Editor’s note: Sacramento-resident Jose Montoya – poet, painter, community organizer, educator, Chicano-rights advocate and agent provocateur – died Sept. 25 at the age of 81, leaving a formidable legacy of art and activism. The Bee’s obituary called him “one of the most influential and inspirational figures in California Latino history.” Here, his son, noted filmmaker and playwright Richard Montoya, remembers his father’s life, both public and private.
Every movement has its intellectuals – the poets, writers and academics crucial to shaping and articulating a people’s identity while the political winds swirl and the world becomes dangerous.
While our father Jose Montoya certainly held an important chair at the “roundtable” – which at times could be our humble supper table where our mother, Mary Ellen, would feed the likes of Cesar Chavez, who always had a smile for inquisitive little Montoyas peering over their bowls of frijoles – we also know that Dad was much more than an intellectual.
Jose Montoya was a cultural front liner and first responder. A doer. A creator who brought levity, defiance and satirical wit to the bloody fields of the San Joaquin as well as to the frigid halls of academe, all the way to the state Capitol and beyond.
In the political tumult of the ’60s and ’70s, Jose led a pack of sacred clowns, profane and profound poets, dedicated artists who brushed up against the San Joaquin County Sheriff deputies and the bloody fists of Teamsters who were muscle for ranchers. Yet our father and his merry band of deadly serious artists strictly adhered to Chavez’s unyielding demand for a nonviolent movement. That message didn’t make it to everyone at the time, and I saw our father disarm many a young man or Brown Beret.
That was Jose, a man fit and locked into his times, marching to an improvised drumbeat, always loyal to Cesar while writing elegant poetry that anchored the Chicano movement. He was raising children, lots of them, always providing, with our mom, for a large and growing brood of hungry Montoyas, while innovating art activism and education.
Jose was never afraid of hard work – he instilled this ethic into each of us, an ethic born of his post-Depression-era upbringing, pulled into sharp focus from the cotton fields of Bakersfield to the vineyards of Fowler.
Some of his generation took their GI Bills after proudly serving their country and went to art schools determined not to return to the fields of their parents and older brothers and sisters. Not Jose. In his landmark poem “El Sol Y Los De Abajo,” he relishes the idea of casting himself as a lackluster farmworker, while his family was known as amazingly fast 50-tray-a-day grape pickers:
How I was easy on the clusters
Preferring instead to allow
The iridescent worm live in that leafy green world
Jose was always humanizing the common farmworker and his workplace – his master strokes on par with his heroes Steinbeck and Saroyan.
When he was a teacher during the 1960s at Wheatland High School, north of Sacramento, we may have been the only Mexican American family who lived in the town, but our home was a cultural epicenter, open to the African American kids who lived at Beale Air Force Base, where our brother Vinnie and the SR-71 were born. Blond farm kids from the surrounding fields were welcome, too, all of them watching us little fly-weight Montoya boys box furious battles.
Later, Dad explained to us that some of the young men who came to the house would never come back from a place called Vietnam. That was Jose, working the summers at the nearby hop ranches, taking field trips and exposing military kids to a Berkeley on fire. He was the committed multiculturalist before one could write and receive a grant for it.
Dad was a hugely public man who still gave us our precious, private family time while the world was inflamed by the assassinations of MLK and RFK. He took us to the Olivehurst Airport to see Robert Kennedy the day before his speech at the Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy bee-lined to our family, intrigued by so many children (and potential Catholic voters).
Yet in all these chaotic times suitable for a Led Zeppelin soundtrack, Mom and Dad made sure we had camping sojourns at Lake Tahoe and the occasional summer dip in an available irrigation ditch. There were long road trips to New Mexico. He recently told me when I was at his bedside that he made sure to drive us up through Wyoming on our return to Sacramento from Albuquerque, because he didn’t want the trip to end for us.
We saw monumental selflessness and generosity from a man who had huge demands placed on him and who answered for many people. While an entire political movement was constantly changing, Jose missed scarcely a Little League game, a football touchdown, a school talent show or a dreaded parent-teacher meeting. He made visits to the principal’s office complete with his leather jacket, crazy hair, pork pie hat and striped rock ’n’ roll pants that would have made Mick Jagger envious.
Jose was a rock star, but always a dad, imperfect like all fathers, but with a heart so huge it still beats and flows like the rivers he loved: the American, the Feather, the Kings y su Rio El Sacramento.
Jose did it, man. He gave, he taught and he professed until the end. He crossed that finish line bravely fighting a relentless foe, teaching us until his last breaths, the public man ultimately succumbing, but always a glimmer in his eye, a will to live, a look that said if anybody can outsmart this disease it would be this Chicano Trickster.
We quietly strummed a Mexican corrido on his legendary guitar. Jose seemed to be mounting a colt from his New Mexico youth. And then the final breaths came – three long poetic breaths to last a lifetime. A breath: like a poem or a book of humility. Another breath: a book of courage. The final breath: a book of surrender and dignity.
The public man and his entire life coming down to this very private moment – ritualistic in its calm and silence. He held on for us as long as he could, the father teaching and uniting his children and familia until the very end.
Later when the time came to take him where he needed to go, we lovingly and carefully carried our father, Jose E. Montoya, out of his famous home on D Street, the surviving members of his beloved Royal Chicano Air Force assembled and lining the walkway from his steps to the street where the hearse waited. The Chicano General was given a full and final salute to the quiet refrains of “De Colores.”
A small white United Farm Workers flag was gently placed over his heart; he was united with his homeboy Cesar once again. Followed by his heavy-hearted children who loved their father without condition, Jose was ready for his final ride through Sacramento. His most dedicated soldados y soldadas Juanita Polendo, Juan Carrillo, Sam Rios and Rudy Cuellar Jr. were all present.
Fireworks were detonated into the dark sky, and even the cops rolled by, but Jose Montoya, existential icon, poet, artist, husband, brother, teacher, father and, yes, Chicano intellectual romantic, was long gone.
A single candle flickered in his living room window through the night for all of Sacramento to see from the streets he loved and sketched and wrote about
Only the words from his epic pachuco poem “El Louie” seemed fitting now: ... his life had been remarkable, un vato de atolle.