Wobbly Artist and Poet Carlos Cortez died of heart failure at 7:44 PM on Tuesday, January 18, 2005, at his home in Lakeview. He was surrounded by friends and listening to the music of the Texas Tornadoes when he passed away. Cortez suffered his first heart attack in 1993, and a massive heart attack a year and a half ago left him bed-ridden in his own home until he passed away. Cortez was 81 years old.
Cortez is best known for his poetry collections published by March/Abrazo Press and Charles H. Kerr. He is also known for his art. He was a consciencious objector in WWII. There will be an article in the Sunday Tribune. A public memorial will be organized in the future. We will update this page as more information arises.
Obituary by Carlos Cumpian
Carlos A. Cortez, 81, Activist Artist and Writer
Carlos A. Cortez, who through his labor-oriented art and writings helped bring international attention to Mexicans and other native peoples, died on Jan. 18 at his home in Chicago. He was 81.
The cause of death was heart failure, according to his doctor Teresa Ramos M.D., present at the time of his death.
Imprisonment as a conscientious objector during World War II led to his membership in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union. Cortez’s support of the IWW or “Wobblies,” was central to the theme of many of his wood and linoleum-cut graphics, as well as editorial and poetic works. He was columnist and editor for the IWW union paper, The Industrial Worker, from the late 1950s to 2005, and the author of four books.
In 1975, Cortez joined Jose G. Gonzalez to found the first Mexican arts organization in Illinois, Movimiento Artistico Chicano, MARCH, Inc. Cortez was also an active member of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, Chicago Mural Group, Mexican Taller del Grabado (Mexican Graphic Workshop), Casa de la Cultura Mestizarte, the Native Men’s Song Circle and Charles H. Kerr Publishers. Cortez’s work is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institute and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Cortez is survived by the relatives of his late wife Mariana Drogitis-Cortez: his sisters-in-law, Theodora Katsikakis and Lela Vlahos; brother-in-law Nicholas Drogitis; nieces Despina Katsikakis and Monica Meissner, grand niece Alexandra Kailing, and nephews Kosta Vlahos and George Vlahos.
Memorial services are private after Mr. Cortez’s cremation in Chicago, Illinois.
Those seeking to honor his memory may make a contribution to the American Indian Center at 1630 W. Wilson Ave. or the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
Dear Chicago Poets,
Carlos Cortez was a friend of mine. I say this with a measure of pride for a man whom I came to regard as, not only a fine artist and writer, but as extremely decent human being. Unfortunately, my first encounter with Carlos illustrates that you should never judge a man simply on externalities.
Before I get to the details of our first meeting, let me tell you a little bit about myself, the me I was during the winter of 1987. I worked as an administrator for a major foundation in Chicago. I reviewed grant requests and loan requests, and I learned to make quick judgments and to examine the financial integrity of nonprofit applicants. I lived and ate numbers. I took the job seriously, and, honestly, I took myself equally seriously, if not more so, because working for this foundation was considered a plum Chicago job. Man, I was suffering from a major case of Yuppie-itis. After all, I was in my early thirties, making decent money, and I even owed income property in Bucktown, before it had emerged as the in-place to live. But I also was starting to publish children’s stories and poems for Arte Publico Press and its journal, Revista Chicano-riqueña. But I kept that part of my life pretty much in the background.
I’ve always isolated myself as a writer. I didn’t know Carlos Cortez from Carlos Cumpian, and honestly, I couldn’t have cared less. I was a major twit who dressed in business suits or tweed jackets and wondered how I was going to gain literary fame while keeping my hand in the business world. Being part of a literary community was never a major concern. Then Carlos Cortez walked into my life. I was still married to the second Mrs. Varela. She, like me, held certain standards. I’m not going to tell you about these standards, but let’s just say that they gave me the means to an end.
I also liked going out to parties hosted by other Latino-Yuppies-in-the-making. A colleague from another foundation had invited us to one he was hosting in his flat in Logan Square. Wife number two and I accepted and drove to Logan Square on a very cold January night. The music was hot, the booze flowing, and the conversation stimulating. Then from out of the darkness came this reed-thin man wearing a white cowboy hat, dressed in black with a flowing mane of white hair gathered into a ponytail, and a black mustache that seemed to go on forever. He even had on a western shirt stitched with several red skulls and a figure of a coyote howling under a red moon. He also had on a bolo tie clasped at the throat by a large silver skull. Then he smiled and said, “I hear you guys live near me. Could you give me a ride?”
Wife number two and I just stared at this apparition. Sometimes the world comes to a screeching halt. I mean, my parents raised me up to never befriend strangers who wore cowboy apparel in the big city. Right off, I sensed that this guy was some sort of bohemian. My God, who would actually dress like that in the Roaring 80’s? Didn’t he know anything about Reaganomics and supply-side theory? And what would my stockbroker think if I actually gave someone like him a ride? But I seemed to hesitate, so wife number two squeezed my hand, which was her signal that she would kill me if I, indeed, offered him a ride, so I said no.
Ten minutes later, the party’s host came over and said in a voice frosty with annoyance. “I just heard that you wouldn’t give Carlos Cortez a ride. I said, “Who?” He replied, “Cortez. Don’t you know him? Man, everybody loves Carlos.” I wanted to say that I never give rides to eccentrics or lunatics, but I kept my tongue in check. He huffed away. I suppose the host arranged a ride, because I saw the graveyard cowboy as he left with someone else. What was all the fuss about?
Well, there is a lot to fuss about when it comes to Carlos Cortez. I thank God for having had the privilege of knowing him and appreciating the immerse gift he gave to me, his friendship. And he was also the most tolerant man I ever knew. After all, he even forgave me, the biggest twit in the world for being such a twit that night. Imagine I turned down the opportunity to become friends with a great artist.
Carlos Cortez was known as a great poet and artist. But more than that, he was a very special person who gave his love and affection to everyone he met. I met Carlos at The Mexico City Sister Cities Poetry semifinal Poetry Slam at the Chicago Cultural Center. I believe the year was 1991. He and I were finalists at this competition. That day, I met an extremely passionate man who inspired me with his verse and attitude towards life. He was always positive no matter what the situation was. thereafter, I spent many hours at his home discussing poetry, politics, art, and life in general. I had the honor to read with him on several occasions. His philosophy was “you always end a reading when you feel they want more”. He was influential in the lives of many. I’m thankful I got to meet such an enthusiastic and compassionate individual. He will be greatly missed. He was a mentor and a friend to many. Adios Carlos!
American Indian Center
Chicago Coalition for the Homeless
Chicago Tribune Obituary
About the artist
An Interview With Carlos Cortez
Industrial Workers of the World
REQUIEM FOR A STREET
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Note: One of Chicago's most beloved poets, Carlos Cortez, has passed away. Click on the headline for the story, an obituary by Carlos Cumpian, a rememberance by Frank Varela, thoughts by Jose Bono, and a place to post your own thoughts.