Richard Montoya: Artist with a Cause | Link TV
Richard Montoya: Artist with a Cause
Richard Montoya: My name is Richard Montoya, and I work with a performance troop called Culture Clash. We've been around since the mid '80s. Lately, I've been making films as a filmmaker, and also a writer, a playwright, and a social justice activist, and all-around troublemaker, that is my current position.
Early '90s was quite explosive and still figuring out what the '90s were going to be, but we had just moved here from the San Francisco area, and we found something that we really didn't have up there, and that was an audience, and a large audience open to our brand of political humor that had come out of a very fiery Chicano Teatro movement, and it was prevalent in Northern California with Teatro Campesino, and various companies but we were now at the center of this urban metropolis, and connecting with an audience that also included Anglos, and African Americans, and there was just-- we were able to strike a chord and find a place where we could be and deal with some of the issues that were going on at that particular time.
We were enjoying a bit of success and somehow, some executives from Fox Television happened to come to one of our smallest little shows in Santa Monica Boulevard, amongst the transgender community, we were doing a show there. The Actors' Gang was next door. We were doing our thing, they were doing their thing. I remember, a very young Jack Black running around back there, but lo and behold, there's some Fox executives that come to this crazy show. That I believe Neil diamond was at. Also, it was a 60-seat theater at little Santa Monica Boulevard, and we're doing this crazy Carpa Clash, Brechtian political clown show, and somehow it's connecting with an audience.
Before you know it, we had 31 episodes in front of us at that time. We were doing theater. We were just embarking on television career that we had no idea how long it would go. We were also interested in these political rock concerts at the same time. It was very much an explosive kind of period, culturally, and really trying to figure out who the hell we were.
Well, when you're a young playwright and you're doing good, you get invited to other cities to perform your wares. We were in Miami, we were in the Lower East Side of New York. We were in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, these huge places, and those places were just as fascinating, if not more fascinating, than the work that we were doing. Our work was very much centered on Chicano identity, and that can take you only so far, and then you have to start exploring those people around you and that's exactly what happened when we were in San Diego, doing research for a brand new play called Bordertown.
We found ourselves on the border-- on both sides of the border in San Diego and Tijuana, and began to look at the region much differently as Tijuana, just an appendage, a part of, a lesser twin sister of San Diego. We began to get more sucked into the complexities of Tijuana and crossing the border at night, with border crossers one night, being with the border patrol the next night, being with an activist group of lawyers, and people trying to ensure the safety of border crossers. Being with the Latter-day Saints, trying to bring in souls to their church, and this wild thing going on at the border and at the same time, the militias were ramping up very, very deeply.
San Diego, lest we forget, is Pete Wilson country. It is Deukmejian country. It is John Birch country. There was a very red right-wing aspect to parts of San Diego, very moneyed, and already at that time, Operation Light up the Border was happening. All these militia groups that were forming in and around the border, that fascinated us, we didn't quite get it. We had to submerge ourselves into that culture. We found ourselves on this right-wing radio show of Roger Hedgecock who's well-known in San Diego.
It was a shock to the system and our naivete began to go away that even though we're articulate US, Latino, Chicanos, there is this fervor, this xenophobic fear of what was coming north from south of the border. As artists, we had our place of privilege that we could come and go with our US passports, but each night we left the Tijuana to come back, it would mess with our minds in good ways. We had to find a way to use our expression to deal with it. Poetry, and song, and music, and theater, and even using film to try to understand the region and why so much attention had been focused on it at that particular time, and looking back, much of the anti-immigration fervor has only grown, but it was really catalyzing.
At that moment, it was really coming together in sometimes dangerous and deadly ways. As an artist, a playwright, that prides themselves on journalistic tactics, ethnographic in nature, gathering stories, there's no other way to do it then to be out there in the middle of the night and asking people, "Why are you crossing?" "Why are you trying to stop them from crossing?"
You find yourself in some-- can be sometimes some dangerous situations, but somehow we'd get through it. We weren't that adept at guerilla warfare. We were stumbling our way sometimes through it, but I think people saw an earnestness that we were-- wanted to find out who was living in the safe houses in the Tijuana. Those children look homeless. That young girl is 14, and she's going to cross the border tonight with a bunch of men? We had to go and find out for ourselves what was happening.
