Montoya, José: 1932—: Artist, Educator, Writer

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José Montoya: 1932: Artist, educator, writer

As a painter, poet, and activist, José Montoya has played a leading role in the Chicano cultural movement. He founded the Royal Chicano Air Force, a California arts collective renowned for its political murals and community projects. His poetry is widely anthologized and has promoted new interest in Chicano literature. Montoya, who was named poet laureate of the city of Sacramento in 2002, is recognized as a legendary figure in the movement for recognition of Chicano culture.

Fascinated by Art and Storytelling

Montoya was born on May 28, 1932, on a ranch near Albuquerque, New Mexico, where his Mexican great-grandparents had settled after receiving a federal land grant in the 1800s. He was one of nine children, seven of whom survived, born to Malaquías Montoya and Lucia Saiz Montoya. When the boy was still an infant, his father was sent to prison for making liquor during Prohibition. Montoya grew up with his great-grandmother and great aunts while his mother supported the family by painting decorative motifs on home interiors. As he commented to Dictionary of Hispanic Biography contributor Ann Malaspina, "I have vivid memories about hardships, but I was also endowed with a lot of affection and love."

Art and storytelling were important parts of Montoya's early childhood. He enjoyed watching his mother mix the colors she used in her work. "We used to go on excursions to look for materials and colors," he told Malaspina, "tap-ping various levels of arroyo creeks for the yellow ocher colors." He also recalled his fascination with the storytelling traditions of his village.

In 1938, when Malaquías Montoya was released from prison, the family moved to Albuquerque, where Montoya started school. But Montoya hated the city, and his family sent him back to live with his grandparents in the mountains. In 1941 Malaquías Montoya accepted a job as a farm laborer in California, and the family undertook a long journey by car and train to join him there. Turned away from Bakersfield, they moved to the Sierra Vista Ranches near Delano. The young Montoya, only nine years old, toiled in the fields while his parents cooked for the farmhands. For the next few years, Montoya attended school now and then while he earned wages and helped to care for his younger siblings. He skipped a whole year of school when he was 13. Along with a few other families, the Montoyas moved frequently to follow seasonal jobs. During World War II the family settled near Oakland, where Malaquías found work in the shipyards. In 1950, however, Montoya's parents separated and his father returned to New Mexico.

At a Glance . . .

Born on May 28, 1932, near Albuquerque, NM; married Mary Prieto (divorced); married Juanita Jue; children: six from first marriage, three from second marriage. Education: San Diego City College, AA, 1956; California College of Arts and Crafts, BA; Sacramento State University, MFA, 1971. Military Service: US Navy, 1951-55.

Career: Artist, 1960s; Wheatland High School, Wheatland, CA, teacher, 1963-69; Sacramento State University, teacher in department of art education, 1971-81, professor, 1981-96; author, 1972; National Taskforce on Hispanic Art, 1977; poet laureate of Sacramento, CA, 2002.

Memberships: Mexican American Liberation Art Front, founder, 1960s; Rebel Chicano Art Movement (later the Royal Chicano Air Force), founder, 1970s.

Awards: City of Sacramento Mayor's Award for poetry, Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Council, 1995; California Arts Council award, 1997; National Endowment for the Arts, Grand Award for Literature, Arts Writing Fellowship Grant, 1981.

Address: Office Poet Laureate Program, Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, 2030 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95815.

Discovered a Facility With Words

Montoya's mother wanted her son to finish high school, but left the choice to him. "I decided to stay in school and work after school and weekends to help the family," he explained to Malaspina. His mother worked hard, and later went on welfare, so that her children could remain enrolled at Fowler High School. Montoya's English teacher, Adrian Sanford, recognized the young man's talent and urged Montoya to continue with his literary and artistic pursuits. An essay that Montoya wrote about his father's humiliation in prison, where he had to be cleaned of lice, elicited particular praise from Sanford. In 1951 Montoya graduated from high schoolthe first member of his family to do so.

As a young man Montoya was drawn to the street culture of Fresno, where Chicano pachucos or "gangs" held sway. He was arrested a few times for fighting. After his second arrest, he was given a choice between joining the Marine Corps or being assigned to a road crew. Montoya chose the Marines. But the Marine Corps refused to take him because of a tattoo that identified him as a gang member. He changed the tattoo into the shape of an anchor, and was allowed to join the Navy. From 1951 to 1955, during the Korean War, he served on a minesweeper. At the same time, he continued to read widely, particularly admiring the books of John Steinbeck.

After his stint in the Navy, Montoya settled in San Diego with his first wife, Mary Prieto. He attended San Diego City College at night under the GI Bill while working at a window company during the day. He earned an associate of arts degree in 1956, then received a scholarship from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, where he obtained a B.A. in fine arts. Montoya stayed an extra year to earn teaching credentials, and in 1963 began teaching at Wheatland High School in Wheatland, California.

Founded RCAF

In the early 1960s, Montoya began working for the movement to unionize local farm workers. He also realized that his art could be a vehicle for social change. With Esteban Villa, Malaquías Montoya, Manuel Hernandez, and others, he formed the Mexican American Liberation Art Front (MALAF). At Sacramento State University, where Montoya was teaching after having earned an M.F.A. in 1971, he helped Villa and a group of students form the Rebel Chicano Art Front (RCAF). "The idea was to use art as an organizing tool for the movement," he told Malaspina. The group's motto, La locura lo cura meaning "Craziness is its own cure", showed its emphasis on humor and activism. Soon people began to notice that the group's acronym was identical to that of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The group then renamed itself the Royal Chicano Air Force.

