Early Memories: Parents November 13, 2018
Just to set the scene: We’re in my house in Woodland. My dad stopped by TANA (Taller Arte del Nuevo Amanecer) to visit José Arenas, but José wasn’t there. My dad doesn’t like to call ahead, preferring just to stop in, which means he often misses people. But he caught me, and being as he was already in the area, we decided to go over some questions I’d developed a few months ago and hadn’t found the time to sit down and discuss. My dad is wearing his wide-brimmed Panama hat and a Peruvian side satchel where he keeps his keys, wallet, phone, and the carrying case for his temporary tooth. Lately, he doesn’t ever seem to take off the side satchel. I’m sipping an espresso. Maceo: Are you ready? Malaquias: I wasn't supposed to be briefed? Maceo: No, I was just hoping to jump in. Malaquias: [laughs] Okay. Maceo: You recently turned 80, so I feel it's a good occasion to look back on your early childhood, and some of the factors that impacted your creative bent. I remember you used to say that your mother was an interior decorator and that your father was a chemist. The joke being, of course, that Grandpa Malaquias was a bootlegger. He operated an illegal whiskey sill in the mountains of New Mexico and served two years in Fort Leavenworth Penitentiary for his crime. I never thought of him as a creative person. ﷯In fact, the irony of coming from a family of artists all named Montoya is that we probably owe it most to Grandma Lucy whose family names were Saiz and Lobato. But after getting your dad's prison records, and seeing the reports where he's listed as “an illiterate Mexican of poor intelligence,” I thought to myself that maybe he was more creative than given credit for. I mean, instead of settling for a life as a shepherd, he was looking for a way out. It took ingenuity to do what he did. What was bootlegging for him if not some sort of creative leap? Do you agree? Malaquias: [laughs dismissively] Oh my god, José would love that (José Montoya [1932-2013], older brother and brilliant embellisher). José would jump for that and run. I could just hear it in his next presentation… No, I mean there must have been something that he had, that he survived 60 years, through all of that living in the mountains, you know, without much to go on. And then he worked for the W.P.A. But even that, I don't know if he ever picked up anything that he could run with. I think he was just a hustler, and he was always looking for that thing that's going to make him, or make them wealthy. I remember my mom telling a story... she had the ability for astral projection. And in one incident el sobador (a healer) came and put her to sleep, or in the state of mind where she could go and find the knife that my Tío Elfigo was looking for and had claimed that my oldest brother Santiago had stolen. It bothered my mom that Santiago might have done it, or even it bothered her more that it was her tío who was accusing her son. So during one of these times, el sobador said, "Well look, if it's bothering you so much, let's see if we can find it." So he put her in a trance and she said she could look down and see herself, and she went and she found the knife. Found the knife by a woodshed where my tío used to sit all the time and whittle. So when she told my father—well, first, my mother was real happy. She told my Tío Elfigo, "Look there, I found it, and it's not Santiago who stole it, you left it there." But my father got all excited about the possibility that they could go to the police and talk to them and somehow enlist her service to find people who stole things. Maceo: So he was going to use your mom as a crime tracker? Malaquias: Yeah. And of course my mom wouldn't do it. But that was how my dad was, if he could figure out some way of making money he would go for it. That's why he and my Tío Benjamín spent nights and nights in Laton (CA) along a ditch bank where we were living at the time. They believed that the Japanese farmers, before being interned during World War II, had buried their money. So they would go out, and they had those sticks that come together when there's a treasure buried. Or they had a three-legged stool that would start to (mimics shaking motion)... and they would go out every night, and they would talk, and they would come home early in the morning exhausted, their shoes muddy, and they would do that almost every night. Looking for that treasure. Somebody would give them another clue, and they would go to another part— Maceo: So it wasn't creative then?﷯ Malaquias: [laughs] No, not at all. Maceo: I mean, it wasn’t artistic creative. How about hustler creative? Malaquias: What was that? Maceo: Hustler creative. Malaquias: [shrugs] Aw, yeah. Sure. Maceo: All right. So I know that your mother had a bigger impact on your creativity. Obviously, she wasn't an interior decorator, but she did decorate the humble homes you lived in. Sometimes not even in homes, just labor dwellings, even box cars. Can you tell us a little about how she did that? And what other ways did her perspective on life impact you as an artist? Malaquias: Well…[pauses] I think the impact was her creativity, the way she wanted to see things beautiful, or make homes beautiful. And I would ask her, "Well, how did you learn that, Mom?" And she would say, "Pues, allá en la sierra everybody knew how to do something beautiful. Wanted to make something beautiful." And I got to thinking that we all have that ability. I think that if we found ourselves in a situation of ugliness, if somebody transported us somewhere, you know, that little by little we would want