Life Stories News Article

Gallery+Story: The art and artivism of José Montoya

The art and artivism of El Pasoin José Montoya
My Interview with Jose Montoya for the El Paso Herald-Post

By Steven Zimmerman, originally written for the El Paso Herald-Post

My life revolves around words and sharing other people’s stories with the world. I like to think I’m good at it – I’ve been doing it for thirty-three years now. Here I am, wanting to write about a local artist by the name of José Montoya, and I cannot even begin to find the words with which to do so.

José is an artist who, according to him, works primarily in pastels and photography. Living with his story for the past week, running it over and over in my head, that seems too limiting.

There is so much more to him than that.

I know where I’ll start: artivist and artivism – two words I’ve added to my vocabulary since meeting José.

Artivism is a combination of art and activism. It seems simple enough when you look at the basic definition of the word, but there is more.

In the case of José, artivism also means being an educator, a student, as well as an artist.  So, I will begin with how José describes his journey to art.

“I kind of grew up around Cholo culture,” says José. “So, the Low Rider magazine, the art that was in the Low Rider magazine was very influential on me. So, I eventually moved on to try to replicate those types of art pieces, you know, there was a lot of prison art, I guess you could say, as an adolescent.”

From there, his interest began to evolve.

“You know, a lot of it is women of color, and I focus a lot on that,” says José of his current works. “I do I have a thing with pop icons, iconography; I guess you could say. I feel like there’s an importance in representation for people of color.”

That reminded me of my conversation with Terry Huddleston, who said, “If we don’t represent ourselves, who will do it?”

Both José and Terry have a point.

I work a lot with inmates. Of those incarcerated within our nation’s prisons, people of color (African American and Hispanic have the largest rates of incarceration) I’ve discovered some amazing artists and writers. Yet, when I teach them how to hone their craft they tend to say that no one is going to listen to them, that their voices will get drowned out in the white-washing of media (Business Insider did a great piece on how ‘white savior’ films, like ‘Green Book’, actually hurt Hollywood business – and by extension, the books we have
available in major retailer stores).

Here is where I became impressed with José, his desire to represent people of color.

“What I was doing professionally was working with students in various capacities. Now I just kind of see myself as an educator,” says José. Like the students I work with inside the prisons, they have questions about their past, their ancestors…if you look at the history books, if you look at how history has been documented since colonization, there aren’t a lot of people of color that we see nationally represented. You have Mount Rushmore. You have a lot of the statues and monuments in DC, and it’s all kind of the same person in essence.”

“There’s other stories to be told as well,” José adds. “I want to be able to add those other stories.”

I began to take notice. I began to see the fire, the drive behind José. Not only does he want to tell those “other” stories, but he also wants to empower others to tell them as well.

We need those stories. We need to hear the stores of those in Sugendo Barrio, Duranguito and other areas of town. We need to hear the stories of why someone dropped out of school, joined a gang, or decided a life of crime was better than a 9 to 5. We need to hear the stories of those who have been on the receiving end of racism, food discrimination (a very real thing) and abuse.

We need to hear those stories and people like José, through his art and his work with others, is doing just that.

Let’s take a moment and listen to those stories. Only then, once we hear them and understand them, can we begin to close the divide that is growing in our country.

José has the final word:

“As an artist, I try to be a critical when I approached pieces. I think that it might not seem like that when somebody says, “Oh, well you just painted a picture of, of Erica Badu or Beyoncé….It goes beyond that. It’s not just about trying to get a celebrity’s attention. Really.  it’s just about trying to say, well, what are these people contributing to? …and using these kind of popular faces as a way of teaching young people that these people with power are doing what they can to make the world a just place. And I hope that I can contribute to that somehow.”

Visit this link to see more of José’s work.  |  All photos courtesy José Montoya

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