The Royal Chicano Air Force
Biography from "The Prosperity Portfolio Special Issue Portraits 2007" from Prosper Magazine's online site May 2007
When the United Farmworkers staged their protests for the right to unionize, the joke was that they had their own security force -- the Royal Chicano Air Force, a group of long-haired Chicanos who had no airplanes, no organizational structure, and who often strangely smelled of turpentine. Better known by their initials as the RCAF, the group was initially born in the 1970s as the Rebel Chicano Art Front, a collective started by artists Jose Montoya and Esteban Villa in Sacramento.
The RCAF started at California State University-Sacramento where Villa taught and Montoya headed the Barrio Art Program, and soon the group was burgeoning with graduate art students. But the name kept getting confused with Canada's Royal Canadian Air Force, and the good-humored Montoya and Villa shrugged their shoulders and said, "OK." The Royal Chicano Air Force was born.
Cesar Chavez and others were just getting started with the movement to unionize and fight for farmworkers' rights, and the RCAF pitched in to help. They made posters, murals, drawings, lawn signs, banners, bumper stickers, flags. They worked day and night producing hundreds of editions of posters to promote the events -- always for free, and always as a team. Then, after working overnight without sleep, they marched with their fellow Mexican-Americans, having great empathy for the struggles and being just a few years and couple of college courses away from working in the fields themselves.
Villa credits what he and the other RCAF artists learned at that time for the birth of an art movement. "If it hadn't been for Cesar, there would be no Chicano art," he said.
Members of the RCAF comment that while they have very individualistic styles, the work seems to "come from the same bucket of paint." Artist Stan Padilla believes it's because of a common point of view and search for Chicano identity, adding that the RCAF and the Barrio Arts Program came before colleges had extensive cultural studies programs. Chicanos are not quite Mexican, but not quite American; most have indigenous roots, but are also influenced by the Anglo/Colonial culture that altered California landscape hundreds of years ago. "We took fragments of what we knew, like a mosaic, and laid them out, and suddenly there was a picture," said Padilla.
The list of established artists with Latino heritage that claim a connection to the RCAF is extensive and includes Ricardo Favela, Juanishi Orosco, Rudy Cuellar, Hector Gonzalez, Juan Cervantez, Armando Cid, Celia Rodriguez, Kathryn Garcia, Louie "the Foot" Gonzalez, Max Garcia, Philip Santos, and the late Eva Garcia. Others were folded into the RCAF family, people like Juan Carillo, a longtime manager at the California Arts Council, Sam Rios, a CSUS Chicano studies professor, and the late Joe Serna, a CSUS government professor and onetime mayor of Sacramento.
The members of the RCAF are connected by the mix of politics, art, quest for identity, and perpetual sense of humor regardless of the struggles and obstacles they've overcome. For artist Lorraine Garcia Nakata, the reason for their collective funny-bone is simple. "If you can't cry, you laugh."
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This article and three others were originally written pro bono by Mary Beth Barber, communications director at the California Arts Council, for Prosper Magazine to highlight the value of the arts and artists in the Sacramento region.