A couple weeks ago, UC Davis’ The Aggie’s editorial entitled “Unfair requests” discussed the controversy of how a mural created by students in Chicano/a Studies 171: Mural Workshop, intended to be painted on the North Wall of the Student Community Center, was later canceled when SCC administrators asked that three-fourths of their draft be removed or changed. This “unfair request” was a result of complaints made by students and staff, who felt that the drafted mural did not perfectly represent all cultures here at UC Davis. The article argues that the grounds on which the students involved with the mural had to satisfy the requirements to have their mural approved were “ridiculous request[s]” with “impossible expectations.” A reader agrees with the editorial’s view, commenting on how the art was lost in this “torrent of political correctness.”
Meanwhile, another mural is being painted on the South Wall, and according to Malaquias Montoya, the creator of the mural, it is not meant to be political in any way.
Montoya, a Professor Emeritus who taught in both the Chicana/o and Art departments here at UC Davis, is an extremely talented artist with a very political background. He was a student and prominent figure at UC Berkeley during height of the Civil Rights turmoil, known for his posters for propaganda in support of the strikes and demonstrations, and rallying to bring chicano and ethnic studies to UC Berkeley. In 1969, a Chicano and Ethnic studies department was finally created, and after he graduated in 1970, Montoya agreed to teach art and literature as part of the Chicano studies department, teaching there for four years.
For the next forty years Montoya continued to be political with his artwork, influenced by his farm working background, the injustices and feelings of inequality he saw in school systems during his childhood. As he gained more understanding about injustices to not only Chicanos but other cultures as well, Montoya solidified his resolve to make art an important factor in third world strikes.
During my interview with Montoya, he explained to me that all art is some propaganda, and that the kind of art an artist produces depends on who the artist wants to propagandize for. For him, art was about addressing the injustices brought unto any place where people are suffering. He stated that artists have an important voice that can move people to action, and that as an artist it is important to support those who need a voice, emphasizing, “Why paint little mountains when a house is on fire? If there’s a fire, we should all put it out. You don’t stand by and watch it burn.”
When asked about his inspiration for the mural on the SCC wall, Montoya stated that his artwork is not political, but is a form of propaganda in that it tells a narrative that pays tribute to the purpose of the building. Helping him with this mural are Jaime Montiel, a colleague and ‘00 graduate from UC Davis, and Jose Chavez, a first-year student at UC Davis.
The mural has two Native Americans, who symbolize the tribe that once occupied the land that is now Davis, lying across the bottom of the mural. They are protected by the maguey plant, or sentry plant, a symbol of strength and struggle that Montoya uses a lot in his artwork. Outstretched hands symbolize the university welcoming its students.
On one half of the mural is a quilt. Montoya felt that a quilt, as opposed to a melting pot or salad bowl, was a very nice symbol to represent the many cultures because of its many different patterns and colors. And though quilts can be fragile, this quilt is held together by string threaded through by the needles of the maguey plant. On this half of the mural you can also see the SCC in the background and two young ladies embracing each other.
On the other half of the mural, graduating students are seen holding banners, the banners symbolizing struggles the graduates will encounter but hopefully overcome to make this world a better place to live in. The graduates stand on an open book, which will contain a quote by Richard Shaull on the meaning of education. The banners with the graduates hold become one ribbon and are meant to represent “the practice of freedom” -- ultimately the main story of the mural.
The mural may not represent all ages, cultures, and colors that exist in this world, but it is still a beautiful work of art. The message that the art creates is both inspiring and easily accessible. Flyers with a more detailed description about what the mural represents are available in the SCC lobby.
At the end of his interview I asked Montoya if he could summarize his life philosophy in a couple of sentences. He replied, “To do good for those who are less fortunate than I am. And those of us who are healthy and have an income and job, we should be out helping others. This is the philosophy my mom brought me up with. She said, ‘When you have enough to keep yourself happy, then you give the rest away to those who don’t.’” Then he laughed and added, “But of course, I don’t give everything away.”