Jose Montoya, one of the most influential and inspirational figures in California Latino history, died Wednesday surrounded by family in his midtown Sacramento home. He was 81.
As a boy, Montoya picked grapes with his family in Delano and Fowler in the blistering Central Valley heat. He vowed that farm work would not be his destiny, and instead became an artist and poet whose work galvanized the Chicano movement in the 1960s and ’70s. One of Sacramento’s poet laureates, Montoya was co-founder of the Royal Chicano Air Force, a collection of artists-turned-activists who used their words, music and images to fight for justice and equality for farmworkers and other marginalized Americans.
His colorful, expressive paintings with bold strokes have been shown worldwide. His poetry mixed English, Spanish and barrio slang, exploring themes of struggle and injustice.
“With the passing of Jose Montoya, our community lost a gentle soul with an extraordinarily creative mind,” said Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, whose late father, Mayor Joe Serna, launched his political career with Montoya’s guidance. “His poems gave us cause to reconsider our individual and cultural condition, called us to action when needed. He taught me respect for art as well as public service – his beautiful words crafted to make us think, feel and act with conviction will live on.”
The son of farmworker champion Cesar Chavez, Paul F. Chavez, and United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez said in a joint statement, “We will always cherish Jose for how he inspired us as well as so many others through his art. But we will also remember him for the countless times when he walked picket lines, helped organize UFW events and fed the farmworkers during every major strike, boycott and political campaign. He was truly a servant of the farmworker movement and we will always be in his debt.”
Montoya touched the lives of thousands of students during his 27 years as a professor of art, photography and education at California State University, Sacramento, along with high school and junior college students at Leland High School in Wheatland and at Yuba Community College.
“Jose taught us how to be bold, how to be courageous, how to be clear, how to be strong and that example empowered many people, generations of farmworkers who were subjugated and oppressed,” said Juan Carrillo, former director of the California State Arts Council, who helped Montoya co-found the RCAF. “In 1967, there was no Latino caucus in the Legislature, no Latino political presence and Jose Montoya absolutely helped politicize Latinos.”
Montoya died Wednesday from a large lymphoma around his aorta in his home on D Street, said the oldest of his eight children, Gina Montoya, who, like her father, is an activist.
At the end, he would roll his eyes and say, “Get the horses, I have to get into the sun,” and was also talking to his older brother and mother in the spirit world, Gina Montoya said.
Jose Montoya was born May 28, 1932, in Escobosa, New Mexico. In a 1998 interview with The Sacramento Bee, he recalled how his mother stenciled the interiors of homes and churches. “We helped grind colors and mix them. We made stencils from discarded inner tubes and gathered colorants from creek beds. I remember chasing horseflies for her. She would dry them and grind their tails and mix them with egg yolk to produce an iridescent blue color that she was known for.
“Later, when I was a student at the California College of Arts and Crafts, I learned about egg tempera. It was the same thing.”
His family eventually came to the Central Valley looking for work and moved from Delano – where the United Farm Workers movement was born – to Fowler, 10 miles south of Fresno. He played football and served as art editor of the yearbook and was a big man on campus at Fowler High School, his daughter said. While picking grapes, he began drawing on the paper used to dry grapes into raisins.
He joined the Navy during the Korean War, then went to San Diego City College on the G.I. Bill and moved to the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland to get his teaching credential. He taught art at Wheatland High School and Yuba Community College.
In 1969, he and other Latino educators were invited to get their master’s degrees through the Mexican American Education Project at California State University, Sacramento. There, he and several other sons of migrant farmworkers formed the Royal Chicano Air Force, an artists’ collective committed to supporting the UFW while bringing art to the people.
Originally named the Rebel Chicano Art Front, its initials led people to believe they were part of the Royal Canadian Air Force. “I said we’re not Canadians, we’re Chicanos, but we have an air force, we fly adobe airplanes,” Jose Montoya once said. “We wanted to be outrageous, we didn’t want to be boring so we now had an air force we could incorporate into the movement, which was about boycotting Safeway” to keep the chain from selling table grapes until farmworkers’ conditions improved. “We would show up to Safeway dressed in Air Force uniforms and driving a World War II jeep,” which got the media’s attention, Montoya said.
Montoya and his fellow artists used Joe Serna’s garage to make silk- screen posters, and drafted their kids to picket every weekend. They helped Manuel Ferrales become one of the first Latinos elected to the Sacramento City Council, Gina Montoya said.
During the Vietnam War, Montoya noticed it was poor students or students of color who were getting drafted, so he would put on the Rolling Stones “and blast it so loud because he was crying and didn’t want us kids to hear him,” his daughter recalled. “When I saw him over the stereo, just crying, it moved me, and I made my first protest sign in sixth grade and got sent to the principal’s office.”
Jose Montoya became an organizer for the UFW throughout the Central Valley and spent every single Friday and Saturday on the picket line. “He held farmworkers deep in his heart and agonized over the excruciating work they did,” Gina Montoya said. Once, while her dad was playing golf, next to a field, he saw a farm labor contractor chastising some workers, and threw down his golf club, jumped the fence and interceded. “He told them, ‘You have rights, you don’t have to take that,’ and then he realized, what rights do they have?” she said.
Montoya went on to mentor two generations of artists and activists at Sacramento State, where he taught art and ethnic studies for 27 years.
“Jose Montoya made tremendous contributions to the intellectual, cultural and social fabric of our nation, and I will always appreciate the many opportunities he created for students as a Sacramento State professor,” said CSUS President Alexander Gonzalez. “He made Chicano art and culture accessible to millions of people during a transformative time in California’s history.”
A tall, handsome hipster, Montoya celebrated the zoot-suit era of the 1940s, when he and other pachucos wore suits with high-waisted, wide-legged, tight-cuffed, pants and a long coat with padded shoulders and wide lapels. He put people at ease with his good humor and genuine interest in their lives, and channeled his passion in poetry, murals and song.
Around 1970, Montoya and the RCAF opened a community center on 32nd Street and Folsom Boulevard in east Sacramento, where they put on plays and music and offered silk screening and mural training. “Because my dad was such an extrovert and good at so many things he was just a natural leader, people looked to him for leadership and advice,” Gina Montoya said. “He’d always say to me, `you have gifts, but stay humble.’ That was a very important message for him. When asked his greatest accomplishment, he’d say, “my kids.”
His children have carried on his legacy of art and activism: Gina Montoya is now vice president of community education for the Mexican American Leadership Defense and Education League, a civil rights organization that’s taken cases to the U.S. Supreme Court. Jose Montoya Jr. is an award-winning poet and writer who founded Poetry Unplugged at Luna’s Cafe. Carlos Montoya is founder, chairman and CEO of Aztec America Bank of Chicago. Richard Montoya is a filmmaker and playwright. Malaquias Montoya is also an executive for Aztec America. Vincent Montoya is an award-winning musician and co-founder of the two bands, Tattooed Love Dogs and Seventy. Tomas Montoya is a student at the Art Institute of Sacramento; Qianjin Montoya is a children’s art studio manager.
Montoya is also survived by Mary Ellen Montoya, his first wife; his second wife, Juanita Jue, who brought her daughter Maya into the family; 19 grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.
Memorial services are pending.
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.