Surrounded by his loved ones, Jose Montoya—a leading professor, activist, poet, and prominent figure of the Chicano art movement, died on Sept. 26 at the age of 81 due to lymphoma in his Sacramento home.
Montoya is best known for his poetry. In his most famous poem, “El Louie,” Montoya tells the story of a decorated Chicano veteran, who lives a proud life and is well liked by everyone in his community. El Louie is written in Montoya’s revolutionary style—fusing Chicano slang and Spanglish.
Montoya’s was born in Escobosa, New Mexico, in 1932. His family moved to Delano, Calif. in search of work. Montoya spent his childhood in the fields helping his family pick grapes— his talents soon became evident when he began to draw on the paper that was used to dry grapes into raisins.
Montoya’s mother also nurtured his love for art.
Montoya remembered stenciling the interiors of homes and churches.“We helped grind colors and mix them. We made stencils from discarded inner tubes and gathered colorants from creek beds,” said Montoya, reminiscing in a 1998 interview with the Sacramento Bee.
After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Navy and served overseas during the Korean War. The GI Bill program enabled Montoya to attend San Diego City College, and he later transferred to the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland to earn his teaching degree.
In 1969 Montoya and other Latino educators participated in the Mexican American Education Project at California State University, Sacramento. There, Montoya co-founded the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF), an art collective that focused on personifying the Chicano struggle in poems, song, spoken word and theater.
Another focus of the RCAF was to bring media coverage to the struggles of farm workers and to aid the Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. Montoya once said: “We wanted to be outrageous, we didn’t want to be boring so we now had an Air Force we could incorporate into the movement, which was about boycotting Safeway—” an effort to keep the chain from selling table grapes until farmworkers’ conditions improved. “We would show up to Safeway dressed in Air Force uniforms and driving a World War II jeep,” said Montoya, a move that got the media’s attention.
Montoya was also a professor and mentor to many art students at Sacramento State for 27 years.
“He lived his life in service to others and made a major lasting impact on the civic, cultural, and political life of the city of Sacramento and beyond.” said Dolores Huerta, a labor leader, civil rights activist and co-founder of the United Farm Workers. “His creativity and sense of humor illuminated our struggle and always motivated us to keep pushing forward. He will truly be missed.”
Montoya’s legacy, poetry, and love for the arts will live on in the heart and minds of the thousands of Chicano’s he inspired. He is survived by his six children, first and second wife, and his 19 grandchildren.