Syndic No. 21 Cover / Theme: Social Justice ∼ Social Injustice
Syndic Literary Journal

Social Justice ~ Malaquias Montoya: “A Voice for the Voiceless” by Bill Berkowitz

The Malaquias Montoya Syndic Project

Artist Malaquias Montoya~ Montgomery Mural

“My personal views on art and society were formed by my being born into that silent and voiceless humanity. Realizing later that it was not by choice that we remained mute but by the conscious effort of those in power, I realized that my art could only be that of protest – a protest against what I felt to be a death sentence.” ~ Malaquias Montoya

A Voice for the Voiceless

By Bill Berkowitz

Introduction

The art of Malaquías Montoya exposes viewers to uncomfortable truths. The woman on the bus on her way home after working a long day; the mother bent over in the fields picking cotton, and then rushing home to her children, preparing their meals and getting them ready for school the next day; the farmworker who had never imagined she’d be carrying the Huelga (strike) flag, striking for better wages, working conditions, and dignity.

Montoya’s art is explicitly political. “As a Chicano artist I feel a responsibility that all my art should be a reflection of my political beliefs—an art of protest,” he wrote in his short bio for a 2003 exhibit entitled One Struggle, Two Communities: Late 20th Century Political Posters of Havana, Cuba and the San Francisco Bay.

Montoya’s work has existed at the intersection of art and politics for close to 50 years. He understands his artistic identity as giving voice to a community that society has deemed silent and voiceless. “Realizing later that it was not by choice that we remained mute but by a conscious effort on the part of those in power, I realized that my art could only be that of protest—a protest against what I felt to be a death sentence,” he told me in an October 2018 interview.

To celebrate fifty years of Montoya’s powerful and poignant work, nine people – artists, activists, educators and archivists – have chosen one of Malaquias’s prints, posters, or other artwork, and have written a commentary about their choice.

Exhibit & Commentary

 

The Oppressor

Malaquias Montoya created two versions of a graphic in which the leaves of a maguey plant poke through holes in a U.S. flag while eyes peer through a barbed wire. One version, entitled The Oppressor, contains the words, “The oppressor, who oppresses, exploits and rapes by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.” The other version does not include the text and is entitled Si Se Puede, which shifts the emphasis to the power of the oppressed. Montoya explained that “I use the maguey plant as a symbol of strength. The plant and its power are the manifestation of the poor represented by the person looking out of the rectangular box.” But the U.S. flag? Does it simply represent the oppressor? Or might it suggest the contradictory nature of the U.S. as a nation of social inequality, racism, and imperialist arms, yet also of laws and formal liberties that occasionally facilitate the advances of movements for social justice?

~ Edward J. McCaughan, San Francisco State University Emeritus Professor of Sociology.

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Women Crossing

Spring, 2014: A humanitarian crisis emerged at the U.S./Mexico border as thousands of Central American asylum-seekers, especially women – mothers with infants and young children – and unaccompanied children. This northward surge of forcibly displaced women – primarily fleeing domestic and social violence at home – flooded the border, and the headlines.

Malaquias quickly responded with his 2014 painting, Women Crossing, which contains universally recognized images: a mother carrying her baby, and women crossing the barbed wire frontera. He captured the essence of thousands seeking redress, survival, and justice. Five years later, this movement remains alive in today’s family journeys and caravans.

His commitment to working class immigrant rights dates back to his early 1970s anti-deportation posters. In the 1980s, he designed pro-asylum posters for Salvadorans and Guatemalans seeking refuge from US-supported governmental persecution that fueled the region’s civil wars – the first wave of Central American forced migration.

Malaquias’ Gallery Statement eloquently describes posters/murals as “my other voice”.  “It is with this voice that I attempt to communicate, especially to that silent and often ignored populace of Chicano, Mexican, and Central American working class . . . ”

~ Susanne Jonas, University of California, Santa Cruz, Latin American & Latino Studies.

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La Madre

She looks out onto the world with a clear vision. Undaunted by her own suffering and by those who cast a veil of hopelessness across her dreams, she persists, striving for a better life. With bold strokes, La Madre tells me a story about the strength and power of women. Montoya often features horizontal bands of imagery in his art as well as references to religious themes. Here, his separate yet connected subjects feel like chapters in the narrative. A dramatic scene emerges below as an anguished figure strains for freedom against a tangle of barbed wire. In the sky above, a row of agave plants, their sculptural beauty edged with thorns, echoes the barbs below.