to make where we were living, make that place beautiful, and we would start to find things to be creative with. And living in the mountains, and being poor, I remember asking my mom—and the reason I asked her was because I remember the house in the mountains where they had lived and where some of my siblings had been born. We’d go up there sometimes to visit my tío, and I would run over to the house simply because I could just jump all over the furniture and play games. But I also remember sometimes when I would stop and look up at the beautiful colors on the wall and the little decorations that I thought were decals. Later, when I was just learning how to silkscreen, cutting stencils and printing decals, I remember coming home one night and I could hardly wait to ask my mom these two questions. First, if we were so poor, living up in the mountains, where did we get the paint? Beautiful paint and the brushes to paint the house those colors. And second, where did she find the decals that she placed all along the walls? All along the edge where the walls met the ceiling, and all the way around the windows, you'd see these floral prints. Birds, too, you could see the wings defined. So she told me that she would go up into the mountains behind el ranchito where they lived, and she could find this white rock that she would bring home. And then at the house, she would mash it, and add some… I don't know what else she added to it besides water. But what she was making—I think the rock was gypsum—and what she was making was gesso. Gesso that she, and how she knew that gesso had to be applied, I don’t know, or what we would call a primer today to get a wall prepared. But with that, she would paint the entire house white. And I asked her about the brushes, and she said they were sheep's skin, “una jalea de borregas.” And with that, she would paint the entire house white, or with whatever colors she was using. The colors that she made came from her going along different arroyos up in the mountains. And when the creeks would go down, they'd expose different colors of earth. And she would take those different colors, browns, and deep reds, and ochres, and of course she didn't know that they were ochres, she didn't call them ochre, but un poquito de amarillo con café. So she would bring those home, crush, mix the muddy dirt, clay, whatever. And she'd mix berries she found, too, unas morras. And then when she wanted other colors, she would go to the—my dad used to take her to the dances there in the mountains, and she would bring home all the crepe paper that was left after a dance, and she would bring the paper home and put those in different buckets. So she had red water, blue water, yellow water, different colors of water that she would use to tint the paint. She added the blue water to the yellow to make green. The blue to a red would make it darker. So she was actually making her own tinted paint.﷯ Then, what I thought were decals, turned out to be stencils. She would go up on the highway-- Highway 66 used to run by the house--and she would find inner tubes and abandoned tires, and she would bring those home. And on inner tubes, she would actually cut out floral designs and designs of birds. And she would cut those and paste them onto a piece of cardboard. So what she was making were printing blocks. And with those printing blocks, she would get up on a ladder and do her stenciling. That’s what she would make, printing blocks, and then she would stencil them up and print them up along the wall. Around the windowsill, or window frames. And then in the kitchen, what looked like wallpaper turned out to be stencils using the actual tires. One of her cousins would cut them up in different sizes for her. And then she would dip those into the colors she had made, and then just go around and roll the tire. She would print the treads, and what was neat is that she would print the treads in one direction and then she'd go the other way, and when those treads crossed, it created another design. That to me was pretty amazing. Wherever we lived when we were following the crops, we would go off, we would get to the new ranch, and she would stay home the first day or two. And when we came back that night, that house was... that tent, that shack, that boxcar was transformed into a livable space, and it was done so beautiful. I think that's where I got, or maybe all of us, got that talent, from Mom. And she was very, very pleasant, too. She had a demeanor that was just, it would soften you when you met her. And maybe that's why all the people that knew her would call her Grandma Lucy. The other kids would call her grandma, and even her own children started calling her Grandma Lucy. Maceo: No, Mama Lucy. You didn't call your own mom grandma.﷯ Malaquias: What’s that? Maceo: It was Mama Lucy. Malaquias: Mama Lucy, that’s what I said. Maceo: You said you called her grandma. Malaquias: [confused, but as if I had been the one to confuse things] No, we called her Mama Lucy. But that's where I think her ability to reach out and touch you... because I remember coming home from UC Davis when I was already a professor. And I was exhausted like you get at 3 or 4 o'clock after either a meeting, or a class that doesn't go well. And you’d go to Grandma Lucy's [in Dixon], and she would just say, "Ah mijito, pásale, pásale, siéntate.” And you would sit next to her on the couch, and then she'd put you on her… put your head on her lap. And all she had to do was just sort of rub your head, your shoulders and it seemed like everything just left you. And that's the kind of woman she was.

