We are shining our first ever Street Artist Spotlight on Victor Montañez, a self-described “resistance artist,” and proud resident of the Logan Square district of Chicago, IL. Montañez’s distinct brand of art utilizes an array of platforms to evoke thought and and inspire action into the observer. In addition to producing visual art that is regularly on display in various storefronts, restaurants, and festivals throughout Chicago, Montañez also performs as a DJ, going by the moniker of DJ Rebel X, and has a storied career in educational reform and political activism.
Montañez recently set aside time to speak with Street Narrative at his home studio in Logan Square to discuss the life journey that brought him from the impoverished streets of Ciudad Juárez, through the political fire of 1980’s Los Angeles, and into his role as an educational reformist, artist, and proud father here in Chicago.
We have the pleasure of presenting you with “The Connection: The Life and Art of Victor Montañez.”
“We need to hold ourselves accountable. If you have no standard of worth, than you need to find yourself a new family or new friends—otherwise you’re just becoming a doormat.”
The prospect of becoming a doormat has loomed over Victor Montañez’s head since childhood. At fifty years old, it is what still gets him out of bed today. His standard of worth is based on his ability to create, and it is this ability that continues to be his saving grace. As a social activist, Victor’s relentless drive has created change all over the nation—giving a chance to thousands who were born with nothing. He has created hope in his own community—bridging the ethnic gap dividing Chicago’s education system, and providing families of all economic backgrounds an equal opportunity to better their children’s lives. As a family man, he has created a childhood for his daughter, Camila, he was never able to experience himself, and collaborated with his best friend and wife, Jodie, in twenty six years of mutual love and unconditional support. But while these acts of selfless devotion have given so much to the world around him, they are just extensions of what Victor has been creating all along—art.
Victor was born in Tampico, Mexico, but spent most of his early childhood in the condensed streets of nearby Ciudad Juárez. Located just over the El Paso border in the state of Chihuahua, in the municipality of Juárez, Ciudad Juárez is Mexico’s largest border city—containing over 1.5 million inhabitants, many of whom are employed in the city’s industrial district. Because of its locale, the city has become a center for international manufacturing and foreign investments.
Juárez was conquered by Spanish explorers in 1659—overthrowing the indigenous natives who had inhabited the area for centuries prior. Occupation has been a continuous theme in the city even following independence, as its locale and high crime rate have facilitated a dense population of US and Mexican military forces; the city’s close proximity to the El Paso border has made it a hotbed for drug cartels and international sex trafficking—causing gambling, prostitution, murder, and rape to run rampant throughout its streets. Juárez’s affinity with crime reached an all-time high in August of 2009, when it was reported to have bolstered the highest murder rate in the entire world—a statistic long accumulating and one certainly not lost on Victor’s childhood: “Our focus was not on school. It was on hustling. We were running around learning to become little hustlers. But when you’re poor, you don’t realize you’re poor. You’re just having fun and enjoying life.”
Victor’s father was an electrician and a union man, but more than that he was a believer. Regugio Montañez believed that human beings are born to think, and that the imposition of the work day is an unnatural hindrance to this birth right. To Regugio, the depths of life lied not in the day to day toil of work, and the belligerence of alcohol, but in the power of philosophy, and the salvation of music. “My dad believed that the conventional dedication to industry was unnatural and unhealthy. To him, a nine to five was a compromise. He felt we should be dedicated to building strong families and culture, and not to building faceless corporations.”
Regugio believed most strongly in a better life for his family, and that this better life would be in America.
A US citizen by birth, Regugio was born into a family of rail road workers on July 4th, 1924 in Wyoming. Five years later, he was deported south of the border alongside his parents and siblings, and some 500,000 others, as part of president Hoover’s 1929 Mexican Repatriation Act. But despite the frustration of his own cultural displacement, Regugio still believed this his wife and children’s futures would be best realized in the States. He packed his things, and headed back to America in order to find work—taking a janitorial job north of the border in El Paso. He began sending money home to the family. Continuing northward, Regugio eventually settled in Sterling, Illinois, where he was able to find employment as a steel mill laborer. He rented a small home, and continued sending money back to his family in Juárez—living, as Victor says, “with one foot in America and one in Mexico.”
