Sunday, June 1, 2014

Well. They Didn't Mention Sister Maya Except In A Rude Way...

Escabosa, NM, July, 1940, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Yesterday included a lot of driving time, a lot of sitting time, some chatting time, a lot of listening time. Interesting.

Maya Angelou was mentioned, as it turns out, but not politely.

No, Sister Maya was mentioned by one of the poets at the José Montoya event in Albuquerque, by one of the more incendiary poets, who said something to the effect that there were more accomplished and dedicated female poets in the room last night, each of them of a higher caliber than Maya Angelou, but none of them would ever be on "Opal", and none of them would ever have the honors and recognition that Maya Angelou had -- because each of them was Chicana, and in America Chicana doesn't count.

We were exhorted to mount a protest at Bookworks because of it.

Well, now, that's just wrong, but in some ways, it's not. Chicanas do count, but they don't, too. How can things be two opposite things at the same time? That was an underlying theme for the discussion at Santa Fe's Museum of Contemporary Native Art in the afternoon with artist Shan Goshorn, scientist Jennifer Dunne, and former CIA operative Valerie Plame. The panel never mentioned Maya Angleou (I wonder why not?) but they did get into the contradictions between things that simultaneously are and are not what they appear to be, things that have and have not the linear qualities Anglos come to expect, and how one's conditioning to those expectations differs... and what to make of it.

Maya Angleou was lucky, and she knew it. She was in the right place at the right time -- and she was the right color for the time. She took absolutely full advantage of it, shamelessly, without qualm or hesitation. She was brilliant. And she rose. But she knew it wouldn't have happened if things outside herself, things that she could not control, had not conspired with her own will to make it so.

So, in some ways, was it with mi hermano José Montoya, who was honored last night at the National Hispanic Cultural Center by a stellar gathering of Chicano/a poets (many of them poets laureate) from throughout the Southwest and California. And there was music. Oh, la musica!  Baile!

What a time it was.

Jose, it turns out -- and I didn't know this -- was born in Escabosa, NM, just down the road from our place. Well. I say that with such confidence, but in fact, I'm not sure exactly where it is, or rather was. There is an Escabosa loop road between Chilili and Tijeras, but whether that's where Jose's Escabosa was, I don't know. There is no sign of a town there at any rate. No sign that a town ever was there, either. If there are ruins, they have so melted back into the earth, you'd never know, much like some of the Indian pueblos in the vicinity.

There's another Escabosa indicated somewhat north of Edgewood, however, on the way from the Walmart to the foot of South Mountain. There's no town there, either, but there is a school and some dirt tracks that indicate there might have once been a town there of sorts.

Which one was where Jose Montoya was born, I don't know, and the truth is, I kind of doubt he would know for sure either. It wouldn't really matter all that much, as he and his family decamped from Escabosa, New Mexico when he was very young and set out for the hard path of field work in California's Central Valley.

Of course, why not? At least it was green there. There were crops that could be harvested. Not so much in New Mexico, in Escabosa and round about, where a decade long drought had shriveled everything and dust blew high in the air. The economy -- such as it was in the New Mexican backwater-lackwater -- had collapsed. Families left for greener pastures in their multitudes, joining the Joad jalopies on the Mother Road, the road to Needles, Bakersfield, Sanger, Fowler, Fresno, Modesto, Merced, Stockton and Sac-a-ra-men-to.

Oh god I have traveled that road so many eff-ing times. So many! Well, not exactly on the road that the Joads and the Montoyas and the Escobars and the Trinidads traveled. I was on that road perhaps only once, when I was driven in the backseat of a 1942 Packard Clipper, hell bent for leather, from Iowa to California when I was barely 9 months old, passing through New Mexico, perhaps stopping for the night, but I certainly can't remember that trip. Or can I? There are time I really think I do remember, a body memory perhaps, or maybe something else...

In California/Califa, Jose grew up to be bad, to be a 'Chuco -- Pachuco -- the Devil Mexican as far as the Anglos were concerned, and he liked taunting Anglos like a Pachuco for the rest of his life. And why not? The Anglos had stolen everything they could get their hands on and forced the people they had stolen from to work in the Anglo fields stooped over in the blazing Central Valley sun for next to nothing -- but at least it was something, some of the time.

Farm work in California was tough, still is. It was crippling. It was necessary. It would kill you. Or it would make you strong.

