Raya, Reloaded: Veteran Pilsen Artist Restores Classic Guerilla Anti-War Mural

“Best of Chicago Art Magazine” re-post. Originally published on 9/29/2010

Jeff Huebner

Now 30 years old, Prevent World War III might be seen as a relic of the Chicago-born community mural movement, but it is a vintage guerilla “People’s Art” piece whose powerful message about the threat of nuclear, environmental, and cultural annihilation has continued to remain relevant even as most of its colors had nearly faded. The Pilsen landmark is a true street survivor, one of only a few didactically political murals intact on urban walls—not just in Chicago, but nationally—dating from after the early grassroots phase of the mural movement.

As I wrote some 15 years ago, it “was the city’s first great collaborative antiwar mural since Vietnam—and the last.” That’s still true.

Provoked by the prospective election of right-wing, pro-nuke, dictator-coddling Ronald Reagan in 1980, Prevent World War III was a spontaneous, collective action taken by a dozen or so socially conscious artists—a true who’s who of pre-eminent muralists–from Chicago and Wisconsin, many of them Chicano and Latino, in an effort to rally citizens against Reagan’s imminently destructive social and foreign policies. The multi-paneled mural on the concrete railroad retaining wall at 18th Street and Western Avenue also sought to revive the then-flagging spirit of socially activist wall art in Chicago, and to reclaim its roots as a community-organizing tool, as a legitimate means of addressing issues of local, national, and global concern.

Now it’s entering the 21st century. Original Prevent World War III contributor, veteran Pilsen-based artist and muralist Marcos Raya, has been repainting the wall piece by piece since late August, in some cases updating imagery to reflect the changing times.

“We are in different times, but nevertheless it’s still dangerous times,” says the 62-year-old Raya from atop the scaffolding as he reapplies grey acrylic paint to the image of a machine gun. “The politics of fear—it’s making a comeback…Very political murals like this create a consciousness and send a powerful message.”

Raya created the mural’s most visible and iconic section, “Dedicated to the People of Central America” (also called “The Fallen Dictator”), seen by thousands of drivers daily heading northbound on Western Ave. It shows a group of marchers arrayed behind the toppled statue of U.S.-backed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, who was ousted from power in 1979 by FSLN insurgents and assassinated a year later. One of the figures carries a red-and-black banner of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.

A key member of the Mexican/Chicano mural renaissance of the 1970s and 80s and an internationally exhibiting artist known for his surrealist-inspired paintings, assemblages, and installations, Raya is the only one of original team of muralists who still does upkeep on his part of the wall. He last retouched it in 1997, with $1,000 in donations, and added the phrase “No more dictaduras [and] No more high tech weapons in Latin America.” He’d also added a red slash through a black “187,” referring to California anti-illegal immigrant initiative Proposition 187, which passed in 1994 but was later ruled unconstitutional.

It’s fairly astonishing that the mural hadn’t been politically vandalized or graffitied over its three-decade life, given its pro-Marxist rhetoric and high-profile location. That’s partly because, as Raya points out, the work was intentionally sited on “neutral grounds” between residential Pilsen and an industrial area of Little Village, both largely Mexican-American neighborhoods. Yet it was probably only a matter of time before today’s superheated polarized partisan climate caught up to it. This past March, the portrait of Che was blacked out, an action Raya thinks was done by anti-Castro Cuban exiles. (He has no proof.)

Raya says that “young people from the hood went and repainted” Che on their own, and that the defacement sparked him to eventually return to the wall, this time armed with another agenda. He replaced the old text with “U.S. OUT OF COLOMBIA” and made a big black slash mark through “SB 1070,” the Arizona anti-illegal immigration measure.

“Why now? Things have gotten worse,” says Raya. “We have seven military bases in Colombia. It might be the next Afghanistan, who knows.” (According to Reuters, President Obama’s updated security agreement with Colombia allows the Pentagon to lease access to seven Colombian military bases to help fight drug traffickers and guerillas. Obama denied the U.S. is creating military bases.) And, Raya adds, “There’s that racist law in Arizona.”

Prevent World War III was organized by John Pitman Weber, co-founder of the Chicago Mural Group (in 1970), and Mark Rogovin, co-founder of another Chicago mural collective, the Public Art Workshop (in 1972, though by the time of the Pilsen mural PAW was folding into the Peace Museum). Weber broke his arm before wall painting began, so never actually worked on it; Rogovin mainly contributed the design, a series of images unspooling like a filmstrip, a reference to Reagan’s previous role as an actor. The mural’s successive panels read like scenes form a bad disaster movie.

Lore has it that the group never got permission from Burlington Northern Railroad (now BNSF) to paint on the retaining wall, but that someone did carry an authorization form from a previous BN viaduct mural project just in case the authorities questioned group members; they’d try to bluff. In fact, recalls Weber, who now lives in Pilsen, railroad cops did stop and ask to see documents, but didn’t notice the earlier (1979) date on the form.

