//Celebrating a “Resonant” Life 

Celebrating a “Resonant” Life 

By Dave Fountinelle | dave@fresnoflyer.com

Dia De Los Muertos is a two-day holiday celebrated throughout the Americas, beginning at midnight on November 1st. Representing a joyous reunion between the living and the dead, the event is characterized by food, dancing, fond remembrance, carefully constructed ofrendas, or offerings of food, drinks, and any personal effects of the departed holding sentimental value. Dia De Los Muertos dates back to the pre-colonial Aztec empire and its month-long festival of the dead, during which the Aztec people paid homage to the “Lady of Death,” Mictlancihuatl, who the Aztecs believed protected their departed loved ones and aided them on their journey to the afterlife.

Many cultures have their own versions of the “Day of the Dead.” For instance, a number of religions recognize “All Souls Day,” also known as “All Saints Day,” which traditionally follows Halloween. However, the Mexican celebration of Dia De Los Muertos is unique primarily for its use of calaveras (or “sugar skulls” as they’re commonly known), the style of “La Catrina” – a striking and colorfully-adorned character inspired by the Aztec goddess of death – and most notably, the use of ofrendas, the deeply personal and sentimental offerings to the dead.

Every year, Arte Américas in Fresno has featured an exhibit to mark Dia De Los Muertos and celebrate the holiday’s beautiful art and rich cultural significance. However, for this year’s event, the curators decided to do something a little different and make the entire exhibit itself an ofrenda to one of the most important Latinx artists in the history of the Central Valley, José Montoya.

Open at Arte Américas since May, “José Montoya’s Resonant Valley” is a moving and inspirational journey through the artist’s life growing up in labor camps and towns across the valley, from Delano to Hanford, Parlier, and Fowler. Curated by Tony Carranza and Carissa Garcia in collaboration with José’s son, Richard Montoya, and the Montoya Family Trust. The exhibit does more than just showcase Montoya’s life’s work. Through his poems, paintings, and sketches, it also celebrates the rich and often turbulent Chicano history in the valley, from Montoya’s arrival as a boy in the 1940s until his passing in 2013.

Montoya’s art portrays both the beauty and pride of the Chicano people as well as their struggle and oppression. In every sense of the word, Montoya’s art is an ofrenda to his people: it is deeply personal, sentimental, and reverent. Therefore, it seemed a fitting decision for Arte Américas to extend his exhibition through November and honor his legacy for this year’s presentation.

Executive Director Arianna Chavez described how extending Montoya’s exhibit perfectly fits Dia De Los Muertos.

“Dia De Los Muertos is a holiday of remembrance,” Chavez explains. “We believe that the dead are never truly dead until they are forgotten. In much the same way, the history of our people is never lost to us as long as we remember it. José Montoya celebrated the joy and the pain of growing up Chicano in the valley, and as long as we have art like his that shows us both the beauty and the tragedy of our history, then who we are as a people will always be remembered.”

Walking through the exhibit, the story of “José Montoya’s Resonant Valley” begins in the early 1940s. It was a time when pachucos – Chicano men whose style was characterized by wearing zoot suits and listening to jazz and blues – were being vilified by the Anglo-American society they refused to assimilate into. At the same time they were being labeled as “thugs” and “invading hordes” in the newspapers, Chicano men were also being drafted to fight in World War II. Just a boy at the time, Montoya recalled coming to class one day to find all his Japanese classmates gone, shipped off to internment camps with their parents. The contrast between patriotic love for his country and a healthy distrust of the establishment is very much the duality that courses throughout Montoya’s artistic legacy.

Montoya served in the US Navy from 1951 to 1955 during the Korean War. He used his G.I. Bill to attend San Diego City College as an art student. Military elements, including rifles, helmets, paintings of airplanes, and take-offs of propaganda posters characterize this period of Montoya’s work. Montoya graduated from the California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland in 1962. Living and working in the Bay Area and Northern California during the Vietnam War, Montoya was very connected to the protest movement. In 1969, Montoya penned “El Louie,” his most famous and often anthologized poem. It tells the story of Louie, a pachuco from San Jose and the Central Valley who returns from the Korean War to a white-dominated California, where his once proud and prolific life soon deteriorates into addiction, poverty, and eventually death. 

Montoya’s pushback against the establishment would bring him to the forefront of the Chicano labor movement in the 1970s, led by Cesar Chavez. Montoya, along with his students and other members of the Chicano artist community, founded the Rebel Chicano Art Front, later renamed to the Royal Chicano Air Force. The RCAF made posters for striking workers, organized numerous cultural, educational, and political activities, and worked extensively within migrant communities to help advance the United Farm Workers labor movement. This period in Montoya’s artistic career includes several stark contrast pieces, including a particularly striking juxtaposition mural featuring General Santa Ana.

“People often ask, ‘why don’t you just get over it and move on?’ when it comes to the oppression and the struggle that Chicanos experienced in America,” Chavez observes. “But we have to remember how we got here to appreciate how far we’ve come, and that’s the message that we see behind much of Montoya’s work.”

Remembrance is the heart of Dia De Los Muertos. It is how the many different indigenous Mexican cultures that celebrate the holiday keep their departed loved ones alive. It is also how artists like José Montoya keep Chicano history alive. Through the remembrance of Montoya, his life’s journey, and the stories he tells through his art, Arte Américas is keeping his message alive as well. Montoya’s art speaks to the overwhelming pride of being Chicano in the Central Valley. Just as it also speaks to the many obstacles that they faced. José Montoya’s art is an ofrenda to all whose blood, sweat, and tears brought so much progress and respect to the Chicano community. 

“José Montoya’s Resonant Valley” is the beating heart of Arte Américas’ Dia De Los Muertos presentation. The exhibit will be closed until October 28th as more Dia De Los Muertos themes and community art contributions are added to the overall exhibit. The special extended run will remain open until November 26th. 

Arte Américas is open from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children under 12 and seniors over 65. School tours are encouraged and can be booked in advance through the Arte Américas website, ArteAmericas.org. To learn more about the exhibit, as well as other upcoming Arte Americas events and presentations, including how to volunteer your time and resources, visit ArteAmericas on Facebook and Instagram.