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Juan Pablo Gutiérrez: The life and legacy of a Latino gay artist, advocate

Juan Pablo Gutiérrez: The life and legacy of a Latino gay artist, advocate

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For decades, Juan Pablo Gutiérrez Sánchez lived by the motto “nuestros muertos no se venden,” which translates to “our dead are not for sale.” 

And till the day he died, he followed this belief.

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Gutiérrez, a trailblazing LGBTQ Latino advocate, artist and community leader who was among the first openly gay directors of the Mission Cultural Center and spearheaded San Francisco’s Día de Muertos ritual and procession for decades, died on Dec. 26, 2021 in San Francisco after a two-year battle with myelodysplastic syndrome. He was 68.

Gregarious, out-of-the closet and whose wits were oftentimes as sharp as his words, Gutiérrez was a master fundraiser who helped establish early AIDS education programming aimed specifically for San Francisco’s Latino community in the mid 80s. Gutiérrez as the founding member and director of the Colectivo Del Rescate Cultural, defended San Francisco’s Día de Muertos ritual procession from the corporate onslaught which sought to profit from the sacred pre-Colombian holiday. 

“Our whole goal has been to rescue something that has been very unique,” Gutierrez told El Tecolote in 2014. “It was there before the Spaniards arrived.”

Born in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico on Aug. 3, 1953, Gutiérrez arrived in San Francisco in 1982. That first year in the city, Gutiérrez spent it volunteering with El Tecolote, helping layout headlines and format columns all by hand. 

In 1984, he joined the late nationally renowned poet Francisco X. Alarcón as a staff member for La Revista Literaria, El Tecolote’s quarterly literary supplement, which included everything from book reviews to poetry by local poets, such as Juan Felipe Herrera—who served as the 21st United States Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017. In addition to writing poetry for La Revista, Gutiérrez also wrote stories and translated for El Tecolote. 

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It was through his work at El Tecolote that Gutiérrez motivated his good friend and photographer Linda Wilson to start El Tecolote’s photo archive. 

“I’m so used to calling him every afternoon,” Wilson told El Tecolote. “But I think I knew that it was time. That he was leaving us.” 

According to Wilson, Gutiérrez relocated to San Francisco with the dream of working alongside Peter Rodríguez—who Gutiérrez had heard was possibly gay. Rodríguez had opened the Mexican Museum in San Francisco in 1975. 

After volunteering at El Tecolote, Gutiérrez went on to work at the Mission Cultural Center (MCC) as their Development Director. Gutiérrez eventually became MCC’s director in 1988, making him the second openly-gay man director of MCC, the first being the late Rodrigo Reyes. While at MCC, Gutiérrez worked alongside the renowned artist Michael Roman as well as with the Chilean graphic artist maestro Rene Castro. Gutiérrez served as MCC’s director up until 1992. 

Reyes, Alarcón and Gutiérrez—all gay Latino men who embraced their identities and greatly contributed to the rich fabric of San Francisco’s theater, poetry and arts and culture scene—routinely gathered at Wilson’s home on Harrison Street. 

“They were very much out,” Wilson said. “Maybe it was easier in San Francisco. Then when people started getting AIDS and dying, Rodrigo was the first to die…and then everything sort of changed.” 

Reyes died in January 1992. 

“The minute we stepped out, the biggest fear was anyone finding out that we had HIV,” Gutiérrez told El Tecolote in 2019. “Because people still were thinking that if you shook our hands you were going to get contaminated.”

Before Gutiérrez arrived in 1982, San Francisco did have a Day of the Dead procession and art exhibition, which was organized by the collective at Galería de la Raza.  

During Galería de la Raza’s Día de Muerto’s show in 1984, Gutiérrez created an altar highlighting the AIDS epidemic with the words “while society turns its back, we die by the thousands and thousands and thousands.”

That call for action drew both support and backlash from the Mission community.

“The Latino community was not ready, but René Yañez, who curated the exhibition that year, took the chance in allowing us to do the installation,” Gutierrez was quoted as saying in “The Heart of the Mission,” Cary Cordova’s definitive history of Latino culture, art and politics in the Mission. “He got a lot of flack from various sources who wanted it removed from the exhibit, but he decided to keep it in the exhibition after a Latino couple knelt crying in front of the installation since their young teenage son had since just died of AIDS.”

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Contracting HIV himself and witnessing the devastation of AIDS sweep through his community, Gutiérrez felt the urge to act.

“I did not cross my arms and sit back,” Gutiérrez said on El Tecolote’s Our Cultura Podcast in 2021. In the late 80’s, Gutiérrez successfully wrote a $1 million grant for Instituto Familiar de la Raza. The grant helped establish the Latino AIDS Project, which provided educational materials in response to the lack of AIDS education and services for Latinos. A year later, Gutiérrez successfully wrote another $1 million grant for Instituto, this time helping launch their Mano a Mano project, a case-management and counseling service for Latinos with AIDS.

In addition to grant writing, Gutiérrez auctioneered at The Farm—now the site of La Raza Park—raising funds for humanitarian efforts in El Salvador. 

But Gutiérrez’s journey began long before arriving in San Francisco. It was his abuela and godmother Sofia in Monterrey who first introduced him to the healing arts. His godmother was a cardreader who established the first homeopathic pharmacy in Monterrey. It wasn’t until the age of 8, when Gutiérrez moved to the U.S. with his family, that he saw a real doctor. 

“I’ve been around the healers and healing arts since I was a baby,” Gutiérrez told El Tecolote in 2014. “It’s not something that I just picked up. It’s something that I was born with.”

Gutiérrez’s abuela, Antonia Sánchez, was born in Laredo, Texas but moved to Mexico with her father and siblings. They opened the first lechería in Monterey, and housed horses for Pancho Villa’s revolutionary forces. 

While a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin, he started a Día de Muertos procession in 1974. And after receiving his master’s degree, he went on to work with the U.S. Department of Education. He also had a hand in founding the California Consortium for Expansion Arts, which provided funding for nonprofits serving communities of color, and for a time served on the board of CELLspace in San Francisco.

“This is a man who fought to live. And this is a man who dealt with pain, who dealt with physical problems all these years and yet got so much done,” Wilson said. “He’s one of those people in life, who made things happen.”

A memorial to Gutiérrez is being tentatively scheduled for the beginning of spring 2022. Honoring his wishes, Gutiérrez is to be cremated and interred with his deceased family members in Monterrey, Mexico. 

El Tecolote turns 52 this August!

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