Despite the chaos of his upbringing, Victor developed an early affinity for art. He recalls that at the age of six, a picture he had drawn proved to be his ticket out of the condensed streets of Juárez, and the beginning of a new life in America. The military personnel stationed in the city were theoretically a safeguard against the drug cartels and pimps running the streets, but it was often these very personnel that were soliciting hookers and taking bribes from drug lords—something not missed on Victor’s young eyes. Regugio frequently wrote to his family, and would enjoy receiving new drawings from his youngest son. In a particular exchange, he had asked Victor to send him a drawing of his neighborhood—what he received was devastating: “After my dad saw a picture I had drawn depicting my brothers and me playing alongside hookers and thieves, it was the final straw—he knew we had to get out.”
Shortly thereafter, Victor and his family packed their things and joined Regugio in Sterling, Illinois.
Sterling, Illinois was incorporated as an official town in 1838 when the smaller villages of Harrisburg and Chatham combined together. The first railways leading to Sterling were built in 1856, as part of the great expansion west, and the town’s industrial district grew immensely—leading to the development of the steel mill industry, and the establishment of Washington Dillon’s Northwestern Barbed Wire Co. Initially, Northwestern produced barbed wire, drawn wire, nails, and bale ties, while depending on outside suppliers for the wire rods that served as the basis of all their materials. Following the stock market crash of 1929, this situation became problematic as the same venders supplying the company with materials were also their competitors. At this point Washington Dillon’s son, Paul, was now heading the company and knew that he had to find a solution to this problem.
While the legislation of the National Recovery Act had momentarily prohibited the opening of new steel mills operating with blast furnaces, which was the standard production method of the era, there was nothing stating that a steel mill operating with electric furnaces could not be opened—Dillon saw a loophole in the system and capitalized. Against the grain of the blast furnace method of the era, Dillon enlisted the services of William Moore, a pioneer of electric steel making, and set about building new plants. In the winter of 1935, Moore enlisted workers to begin construction, and shortly thereafter the company changed its name to Northwestern Wire and Steel Co.
The town of Sterling was often referred to as “silver city,” because in addition to its production of steel, many of Northwestern’s employees, predominately immigrants, were housed in railway cars painted silver with paint leftover from the Second World War. Dillon’s laborers were able to stay in these make-shift homes through a payroll-deduction plan. Victor and his family were fortunate enough to live in the small home Regugio had rented and avoid the congestion of this make-shift housing. Though Victor’s new life was by no means glamorous, to him and his siblings, it was like nothing they had ever seen before: “We couldn’t believe our eyes. We went from a concrete jungle—a desert city where nothing grew except cacti, and now we saw fruit on trees, fish in the water, and color TV.”
Victor recalls that his abilities as a young artist quickly garnered him attention. “While my choppy English created a language and culture barrier between me and my classmates, my ability to draw allowed me to be well liked. In a way, I was almost like their little Mexican celebrity—making pretty pictures.” In addition to his skills with art, Victor quickly established himself athletically, playing football and wrestling into high school. However, this “celebrity” status would eventually give way to marginalization, and in particular, Victor looks back at his athletic career as a turning point in his treatment in the community. “When I was on the football field, I was needed—I was your quarterback, your lineman—they depended on me, but as soon as we hit the locker room, I was just a ‘stupid spick.’ That did it for me. Racism killed my love of sports, and my desire to go to school.”
Victor’s disillusionment with his community would give way to frequent fist fights, and greatly impacted his attendance and grades in school. He wanted to dropout, but he was given an ultimatum by his father—he could stay in school and be part of his family, or dropout and never be spoken to again. Despite his turmoil, and in part because of it, Victor dedicated himself to accelerated studies and graduated a year early with the class of 1980; however he had no intentions of sticking around Sterling. “I was never an overly religious person, but I had heard about an opportunity to attend a Theology school in Los Angeles. I packed my bags and never looked back.”
Revisit StreetNarrative.net on Wednesday to read part two of “The Connection: The Life and Art of Victor Montañez,” where Montañez discusses his experiences out west, his educational reform work, music, fatherhood, and much more!