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NHCC honors José Montoya

Poet José Montoya, center, is shown with Tomas Atencio, left, and Chuy Martinez of the city of Albuquerque’s Cultural Affairs Department in 2008 when Montoya was keynote speaker at the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s National Latino Writers Conference. (Courtesy of the National Hispanic Cultural Center)

Poet José Montoya, center, is shown with Tomas Atencio, left, and Chuy Martinez of the city of Albuquerque’s Cultural Affairs Department in 2008 when Montoya was keynote speaker at the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s National Latino Writers Conference. (Courtesy of the National Hispanic Cultural Center)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The National Hispanic Cultural Center’s Poets Conclave will celebrate the life of one of the most influential figures in Latino history, New Mexico’s José Montoya.

Born in Escobosa, N.M., Montoya moved to California with his family to pick grapes. He vowed that farm work would not be his destiny, becoming a college professor, poet and artist.

The event has already lured about a dozen poets from across the Southwest, many of them poet laureates, said Carlos Vasquez, NHCC director of history and literary arts.

“We chose the other writers because they have some sense and sensibility of what this guy meant,” he explained. “They find value in it.”

The invited poets include: Laurie Ann Guerrero, poet laureate of San Antonio, Texas; Carmen Tafolla, former San Antonio, Texas, poet laureate; Albert Rios, Arizona poet laureate; Alejandro Murguia, San Francisco poet laureate; Levi Romero, New Mexico’s centennial poet laureate; Hakim Bellamy, former Albuquerque poet laureate, as well as local poets Estevan Arellano, E.A. Mares, Richard Vargas and Dementria Martinez. Each will read from his or her work, as well as a piece from Montoya’s collected works.

Montoya died in Sacramento, Calif., last September.

One of the most widely influential Chicano bilingual poets, Montoya galvanized the Chicano movement of the 1960s. He was best known for his activism with the California farm workers’ movement and as a founder of the Royal Chicano Air Force, a group of writers, poets and visual/performance artists. The group’s original name was Rebel Chicano Art Front. People often mistook the initials for Royal Canadian Air Force.

“Somebody mistakenly called them the Royal Chicano Air Force, so they took it on,” even donning leather bomber jackets, Vasquez said. “They put up murals and read poetry and pushed the farm workers’ movement.”

Montoya’s poetry mixed English, Spanish and barrio slang, exploring themes of struggle and injustice. A tall and handsome hipster, he also celebrated the zoot-suit era of the 1940s when he and other pachucos wore suits with high-waisted, wide-legged, tight-cuffed pants and long coats with padded shoulders and wide lapels.

“El Louie,” about a San Jose pachuco and popular local figure, is probably his most famous and anthologized poem. Louie’s life disintegrates after he returns home from the Korean War and clashes with white-dominated California. Hocking his combat medals for alcohol and drugs, he dies alone in squalid conditions.

Montoya provided the bridge between the 1940s and ’50s and the movements of the 1960s, Vasquez added. He spent 27 years as a professor of art, photography and education at California State University. The NHCC has CDs of both Montoya’s poetry and music.

The Poet’s Conclave will take place in lieu of the National Latino Writer’s Conference.

“We haven’t had our national writer’s conference in two years because of budget problems,” Vasquez said, “and we want to stay alive in people’s minds.”

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