Painter, novelist, and professor, Maceo Montoya has been consistently dissolving boundaries among narrative, history, visual art, and education over the course of his impressive early career.
Montoya joined the Department of Chicana/o Studies as assistant professor in 2011. Having grown up in the small town of Elmira, Montoya has deep roots in the Sacramento Valley, and he has frequently sought to tell the stories of the region’s agricultural communities in painting and in writing. Montoya seeks links between visual and narrative, and tells stories that would not otherwise be told.
Montoya’s interdisciplinary focus began early. As an undergraduate, he majored in History as well as Ethnicity, Race and Migration. Though he was fascinated with research, he quickly realized he would not be satisfied with writing typical academic essays. “Poring through all of these interesting stories, then turning around and writing a dry, analytical paper wasn’t for me. So I started to look for ways to express those stories creatively.”
Montoya’s history thesis, which focused on the debate over revolutionary art in Mexico between David Alfaro Siquieros and Rufino Tamayo, blended written and visual work. “I saw the possibilities of the dialogue between written work–in this case a straightforward history essay–and visual language. Both could tell different kinds of stories.”
When Montoya returned to Knight’s Landing, a small agricultural town just north of Woodland, his work was inspired by the stories of his soccer teammates, many of whom were undocumented immigrants. “I felt that was research of a kind, and it channeled itself directly into my painting,” said Montoya. But painting alone wasn’t enough. When he showed the paintings to his teammates, more stories emerged, and Montoya began to write them down. “For me,” he said, “That was the beginning of truly seeing the visual and narrative arts as inseparable.” (For a selection of Montoya’s images from Knight’s Landing, see the gallery on his website.)
Throughout his early career, Montoya has shuttled between visual media and the written word. A prolific painter who has exhibited his works across the nation, he also published The Scoundrel and the Optimist, a novel, in 2009. In addition to a second novel, The Deportation of Whopper Barraza, Montoya is working on a series of linked paintings and non-fiction prose poems to be displayed together. “I found that the most successful way of presenting both my visual work and the written word is to present these narratives while the paintings are on a loop. These narratives emerged from the work itself as stories that need to be told.”
Because of his roots in this valley and his persistent focus on revealing the untold stories of its communities, Montoya said that Chicana/o Studies is a perfect fit. “I’m rooted in this area, and I feel that Chicano Studies is a department that is also rooted in the community that surrounds it, and is interested in telling those stories that usually go untold.”
Chicana/o Studies is an interdisciplinary department that has traditionally been interested in the personal narrative. Chicana/o Studies and Chicanos have a long history of exclusion, said Montoya. Their voices haven’t been heard, so recapturing Chicana/o narratives in all of their different forms has been central to the discipline. “Chicano—both the term and the community–embodies the in-between: in-between languages, in-between countries, maybe even in-between itself, as the community continues to redefine what it means to be Chicano. So for me, these complexities and this wide range of stories are fertile ground as a storyteller, and I try to encourage my students to view these accounts in the same way, as narratives that form the discipline.”
Montoya is no stranger to UC Davis. In addition to being the son of Malaquias Montoya, emeritus professor of Chicana/o Studies, Maceo has made a name for himself in his many contributions to the community. In recent years, he has taken part in the Taller Arte Del Nuevo Amenecer (TANA) and has taught a mural course at UC Davis. In 2010, the class painted a mural at a migrant Head Start just outside of Woodland, and the year before that the class painted at a tomato cannery.
“Each time,” said Montoya, “It was just so revealing for me to talk to the community members, whether they were seasonal laborers or year round workers.” Montoya was drawn in to their stories—about their approach to their job, their personal histories, the commute, the off-season, and the months of working around the clock. All of those stories found their way into the murals through class discussions, and, according to Montoya, the murals became ways to tell the people’s stories as well as to honor them.
Montoya sees the link between art and community as essential: “I think that art drives people’s understanding of communities and cultures, and we can’t deny the importance of the Mexican-American/Chicano community in the Southwest, in California, and particularly in this agricultural valley. Chicanas/os and Mexicans play a major role throughout this state. As an artist, I hope that the stories I tell together contribute not only to revealing these important communities and individual stories that need to be told, but also to an understanding of the universality of art and literature.”
In Montoya’s view, these links between art and community are important not only to Chicano Studies, but to the university as a whole. “TANA is a great example of the University’s commitment not only to the development of the arts but to the development of the arts in a community that is intrinsic to the success of the university. Hopefully, the institution continues to view TANA in that light—programs like this will insure the longevity and health of UC Davis in this area.”