Visual language of Malaquias Montoya

An excited crowd

It was standing room-only for the people who came to hear Malaquías Montoya speak about art, life, protest and language Wednesday evening at the Center for Contemporary Art, Sacramento. The crowd spilled out the door onto 19th Street and included UC Davis students, CCAS members, artists and activists.

An electricity filled the room as voices rose and fell. Current and former students proclaimed they are all fans of Montoya.

Curator Xico Gonzáles served as the evening’s host, leading the audience in a welcome applause before speaking about Montoya, under whom he had studied.

Montoya stepped up, without a microphone, and asked, “Why do we do the things that we do daily?”

He answered that question through sharing stories from his life. Montoya’s stories resonated with the audience, who sometimes laughed, sometimes remained silent, and always listened.

Montoya steps up

The artist begins to surface

Montoya recalled reading about Dick, Jane and Spot in elementary school readers, and he said the stories and their lives made no sense to him. 

“The dog in my neighborhood didn’t look like Spot,” he said. 

While that elicited some laughter from the group, when he spoke about being placed in a special class, the audience became quiet. Montoya spoke about labels placed on children, sometimes because of their names, accents, or clothes. His mother said the class would be best because he would receive attention.

“All we did was use glue, scissors, paper, and once a week the teacher wrote on the blackboard. The rest of the time, we’d draw or color,” Montoya said.

In that class, Montoya’s “artistic self began to surface.” 

“I realized that I was someone people looked to. I gained pride, self-esteem.”

Earth, crepe paper, inner tubes, and tires

In the early ’60s, Montoya began working with silkscreen, cutting stencils and doing design. He recalls asking his mother about the family home and where, if they had no money, she found the money to transform the home with stencils, decals and paint.

“My mother married at 13, and when my father was working, she’d play. She went to the arroyos, scraped layers of earth, collected berries and brought back some white rock. From these, she’d create (paints) and gesso. She’d collect all of the crepe paper from celebrations, bring it home and put it in water. The crepe paper bleeds, and she’d use that to tint the earth colors.”

The decals and stencils were created from inner tubes from which Montoya’s mother cut designs and placed on thick cardboard.

“She made little printing blocks,” he said.

She cut apart old tires, dipped those in paint and printed on the walls.

“We’re born creative. We’re little geniuses,” Montoya said, adding that outside influences try to take that away from us. 

A new way of learning

Two years after beginning work with a printer, Montoya enrolled in a commercial art class and found the education more positive than his earlier college experience. He already knew a great deal about silkscreen printing, and he knew that the professor had not given students all the information available, so Montoya supplemented the instructions.

“The students were excited. The teacher was angry,” he said.

Montoya was told he was not good as a writer and that he was not good at drawing. He was referred to Professor Joseph Zirker at San Jose City College, who told Montoya there was nothing wrong with his drawing. Zirker became Montoya’s mentor and friend, and Montoya recalls that Zirker was compassionate and sensitive, traits Montoya had applied to artists in his early years.

Montoya continually dropped his English classes when the first assignments were handed out. He enrolled in what was then termed “bonehead English” and was told that his work was fine. 

“I’d buy new pencils, binders, a dictionary. I thought they would make a difference,” Montoya said.

He pursued self-hypnosis.

“I am going to do it,” is what he said. 

Montoya would not simply try. Determined to succeed, he wrote his paper, turned it in, then waited. He wanted a grade, wanted to read the comments, wanted not to fold the paper and put it in his pocket. On the day the papers were returned, Montoya’s was read (aloud) by the teacher.

“It was the beginning of a different way of learning. We all have different ways of learning.”

Montoya entered UC Berkeley in 1968, against Zirker’s recommendation, who feared the university would change Montoya’s work.

“I found school very difficult,” he said. “The type of work I did – didn’t call it Chicano, political – was of cotton pickers who looked Mexicano. Some called it outdated, archaic. I visited studios of the professors. One was drawing squares of color in the manner of Rothko.”

That type of drawing did not offer the means to express what Montoya wanted to say.

Toward a Mexican identity collectively

Montoya spoke about José Clemente Orozco, a Mexican socialist painter; Diego Rivera, known for his murals focusing on history and humanity’s future; and David Alfaro Siqueiros, a social realist painter whose works were about redefining Mexico.

“(These works) gave Mexico a new face, pushed the revolution that had happened,” he said. “(The artists) worked collectively to give us a Mexican identity. Collectives were geared toward workers to develop a strong working class. Younger artists wanted to be more individualistic.”

CIA as curator

The U.S. Information Agency, the CIA and multinational corporations were interested in the changes in mid-twentieth century Mexico. 

“Rockefeller and others went to Mexico to change the artwork,” Montoya said.

Jose Luis Cuevas was invited to show his art in New York, which caused a rumble in Mexico, Montoya said. 

“The U.S. wanted to push the school of muralism back,” said Montoya. 

The murals of Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros raised the consciousness of the Mexican people, and that meant it was difficult to make business deals in Mexico.

In this way, art becomes a commodity, and artists create in order to sell their product. 

“Art is a language for people to feel and understand,” he said. “When that is taken away, you lose.”

Chicano art today, validation, and memory

A question-and-answer session followed Montoya’s lecture. 

To a question posed about Chicano art today, Montoya responded that there is much “so-called Chicano art,” that the corporations have bought into it, but the Chicano artists have lost their edge and have become good grant writers. 

“For a lot of people, it’s even worse today than back then. We believe it.”

When asked if there is organizing to do, Montoya said, “It has to be done. Artists have to remember.” 

Montoya speaking about “Memories”

Montoya spoke about the piece that attracted the attention of many attendees, “Memories,” created with two other pieces in 1992 on the quincentennial of the arrival of Columbus to this continent. The three-piece set denounces the atrocities committed against the indigenous people by Columbus and invading Europeans. 

“It talks about how many died,” Montoya said.

He read the words printed across the top: “My memory will retain what is worthwhile. My memory knows more, about me than I do; it doesn’t lose what deserves to be saved,” from Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan journalist and novelist.

“What is it like to not be validated for your work?” another attendee asked. “Where do you seek your validation from?”

Montoya told a story of walking into a class one day and seeing his name written across the board. The teacher brought him to the board and, erasing the letters of his name from back to front until only three letters remained, asked “What if we call you Mal?” 

His validation came from Zirker, and it came from César Chávez, and it came from the Chicano movement, out of which came newspapers.

“We were reading about ourselves. That validated our own bilingualism. It was power. I was validated by my community. We wanted to stop the war in Vietnam. It’s hard to instill in students today because of the diversions,” Montoya said, referring to iPod earbuds and shopping malls.

“They are allowed to wear raggedy clothes, to shave their heads, in a sense of freedom, instead of looking at what’s around (them),” he said.

The audience remained throughout the entire lecture.

“That is just what I needed to hear,” said Jen Cimaglio, Sacramento artist and activist, “I have work to do.”


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