Essentially, PWWIII was one of only a handful of “self-sponsored” works ever done in Chicago by mostly professional, community-based muralists. Other artists who worked on the project included: Rich Capalbo, Carlos Cortez, José Guerrero, Celia Radek, Gamaliel Ramirez, Rey Vasquez, Roman Villarreal, and Caryl Yasko. In 1983, a group of women from the local nonprofit Mujeres Latinas en Acción added a panel that’s separated from the main mural and is also critical of Reagan’s policies, specifically on border, food, and war issues. (Another non-permission muralist collaboration was the anti-TIF Protect Pilsen, done at 16th and Blue Island in 1998, organized by Weber and Ramirez.)

The 1980 collective had scouted around town for appropriate sites, including the South Side. William Walker, considered the father of the community mural movement owing to his instigation of the epochal, multi-artist Wall of Respect in 1967, was asked to be part of the antiwar mural group, but he later demurred, saying that a real war—with gangs, guns, drugs, pimps, etc.–was taking place on South Side streets, and that his public artwork was needed more there.

Raya, a longtime community activist, could understand that. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, often during lurid, down-and-out periods—his “dog years,” he’s called them—Raya was hitting the bottle and sometimes living on the streets of Pilsen. Still, he managed to produce or co-produce some of the neighborhood’s, and the mural movement’s, most celebratory and accusatory outdoor walls: Homage to Diego Rivera, A la Esperanza (To Hope), the Casa Aztlan murals, the Dvorak Park mural (1976-77), and many others that often cast a harsh spotlight on local social and political ills.

“I became a muralist in the neighborhood because we needed them, because the neighborhood was in such bad condition,” he explains. “We didn’t have any political organization—it was messed up. Murals play a very good part in organizing people. The neighborhood, of course, now has different problems, like we are seeing 18th Street turn into another Wicker Park, little by little, and racist laws against immigrants…”

The rest of the group had mostly finished painting by the time Raya started his Central American panel in late summer 1980. He says it took him three months, using his own money. When he was done he was broke and ended up on the streets again. As he told me in a 1996 Chicago Reader story: www.chicagoreader.com

“I hired a friend, not to help me clean the brushes or to paint, but to watch my back. When I was painting, I had my back to the street, and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. A lot of people would drive by and call me all kinds of names—‘fuckin’ communist,’ shit like that. I was painting Che Guevara, I was painting an anti-Somoza mural, I was dedicating the panel to the Sandinistas…Reagan [was gonna be] president, and people were beginning to feel like it was the 50s again. I kinda got paranoid, and I thought that maybe any moment I could get shot in the back, that some asshole, some crazy bastard, would come by and shoot me.”

Raya recalls that on (or about) the day he completed his piece—September 17, 1980—Sandinista-backed Argentine commandos blew up Somoza’s car with an anti-tank rocket in Asunción, Paraguay, killing him. “He had it coming, he and other dictators supported by the U.S. all over the world—Ferdinand Marcos from the Philippines, Batista from before the Cuban Revolution…”

In the 1990s—while largely focused on making work for a series of traveling Chicano and Latino art exhibitions, as well as shows for the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Chicago Cultural Center, Carl Hammer Gallery, many more—Raya restored most of his surviving Pilsen walls, including his Prevent World War III panel. “I’ve made more money repainting my murals than I ever did painting them,” he often says. He received $1,000 from a private patron to retouch it this past month, same as in 1997, though he hopes to raise more to finish the entire wall.

Toward that end, several young assistants have been helping Raya repaint the 2010 mural version. “The most important thing I tell young artists today is to read history, more than anything else,” he says. “I don’t like the way murals are coming up in Pilsen. They’re so parochial, so much about the Virgen de Guadalupe, things like that. It’s sending Mexican mural painting back 100 years. They mean very well, but without knowing it they are perpetuating Mexican stereotypes. They have nothing to do with the present….

“Some of the artists who are my heroes are the Dadaists and German expressionists, like George Grosz, who were critical of the bourgeoisie, and the Mexican muralists, who were always political.”

Reagan may be (mostly) gone, but the Reaganist conservative philosophy prevails. The threat of a World War III, of perpetual war, is ever-present, no matter who’s in power. Presidents, politicians, and dictators may come and go but the military quagmires remain unchanged. The 30-year-old Prevent World War III has gone beyond being topical and immediate to being durably relevant, earning its right—at least for the foreseeable future—to be not only a neighborhood and aesthetic landmark but also a definitive social and historical document.

“Relevance is a question of a given situation, time, and place,” wrote Eva Cockcroft and John Weber in the groundbreaking 1977 book Toward a People’s Art: The Contemporary Mural Movement. “The relevance of some murals fades before the paint is faded, like posters for a rally. They serve a purpose only in a limited time frame. But certain issues are woven into the fabric of American society.”

Jeff Huebner is a Chicago-based art journalist and freelance writer.