The son of Sam Zaragosa and Margarita Coronado, Sam Z. Coronado, Jr., artist, educator, and cultural activist, was born on July 12, 1946, in the small farm town of Ennis, Texas. His maternal grandparents were cotton pickers who taught him the value of a strong work ethic. He attended Crozier Tech High School in Dallas and voluntarily enlisted in the United States Army; he served from 1964 to 1967. As part of the Cold War effort, he served in Germany with an artillery company that included a nuclear weapons arsenal. After his stint in the army he attended El Centro College in Dallas and studied drafting and design. He secured his first drawing job as a technical illustrator for Texas Instruments in 1969 and earned an Associate of Applied Science degree from El Centro in 1970. Coronado eventually went to the University of Texas at Austin and attended college on the G.I. Bill. Along with his colleagues Vicki Plata, Rey Gaytan, and Sylvia Orozco, he cofounded the Chicano Art Students Association. In 1975 he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.F.A. in painting and printmaking. Throughout his career, Coronado also worked in other occupations, either as a technical illustrator or as an educator, to financially support his artistic endeavors.
Coronado is best known for his artistic contributions in the field of Chicana/o and U.S. Latino art. He began in oils and acrylics. His paintings are intimate portraits of the Mexican American experience. However, his most memorable and influential work was in the field of graphic arts. He was a painter turned printmaker following two residencies with Self Help Graphics in East Los Angeles in 1991. Drawing on Mexican Social Realism, American Pop Art, and the iconographic traditions of Chicano art, he produced groundbreaking series such as Guerrillera, World War II, and Hearts that spoke on the politics of identity, autobiography, and Tejano history. Coronado also illustrated for books and magazines, and he created company logos. His lifework has been the subject of numerous exhibitions and publications across the United States, Europe, Africa, and Latin America, including retrospectives at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, San Antonio (1987); Mexic-Arte Museum, Austin (2011); and the Latino Cultural Center, Dallas (2012).
He mastered the art of serigraphy (also known as screen printing and silkscreening) with draughtsmanship and humor, and became one of its most ardent promoters by founding Coronado Studio, a collaborative print workshop dedicated to the production of fine art serigraphy, in the early 1990s. The workshop became a training ground for a number of accomplished master printers including Pepe Coronado, Brian Johnson, Paul Fucik, and Brian Rice. However, his greatest intervention for the field came in 1993 with the founding of Serie Project, a nonprofit printmaking residency program that awards competitive fellowships to artists wishing to explore the technique with the assistance of a master printer. Serie Project has hosted more than 300 artist residencies and has introduced a new generation of artists to a graphic tradition of historical importance to the Chicano art movement (1965–1985). The roster of resident artists includes Malaquias Montoya, Ester Hernández, César Martínez, Celia Alvarez Muñoz, Juan Sánchez, Diógenes Ballester, and Scherezade Garcia.
Coronado’s cultural activism fostered community-building and exhibition opportunities for underrepresented artists. As someone who experienced first-hand the discriminatory practices against Mexican American artists in the Southwest, he was committed to promoting cultural democracy in the arts. Coronado was part of a generation of artists who came of age during the 1960s and believed that establishing alternative and culturally-specific institutions was the first step toward equality. In 1980 he founded Arcoiris, a statewide network for Mexican American artists based in Houston that promoted exhibition opportunities. Arcoiris was a precursor to organizations such as the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture. Upon returning to Austin, Coronado collaborated with Sylvia Orozco and Pio Pulido in the founding of Mexic-Arte Museum in 1984. That same year, the Texas legislature designated the museum as the official Mexican and Mexican American art museum of Texas. Concurrently, Coronado opened an exhibition space named Cibola Studio that hosted monthly art openings. The last twenty years of his life were dedicated to promoting Serie Project and its artists. Such a venture took him to remote locations with exhibitions as far away as Argentina and Slovakia. Coronado believed that advancing U.S. Latino graphic arts required a national effort. He was a founding member of Consejo Gráfico, a consortium of Latino graphic workshops with sixteen member organizations across the country. He was preparing to host their tenth anniversary meeting just before his untimely death.
In addition to his successful career as a technical illustrator for Texas Instruments, Coronado also made a living as an educator. His first art classes were delivered at the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans in Houston shortly after his graduation from the University of Texas. In the mid-1980s he began lecturing for Austin Community College, where he eventually became a professor in the Visual Communications Department. He taught there through 2011 and dedicated his teaching career to the study of graphic design, color theory, and drawing. He also lectured on Hispanic art at art schools, universities, and museums across the United States and mentored many students who went on to become successful graphic artists and designers.
Coronado received a number of prominent awards including an induction in the Austin Arts Hall of Fame, a Community Leadership Circle Award from the University of Texas at Austin, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Austin Visual Arts Association. Posthumously, the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center in Austin renamed its main gallery in his honor, and the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas renamed their annual poster art scholarship contest for him.
The artist died at the age of sixty-seven on November 11, 2013, following a stroke during a trip to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he delivered a lecture at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. The museum had recently purchased a complete set of twenty-years of prints from his residency program and was hosting the exhibition Graphicanos: Contemporary Latino Prints from the Serie Project. Coronado was survived by his wife Jill Ramirez and a daughter.