Jose and his family worked the fields up and down the Central Valley, and finally, when Jose was old enough, he went into the Army and survived. When he came out, he took advantage of the GI Bill, and behold! He became a professor of Chicano Studies (well, not instantly, but eventually) at the new state college set up in Sacramento -- where my sister would go, too, and get her masters (eventually, not immediately) -- but I refused to go there on principle. That's another story for another day, but I will say here that there was no escape from Sac State (whether college or university) in Sacramento, and in due time, there would be no escaping Professor José Montoya, nor the art collective he created, the "Rebel Chicano Art Front," re-dubbed "The Royal Chicano Air Force" when some newspaper reporter got the initials (RCAF) wrong.

I knew mi hermano José but I did not know him well. He was a presence, a force of nature (much like Sister Maya, come to think of it), but I was not his student, did not work with him, had little close contact with him over the years. I had friends who were much closer to him than I was. I considered him a friend of mine in a very casual way, an acquaintance. No, intimacy was much more a factor of my working and social relations with other RCAF members such as Juanishi Orosco, Armando Cid, Juan Carrillo, and of course Joe Serna. Many other relationships I don't care to go into here constituted the threads of a web of relationships, some of which are still active, many of which are now broken, in part because there have been so many deaths along the way. We don't last forever, do we? No. We die.

And we also move. The Montoyas moved from whichever Escabosa it was to the fields of California's Central Valley, and we, the Chés, for our part, have moved from the Central Valley to somewhere east of the East Mountains of New Mexico, not far from whichever Escabosa José and his family departed from so many years ago now.

The future for them was in California. The future for us has been in New Mexico.

Go figure. Somehow there is a pattern there. One that could be identified if our eyes were clearer and we had the means to see. There are many uncharted webs of relations come to think about it.

José never moved back to New Mexico. I have no idea if he ever wanted to. He came back many times, and he was a major influence on the development of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque where we attended the Poets Conclave in his honor last night. In other words, he never cut his ties to New Mexico, though he never returned to live here. Family relations are still here. His daughter, Gina, who lives in Los Angeles, pointed out that he'd bought a "little plot of ground" in New Mexico, and the family fully intended to do "something" there. In time. In due time. So. We can look forward to a 'Chuco center near the center of New Mexico... no? That would be wonderful.


When I was a kid living in one of the few racially mixed neighborhoods in Los Angeles at the time (a neighborhood that has become almost entirely Hispanicized -- is that a word? -- since then) 'Chucos were talked about in somewhat hushed tones at my neighbor's house. The Vegas. They were terrific people, very influential in my childhood, and I will never forget their warmth and their many kindnesses and the hot, fresh tortillas I had for lunch at their house on many a day, sometimes dipped in enchilada sauce, sometimes rolled up with meat and onions and chile. Or just plain with a little butter...

They would mention 'Chucos and the zoot suits and the riots in LA. During the War.

The War was the center of history, and LA was the center of the world. And so many things happened in the War and in LA to destroy Chicanismo. My neighbors, the Vegas, dared not speak Spanish in public, even then years after the War and the Riots, they only spoke English, because if they spoke Spanish they were afraid they would be deported or worse, because that's what happened to "greasers" and "beaners" in California back in the day. They were rounded up, put on trains and sent "back" to Mexico, whether or not they had any connection with the place. They were beat up, they were shot, they were denounced, they were marginalized. That's what Anglo Angelinos did to Mexicans, without a qualm.

So the Vegas were careful, never deviating from Anglo demands and expectations, except in their own home when they felt they were safe. And even then, they were careful.

I thought it was wrong, I thought it was cruel. There was no reason for them not to speak Spanish if they wanted to. At least I didn't think there was. There was no reason for them to hide their Catholic saints behind the lace at their windows, no reason for them not to pray and laugh and grow roses the way their ancestors had.

No reason at all.

It hurt no one for them to be Chicanos, a word they would never use.

José gave them something back. Whether they knew it or took it or no.

So we sat last night at the National Hispanic Cultural Center hearing poet after poet after poet laureate honor Jose Montoya and his legacy and his memory, and it was wonderful and warm and moving and almost giddy at times.

Jimmy Santiago Baca mentioned Sister Maya last night, but only in a rude way. I thought that was sad, that he could only see her rudely, for I think what she did helped enable what José did and both together did more for the poets laureate that have proliferated around the country ever since than perhaps even Jimmy Santiago Baca can realize.

It was a good day and night, filled with connections and insights and brilliance.


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