By Felicia Cousart Matlosz / The Fresno Bee
They originally called themselves the Rebel Chicano Art Front, a
Sacramento-based collaborative of artists founded in 1969 as a voice
for Chicano civil rights and the United Farm Workers labor movement.
But someone noticed the initials were the same as the Royal Canadian
Air Force. Wouldn't that be confusing? In a stroke of humor, the
founders decided to keep the initials but rename the group: Royal
Chicano Air Force.
Nearly 30 years later, the collaborative is still flying, with a
destination in Fresno.
"The Royal Chicano Air Force Lands in Fresno -- On a Wing and a
Prayer" opens Tuesday and runs through Aug. 9 at the Arte Americas
cultural arts center in downtown Fresno.
An artists' panel discussion will be held there on July 26, 1-3 p.m.,
followed by a reception, 3-5 p.m.
It is an exhibit that presents the individual styles of about a dozen
artists united by a common cause: to keep creating and educating for
social justice and to examine identity.
The group's reach, of course, is now firmly established. They have
touched people such as Abelino Bautista, Arte Americas' curator, who
was a student in the mid-1980s at the University of California at
He read about these artists in his Chicano art class books. Bautista
remembers founding member Jose Montoya speaking to his class and then
later joining students at a pub and "the whole time he was drawing on
napkins and talking about Chicano art."
The RCAF together and individually have been showing artwork
throughout the state and beyond. Their pieces are in collections in
universities in the United States and Europe.
The group's roots were planted at California State University,
Sacramento. As pressure mounted during the late 1960s to diversify
the faculty, Montoya and Esteban Villa were hired as art professors.
The two men, who would be among the founders of the RCAF, soon
started outreach programs to neighborhoods.
Juanishi Orosco says he and other students "gravitated like magnets"
to the two professors. Orosco, who would also be a founding member of
the RCAF, says the founders had a connection because most had been
farmworkers: "We actually came out of the fields."
Once established, the Royal Chicano Air Force in 1972 created the
not-for-profit Centro De Artistas Chicanos. It initiated a slew of
cultural and social activities, such as a breakfast program for poor
schoolchildren in Sacramento.
They were deeply concerned about issues of inequity in areas such as
civil rights, political representation, the justice system and
education. They used their artistic talents in many boldly spirited
posters and murals to promote community events and political causes.
Grace Solis, Arte Americas' director, was a lobbyist for the UFW in
Sacramento in the 1970s. She knew the RCAF members and recalls "they
used to do posters for us, for the rallies."
Orosco, now 63, says: "All of those different things happening in the
'70s brought us together and gave us a lot of ammunition visually and
politically and culturally ... We felt it was very important to give
back to the community."
Montoya once wrote that he also creates Chicano art to ensure that
the "heroic struggle of the Mexicans who are not from Mexico is
recorded accurately by us and not dependent on the media and the
historical biases depicted in textbooks. I create Chicano art so that
our world view is appreciated, respected and not misunderstood."
The Fresno show includes mostly paintings that reflect a range of
styles, from the representational to the abstract, that fed the
RCAF's community artwork.
Orosco also says they feel a special affinity for Arte Americas
because of staff and artists including Solis, Ernesto Palomino and F.
John Sierra. And some RCAF members had direct connections to the
central San Joaquin Valley. Founding member Ricardo Favela, who died
last year, was born in Kingsburg, grew up in Dinuba and earned an
associate degree from the College of the Sequoias in Visalia.
"It's like family coming to visit," Solis says.
And there are strong, striking pieces in this show.
Montoya presents "Veterano," or a Chicano elder. It is a large
portrait, veering between realistic and impressionistic, of an old
man close up. The face is stern and defiant. His mouth is downturned,
his eyes squinting at you and yet not at you, his features a contour
of colors and shadow. A bright red bandanna is wrapped around his
head and strands of gray hair. His dark-patterned flannel shirt is
snugly buttoned all the way to the collar. He has an air of
authenticity, history and authority.
Contrast this with Orosco's 8-by-12-foot triptych, or portable mural,
called "Heroes de la Cultura." It is full of modeled iconic images in
a more traditional mural style, via a combination of airbrushed and
applied paint on Masonite. Different shades of cool blue dominate the
piece, which revs up the red in a UFW flag and in garments. The
figures include Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, a man in
graduation robes holding a young boy, an Aztec warrior and a young
couple. You can see the words "Community cultural activists that
fight for the rights of all citizens born in the 'Americas' are
warriors known as Heroes de la Cultura."
Step around a corner, and you will see founding member Armando Cid's
"4th Chakra Corazon," a vivacious, abstract piece in which a heart is
the center of attention. Large red jalapenos and tiny green ones are
part of this image as paint streaks and blotches through a scene of
textured effects, circular shapes and overlapping paint. Its energy
pulsates just like its subject.
The Royal Chicano Air Force continues to attract new artists, which
makes it generational. Orosco says he finds it inspiring and that it
keeps the older generation invigorated:
"We gotta keep painting."
The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or (559) 441-6428.