José Antonio Burciaga, Chicano artist, writer, and poet, was born in El Chuco, Texas, on August 23, 1940, and grew up in El Paso, Texas. He was the son of José Cruz Burciaga and Maria Guadalupe (Fernandez) Burciaga. His father was the caretaker of a synagogue in El Paso, and the family lived in the basement of the synagogue. Burciaga developed an appreciation for books early in life and was influenced by his mother, who had been a schoolteacher in Mexico. After graduation from high school, he joined the United States Air Force and served from 1960 to 1964. During this time, he spent a year in Iceland and three years in Spain. After his service, Burciaga returned to El Paso and earned a B.A. in fine arts from the University of Texas at El Paso in 1968. He worked as an illustrator and graphic artist in Mineral Wells, Texas, before moving to Washington, D.C., to attend the Corcoran School of Art, where he became active in the Chicano Movement. Through his activism he met his future wife, Cecilia Preciado. The couple married on August 5, 1972, in San Bernadino, California. They had five children: Lupita, Efrain, Conchita, Margarita, and Raul.
Burciaga and his family eventually moved to California in 1974. He wrote columns and reviews for local newspapers and journals. He continued his studies and attended the San Francisco Art Institute, and at some point he attended Juarez-Lincoln University in Austin. Burciaga’s writings and visual works reflected his interest in the social and cultural experience of Chicanos. He published poetry, short stories, books, and art. His cartoons, murals, and drawings provided a means of expressing the values of the early Chicano Movement. He also wrote pieces for the Los Angeles Times, Texas Monthly, Christian Science Monitor, and Revista Chicano-Riqueña, among other publications. While Burciaga’s works emphasized the political and social messages of the movement, he also cared about art and craft and did not subordinate one to the other.
In 1985 Burciaga began teaching at Stanford University, where he coordinated the painting of murals in the dormitory, Casa Zapata. One of his most famous works is the mural The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes, which he painted on the walls of the dorm. While at the university, he helped form the comedy troupe Culture Clash, for which he wrote and performed skits and monologues about the movement and the Chicano experience.
Burciaga wrote numerous poems and essays in addition to painting and performing. His literary work is collected in several anthologies. His first book, Restless Serpents, was published in 1976 by Diseños Literarios, the publishing company he founded, and was a collection of poems by Burciaga and fellow poet Bernice Zamora. His first major essay anthology Weedee Peepo: A Collection of Essays came later in 1988. He subsequently published Drink Cultura: Chicanismo (1992) and Spilling the Beans: Loteria Chicano (1995). He received the Before Columbus Prize from the American Book Awards for his anthology of poetry Undocumented Love: A Personal Anthology of Poetry (1992). In 1995 he was honored with the National Hispanic Heritage Award.
Burciaga continued writing until his death from cancer in Monterey, California, on October 7, 1996. His book En Pocas Palabras was published posthumously in 1997. In June 1997 the Texas House of Representatives honored him “posthumously as a Texas Treasure” with House Resolution 1310.