Well, we had lost Cesar at '93, Chavez, and that was monumental. That was an earthquake, and that hurt. The farmworkers were very much in our thoughts, in our minds, and around that time, the pre-legislation, the fervor, in San Diego, the Light Up the Border, the right-wing radio, the Rush Limbaughs, this thing was cooking and with the Republican Party, and with Pete Wilson, who we lovingly would refer to as Pete [bleep] Wilson, even on our TV show, but there was this very focused effort coming. If not at us, our cousins, our primos, our primas, our paisanos from Mexico.
Part of us was like the audacity, not to separate ourselves that we're US Chicanos, this has nothing to do with us. It doesn't matter. We all would be rounded up at the border. There was an anti-- this anti-human fervor could affect anyone. This is what's happening right now, when a shooter can walk into Walmart and go Mexican hunting, there was a kind of Mexican hunting back then. It doesn't differentiate if I live in a three-story home in Diamond Bar, Southern California, or if I live on a golf course in Tijuana, the anger and the focus is still pointed at you.
I remember finding out that there was this measure coming, and the idea is, how are we going to mobilize and what are we going to do? What is the role of the artists? What can we do? Are we just payasos? Is it time to send in the clowns? One thing was clear that this did affect immigrants, and the farmworkers historically had always been immigrants, but this was also-- this was an inner-city brawl. This was a fight, a street fight that now had to go down in the urban centers of California.
We had to take what we learned in the rural farm-working communities, and we had to bring that, and we had to ignite something that would get the US Latino kids, get them enraged about this, get them going, get them to stand up and say, "We can't tolerate this anti-immigrant fervor."
That took some doing because it was a rather upwardly mobile moment in time. We were doing pretty good in the fat '80s, we were doing pretty good in the '90s. It was the decade of the Hispanic. Suddenly the decade of the Hispanic, the '80s, smacked in the face with, "We don't want you here. We don't want your kind here." For me, being a person born in San Diego, that included me.
I found a whole lot of artists that that didn't buy into that separation. That's their problem, that's for Mexican immigrants. No, that's our grandparents, that's our people, that's our tios, that's our-- For those of us that were just going to Tijuana for tacos and Calle Revolucion, and for beers, and cheap Tecates, this this was a smack in the face. This was reality time and that we had to take the battle a little bit deeper and further, and really out of the farm working fields, and onto the very streets and how were we going to do that without knowing any better?
We were going to use everything at our disposal and that happens to be the time we were on television. What we didn't realize is that the TV station we were on was owned by Rupert Murdoch, so that was kind of fun, but we were able to get away with several episodes in almost every single episode of Culture Clash. At the same time In Living Color was coming about.
We were doing everything we could to humanize the Mexican worker, to give a 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. Humor seemed to be a ticket that we could win over an audience by making this somehow fun, and funnier. That's called satire and that's been around for a very, very long time. We were using this Brechtian tool of satire, and this was the greatest thing we could do at the time. We weren't politicians, but we could take our toolbox and take it to the streets.
I remember the large 187 march making its way down Brooklyn Avenue, it's wasn't called Cesar Chavez yet, right by the train station at sunset. What was tens of thousands of people snaking, and there's a tunnel right there on Cesar Chavez which was Brooklyn. We saw thousands of people coming out of a tunnel and there was a little a bridge. We took the United Farm Worker flag that we had, the largest one in the world. We waited and waited for the people to come out of the tunnel and we dropped that Farm Worker flag in solidarity for farmworkers, yes, for Mexican immigrants. That moment it stopped the march.
I remember Jesse Jackson, Dolores Huerta, the leadership labor workers, politicians, people stopping and looking up at us, and us just proudly dropping that flag. What that does is it's not necessarily fun and games, but it's the expression of the artists doing everything they can to help define a moment from the cultural side, because it was a cultural war. There was something cultural about this hatred towards brown people. There was something that wasn't just to be debated amongst politicians.
It wasn't just a Hispanic problem. It was our problem and we had to do what we could to help define this particular moment. With help by people like Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Hill, Maldita Vecindad from Mexico City, Tijuana No!, and Culture Clash, who had some bit of power because on our debut show on Fox, the seven o'clock hour on Saturday, we had beat Jeopardy, which was a juggernaut. The ratings of Jeopardy were so high, and I think we came out with a 7.1 share on our very first show. It took us a while to understand but that was power. We were taking that power that we had and we were trying to give it back to the people.