In the struggle for human rights, especially the plight of women world wide, Montoya has given us an inspirational heroine in La Madre, a mother whose vision of justice and equality remains resolute.

~ Artist Eve Steccati ~ www.evesteccati.com

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Mein Trumpf

Trump Tweets Malaquias Montoya:

“Montoya! You Creep! Take your fake art back to your shithole country! Shame on you! How dare you blaspheme our beautiful USA – USA! USA!! USA!!! – tell your Wetback rapist friends that ICE is coming to check their stinkin’ badges. You dogs! Speak American!  Our beautiful USA – the most powerful country in history –  will not  tolerate your bullshit art!  If you could read USA American you would know our beautiful Liberty statue says it all and don’t let your shithole caravans forget it!”

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

~ Commentary by LeRoy Chatfield, Publisher of Syndic Literary Journal

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Tierra Nuestra

 

Somewhere between the dream of Aztlan and the reality of history lies “Tierra Nuestra”. Montoya whose 2004 work looks where others have looked – the “Border” – shares a Chicano perspective on the subject, collapsing the space between history and the present, and sharing the revelation that we too are a people identified by, but no, “protected by treaty.

A Mexican figure playing the guitar, a partial image growing out of the ground with clothing mirroring the colors of the land and sky. There is always a skeleton hiding in the middle of every Mexican fiesta. I see one on the middle of the singer’s vest.

On the lower third portion of the print, there are prominent images of cactus with blood red tunas ready to burst. Nestled beneath the guitar, sits a mysterious dove sitting on top of the barbed wire. The top wire in this borderline is falling apart. Clearly this is not a real barrier, but more of a symbolic borderline. This curious dove seems mad, irritated with sharp edged wings like little machetes ready to fly.

What borderline exactly is this work depicting? The painting’s truth and power is the subtle inclusion of this repressed map that serves as the landscape. The 1847 Disturnell Map was used to establish the borders concluding the Mexican American war in 1848 in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo. Montoya is depicting, not the southern U.S./Mexico border, but the northern border of Aztlan.Red drops appear spilling from the guitar, across the sun, landing on Tierra Nuestra, where the bones of our ancestors are buried.

~ Manuel Gomez is a friend of Malaquias Montoya, and the author of Dancing With The Sun: The Artwork of Manuel Hernandez Trujillo.

♦       ♦       ♦

La Nueva Raza

“Intersectionality”, coined in the late 1980s and embraced by current activists, is not a new concept in movement circles. Disenfranchised communities often jointly built bridges across mechanisms of oppression. 1968-1969 gave us a crucial victory, the creation of ethnic studies programs. This poster was part of a series for the Third World Liberation Front at U.C. Berkeley, mirroring the seminal actions across the bay at San Francisco State College. The gender-neutral image on an electrifying split fountain background blasts chained black arm elevating “The New People”, symbolized by a brown baby who’ll surely see a better world. These were carried in demonstrations and sold to raise legal defense funds.

~ Lincoln Cushing is an archivist and author who documents, catalogs, and disseminates oppositional political culture of the late 20th century. ~ www.docspopuli.org

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El Picket Sign

Malaquias’ painting “El Picket Sign” portrays the gritty reality of the strike. He puts the words of the song on the sign, and I have always loved the words of that song. While it may not have the elegance and drama of “La Huelga en General” or the spirituality of “De Colores” – other songs we sang throughout the farm workers movement – it does have the determination that keeps the woman in the painting on a picket-line outside a grape field all day, and her knowledge that it’s not just one day or one picket-line – it’s for “all my life”. Malaquias is an extraordinary artist who knows what this determination is like, who’s been there, and who can put it on canvas. He gives us a woman whose face has the beauty of its hard lines, a working Latina. Behind her he’s put all the signs that carry the words that have such meaning and resonance – Huelga, Strike, Union La Fuerza. He’s telling our history, and like the best artist-historian, he’s telling it from the bottom, where history is really made – on the picket line.

~ David Bacon was a union organizer for two decades and today works as a writer and photographer. His most recent book is In the Fields of the North.

