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Artist Jose Guerrero, led mural tours in Pilsen, dead at 77

Jose Guerrero introduced tens of thousands of people to the murals of Pilsen.

An artist and printmaker, he led tours of the vibrant murals for about 30 years, explaining their symbols and subtext. Mr. Guerrero, who helped paint some of them, illuminated their messages on immigration and gentrification and the beauty of traditions like Christmas tamale-making.

“Murals promote you bettering yourself and having self-respect and not being ashamed of who you are,” he told WBEZ-FM in an interview in 2010.

“He was helping them understand what you might call ‘the people’s art,’ ” said Scott Chesebro, academic director for the Chicago Center for Urban Life and Culture. “He was a true master teacher.”

Jose Guerrero led tours of Pilsen murals for tens of thousands of people. | Facebook photo
Jose Guerrero led tours of Pilsen murals for tens of thousands of people. | Facebook photo

Mr. Guerrero died Wednesday in Chicago of complications from colon cancer, said artist John Pitman Weber. He was 77.

His Pilsen Mural Tours, organized with Margaret, his wife of 52 years, were touted in the Lonely Planet travel guides. Students signed up, and “People were coming in big coach buses from Michigan” to see them, Chesebro said.

Pilsen is a center for murals thanks to Mexican artistic tradition and Chicago’s role as a birthplace of the nation’s community mural movement, Chesebro said, with the 1967 creation of the groundbreaking for which artists painted African-American leaders on a building at 43rd and Langley.

That work, combined with the influence of towering Mexican artists, especially Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, contributed to the color and commentary on Pilsen walls, Chesebro said.

Mr. Guerrero was born in San Antonio. In 1964, he headed to Chicago for better opportunities and “a little adventure,” Weber said.

He landed a factory job with Sunbeam and also worked for the Chicago Park District. “He drove some vehicles for them,” Weber said. “He also worked in their greenhouses, doing planting.”

“Spring in Pilsen,” by Jose Guerrero.
“Spring in Pilsen,” by Jose Guerrero.

A self-taught artist, Mr. Guerrero did heroic murals with Weber at the United Electrical Workers union hall at 37 S. Ashland. He also produced cartoons. Later, he did linocut prints that often focused on images of life in Pilsen.

“Jose’s work helped to define the neighborhood as a home and a place for Mexican-Americans to live and to build,” said Steve Weaver, executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group, which works with communities to create public art.

Mr. Guerrero showed how murals addressed social justice issues. One stop focused on “Gulliver in Wonderland” by Hector Duarte, depicting the giant as an immigrant trapped in barbed wire, wearing a white mask that suggests the Day of the Dead.

Duarte was “talking about the border, and Gulliver was a traveler who had no papers,” Mr. Guerrero told WBEZ.

Mr. Guerrero’s pieces were shown at Prospectus Art Gallery, 1210 W. 18th St.

“In his work, he talks about immigration and farm workers, and also gentrification,” said Israel Hernandez, director of the gallery.

“Fiesta del Sol” by Jose Guerrero
“Fiesta del Sol” by Jose Guerrero

He flecked his art with humor. He depicted New Orleans Pelicans basketball player Anthony Davis — famed for his “unibrow” — with artist Frida Kahlo, “connecting them because they both had this physical trait of having one eyebrow,” Chesebro said.

Mr. Guerrero’s tours were a highlight for students from the Chicago Center for Urban Life and Culture in Hyde Park, which draws young people from about 20 different colleges. The students spend semesters and summers in Chicago, studying the city for school credit in subjects ranging from social work to business to art, Chesebro said.

Artist Jose Guerrero | Provided photo
Artist Jose Guerrero | Provided photo

“He had a suitcase full of letters” from grateful teachers and students, said Weber, co-founder of the Chicago Public Art Group. In addition to enjoying the tour, they said they were touched by his patience and amused by his jokes, Hernandez said.

“Jose wasn’t a person with degrees, but he was an educator of college students,” Chesebro said, communicating insights “they had not learned in art appreciation class.”

He said Mr. Guerrero helped them understand “all art is political. Even art that is intended to be gazed at at the Art Institute has a political reference. When art is something that is the property of the elite, it is about how art is controlled and defined and possessed.”

Mr. Guerrero was part of a group of artists who for many years had a Pilsen print shop, Taller Grafico Mexicano, Weber said.

He also is survived by a sister, Maria Garcia. He didn’t want a memorial. “He said he just wanted to be cremated and get outta here,” his wife said.

A work by Jose Guerrero
A work by Jose Guerrero
“Harmony” by Jose Guerrero
“Harmony” by Jose Guerrero