It took a little while for Rupert Murdoch to catch on. We had Dolores Huerta on the show, we had Luis Valdez on the show, Eddie Olmos, Jimmy Smits, Suicidal Tendencies, Lalo Alcaraz, Chicano Secret Service, Aztlan Nation, Aztlan Underground. We were a weekly broad side of political television, that we just simply did not know better but that's what we were going to do and we were going to help express this moment of our own outrage, and do everything we could to make Pete Wilson the clown.
We had lasers coming out of his eyes. We had him putting the club you put on your car, had them put on the border, the border club, and all these weekly episodic things that we were doing. I remember travelling at that time, and being either applauded or people looking at us like, "Oh, you guys are those bad guys on television." We just didn't know better. That's what Chicano Teatro gave us. Gave us that that confidence, I guess, or that that desire to, not just be political, but to enter the fray, even if it meant losing our television show. Ultimately, it did mean losing our television show and that was okay. That was okay. We did what we had to do at that moment.
One of the questions we have to look at is did we help the movement or did we hurt? What is the value of the visual? What is the value of the street performance in the streets. To me, it has tremendous value. It's not violence, it's artistic, it's expression, but Occupy America had to answer the same questions. As we look to 2020, it's the same question. Do we take to the streets? Do we take to the streets and march? The women's marches, the Black Lives Matter marches. The answer to me is clear, but I'm still a little bit, not haunted, but hoping that we helped.
The jury might still be out on that but these movements need definition, they need expression at the time that they're happening, and you have to be in them. That part felt good. The measure passed, but what we did in the meantime was get to people to think about the ballot box, and how we might fight the next fight, the next round. Jesus, 25 years later, the fight has escalated and we're right back to where we started, but we've got some tools and we're still providing, we're still doing our part as Culture Clash.
As a playwright and a filmmaker, I'm still doing my part to bring the expression, and to bring the definition, and to help people understand the idea of empathy for our brothers and sisters, and our moms and dads south of the border.
That has taken me to the safe houses in Nogales, recently. That has taken me to the office of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, to sit with him for hours, and to talk to him, and get on the other side of enemy lines, and continue to cross that border back and forth. In the heart of cartel country, where I have negotiated with cartel members that, "Hey, I'm not here looking for a good time. I'm here in the cold silver light of day, and I want to know why this 15-year-old Mexican kid was shot and killed by US border patrol agents." The fervor, the xenophobia, the ratcheting up, the Stephen Miller, the bile that's coming out.
There's signs of hope, man. There's signs of hope. I don't know one Mexican immigrant that's facing impeachment at the moment. This is relevant. This is relevant for a nation, a goddamn nation built on immigrants, that suddenly, we cannot tolerate one more Mexican. I've been in the tents, and talking to the lawyers, and the civil rights people. This is what our current work is all about, is trying to dissect for a moment, the idea of ripping children away from parents, for example.
These are crucial questions that have only grown in intensity since '93, '94. I feel like a soldier. I feel like a foot soldier, and maybe this next time, my work will be in the streets, fighting the battle and recognizing when it is a street battle. When you have to pull out the things, and the knives, and not necessarily to do violence, but to sharpen the work, so that it's critical, and it's social justice at the core of it, but surrounded by lots of humor, and amazing stuff like music. There might be a way that we could win the battle this time.
We might lose the war, but we're a tenacious people. It's a frightening moment again. You drop your child off at school, and you want to make sure that ICE agents aren't there waiting for his classmates or his classmate's parents. I can talk my way out of that. I'm a US-born, highly articulate son of a [bleep], I can talk my way out of it, but I've seen parents having to talk their way out of law enforcement. We do whatever we can to assist and to help, but what has happened in El Paso, at that Walmart, is more than a wake-up call. Yet again, it could go into the abyss before we go to the light, and we are all hoping that we can pull this out and move into the light.
187 really messed with your head, because on one hand, my dad was a Korean War veteran, he went to the Navy, I was born in a naval hospital. There's that one side of you that thinks it's a great country. It's America. It's home of the free, land of the brave, and to a degree, you've bought into that because your parents are educated, and they served in the military. Mom's a teacher, dad is a professor, and then this feeling that, "My God, it's not quite my home." They don't quite want us here.
