On Monday we featured the first installment of our Street Artist Spotlight: “The Connection: The Life and Art of Victor Montañez.” We left off with Victor packing his bags for California, and we resume his story today beginning with his arrival in East LA.
Upon arriving in California, Victor began studying under the missionaries of Divine Word Theology School, and quickly discovered the harsh conditions of gang violence and poverty in East LA. The missionaries were very active in the community—providing food and shelter to urban youth. But after a few months of lending his services to Divine Word, Victor realized that while he enjoyed his work with the missionaries, he needed the opportunity to do more—he knew that to really make a change for these kids, he first had to change the system: “While some feel the call of god to be religious, I feel the call of god to be political. I knew it was my time to take action. The missionaries gave me their blessing, and I followed this call.”
Victor began working with city officials to establish charter schools in the area, and became instrumental in the development of the Solidary Enrichment Action organization. SEA now has hundreds of locations across the country, with thirty six in California alone.
With SEA, Victor was able to give hope to a marginalized culture hitherto declared hopeless by their society: “Basically none of the local schools would take these kids, so we opened our doors, and the local government opened their wallets. They didn’t want these kids to be ‘their problem,’ so they were much more content to just open their wallets and let us deal with them.”
Victor became a mentor for these youth, and he was able to do so because of the commonality created in their mutual struggles: “I was working with at-risk youth—hustlers, thieves, gang bangers, and trying to change their lives, because I could relate to them. While we all feel rage we don’t necessarily act on it—we have options. We can walk away, we can say ‘fuck that,’ we can eat our pride, we can live with humiliation, but some people can’t. I knew the feeling well. In Sterling, I was called a spick every day of my life, and every day I was fighting. My life had to change. The change I needed was the same change I wanted to give the youth of East LA.”
While working with SEA, Victor also continued pursuing his own education—initially enrolling in classes at East LA Community College, and later transferring to UCLA, where he double-majored in political science and psychology. The brash activist quickly asserted himself on campus. Following the lead of Gregorio Garza and Angel Zapata, Victor strived to get an expansion of Chicano studies in higher education, and pushed for improving admissions programs that would make college more accessible for minorities and low-income students.
After three years of fighting to improve the Los Angeles education system, the young visionary hit a wall. At only twenty one years old, the weight of political turmoil and social scrutiny was beginning to take its toll on Victor; to make matters worse, he was struggling to get by financially while keeping up his political status, his studies, and his mounting responsibilities with SEA. Becoming ineligible for in-state tuition or financial assistance, Victor eventually had to withdrawal from his classes at UCLA. Shortly after leaving school, Victor began to feel the realities of his situation closing in: “My students kept dying. After a student I was particularly close with lost his life in 1984, I had an epiphany: I was creating an escape valve for the system. I was no longer able to keep these kids safe—I was only freeing the system of responsibility.” Feeling pressure from his surroundings, and being urged by family to return home and take a break, Victor decided to return to Sterling and weigh his options.
Upon returning to Sterling, Victor was at a crossroads. He was still rattled by his experiences out west, and didn’t know how to come into his own. He still felt out of sorts in the town he had spent his adolescence despising, and needed a new direction. “I had to go through a period of rediscovery—some of which was dark and self-destructive. I was pretty shell-shocked, and depressed…but… then I was good,” he says with a laugh, “you can only lick the wounds for so long. I still wanted to create systematic change. I felt like I had let LA off the hook, and I didn’t want to do the same in Illinois.”
Rudy Lozano was an upstart activist born in Harlington, Texas, and raised in Pilsen—a predominantly Latino neighborhood located in southwest Chicago. Lozano had an immense impact on his community as a young man—pushing for courses in Latin American studies to be included in Chicago area schools, and campaigning for better labor conditions for the community’s working class. In 1982, Lozano ran for alderman, and though he garnered a great deal of attention, he lost by a narrow margin. Despite his defeat, he left a lasting impression on the community, and befriended future mayor Harold Washington, whom he helped campaign into becoming the city’s first African American city official. But just as Lozano was seemingly on the cusp on affecting true change for the Latin community of Chicago, he was tragically murdered in his home on June 8th, 1983—leaving Victor and the entire community of Pilsen devastated.
While Lozano’s death was an immense blow to the community, it only prompted Victor to push harder for reform. Victor was recognized by his community as having the unique skill set of being able to relate to his own people, while also possessing the experience and vernacular needed to win over those in power: “Many people knew of my experiences out West. They knew I had the ability to reach out to the hood just as much as I knew the white collar policy talk needed to implement real change. I began being courted by many organizations, and eventually, in 1988, I took a position with an organization called Designs for Change—the same year the company was able to pass the Chicago School Reform Act.”