Malaquias Montoya Sr. served prison time from 1932-1934 for bootlegging

My dad speculates that his father documented himself wearing a neck brace for an insurance scam.

Lucia Saiz-Montoya (1908-1997)

Mama Lucy (center) with her daughter, Helen, and her sister-in-law Barbarita in Chilili, New Mexico.

Early Memories: School
Maceo: When you were in elementary school, you and the other migrant farm worker children, would show up after the harvest, weeks into the semester. As a result, many of you were placed in the MR, or mentally retarded class, as it was called. Can you describe the impact this had on you? Malaquias: Well, for me, I think it had a good impact as far as liking school. One of the reasons I liked the class was because it was full of people that looked like me. They were all Mexicano, predominantly, African Americans, and what we used to call the poor Okies and Arkies. So it was a reflection of my neighborhood. We all knew each other, we knew what we did last night and what we were going to do after school. But learning as far as academically, nothing ever came about. Once in a while, the teacher would write math problems up on the wall and we would copy them.﷯ Then she would put everything away and pull out the box full of paper, full of crayons, pencils, rulers, and paper that we could cut up and glue to make collages. I enjoyed that very much, and that's when I started to do a lot of drawing. We did it every day. I would draw the bullies in class, or the bullies that I encountered during play hour. I would make drawings of my teachers, especially those that I didn't like or who bothered me. And it was in that class, I think, that I started to develop another language, a visual language you might say. What I enjoyed most were the pats on the back that I got from friends, even from teachers who said, "Gee, Malaquias, that's very good." It started to give me some kind of self-esteem, and I enjoyed that, but mostly I didn't learn anything. I remember there were some Japanese students who joined the class, and I got to thinking, well, I know that these guys aren’t MR, mentally retarded, so maybe it was a class for underdeveloped students. They had a language problem, but their math was… hell, they could teach the teachers how to do math. They were pretty amazing. So it was in that MR class, in the comfort of that class that I learned to draw. I wanted to stay in school, because it was in school that I had paper and pencils. And then I would go home and Mom would do drawings for us on the kitchen table and that was exciting for me, too. My mom never lost faith. She always said, "Oh mijito, don't worry, you're going to learn a lot in that class.” Whereas my sister Helen would call me dummy just like everyone else. My mom never got mad at Helen, she just always encouraged me and said I was going to be all right. Maceo: I guess she knew what she was talking about? Malaquias: [laughs] And now I is a professor. My dad started teaching in 1970, the semester after the Third World Liberation Front strike at UC Berkeley that led to the formation of Ethnic Studies. It was also the semester after he graduated with a BA in Art. Since then, in addition to UC Berkeley, he taught at the University Without Walls, Stanford (visiting), California College of the Arts, University of Notre Dame (visiting), University of Texas, San Antonio (visiting), and UC Davis, where he retired as a full professor in 2008.

Malaquias in the 1st grade

Childhood Stories February 13, 2019
Many of my dad’s childhood stories as well as his most memorable jokes follow a similar structure: a little Mexican boy is confronted with an obstacle, usually an obstacle relating to his race or his poverty, and he attempts to transcend that obstacle only for the effort to blow up in his face. The humor of these anecdotes lies in the fact that you’re aware that no matter what the little Mexican boy tries to do it’s never going to work out for him, yet you can’t help but admire his optimism and ingenuity. There’s an underlying sadness to the anecdote as well, especially when that little boy is your father attempting to navigate a world he doesn’t understand.﷯ An example goes like this: when my dad was in kindergarten or the first grade, the teacher was trying to teach the students about the basic food groups and what constituted a well-rounded meal. To demonstrate this, she would always ask the poor kids what they had for breakfast, which would be something like beans and tortillas. The teacher would then turn to the class and ask them what so-and-so was missing from his breakfast. At some point, my dad had gone to a movie and saw a commercial during the previews of a smiling white family eating something similar to what his mom would make: a piece of toast coated with butter and sugar fried in a pan. He registered the name of this special breakfast and when it came time for the food group lesson, my dad didn’t even wait to be singled out. He volunteered. “Yes, Mal,” the teacher said. “Do you want to share with the class what you had for breakfast this morning?” “I had French toast!” my dad boasted. Instead of garnering the admiration of his fellow classmates, everyone burst out laughing, and none louder than the other Mexican kids who knew my dad didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. A few months ago, when I was talking to my dad about his experience in elementary school, he related the following story of a French kid (the French part being a coincidence) who showed up in school one day and it reminded me of this same structure. Malaquias: I don't know what it is about Chicanos or mexicanos pronouncing the S-H sound. I've heard it explained before, but I don’t remember. Well, the white kids used to really, really like to hear the mexicanos say the S-H sound and they'd ask you to say the word shirt. And you just assumed you said it right all the time, so you would say, "Chirt," and they would laugh. Same with Choes, or Chevy, or whatever. I remember feeling bad when they'd laugh at you. I would laugh with them, but I knew they were making fun of me. One day, this new kid came to school and he was French. He had a real bad accent. And I remember thinking, “God, this poor guy, they're just going to make him cry every day.” So I befriended him, just so that I could be there for support, tell him not to worry. But then the white kids went up to talk to him, the girls and the guys, and the French kid started talking and, well, the white kids just fell in love with the way he said words. I couldn’t understand it. I zipped over and said, “What's the matter?" Why aren't you making fun of this guy? I am here to protect him and set you guys straight, and you’re just drooling over him.