No matter how many times we try to convince them that, "We're just like you," or a hot dog wrapped in a tortilla, there's nothing more American than that. We grew up on I Love Lucy and Cantinflas, Peter Paul & Mary, and Trio Los Panchos. We had peanut butter and jelly quesadillas, and quesadillas with no cheese, and couldn't speak Spanish that well. We love Morrissey. We're always trying to ingratiate ourselves with how American we are and sometimes it just feels like America just doesn't want you here.
It's just having our eyes wide open, and I think that there is a place for the artists, and the cultural work to be done right alongside the political work. I have been told, and I've seen for myself where the artist can actually carry the conversation, sometimes a little bit further. When political debates collapse, and things shut down, the artists can continue to work and get a message out there. That message for us was one of humanity, and of justice for our Mexican brothers and sisters.
Big Top Locos was a perfect example of bringing in all the issues that were really on fire at the time. The image of the farmworker image or revolutionary ode to Che, our Mexican brothers and sisters. Big Top Locos was this huge concert. It must have been the biggest mosh pit in LA history because of Rage Against the Machine, and because of Tijuana No!, and Cypress Hill. This was a concert that brought together the themes of the Zapatistas and Chiapas, the 187 fervor.
Also, we wanted people not to forget about a Native American brother that was sitting in Leavenworth prison named Leonard Peltier. We brought the Native Americans in, the Mexicans in, the Chicanos in, and all the crazy white kids from LA that already knew who Rage Against the Machine was, before we knew who Rage Against the Machine was, and this explosive concert that was allowed to be, at the Olympic Auditorium parking lot. Again, this is what I mean by the street brawl. This is what I mean by we had always honored Cesar's non-violent message, but there are times you have to crank the music up to 11.
You have to jump in the middle of that mosh pit, and you have to brush up against your humanity. You have to take a few blows and a few hits, but you come out of that with this strange kind of clarity, or some solidarity with your brothers and sisters. You're taking a stand and you're saying, "The status quo, we're not going with it. We're standing here for immigrants, we're standing here for human rights, we're placing ourselves in a certain kind of danger, so that we can get the story right. We can be ourselves and be authentic."
That's sometimes hard for politicians to do. Politicians have to be many things to many people. The artist has to decide that, "I'm going to do this and take this route." When you answer the call, you find yourself in the middle of one of the most dangerous mosh pits you ever imagined you might see in Los Angeles, on a blacktop, at midnight, surrounded by the LAPD, but allowing us to do our thing. Zack de la Rocha and Rage Against the Machine is just putting on the afterburners.
That energy helps to catapult you to the next thing, and we raised some money, and we lost more money than we raised, but we were able to raise some awareness and get young people excited about a process that, look, if they didn't want to register to vote, you could go pass out information, you could pass out little flyers, you could take to the street culture, and help to disseminate information, bring people in.
In that regard, what you might see as a failure then, a few years later, looking back seeing perhaps failure, but some great things came out of the failure. Movements, other little movements, organization, data that we could rely on, and mobilize, and be that Occupy California, that Occupy Aztlan, before the Occupy movement because we could mobilize and we could move around. Be it Berkeley or the Bay Area, or Seattle or Portland or Tijuana, or The Zocalo in Mexico City.
We could be there and take large groups of people with us, and this is the cultural cachet. This is the transaction that we get when groups get as big and as respected as Rage Against the Machine, as Maná, as other groups. In particular for me, the groups that had something, not necessarily something political to say, but the groups that were raising the stakes on, "This can't just be a beautiful concert at the Hollywood Bowl. This has to be something a little bit more grittier and real and reflect what's happening in the society," not a disconnect of, "We're going to do a musical theater or we're just doing a comedy show tonight."
I do remember back then, people were not always happy that we were mixing politics and entertainment. For us, they were inextricable, they were connected. If you're on TV, you use that. Not everyone can do that, and I understand that. Not everybody chooses to do that, and that's to be respected. We were just young enough and dumb enough to not give a damn and say, "You know what? Every week we got to attack Pete Wilson and his cronies."
