Monday, September 30, 2013

A Farewell to Don Jose Montoya: Artist, Poet, Teacher, Musician

The Chicano community has lost one of its icons, a pioneer who forged the way for new generations of artists, teachers, writers and students. He died quietly, at 81, in his Sacramento home on Wednesday, September 25, after a long illness. The last few times I saw Jose, he had grown “drawn and thin”, perhaps like Louie, the character in his infamous poem “El Louie.” Jose was a humble and amiable man with a quick wit (always stroking his goatee), and a way with words that put everyone at ease,  a seasoned “veterano” from the barrio, un “vato de atolle”, a first-class dude.

I met Jose back in the late 50’s when we were students at the California College of Arts and Crafts, in Oakland. We were among a handful of Chicanos, five or six of us, including Esteban Villa, his compadre, in a population of 600 plus. It was natural that we gravitated to one another.. He was always astonished at my artistic ability but Jose had talents of his own, ones yet to be born. We ran together on campus, drinking coffee in the snack bar, and cheap wine at a bevy of bohemian parties, and played our guitars, he, his compadre and I, singing old Mexican corridos and rancheras late into the nights. We were from the barrio, the real stuff, a big hit with many of our white, middle-classed, peers.

I remember the day he pulled out a stacl of his poems and read some to me; I was impressed, even shocked. Was it OK to write about the barrio, Mexicans? About Vatos? Pachucos (Zoot-Suiters)? Farmworkers? Was it acceptable to mix Spanish and English together – what he devilishly termed Pochismo (Pocho was a disparaging term used by Mexicans to mock their counterparts in the US who had forgotten their language and culture) - in the same sentence?  Was it right to use slang and Cal√≥ – the idioms used by the Pachucos in the 1940s? But this would be the hallmark of his writing, despite the criticism he received, especially from his own people that his bastardized Spanish was shameful, that he should make up his mind to either write in Spanish or English, period! Jose just laughed it off. Instead, he forced us to accept the world of “los de abajo” – the lowly from the barrios, the “jodidos”, the“arrastrados” , those dragged along by poverty and lack of education. He forced us to look, to see this, with the language of the barrio, even to see the poetry in it.

In the 60s and 70s, Jose would go on to become a highly respected high school teacher, then professor or art and ethnic studies and CSUS, Sacramento for 27 years. He would become a noted poet laureate, painter, muralist, musician, and co-founder, along with his compadre, Esteban Villa, of the RCAF (Rebel Chicano Artists Front), later donned the Royal Chicano Air Force, a coalition of Chicano artists from the Sacramento region, inspiring a new generation of artists, many of who made names for themselves, taking into the barrio to teach chavalitos (children) and their jefitos (parents). Their vivid murals still grace the streets Sacramento, trumpeting images familiar to La Raza, pyramids, eagles, farmworkers, Aztec warriors. With the Farmworker movement, Jose, Esteban and others put their silk-screen talents to work, printing and designing posters in support of Cesar Chavez, farmworkers and other social issues.

But to me, Jose was foremost Montoya, the poet.  Who can forget his classic poems, “El Louie”, an homage to Louie Rodriguez, a barrio warrior who has it all: looks, courage, talent, but who like too many of today’s barrio youth, loses it all, dying “alone in a Rented room,” a victim to “booze y la vida dura” (a hard life), and “La Jefita”, a tender poem to his “little mother”, who is the first one up in the tent they lived in, “slapping tortillas” before sunrise … y todavia la Pinche noche oscura,”, barking out orders for the young ones, and making the lonches for the family before a grueling day of picking cotton, where she would join the men in the field “pulling her cien libras de algoda” – 100 lb. sack. She was the last one to bed ironing clothes, and cooking the frijoles del oya, for another day of toil.

Farewell, amigo, colega, maestro…. for you ran the good race. 

(Photo taken by Rudy Cuellar, of Montoya reading my book)

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Magic of the Written Word

It's close to a year now since I've written and published my book "Songs From the Barrio: A Coming of Age in Modesto, Ca." and it's been a blast getting out to share it with all kinds of audiences, children, young people and adults, old-timers like myself.

The Literary Experience, whether reading to oneself, or hearing someone read a story or a poem is absolutely magnetic, a captivating journey of the mind and the imagination. I love to sneak peaks at the audience when I read and the expressions on their faces tell it all: bored, curious, doubtful, skeptical, entranced, or tickled. The nods of heads, the raised eyebrows, smiles and outright guffaws are catalysts which make me read with even more intensity.

While the writing, editing and publishing of my book was a wonderfully creative venture, the marketing and sharing of my book has been equally fulfilling. I love to hear people's comments on my book, on individual stories which moved or touched them; and everyone is different. There are, of course, stories which connect universally with readers, but others seem to connect specifically, like a young woman who told me she found my story "The Three-Legged Cat", hilarious, and another the story "The Red Dog." Most comments so far concern how much the stories in my book connect to their own families, their own experiences growing up as a Mexican, or Chicano in the U.S. It is amazing to me how similar our experiences have been. But now and then I hear from people who are not Chicano or Mexican who find similarities to their own experience, as in this review on Amazon from one reader:

"My entire family is reading "Songs From the Barrio", and we're enjoying the memories of life in Modesto in the 1950's. Richard Rios has captured the time and place splendidly. As a self-proclaimed West Modesto Okie, I found that Rios' memories of his childhood in a poor Mexican family in a Mexican barrio very much mirrored life in a poor Okie family in a poor neighborhood, and, perhaps, many lives in similarly situated poor, often directionless families. While the stories in this fine book touched my siblings and me because of the memories of Modesto fifty to sixty years ago, it will also touch those who wish to understand the culture and challenges of that time. Oh, and I think everyone will find Rios' book to be a fun, sad, informative, and entertaining read."
(The Huey Family, Modesto, California) 

And another who writes "This work is an incredible collection of short stories and poems which gives the reader a unique insight into what it was like to grow up in California in a world in which one was neither Mexican nor American. With humor, love, and personal insights, Rios takes the reader into the home he grew up in: a one bedroom shack near the Tuolumne River in Modesto, where he lived with a family of 6. The author paints a uniqu picture of California in the 40's and 50's, as he grew up and assimilated. The dialogue in Spanish is all either translated or footnoted so that everyone can read it. Riveting! I could not put it down. Fun! I'm reading it for the second time in a week. Heartfelt! It will make you laugh and cry with tears of joy as you gain a new perspective on what it is to be American!

In a way, I view my book as a historical document, as a memoir tends to be. Any analysis of American life in the 40s, 50s and 60s is a telling view into an incredible time in our country. Things were different in a world without electronics, the internet. "Reading Richard Rios' book was like listening to a character out of a Steinbeck novel, tell his OWN story. Rios' brilliant use of colloquial "Chicano" Spanish was important in truly capturing the lives of Chicanos in California's valley. This book should become essential reading for those in search of a historical, social glimpse into the Chicano culture."

In case, you haven't read my book you can purchase a copy at, or get a Kindle edition. Moreso, I would love to hear from you after you read it by posting comments here on my Blog or by posting them on Amazon. If you contact me, I can mail you a signed copy ($10. plus envelope and shipping - usually and extra $3.50). I also have a companion CD with selected reading from the book that sells for $5.00).