several institutions hold collections of Cortéz’s work for public viewing, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, and the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Culver City, as well as the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. The Chicago museum houses his press and much of his work in its anchor collection, Nuestras Historias: Stories of Mexican Identity from the Permanent Collection; in August 2023, the centennial of his birth year, a retrospective, Carlos Cortéz 100 AÑOS, opened at the museum as well, showcasing his work alongside that of several of his protégés. In 2019, Cortéz’s achievement in writing was cemented with induction into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. If further proof is needed to demonstrate his iconic stature as an artist, an enormous temporary mural with his image and a collage of his work has gone up near the city’s Kennedy Expressway in a space long used to honor important individuals.

Characteristic of the activists and artists who came before him, Cortéz’s work is optimistic: “High above / The smog / The mountains / Are still / THERE!” His poetry, these images, the stories they tell—all are necessary. And like Cortéz, we pray: “Spirit of the Mountain Cat: / May your Grandchildren / Teach your assassins / The proper path!”

LARB Contributor

Elizabeth Henson has a PhD in Latin American history and is the author of Agrarian Revolt in the Sierra of Chihuahua, 1959–1965 (University of Arizona Press, 2019). Her current work focuses on the IWW and the Partido Liberal Mexicano and can be seen at revoltososindouglas.com.


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