It was a hell of a lot of fun and we put a lot into it. We didn't end up rich millionaire TV stars for that one little shiny moment, there were three Chicano guys that came on your TV every Saturday at seven o'clock. Two were Salvadorian and one was Chicano, but by osmosis we were Chicano. We were just taking it to the man. We were giving it to them. It was uneasy for the technicians, and the producers, and people making the show. Like what the hell. Who the hell's Dolores Huerta? And it's who's Gloria Molina? This is what the producers are asking us. We're like these are important people our community and they need to be on the show.
I would hope that there would be many more Culture Clash groups coming behind us. That there would be many more Latinos on television. That didn't quite happen. We are still fighting the good fight. We're still fighting the glass ceilings and the xenophobia. Hollywood tends to pick one or two acceptable stars, but I tell you, I feel very hopeful and it's just the continuum, the battle continues. 187 is as alive today as it as it was then. It's in a different form. It looks like Stephen Miller now, and Steven Bannon, and Donald Trump but it is right before us right now and we won't get fooled again.
One of our most successful television sketches was taking the American game show genre, reality TV show genre, game show, and put some immigrants at the border. The game, the TV show is can the immigrants cross over from Mexico into the US. They have to go against some very muscular he-men and he-women to get by. We made a game show out of it. Doña Flora, Señora, she manages to escape the tunnel of rats and the electric fence and the two American border gladiators. It's called American Border Gladiators, to in fact cross over with her shoes kicking and climbing over the border and she makes it, and her reward is a green card.
I remember that sketch and I remember some people being very upset about it, but we just didn't give a damn. It was funny. It was Funny or Die before Funny or Die and we just thought this was hilarious. I've seen versions of that same exact sketch on Rubber Chicken. I've seen a lot of our work re-morph and reconstitute into other-- which is all fine. It needs to come into the next decade. It's not upsetting to us to see that people borrowed from that work because there's such a gleeful joy and rambunctiousness that says, this is as good as any In Living Color sketch. This is as good as any SNL sketch.
Was it seen as far and wide? Maybe not, but we were pouring everything in into that, and at the same time making superheroes. Not just humanizing the leaf blower, and the guy selling the oranges on the side of the freeway, and the busboy, but actually making superheroes out of them that they're called upon by the city authorities, the city fathers, the city commissioner. We need the Mex Men, call the Mex Men on the line. Get those guys on the telephone, we need to get them. There's a horrible thing happening to our city. Who can we rely on, who can we trust? Kind of like the Ghostbusters, the Mex Men. We made superheroes out of these guys. Fighting all manner of crime and bad guys.
No one had ever done that before. I don't recall, being a student of film and television, that anyone was able really to get away with that. The criticism was hard and heavy. I remember George Lopez was not a big fan of our show and that's fine. Differences of opinion. Other pundants, Hispanics, were upset that we were portraying negative images. That every Latino image on television, of which there were few, had to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a cop.
We weren't getting those roles anyway, so we just said well let's just be who we are on television. Well, you're perpetrating negative images of a leaf blower guy, and a maid, and a single mother, and a street vendor. We're like, "No it's not negative. It's actually-- We view it quite opposite. We see these people as daily superheroes that are never looked at, that are invisible in the metropolis. We brought them from the background into the foreground."
It was a hell of a lot of fun man, while it lasted. We got away with murder. If we had toned things down, we might have gotten another season, but we get these little chances. 31 episodes. That was something. We were present in the atmosphere. We were in the airwaves at this critical time of 187. I remember a few years later, after us, House of Buggin' came out, John Leguizamo's show, it was six episodes. The I Love Lucy shows are 38 episodes in all. When you think about that, 31 episodes was quite a feat.
I remember the day Dolores Huerta was on the show, doing a word of the day. There were some guys on headsets, and they were making fun like why is the Grape Lady-- they called her the Grape Lady because of the United Farm Workers struggle with table grapes, and produce, and toxic food entering our food systems. Dolores came and she was really lovely and there was some comments, disparaging comments about her. I was called to the booth.
We were producing starring and writing the show with great help of other collaborators like Lalo Alcaraz, Josefina Lopez and Steve Higgins from-- he's Jimmy Fallon sidekick now. These were really great writers. I was called into the booth to meet an elderly gentleman who was very polite. Beautiful tailored suit. Looked a little bit like the boss on The Simpsons. I met this gentleman.
