Completing Circles of Life

Jose Montoya is a pioneering Chicano poet whose legacy surpasses the Sacramento community where he lives and where he's much beloved. He's been honored in Mexico, Europe, and throughout the United States for his writings and his art. His poetry collection, "In Formation" (Chusma Press) is a classic. The father of Richard Montoya of the reknowned Chicano comedy group, Culture Clash, Jose has also planted seeds of consciousness, indigenous knowledge, literature, and community for future generations.

I first met Jose Montoya when I was 18 years old. I was just out of jail, using heroin, and sporting long Indian-style hair. I was inbetween two worlds -- the street life of my barrio, a street life I had known since age 7, and the movimiento, the Chicano movement for dignity, rights, land, and justice.

I probably could have gone either way at that time. One of the events that pulled me further into the movement, and a lifetime of revolutionary study, work, and writing, was connecting with Jose Montoya.

I was in Berkeley, CA (the first time I ever flew in a plane -- quite harrowing, despite have been shot at, having ODed, and jailed) after winning honorable mention in the Quinto Sol Chicano Literary Prize. The winners were Rolando Hinojosa Smith, another veteran Chicano expositer, and the late Estella Portillo Tramblay, a master storyteller.

I attended a poetry reading that featured Jose along with the Puerto Rican master poet Pedro Pietri and the African American word shaman David Henderson. It was the first poetry reading I had ever attended. I sat in the audience totally enthralled. I felt the energy, the spirit source of words and wounds, and I was changed forever. I didn't know then that my life would follow this thread. But somehow these voices and verses pulled me into my present life's passions and purposes (I now read all over the country, Latin America, and Europe).

That was 1973. I saw Jose again in the early 1980s when he read as part of the LA Latino Writers Association's reading series at Self-Help Graphics in East LA (I was director of the LALWA for a short time). Then about three years ago, Jose read at Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural -- the bookstore, cafe, art gallery, performance space I helped create in the San Fernando Valley in December 2001.

Then as life tends to do in the process of completing circles, on May 19 at the Sutter Cancer Center in Sacramento, organized by my friend, the poetry healing doctor, Chip Spann, I read with Jose Montoya in a special evening that brought a standing room only crowd.

To say the least, it was magical. Jose's voice still resonates with years of barrio stories and images and truths. We had a kind of sparring -- Jose reading a couple of poems and I followed in a round robin of back-and-forth, give-and-take exchanges. We didn't rehearse, but it seemed as if we had been doing this for years. And perhaps in our spirits we have been. The elder and mentor, the teacher and student.

Gracias, Jose, tlazhokamati for being there in my life when I most needed this sage light to guide me. And thanks to Chip Spann and his crew who made this last event happen.


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