Art Fights the Power

The Liberating Artwork of Malaquías Montoya

I Pledge

Berkeley, California,1968: The Chicano Movement is born. Cesar Chavez and his newly formed United Farm Workers union reach the pinnacle of their "Grape Strike," boycotting grocery stores and wineries throughout the Bay area and paralyzing the growing fields in the San Joaquin Valley, just south of San Francisco. After 17 million people across the country stop buying grapes, the grape growers are forced to adopt union contracts for the mostly Hispanic and mostly migratory workers who have plied the picking routes from New Mexico to Northern California for generations. At the same time, the conflict in Vietnam escalates with the election of Richard Nixon to the U.S. presidency. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King are assassinated. There are violent civil rights clashes at the Watts festival in Los Angeles, as well as riots in Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New Orleans.

Like the rest of the country in 1968, Malaquías Montoya, the son of migrant farm workers from New Mexico and a student at the University of California at Berkeley, had taken note of the Chicano cause in the San Joaquin Valley, his own mind starting to click about the positive potential for change and the civil rights movement. Visiting his mother and brothers in the picking fields where the protests were raging, the young artist began to notice the posters slapped up on telephone poles and the signs carried by picketers on which were emblazoned the potent symbol of the United Farm Workers. Right away, Montoya recognized how he could reach his people and how his prints could be a vehicle for change, how they could speak for those who previously had no voice.

"My personal views on art and society were formed by my being born into that silent and voiceless humanity," says Montoya, now a full professor at the University of California at Davis. "Realizing later that it was not by choice that we remained mute but by a conscious effort on the part of those in power, I realized that my art could only be that of protest -- a protest against what I felt to be a death sentence." Montoya's posters of Hispanic struggle -- brown fists raised to the heavens, a torn American flag impaled on Mexican cacti -- did lead to change. They were instrumental in inspiring the Chicano community during this all-important era. For a time, Montoya became the leading poster artist in the Bay area, if not the country. Two local exhibitions are currently celebrating Malaquías Montoya's contributions to the Chicano movement and his politically vigorous artwork championing issues for Mexican-Americans. At Mexic-Arte Museum and Galeria Sin Fronteras, dozens of the artist's serigraphs, monotypes, drawings, and paintings are on view, reminding us of a time and place where art made a difference in bringing power to a people.

Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1938, Malaquías Montoya was the first of four children to be born in a city. His parents, both Mexican by birth, were hardly around cities much in those times and even then lived in an adobe cabin in the mountains just north of Albuquerque. As soon as he could walk, the young Montoya took to the road with his family as they went to work, slowly following the harvest all the way to the San Joaquin Valley in California and back as the season ended. Along the way, the Montoyas lived in tents, teepees, and shantytowns, the children going to school only after the harvest was over. He says now that the roots of his artistic expression began then, attributing his first artistic influence to his mother.

"I've always felt that my mom was the artist in the family, although she had no formal training -- she only went to second grade. She just had a way of conducting her life. Wherever we lived, whether it was a tent or a makeshift room made out of grape boxes, she always made sure that it was a home through her decorations, whatever she could find to make it a beautiful place. The house was always painted in these incredible earth colors, and little did I know that what I took to be details around the window frames were actually prints. She would take inner tubes she found that were blown out and she would cut out little squares and then she would cut designs in these tubes and glue that section to a piece of cardboard. I didn't know it, but she was making printing blocks. To tint some of her colors, she would bring home crepe paper after a dance in the mountains -- the blue crepe paper would give her blue water -- and with that water she would tint the ochre. With that, she would do the trim around the doors and along the ceiling and the walls. It was pretty amazing for what she did. For her, there was always a need for beauty."

When Montoya turned 10 years old, the family moved to California to stay. His parents divorced after his father was arrested one too many times for distilling liquor and selling it illegally. His mother continued to support the four children by working in the fields, taking the children with her as she went from village to village. That was in 1949. "Growing up, I didn't seem to mind it a lot," Montoya remembers. "The family kept us moving from place to place, meeting lots of people. Looking back, it was hardest on our parents. There were difficult times, hard times, and embarrassing times. Farm-working children were allowed to stay out of school to finish up the summer harvest. So when classes started, a lot of us would come to school later on. That and having a strange name like Malaquías, and an accent, made it sort of strange coming to class late."

In 1964, Montoya lost his job at the local canning company when harvesting production shut down for the winter. Needing work, the ambitious 25-year-old decided to answer a newspaper ad for an experienced printer who could work 8am-5pm, Monday through Friday. The job sounded like a good one to Montoya; he had always envied people who managed to work only eight hours a day, five days a week. The only problem he foresaw was that, except for a few block prints at the local junior college, he had never printed anything in his life. Nevertheless, one brisk fall morning he decided to answer the ad and wound up both landing himself a job making posters for back-to-school advertisements and PTL meetings. That set Montoya on a road that would eventually place him on the front lines of the Chicano battle for recognition in the United States, and have him leading a charge that would break the collective shackles of an entire people.