He said, "I'm Rupert Murdoch," in an English accent and I said, "I'm Richard Montoya." I didn't know who Rupert Murdoch was, but he was there just checking it out, and checking out and checking out Dolores Huerta on the monitors. He left and pretty soon thereafter we were off the air, but man you got to give it a go. You got to give it a go and look back unapologetically.
It's not that we've been trying to figure out how to get on TV ever since. We're playwrights, and filmmakers, and that's very gratifying, but when you see the representation on television, it's discouraging at times. How far we haven't come, and the few things that are out there. The pressure on them to be perfect shows. We just have to keep fighting.
LA and San Diego in particularly how to-- they're in the culture. There was a moment where I'd see a surfer from Tijuana, I'd see a skateboarder from San Diego. You'd go to a Youth Brigade concert, and you could see Youth Brigade at a small club in Tijuana. These were three Anglo guys from LA. That was so crucial because Rage Against the Machine was hitting on that, too. They were a healthy dose of young Anglo kids that were there for the music. Once they got a little indoctrinated into, this is more than music, that call to action seemed to mean something.
The Rock en Español kids were quite separated from the US Chicano kids, and it's sometimes the Rock en Español kids were ahead of us. I remember being in the late '80s in Tijuana, and meeting Luis, and Teca, and Cesi, and some of the Tijuana No! kids. They had already been to Berlin, they had already been to Paris. I'm like, "What the hell? You guys are already on tour in Europe." This was a music festival in Tijuana and Mexicali with some big folk Mexican stars.
I remember my father had a trio conjunto, and I was playing bass in the trio and I was touring on these buses with Tijuana No!, and Daniel Valdez, and Jose Montoya down in-- that's where I first met Tijuana No!. They were kind of fascinated with us. I had a shaved head at the time. They called me Repo Man in Tijuana, but that curiosity, that cultural curiosity, it is that bridge you talk about.
It is that bridge that allows us to meet at that bridge where there is the Mexican kids, there is the US Chicano kids, and there's these punk rock Anglo kids in there. It's a pretty important part of the fabric actually because the Anglo kids got to take the message back, hopefully a little part of it. The Chicano kid is going to learn Spanish a little bit better. For the Rock en Español kids, Rage Against machine does not sing in Spanish. They sing in English, and that's helpful.
That's not making a snooty comment about that. We were pocho still. The songs, our theatre, our poems were primarily had to be done in English. That also meant another bridge that we had to meet on. In the meeting of that bridge, Maldita, El Tri, hardcore Rock en Español groups from Mexico, opening up our eyes and saying, "Hey pocho, thank you for taking up the fight north of the border but learn a little bit of Spanish. Next time you come to Tijuana, come to our art gallery. Come to our art happening, come to our house, come to our home."
These are friendships that really lasted, have lasted a lifetime. We may have to take up arms again. Not physical weapons, but we're going to have to sharpen up our game, man. We're going to have to sharpen it up, because the next round is armed and dangerous, and we'tr going to have to figure out how we're going to do the battle next time without losing, without succumbing to violence the way Cesar and Martin had always taught us not to do that. It's going to be a difficult battle coming ahead, but there still is a promised land and in that promised land is free expression, and music, and theatre, and our children, and living together. Goddamn grownups in the US we-- I feel we can still do it.
I feel that the minority that wants every Mexican out of the US is a relatively small, but loud, and heavily armed minority, and this is where the danger may lie, but we're also smarter. We're also more road weary. I think we're going to be up for the cultural clash, if you will, that's upon us now and that will continue. You just want to come out of it with everything intact and a greater appreciation for the people that are cleaning our goddamn toilets, that cut our lawns, that wipe the butts of our children, that feed our food, that wash our dishes. There's hope. I still have hope for that.
I was lucky enough as a child with my brothers and sisters. My father was an organizer with United Farm Worker. He sat within a kind of an inner circle of intellectuals, and every movement needs their intellectual. My father, Jose, the poet, and a professor, and a painter. He and Cesar were very close as were Luis Valdez. As children, we get to sit in the front row at Cesar's home in Bakersfield, Keene, California, La Paz, or in the fields.
As a child, I just remember seeing the electric relationship between the marchers and the marches, and a crazy Teatro Campesino that was performing just mere feet in front of us. That usually happened in places like Bakersfield, or Fresno, or in the fields of Sacramento, or outside of UC Davis, or Woodland, California. I had never seen that in the city. Teatro Campesino would make their way, and they play Cal State LA, they play UCLA. They filmed at KCET. They would come occasionally to the city but they were headquartered in San Juan Bautista, California, small rural mission town near Gilroy and San Jose.