The 1988 Chicago School Reform Act gave school faculty, parents, students, and the community at large the ability to directly impact and decide what was occurring in their schools. Local school councils were put in place, and these councils allowed the community a fair vote on major decisions like the hiring and firing of staff, budgeting, and changing and maintaining policies in Chicago area schools. The act has left a lasting impression on the Chicago public school system, and though its struggle for education reform is far from over, the city’s standards for education have raised considerably since its implementation.
Change in Victor’s life has often been drastic, and his next chapter would be no different. Around the time that the tragedy of 9/11 overcame America, Victor was overcome by a new challenge in his own life: fatherhood. When his daughter Camilla came into his life, Victor knew that he wanted to create the life for her that he never had himself—a life free of the pressures of street crime, segregation, and hunger. But aside from providing his daughter a safe and caring home life, Victor knew that he also needed to teach Camilla the importance of independence and creativity—he knew that he needed to return to art. After thirteen years with Designs for Change, Victor decided it was time to turn the page. “People at this point saw me as a rebel rouser, a community activist, and maybe even to some a ‘sell out,’ but almost no one saw me as an artist. I knew this had to change. When my daughter was born, my paradigm shifted big time. I realized that while my contributions with DFC brought change to my community, these changes occurred as a result of me compromising what mattered most in the first place—art. Especially after the cultural impact of 9/11, I wanted to raise Camilla in a household where education and art meant more than money and politics. I decided I needed to move on from DFC, and redirect my path.”
Though he had his head and heart set on this decision, Victor still had to face the conventional realities of paying the bills, and providing for Camilla and his wife, Josi. After taking a few jobs to scrape by, Victor eventually landed his current position as a parent-student specialist for North Eastern Illinois University. Victor is an integral part of the Gear-Up program which introduces kids to college and allows their families to adapt and learn alongside them. Victor begins working with kids in the area when they are in seventh and eighth grade and stays with them through college. Many of these kids come from families who do not speak English. Victor translates information to these parents, helps them work with computers, and assists in filling out the paperwork needed for their children’s education. “If you are an athlete you need an agent, well education is no different. I am an agent for these kids, and I am with them for the long haul.”
In addition to his employment with the university, Victor is also now a full-time student, and plays an integral role in the school’s art center—regularly hosting events and encouraging kids of all different ages to come out and create. Victor sees his return as a student as essential to his role as a father: “My daughter is getting to the age where she is really seeing the importance of higher education, and I am stressing to her the need to go to college. But how can I say these things when, despite my success, I have never finished my degree myself? She is my motivation to keep learning and expanding.” With a dignified career and a loving family, Victor has finally found a happy medium between his many extremes—but that doesn’t mean he is done fighting. Victor channels his years of social reform work and political activity into the art and music he creates today—giving back to the community in a whole new way.
Performing under the moniker DJ Rebel X, Victor spins an eclectic mix of music ranging from rock n’ roll like the Rolling Stones chopped up over hip-hop, to civil rights orations blended with pre-Columbian, Mexican roots music, and quite a bit in between. Victor has performed at various rallies and community events throughout Chicago including the recent Fight for Fifteen protests staged downtown, the Grassroots Collaborative: Take Back Chicago Campaign, and various festivals and events staged by the organization Multi Kulti.
Victor’s visual art is on display all throughout Chicago—appearing in restaurants like Estralla Negra in Logan Square, and La Cocina in Avondale, while being displayed in storefronts such as No Manches Clothing in Pilsen, and becoming an annual staple of events like Pilsen’s 18th street Open Studios, Earth Day in Unity Park, and the various Art in the Park events.
Victor’s distinct brand of resistance art is a hybrid of socio-political commentary, cultural preservation, and impulsive creativity—resulting in an array of works ranging from Dadaist inspired surrealism, Día de Muertos sculptures and paintings, and the use of the post-modern—utilizing objects like broken computers and televisions. Perhaps the most distinctive trait of Victor’s work is his use of manikins—objects he feels exemplify the spirit-stifling nature of society: “A manikin is blank, lifeless, and designed to be like all others. By taking these lifeless objects and adding my art to them I am showing that while we are all forced to live among materialism, we do not have to submit to it, and no one can take away our ability to create. I believe the fight is far from over. We are in the warzone—this is the warzone. If you pay attention things are fucked up—really fucked up. My work is a direct representation of our struggle as a human race.”
Welcoming the entire creative community with open arms, Victor believes that there is no room for snobbery or pretension in the world of art. He routinely hosts events in his Logan Square home—which is coated inside and out in his striking art—and allows local musicians, poets, and artists to showcase their abilities to a large audience.
Victor Montañez believes in the simple beauty of the creative process, and that it is this visceral connection that transcends the arts beyond the social impositions and marginalization that he has fought his entire life—leaving this simple message to all detractors: “I don’t care how well you speak; no one is as powerful as visual art, music, and poetry.”