Malaquias in the 3rd grade

A Sense of Urgency October 17, 2019
Maceo: We’re here in my dad's studio. It is October 17th, and it's 1:45 PM—﷯ Malaquias: On a Wednesday. Maceo: No, it's Thursday. Malaquias: Oh, it's Thursday? Wow. Maceo: My idea when I first started with these conversations was to have them once a month and here it has been eight or nine months since the last one. Malaquias: Really? Maceo: It's been a long time. I think it was February the last time that we sat down. I could be wrong. Life gets busy, but it's also juggling different projects, and even though something like this is a priority, somehow it falls to the bottom of the list. And oftentimes, I feel like that's what happens to my artwork or my time in the studio. It's an absolute priority. It's the most important thing to me. And yet, when it comes to all the range of things that I have to do, whether it's teaching at the university or my commitments to Alejandra, to family, to even just stuff around the house, all of that calls my attention or demands my attention and prevents me from getting to the things that I find most—not necessarily enriching because all the other stuff is enriching too—but most fundamental to my work. So, I guess my question for you is, how do you view your relationship to time and your ability to get into the studio? Malaquias: Boy. Well, it seems like at one time, I never had any problem getting into the studio. I did have time constraints, commitments to other things, but when there was a 10-minute break, a 20-minute break, whatever, I was in the studio finishing, trying to accomplish something. Now, as I get older, it just seems like the hurry is not there anymore. And that, to me, gets frustrating when I give it thought. Maceo: The hurry, you mean the urgency? Malaquias: The urgency. As far as the projects I’m working on, I’d like to see them finished as I imagined them in my mind. And when I'm thinking about them, whether it's waiting in a doctor's office or somewhere else, just sitting, I think how exciting it'll be when that particular project is finished. But it's always the easiest thing to set aside. I don't know if it's just my aging, because I have more time now than I've ever had. I mean, when you kids were little, I didn't get out here till 8:30, 9, 9:30 at night and I'd work till 12, 12:30. Or when there weren’t events for you guys, I was out of here on Saturdays and Sundays. And I enjoyed those days. I really got working on a Sunday afternoon— Maceo: So you never had a schedule where you were working every day, from this time to this time, a routine, the same way you would a nine to five job, but did you seek that? Or do you feel like your entire working career as an artist was just fitting your art in? Malaquias: I think it has all been fitting it in. There were so many other things always going on. But something else that always takes time—and I used to wonder if it’s because my studio is in my backyard—is that when I leave the house to walk out to my studio, there are so many distractions that prevent me from getting to the studio. Checking on something in the shed or looking at this tree because the leaves looks sort of bad. And I've always wondered, maybe I should’ve had my studio downtown where I would leave the house at 7:30 or 8:00, get into the shop by nine or whatever, just that I left home to go to my studio to work and while I was there, maybe I didn't do anything, maybe I just walked across the street and had a cup of coffee. But that was part of my day. And I think of that because that's how it was at the taller we had in Oakland, but here, sometimes I leave the house at nine and I don't get to the studio till twelve, and it's because I've gone back inside the house to say something to Mom and then she asks me, “If you have a chance, can you water these?” And so I end up watering something.﷯ But I also enjoy having my studio in the backyard. I really enjoy the fact that Mom can be going to her (pottery) studio and ends up sidetracked and comes in to talk to me. In a way, the whole house and yard become your workspace, your work studio. Pretty soon you start looking at your home and studio as one and the same. You're creating in here, you're creating out there, doing something that later might blossom into something else. Maceo: What period was your most productive. I don't think that quantity is necessarily the biggest indicator of that, but if you were to think about when were you making the most work, when would that be? Malaquias: I think it was the 70s, after all the different confrontations at University Without Walls (radical university in Berkeley where he taught from 1974-1976), the struggles that were taking place in Central, South America, the farmworker struggle… You'd go to bed so excited about the next morning so that you could finish a poster about something happening in El Salvador, in Angola, or Delano. You'd wake up with such urgency that you just got up, had your coffee, and you were out in the studio trying to come up with something, sketch something. That was a very productive period for me. Maceo: Was it because of all of the events going on at the time, or was it also the energy that you felt participating in those events? Or was it because you were in constant demand as an artist to make work? In other words, these groups saw you as an artist and needed a poster and they knew where to go to and you served that function? Malaquias: That was part of it. That was part of my job, I felt. And I liked that. I liked the idea that I constantly had work to do and also that I believed in what I was doing. It wasn't just, "Oh, shit, here's another poster." You really believed in it. And every job that came along I learned something about what was taking place. I got inspired by the events themselves or the people that were involved. With students in Mexico in 1968, or the Nicaraguan students, all those activists just inspired you to be the most that you could be. And that was exciting.