Santa Paula native Xavier Montes remembers his ascent into social advocacy. A self-proclaimed “reborn Chicano,” he learned Spanish while visiting a relative in Mexico who challenged his limited vocabulary. While there, he extended his knowledge of culture and history by studying the meaning of traditional Mexican songs. His first attendance at a folklorico dance event in 1971 evoked feelings of awe—the sombreros looked like trophies, he said.
A month later, he saw Teatro Campesino, with Chicano actors performing skits on controversial issues. From there, his transformation into a socially aware artist and musician was under way.
And now, if you hear a harp at a community event, Montes is probably behind the strumming. If you see a mural in Santa Paula, chances are he had some input into the design. If you dine at Vince’s Café on Main and 8th streets, you’ll be surrounded by his acrylics.
“My cultural heritage is filled with color and passion,” he tells the Santa Paula Society of the Arts. “It is in my veins and my heart. And so, like many other artists, I am compelled to creatively express what I feel, what I see and what I wish I could see.”
And his commitment to his culture’s youth, in fact, stands as a work of art itself. In April, Santa Paula’s California Oil Museum will host Montes’ annual De Colores art exhibit for the ninth consecutive year. Montes views the show as a bridge between the community and the schools, two worlds he says need stronger ties: “How can you have cultural events,” he asks, “without students?”
Montes, 50, views students as the lifeblood of community artwork. Students, he explains, are the ones who should care about their community, and the community should give them ample opportunities to become involved.
On Montes’ wish list is a De Colores nonprofit organization to support year-round activities for students and community members. His greatest hope, though, is that Santa Paula will have a community art space for young people to develop their skills and talents.
He has scoped a few windowfronts on Santa Paula’s Main Street, and he knows what the places would need: tables, chairs, art supplies, easels and personnel with the technical expertise to renovate and prepare the space. He adds that such a venture is especially important in the face of arts underfunding in high schools.
“There are no painting classes in small high schools,” he lamented. “Those are for bigger schools.” Without this investment in creativity, he added, students develop their own means of expression that can result in the destruction of property.
There’s a sadness and an irony involved, Montes said, when Mexican storeowners’ buildings are routinely defaced by young people of the same race and heritage (“How can they deface their own people’s property?”). He adds that he wants Santa Paula’s teenagers to take pride in the businesses their people have maintained through hard work and dedication.
Montes, known to close friends as X, walks his talk. He takes his concern to the streets, working on murals with students and guiding them through the process of creating a public work of art. “I teach them techniques,” he said, “like how to blow up smaller images into larger ones using the grid method, planning it all out. The transformation starts with words on paper, ideas like love, pain, pride, future [and] family, and we narrow it down to a few ideas. Then we find symbols for those words, transferring the idea to a visual symbol. Next, we lay out the symbols, considering the viewership—what do we want people to notice first, how will they interpret the mural. This is a process, not a goal with an end point.”
Montes has a degree in studio art and a teaching credential from UCSB. He serves as a mentor for the CalArts Visual Arts Program, helping to select young Latino and Latina artists who would benefit from summer classes.
Montes sighed with concern over the fact that many young Latinos are ashamed of their heritage and culture, recalling once having felt similarly. He continues to work patiently with his students, facilitating their growth process as artists and as human beings. Students from Renaissance High School give him high marks; they have even taken on their own independent muraling projects using knowledge and skills learned in his classes.
His students’ murals often deal with the themes of Mexican musical history and the Mexican revolution, events their grandparents and great-grandparents experienced. And while the students are painting, they hear Montes’ voice.
“The scenes involve positive thinking,” he said. “I talk about pride, brown skin and the rich history of the Mexican people. And I tell them that the only way to get ahead is through education. Ignorance is the reason for the ‘isms,’ like racism and hatred.”
*Leah C. Wells, a Santa Paula teacher, serves as peace education coordinator for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara.