September 26, 2013

José Montoya (1932-2013), Royal Chicano Air Force Co-Founder

Jose Montoya - photo:

Jose Montoya. Photo:

When I grew up in Sacramento, everybody knew who José Montoya was. Known variously as a poet, artist, muralist, printmaker, and teacher, he was the quintessential man about town. He was always in art shows or reading his poems somewhere. He was the guy everyone respected. Sadly, his family just announced his passing. He was 81.

When Montoya started the Royal Chicano Air Force (first called the Rebel Chicano Art Front) art collective back in 1969 with his compadre Esteban Villa, the world was a very different place.

It was a time when the American Air Force was dropping real bombs and using real napalm in its war with Vietnam. Most people had black-and-white TV sets. The hippie movement was all played out. The Black Panthers had 10,000 members and Woodstock became the most famous concert in history. That was same year humans first walked on the moon.

But back in Sacramento, Montoya and Villa were teaching art classes at Sacramento State University and that summer they probably couldn’t ignore the face of Cesar Chavez staring out from the cover of Time magazine.

With the title “The Grapes of Wrath,” Time profiled the unlikely labor leader, Chavez, and the United Farm Workers. The UFW was a huge deal in California because a lack of regulation allowed the agriculture industry to pay incredibly low wages to farmworkers, most of whom were Mexican Americans. Whole families worked the fields and existed in a perpetual cycle of poverty. Chavez was leading boycotts against grocery stores like Safeway to pressure the industry for better wages and working conditions. Montoya and Villa wanted to help.

So partly in response to the UFW and partly in response to their own marginalization as Chicano artists, Villa and Montoya joined with some of their students and other activists, poets, and artists, including Rudy Cuellar, Juanishi  Orosco, Ricardo Favela, Armando R. Cid, Eva Garcia, Lorraine García-Nakata, Juan Cervantes, and Joe Serna, Jr. (who later became mayor of Sacramento) and began producing screen-printed posters, murals, and  poetry readings.

As the Royal Chicano Air Force grew, they sometimes loaded a whole screen-printing operation into a Volkswagen bus and then went directly to farms, producing prints, posters, and pamphlets on site. Their funky combination of storytelling, understated humor, and traditional folk art combined with activist techniques to create a uniquely Californian mash-up of cultural influences.

Of course, this complex blend of interests has made it hard for art historians to categorize them, but undeniably, it was a movement. Dozens of people participated in the RCAF and exhibitions and readings  have been held all over the state. They put on fundraisers and dances in support of farmworkers and taught print and mural making workshops in schools.

Montoya was a mentor to a lot of younger artists and poets and up until not so long ago he could be found reading his poems at Luna’s Cafe & Juice Bar in Sacramento.

Born in Escobosa, New Mexico, Montoya taught at CSUS for twenty-seven years and served as Poet Laureate of Sacramento from  2002 to 2004.


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Comments (4)

  • Margaret (Somers) Kangley says:

    Hi Tom, A film about to be released named “Dolores”, about Dolores Huerta, a good friend of Cesar Chavez and Jose Montoya. I’m sure we will recognize much of the documentary footage. Watch for the film.
    Maggie Somers

  • Jose taught art at our Wheatland High School. He was a breath of fresh air there…telling us to see ourselves… skimming across the pond…headed for CSUS…

    He spoke to me a few times over the years …sort of calibrated me to the earth….the adobe plate to which he was fused.

    I saw him as a square guy full of mischief and sensitivity….I felt like he was JUST like me…but I think he did that to everyone he met.

    What a wonderful man – perfect for his time – perfect to his fanclub…. he changed everyone for the better.

    can we please have another one of these?
    how about a case ….to go…..

    I hardly knew you Jose….but a little went a long way…


  • Jaime Gomez Montoya says:

    Al Rato Vato
    (Para Jose Montoya)

    Al Rato Vato, Aye Te Wacho, Aye Te Veo, en el campo, y en el barrio, en la pinta y en la escuela, sembrando tu poesía, todavía, de la lucha y alegría, de Pais pintado en lodo, tu que vistes asi al cielo, eso es y siempre ha sido, la canción de tu camino, es divino tu destino, siempre fue y siempre ha sido…. Aye Te Wacho.
    You, formed in between the furrows of your verse, they so sweet and raw and beautiful, they too live so true and real, on the paper of the mind, in the chapters of our hearts from where the truth starts and departs.
    Tu, who flew, with a black eagle against a red cyclorama, on a trapo, in the wind, with your Canto entre la Huelga, entre classrooms de estudiantes cual abristes su camino, con tus pasos caminados, enterados, rompiendo todo lo que tenían que desacer, abriendo surcos, para revivir otra vez, to live again. Aye Te Veo.

    Fijate, al Vato Loco, con-“Tando”-su-pañuelo, de Pachuco, esta- Liza la Camisa, planchados-Pantalones y sus Calcos bien shine-ados, encantados y organizados, vigilante poema de symbolos weaving words with wind, they’re flying, as far as the eye can see, as near as the ear can hear, as long, as the road is long. Alrato.

    From the yellow shores of Korea, to the brown pista of some pueblito, el Gran Sol illuminando la carreta de las vidas, revividas, de quien fue y siempre ha sido
    de tu ritmo y tu canción,
    que hiciste Maestro, gracias, con todita tu passion. Aye Te Wacho.

    Aye Te Veo, entre un Ghuamucil, o Angelino, es Norteno, o Sureno, NM, es de campo o cuidad, es igual como oímos, cuando te vimos….
    alli leyendo, escribiendo, drawing the strumming of the Lira, singing
    your gilded song in poetic meter, entre millas y millares, por kilometros pesados
    everyday, until forever, now and then, until forever, es decir, al fin del tiempo, hasta la Mistierosa
    Alrato Vato, Aye Te Wacho, Aye Te Veo, cruzando ese, Humoso, Viejo y Hermoso,

    Jaime Gomez Montoya 10-5-13

  • Irene Blea says:

    Thank you for this fine article outlining the great work of a fine man. We were both born in New Mexico, land of enchantment. Although he lived and worked so long in California, we also claim him.

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