The Beating

"When I first got (to the new job), it was an incredible commercial design place," Montoya recalls. "They had light tables and brushes, everything that a young wannabe artist envisions. I told them I had taken a class and (the boss) said, 'Well, let me show you what we do here.' He had a big layout of silkscreening tables, and I had never seen silkscreening before. He told me that if I was willing to work for a month for free, at the end of the month, if I worked out, he'd hire me. I worked from morning to night."

On the advice of his boss, Montoya eventually began to take commercial art classes at San Jose City College. His professor there liked what he was doing but thought that the art department at Berkeley would be more receptive to Montoya's "non-commercial" art. So, in 1968, the 29-year-old freshman entered the University of California at Berkeley.

Meanwhile, the Sixties and the civil rights movement had gripped the nation. Because of the large Hispanic population in the state, California in particular was a political hotbed for the Chicano cause, providing the impetus for some profound change. In turn, Los Angeles and San Francisco became activist centers both politically and artistically, with the mural and poster movements creating vital public voices for the whole nation to hear. In San Francisco alone, students from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, California College of Arts and Sciences, and San Francisco State University had begun to rally themselves into politically charged groups such as the Third World Liberation Front and The Media Project. Montoya was directly involved with both these groups and, in 1969, created a collective of his own, the Mexican-American Liberation Art Front. However, it wasn't until the United States invaded Cambodia in 1970 that the universities themselves, especially the art department at Berkeley, really got behind the artistic push toward Chicano rights and indeed behind oppressed groups around the world.

"The art department did not become active until after the Cambodian invasion," Montoya explains. "And I think by that time it seems like the country was turning to an anti-war sentiment so that most of the universities, especially around the Bay area, were converted into poster factories, with the production of an incredible amount of anti-war posters. By that time, I had already graduated and students were getting aid for what they were doing and their protest. In '67 and '68, when I was a student, I was constantly being criticized by the professors during my critiques because I took printmaking classes and most of my posters were dealing with issues out of the ordinary. But I knew that things were ready to change."

And change they did. Like the murals in Los Angeles, the posters in San Francisco spurred public sentiment against the war in Vietnam. By the same token, the posters championing the Chicano movement were elevating the Mexican-American minority into the national consciousness by suggesting to Chicanos everywhere that they could be an important part of the country. Here were visuals of Chicano men and women breaking the chains of oppression and celebrating their rich heritage. Hispanic doctors and Chicano teachers populated everyday scenes once reserved for the majority Caucasian populace. Montoya's posters reflected the Hispanic struggle with images of barbed wire, Chicano solidarity, and Latin American revolutionaries, such as Che Guevera and Fidel Castro, while some idealized the rise of the oppressed common man in Vietnam and Angola. The images were sharp and at times militant. For the first time, the members of Montoya's community began to recognize the power of their people and, to a great extent, how they could use that power to gain the cherished notion of equality.

In 1974, Montoya left UC Berkeley, where he had been teaching Chicano studies and setting up the art department's silkscreen printing facilities. He went to the California College of Arts and Sciences, where he achieved a full professorship and tenure over a 13-year stint teaching art and Chicano Studies. From there, he moved to the University of California at Davis, where he was recognized in 1997 with the prestigious Adaline Kent Award for his life's work in the Bay area. He still teaches Chicano Studies at UC Davis and still finds the time to produce active work with politically poignant themes about his community.

As a professor, Montoya thinks education should be subversive -- a confrontational discourse. In this way he considers his teaching now to be just as important as his poster art was in the early Seventies, asserting that "the young children need the images from their community and the struggles that are taking place" as much as the students did in Berkeley in 1968. Of his students at UC Davis he simply asks that they not take any notes but just come in and talk to him, so he can learn as much about them as they can about him.

"I learn so much from teaching," Montoya asserts. "And I think that our work right now is much more important (than it was before). Here I am 60 years old and I'm still talking to third grade classes. But I think we need to talk to these kids at that level, at that age, when right now they're being swayed. They have to know the importance of their culture. It's important, and I think that's what the artists have to do now. We have to go back and work with these young people. The kids need images of heroines and heroes so that they can say, 'Maybe we're not failing.'"

Malaquías Montoya knows about failure and success. He knows about heroes and heroines. Even today, as a soft-spoken and articulate statesman, the man is still fighting the powers that be to win equality for Chicanos and oppressed people around the world. His prints as well as his acrylic drawings retain the barbed wire, the torn flags, and the raised fists, those symbols that fueled a nationwide battle cry some 30 years ago. His message is still one of hope and courage. Moreover, he is under no illusion that the struggle for Chicano rights is over; he knows that with affirmative action and bilingual education on the political chopping block in California, the fight for freedom now is as urgent as ever.

As far as the role that art plays in the fight for justice, Montoya says of himself and his fellow artists, "Through our images we are the creators of culture, and it is our responsibility that our images are of our times and that they be depicted honestly and promote a confrontational attitude of change rather than adaptability. We must not fall into the age-old cliché that the artist is always ahead of his or her time. No, it is most urgent that we be on time." For Montoya and heroes like him, it seems that the time has always been and will always be right now.

Works by Malaquías Montoya are on view at Mexic-Arte Museum, 419 Congress, through August 29, and Galleria Sin Fronteras, Guadalupe, 1701 Guadalupe, through September.

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