The RCAF, which became a well-known collective, enjoyed this military image. They dressed as World War II bomber pilots and drove around in an old army jeep that a fan had donated. Other supporters even donated flying machines to the group. Yet art remained at the center of the collective's work. The RCAF engaged in activist art, creating posters for migrant workers, the United Farmworkers Union, cannery workers, and other community groups. The RCAF also founded the "Arts in the Barrio" program, which offered art classes to Chicano students and senior citizens in Sacramento.

The program met at the Centro de Artistes Chicanos, a cultural center that Montoya and others founded in 1972.

One of the most impressive achievements of the RCAF was its involvement with the Chicano Park Murals project at Barrio Logan in San Diego. This large project, which includes about 40 major murals painted on 24 concrete pillars and two abutments of the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge in Chicano Park, features powerful images of Chicano culture. As Public Historian contributors Martin D. Rosen and James Fischer described them, the murals "depict images of Mexican pre-Columbian gods, myths and legendary icons, botanical elements, animal imagery, the Mexican colonial experience, revolutionary struggles, cultural and spiritual reaffirmation through the arts, Chicano achievements, identity and bicultural duality," as well as images of such heroic figures as Cesar Chavez, Che Guevara, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata.

Montoya and the RCAF contributed "Leyes" and "La Familia," both dated 1975. Another RCAF mural, "I Am Somebody," includes a poem by Joann Little. "The murals," according to Rosen and Fischer, "have deep transcendent values and constitute a historic resource for which the Barrio Logan community has an unusually strong attachment. The importance of the Chicano Park murals has been underscored by local, national, and international recognition of their artistic and social value."

Among Montoya's artistic influences were Mexican engraver José Guadalupe Posado, whose work combined the political and the surreal. Muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfara Siquieiros were also major influences. In 1973 Montoya's work was included in one of the first national exhibitions of Chicano art at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Among his most notable works is his Pachuco Series of 1977, which depict the Chicano street gangs of his youth. Montoya's paintings, drawings, and prints have been exhibited across the United States and in Cuba, Mexico, and Paris. In 1977 he was named to the National Task Force on Hispanic Arts.

Poems Published in Anthology

Montoya's first literary success came in 1969 when nine of his poems were published in the anthology El Espejo. He went on to publish poems in chapbooks, pamphlets, and small-press collections. His first book, El sol y los de abajo and Other R.C.A.F. Poems, appeared in 1972. Montoya's use of the hybrid calo language, which combines English and Spanish slang, attracted considerable attention. Many admired the expressive power of the language, but Montoya recalled that his writing teachers disapproved, urging him to write in either Spanish or English. Among his most famous poems is "El Louie," about a man with whom Montoya grew up. The poem described Louie's military service in Korea but his later involvement with drugs, which led to his death. Many critics consider "El Louie" to be a classic depiction of a pachuco.

In 1992 Montoya published In Formation: 20 Years of Joda. The book includes poetry from 1969 to 1989, as well as several sketches by the artist. Nation contributor Ray Gonzalez called it "perhaps the definitive collection of calo writing to be found anywhere." Gonzalez noted that Montoya's voice remains as politically charged as it had been in the early years of the Movement. "Montoya writes a now-rare 'in your face, vato!' kind of poetry Chicano poets abandoned ages ago," Gonzales observed. "In today's market-conscious literary world, this kind of street writing has nothing to do with multiculturalism. It is too pure and powerful. No New York editor would go for it, much less understand it." Gonzalez went on to say that "His poetry, twenty-five years after the marches, boycotts and brown berets, still cries out against the social injustice that binds his people. In Information, Montoya accomplishes what no other Chicano poet wants to do anymore: He has the courage to question his own people and ask if they have lost sight of their goals."

In addition to visual and literary art, Montoya creates music. He formed a band, José Montoya y Casindio. The group released a recording, A Pachuco Portfolio, in 1998.

In 2002 Montoya was named poet laureate of the city of Sacramento. For his featured project as poet laureate, Montoya chose to organize a Festival de Flor y Canto, or "Festival of Flower and Song." This event, which celebrated poetry as a means of sharing cultures, has pre-Columbian roots in Aztec ritual and emphasized the role of poetry in expressing reverence for life and social justice.

Selected writings

El Sole y Los de Abajo, Edicciones Pocho-Che, 1972.

In Formation: 20 Years of Joda, Chusman House Publications, 1992.

The Bully, Red Wing Press, 2001.



Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale Research (Detroit, MI), 1996.


Nation, January 31, 1994, p. 131.

Public Historian, Fall 2001, p. 91.


"Artist, Poet, Musician Jose Montoya To Speak At UNLV," University of Nevada-Las Vegas, (April 1, 2003).

"CAC Folk Arts Grant, Jose Montoya," Taco Shop Poets, htm (April 1, 2003).

"Guide to the Jose Montoya Collection 1969-2001, Biographical Sketch," California Ethnic and Multi-cultural Archives, (April 1, 2003).

"Jose Montoya lauded by Sacramento," California State University, htm (March 28, 2003.)

"Sacramento Poet Laureate," Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, mac.htm (April 1, 2003).

Elizabeth Shostak

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Montoya, José: 1932—: Artist, Educator, Writer

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