El Maestro Jose Montoya -- R.I.P.

Yesterday Jose Montoya, my poet guide, the first poet I ever heard read, the one who carried his art, his voice, his indigenous teachings with dignity and depth, passed on. He was considered the Godfather of Chicano Poetry. His most famous poem, “El Louie,” vibrantly related the life of a Pachuco from the Central Valley with all the Chicano slang (calo) and humor. Jose tapped into the poetic gene of my soul when I was 18. I was still using heroin, but also on the verge of a breakthrough in my life. I was studying to be a revolutionary thinker, leader and writer. I was looking for a way out of the mess I had created since I was 11 years old in gangs, on drugs, doing violence and spending nights in jail. I happened—the reasons now ring with destiny and alignment—to get invited to a poetry event where Jose was going to read with famed African American poet David Henderson and Puerto Rican maestro Pedro Pietri. This was in Berkeley CA, 1973, where I had flown in after I won honorable mention in the Quinto Sol Literary Awards for poetic vignettes I had written called “Barrio Expression.” I didn’t know what I was doing with my writing, but after hearing Jose, David and Pedro, I knew the “read” road I was embarking on. On stage, with mic and lived-in voices, Jose, David and Pedro woke me up from a dark sleep. They slapped me across the face with metaphors. They had language that swam in a sea of images, ideas and emotions. They were guerillas fighters without guns. Storytellers about the “other” America, the true America, the one with Indian mothers’ hands in corn flour, soul food on street corner grills, and Boricua decimas from inside phone booths. I met Jose again in the early 1980s when I was director of the Los Angeles Latino Writers Association and we sponsored readings at the Self Help Art Center in East Los Angeles. We invited Chicano writers such as Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gary Soto and Jose to share their works with a community hungry for our stories, our poems. I only saw Jose intermittently over the years, but once a few years ago in Sacramento we read together in a kind of homage to our connection as Chicano writers, two generations (Jose was born in the early 1930s), pushing forward traditions that spanned thousands of years. Jose was active in the Circulo de Hombres Nobles (the Circle of Noble Men), which for the first time I was able to attend one of their retreats with my oldest son Ramiro this past August in Jolon CA. Jose was a teacher of indigenous ways, which also grabbed my spirit, on the Red Road, and I’ve been part of this in a serious and profound way for twenty years now. His mantra of “La Locura Cura” (the craziness cures) is reminiscent of my dear Tia Chucha (Maria de Jesus Rodriguez), the creative soul in my family, for which I named Tia Chucha Press and Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural, the cultural arts center and bookstore in Sylmar CA I helped create. She was called crazy a few times, but her musical and poetic renderings opened up my own heart to the positive creative craziness we all carry. Jose’s spirit hangs over all of us who ever took to pen and paper; who ever waged war with words or drawings or music. I send love and many prayers to his family, to my friend Richard Montoya, his artistic/actor son, and to all Jose’s many friends, camaradas, mentees, and students. Que en paz descanses, carnal. c/s

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