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)

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