﷯ Maceo: But there are still issues going on today, and you still, I imagine, believe in your role as an artist to speak to those events, so what would you say is different now or that has been different over the last, say, 20 years for you when it comes to your art making? Malaquias: Well, I guess not having the same spirit that came with the other work. The war that's taking place now in Afghanistan, it seems like it's removed from me, and I don't know why. I'm against war and the atrocities that take place during war, but there doesn't seem to be the same energy to stop the war in Afghanistan as there was during the Vietnam war or the energy to stop the ugliness that was taking place in Central and South America. Those struggles made me want to be a part of them on a daily basis. Now, when I’m working I usually make a series, such as the death penalty series or the series on globalization and war. It seems like I need a theme to produce constantly, you might say, because I don't see myself as someone who just puts up a canvas and sits and paints. As you see it's still sitting there [turns and points to an unfinished painting on an easel]. I sometimes wish I could be that way, where I could actually come into the studio and draw or paint an image that I'm happy with just for the sake of it. It always has to be for something. Maceo: You need to have a purpose or a theme? Malaquias: Yes. Maceo: As I've been looking through your archive and putting it all on-line, I saw the sheer amount of work that was done through the 70s, and then there's this drop-off in the 80s as far as prints. You shifted more towards drawings and paintings, so the nature of the work, it went in a different direction, which probably required more time. But also, it seems what you're getting at, is that your work, it became more meditative. It was an investment of thought and consideration that was different from the poster after poster that you were making in the 1970s. Malaquias: I think that's true because doing a poster, there was an energy, that incredible energy that allowed me to come up with an idea quickly, like attacking it, and the idea was already there. Now it's not like that, it seems like I actually have to come up with a drawing and then try to figure it out. Whereas with the poster it seemed I could finish very fast because the energy was there and the thinking was very immediate.﷯ Maceo: You've been making work for 50 years now and when you were creating work in the 60s and 70s you weren’t just feeding off the energy of that time, but you were also feeding off the different directions that your work could go in. You were experimenting and all the imagery that you came up with was new, you hadn't seen it before. But it's hard to keep coming up with new imagery or to keep what goes onto the page or onto the canvas fresh and exciting. Do you feel that that’s a consideration that slows you down? Do you think to yourself "I've painted this before," or "I've done a print like this before," or "I've used this symbol before," and that it's just not as exciting? Or do you use that to think about ways to push the imagery in new directions? Malaquias: I do go back and I'll look at old images and I'll take apart those images and change them around and make them into something new. That's exciting. But oftentimes, I do think, “I don't want to do that again.” And it sort of causes me to wonder, “Am I empty of images?” Which I used to think that I could never be empty, that I would always have something to say. Maceo: Is that scary to feel as if you could be empty of images? Malaquias: It is very scary. When you try to draw and nothing comes up. That's even more frustrating. Because then you really think, "Did I end? Is everything coming to an end?" And then I think, "Well, what do I do next?" Because I’ve never been an artist who took my easel out to a field and painted trees or painted the sky. I’ve always drawn from human energy, grasping onto that and turning it into something. Maceo: I’m curious. What advice would you have for me, for any young or, say, youngish artist, regarding time constraints and studio time? Like, if you could go back to when you were in your thirties, how would you establish your practice given what you know about time and all its limitations? Malaquias: I don't know. Maybe if I just committed myself to the idea that this is something that I have to complete today, that I have to do at least one drawing— My dad stops and looks at something on the floor. Malaquias: Is that a cricket? Maceo: No, it's some other kind of bug. He gets up to inspect. For months, the entire town of Elmira has been infested with crickets and my dad has become obsessed with killing them. The interview ends.

Photo by Robinson Kuntz

My dad's studio in the backyard. Built in 1985, it was designed by my eldest brother Malaquias III while he was still in high school.

Basta Imperialismo, 1970

Nicaragua Quien la Defiende es que la Ama Mas, 1979