Painter, poet, political activist, union organizer, musician, founder of Chicano poetry and art groups, José Montoya (1932-2013) launched his poetic career with the publication in 1969 of “La Jefita” (“little chief,” an honorific for “mother”) on the life of field workers.
The poem begins:
When I remember the camps
And the nights and the sounds
Of those nights in tents or
Carts I remember my jefita’s
And her small cough.
(I swear she never slept!)
Montoya committed his life to capturing the experience of the downtrodden in paint, word and music – and to making life for the underdogs (“los de abajo”) better.
The details of his life, which you can find in “Contemporary Hispanic Biography,” show a man touched by the history of the Spanish, Mexican and U.S. periods in the Southwest and West. When he was born in New Mexico during the Great Depression, his family lived on lands going back to the Spanish land-grant era. During the Prohibition era, his father was sent to prison for making liquor, so Montoya grew up with his great-grandmother and great aunts while his mother supported the family painting decorative motifs.
After his father returned home, the family moved to California. As a young boy, Montoya worked in the fields while his parents cooked for the farmworkers (as “La Jefita” describes), moving with the crop seasons. During World War II, his father worked in the shipyards.
Drawn to the street culture of Fresno (as later seen in his pachuco art), Montoya was arrested for fighting and given the choice of military service or work on a road crew.
In the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, he served on a minesweeper. On the GI Bill, he went to college in fine arts and teaching.
He tapped all of this in his art, teaching and political activism.