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Richard Montoya: Artist with a Cause

- Written by Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino

Find more firsthand accounts of the campaign against Prop 187 here.

The performance group Culture Clash began in 1984 in the Mission District of San Francisco. Richard Montoya, one of the co-founding members (along with Ric Salinas, Herbert Sigüenza and three others), came from parents who were actively involved in the Farm Workers movement in the 1970s and ‘80s and sees himself as a “foot soldier” of the broader fight against racism in the United States, using political theater to advocate for his ideas.

Today, he is a filmmaker and accomplished playwright. He is co-director and writer of “Almaraz: Playing with Fire,” a documentary about the life of Mexican American artist and proponent of the Chicano streets arts movement, Carlos Almaraz.

When Proposition 187 came on the California political stage, Montoya, Sigüenza and Salinas had already been performing their brand of political theater in small venues.

“Our political humor came out of a very fiery Chicano theatrical movement, and it was prevalent in Northern California with Teatro Campesino and various companies,” Montoya remembers.

But then the troupe moved to Los Angeles at a moment that he describes as “quite explosive and still figuring out what the ‘90s were going to be, who we were.”

In L.A., they found a larger metropolis, and they were able to connect with an audience that "also included Anglos and African-Americans.”

When some executives from Fox Television happened to see one of their shows at a theater in Santa Monica Boulevard, they were offered a T.V. show: 31 episodes on Fox Channel 11.

They started in 1993, the same year that farmworker leader César Chávez died. But the group was already working its political humor in the context of the emergence of right-wing talk radio (Rush Limbaugh was already a popular figure), border vigilante groups and a demographic change — ingredients for a brewing storm that would hit California hard the very next year.

Although Montoya was not an immigrant, and neither were his parents (his dad was poet José Montoya and his mom a school teacher, Mary Montoya), he realized that the sentiments that propelled the initiative known as Proposition 187, as well as vigilante efforts at the border, could be directed to anyone with or without papers.

"There was this focused effort coming, if not at us, at our cousins, our primos, our paisanos from Mexico. It doesn't matter that we are U.S. Chicanos or if we had a U.S. passport, we would all be rounded up at the border; this anti-human fervor could affect anyone,” Montoya recalls.

The show lasted merely one season “until Rupert Murdoch caught up with us,” he says.

They decided to use the show to “ignite something that would get the U.S. Latino kids enraged about this (initiative), get them going, get them to stand up and say, ‘We can't tolerate this anti-immigrant fervor.”

“We were doing everything we could to humanize the Mexican worker, to give it heart, to have people look at the leaf blower and the orange salesman and the busboy and the maid and having people look at them differently,” he adds.

Not everyone understood. They were criticized for presenting "stereotypical" depictions of the Latino immigrant. "Some were upset and argued we were perpetrating "negative images" of the community. For us, these were not negative; we viewed it quite the opposite; we see these people are daily superheroes that are never looked at, that are invisible in the metropolis.”

In the 31 episodes, he says, "We got away with murder.”

"Every week, we got to attack Pete Wilson and his cronies, and it was a hell of a lot of fun. We put a lot into it,” he recalls. “We were just taking it to the man, and it was uneasy. It was uneasy for the technicians and the producers and people making the show. ‘Who the hell is Dolores Huerta? Who is Gloria Molina?’ This is what the producers were asking us. We're like, these are important people in our community, and they need to be on the show.”

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