When Jose Montoya died on Sept. 25, Sacramento lost a true artistic treasure. Artist, poet, musician, activist Montoya was a significant figure in the city’s art world. A former Sacramento poet laureate and a co-founder of the Royal Chicano Air Force, his voice and vision had a strong impact on the cultural life of Sacramento.
Entering “A Tribute to Jose Montoya” at the Center for Contemporary Art, Sacramento, I was greeted by his voice reciting a poem in English, Spanish and barrio slang. His deep, resonant tones enfolded me in the bopster rhythms of his poem. It reminded me that he was one of the most influential Chicano poets in the country.
Around the room, Montoya’s work and the work of artists he inspired and influenced attested to the reverence in which he was held and brought back memories of the RCAF and the impact of those artists on the community and the farmworkers’ struggle led by Cesar Chavez.
The RCAF was born in 1969, the brainchild of Montoya and Esteban Villa, who had met at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland while studying on the GI Bill. In the early ’70s both were teaching at what was then Sacramento State College, Villa in the art department and Montoya in the barrio outreach program.
They founded the collective originally as the Rebel Chicano Art Front to produce posters for the United Farmworkers actions, but changed the name after people began asking them what they had to do with the Royal Canadian Air Force. With tongues firmly in cheek, they said that they were officers in the Royal Chicano Air Force and that they flew adobe planes.
Participating in boycotts of Safeway, they would arrive in uniforms in a World War II-era jeep capturing the attention of the media. Their antics were early versions of performance art, and their motto became La Locura Cura (Craziness Heals). Over the years they produced posters that are now collector’s items and decorated the city with colorful murals. A slide show at the Center documents the RCAF and Montoya’s exploits.
Standing sentinel over the show is a life-sized papier-mâché figure of a skeletal Montoya in puffy peg-leg pants by Jesus Barela. Nearby are colorful dangling strings of yarn and art materials for people to make and mount messages for Jose.
At the center of the show are two works by Montoya immortalizing the zoot suit culture of Pachucos in the early 1940s, a time of great racial discrimination against Mexican American youths. These stylized silk-screened figures pay tribute to their efforts to maintain a distinct culture in the midst of mainstream America. Like Montoya’s bilingual poem “El Louie,” they are seminal Chicano works.
“Jose Montoya’s Pachuco Art: A Historical Update,” by Montoya, Rudy Cuellar and Louie “The Foot” Gonzales, is an example of the RCAF’s bold posters. Other collaborative posters include “El RCAF Goes to College” and Xico Gonzales‘ “General Montoya.”
Among the tributes to El Profe, as Montoya was known to his students, is a colorful and buoyant wall piece by Andrea Yaya Porres, who first met Montoya in the late 1980s when she was 14 years old at a Chicano Youth Leadership conference. Natalia Gonzales, who studied under Montoya, in the Barrio Art Program, offers a moving photographic portrait of the artist. Manuel Rios’s colorful acrylic portrait of Montoya hangs near it, as does a vibrant symbolic landscape by Frank LaPena, who taught with Montoya at Sac State.
Curators Elaine O’Brien and Andrea Porres have done a marvelous job of curating this heartfelt tribute to Montoya, which reminds us of what a great, creative soul we have lost.