Having remembered, having such a strong a memory of all that electricity, and excitement, and danger even too, because there were cops and teamsters around it. It's not like it was a nice wonderful little show. There was sometimes the Teatro would hit the back of a flatbed truck, do their thing, and then they'd tear off because the cops were-- everyone had to move out of the fields because there was organizing going on.
That did seem to be an ancient memory by '93, '94. What brought the memory back was Cesar Chavez dying in '93 and then '94, here comes 187. There's a relationship. When we heard that there was going to be a big march and it was coming down, where it was coming down, we thought that we have to use the tactics that we saw with Teatro Campesino. We have to get our own flatbed truck. We have to get our own carpa, our own tent, our own banners, and we have to ignite this crowd somehow.
We scoped out the-- we got the marching route a few hours before, so by 7:00 AM we were driving all over where we figured they'd be coming because you could see the road barricades were they're clearly going to coming down Cesar Chavez, which was Brooklyn Avenue, and they're going to be coming right into Sunset and Union Station is right there. There weren't all these condos back then.
We saw what was Amtrak or Pacific Union property, and that property is protected by its own police force. It's no joke. You're not supposed to go walking near the trains or the rails or-- this was a subway overpass. Those are technically subway overpasses and underpasses right there at Sunset, and what is now Cesar Chavez. The train station's there. The post office is right here. It's an epicenter. There's a lot of energy in that corner. Olvera Street is right here and what's catty corner to that? Chinatown, of course. It's such a dramatic corner.
You got all these things going on, and we scoped it out, and we had assembled a team including Culture Clash and some camaradas that came with us, Francisco Hernandez, and Lalo Medina. We scope out this crazy bridge and we see that the march is coming and we line up. It's a 40 foot long drop by 20 feet. It's pretty large. We figured the worst that could happen is we could get arrested, they'll take our flag but the march is five minutes away, it's three minutes away, it's upon us now.
We just rolled it up and each man was hanging on to the drop that was 40 feet wide. At that moment, we just let it drop, and it just fell beautifully. It connected a lot of things for us. It brought the farm worker image into the city. The crowd went nuts. It was like a rock show for that moment. The march had to stop and acknowledge this moment, this act, this action, that was both artistic, and political, and a physical action. That relationship in that moment, seemed for that brief moment, to connect us a little bit more.
The kids from the city going nuts. All the Chicano kids from East LA, and having to stop and acknowledge that at its heart, at the heart of the farm worker battle was the heart of a Mexican and was the heart of an immigrant. They were being targeted now, and we had to do everything we could as Big City Chicanos, Latinos, to lend our support and our solidarity. It was a very powerful moment.
Then the march had to get going because there were 10,000 people behind them, and we pulled that sucker up like a sail, and wait for the next group to come and drop it again. We did it all day long. Somehow we were never approached by any police. We were never approached by Amtrak police that are very diligent on their property, and we were on Amtrak property. We must have been out there eight hours. That march was a serpent, and we gathered up our flag and went off to the next thing.
You can hear the echo through that tunnel. It was a roar. Without that moment, if you take away that moment, you take away some of the roar. Cesar Chavez used to tell us theatre people because we were lucky enough to have him in our audience a few times, and he'd say, "Come to the picket lines like Teatro used to come. Come and give our people a charge. Make them laugh, and let's sing songs." He would tell Culture Clash, "Anima, anima. Get people to rise up."
That was an important tactic. It wasn't fun and games. It wasn't like the clowns are having some fun while we're marching. No, it was part and parcel with the march, with the transaction that art, artists, political activists, social justice warriors, laymen, laywomen. There was a lot of innocence in that march. A lot of señoras and señores that didn't normally take to the streets.
August 29th was not that far long ago. People died. The last time this many Mexicans marched in LA, people died that day. Ruben Salazar died that day. Young chicanos and chicanas died in the streets of LA at the hands of LA County Sheriff. This wasn't that far out of our memory. It just wasn't. You had to be trucha. You had to be a little careful out there. I just remember Dolores and Jesse Jackson, just giving us that little--
It was tough times, but damn good times. Essential.
- 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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