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Poster: Benefit Olga Talamante

One of Malaquias Montoya unique artistic talents is the ability to capture despair and hope within one image. Strength in the face of powerlessness, vision while blinded. A poster he made while a member of the Olga Talamante Defense Committee (OTDC) for a benefit event in the San Francisco Mission District in May 1975, is  beautiful and powerful. It educated the public about the plight of political prisoners, blindfolded as they were interrogated and tortured, and it pointed the way forward with strength and determination. The bare hands tearing down the barbed wires representing the pain felt by family members and supporters working to free me from the Argentine prison where I spent 16 months. The poster hung in many homes and storefronts throughout the Bay Area and beyond, and in the Oakland home of my friends, Ed McCaughan, Bob Barber and Peter Baird, three of the principal organizers of the OTDC. The works of Malaquias, and other artists, were essential in helping to mobilize thousands of people to support the OTDC. Art saves lives.

~ Olga Talamante served as Executive Director of the Chicana Latina Foundation (CFL) from 2003 until 2018. During the mid-seventies, she became a political prisoner in Argentina, spending 16 months in prison. She was released In March 1976. She is an organizer and activist in the Chicano LGBTQ Women’s and Immigrant Rights Movement.

♦       ♦       ♦

Aventura con Verduras!

“Aventuras con Verduras!” features a group of vegetables playing instruments. It’s not my father’s best poster by far, but I find it brilliant. The imagery reflects my father’s humor – the tomato wearing a bandana, the jalpeno tandem playing the drums – which is a huge part of the man I know but a sensibility that doesn’t often make its way into his art. The poster is also proof of my father’s humility, his workman’s ethic. No commission is beneath him. He views being an artist as a privilege, un don, a gift. From storefront window murals and family birthday decorations to posters like this one for a community health initiative, my father has always willingly and tirelessly shared himself and his artistry. Not exactly a political poster, this work nevertheless reflects my father’s politics: committed activism, especially over the long haul, is composed of these small, selfless acts of giving.

~ Maceo Montoya is an associate professor in the Chicana/o Studies Department at UC Davis and the youngest son of Malaquias Montoya. His most recent publication is Chicano Movement for Beginners, a work of graphic nonfiction.

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Program Notes for Malaquias Montoya Syndic No. 21 Project ~ by Bill Berkowitz

(1) Bill Berkowitz is an Oakland-based freelance writer and former UFW organizer who has been tracking and reporting on right-wing movements for more then 25 years. His extensive profile of Malaquías Montoya can be found at https://nacla.org/news/2019/02/17/“what-better-function-art-time-voice-voiceless”-work-chicano-artist-malaqu%C3%ADas.

(2) Edward J. McCaughan, San Francisco State University Emeritus Professor of Sociology, author of Art and Social Movements: Cultural Politics in Mexico and Aztlán (Duke University Press, 2012).

(3) Susanne Jonas taught Latin American & Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz for 24 years, and is the author/editor of 22 books: the most recent, co-authored with Nestor Rodríguez, is Guatemala-U.S. Migration: Transforming Regions (2015).

(4) Artist Eve Steccati ~ www.evesteccati.com 

(5) LeRoy Chatfield, Publisher of Syndic Literary Journal, longtime farmworker organizer.

(6) Manuel Gomez is a friend of Malaquias Montoya, and the author of Dancing With The Sun: The Artwork of Manuel Hernandez Trujillo.

(7) Lincoln Cushing, author of Revolucion! Cuban Poster Art, and Agitate! Educate! Organize! – American Labor Posters, is an archivist who documents, catalogs, and disseminates oppositional political culture of the late 20th century. ~ www.docspopuli.org

(8) David Bacon was a union organizer for two decades and today works as a writer and photographer. His most recent book is In the Fields of the North / En los campos del norte (COLEF / UC Press, 2017).

(9) Olga Talamante served as Executive Director of the Chicana Latina Foundation (CFL) from 2003 until 2018. During the mid-seventies, she became a political prisoner in Argentina, spending 16 months in prison. She was released in March 1976, due to an extraordinary grass-roots campaign. She is an organizer and activist in the Chicano LGBTQ Women’s and Immigrant Rights Movement.

(10) Maceo Montoya is an associate professor in the Chicana/o Studies Department at UC Davis and the youngest son of Malaquias Montoya. His most recent publication is Chicano Movement for Beginners, a work of graphic nonfiction. 

 

 

 

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