Interview with Delilah Montoya

Delilah Montoya, Diego Y La Virgen #1, 1998. Gelatin silver print, toned, from the series Guadalupe Tattoo. Courtesy of the artist.

While working on the solo exhibition Delilah Montoya: Syncretism, artist Delilah Montoya spoke with curator Katherine Ware about growing up as a New Mexican in Omaha, her emerging activism, the importance of collaboration, and how art can give a voice to communities.

Ware: One of the things I wanted to do with the solo shows during Focus on Photography is identify a central thread that connects several bodies of each artist’s work. In your case, the current that runs through all the bodies of work has something to do with things that are betwixt and between, whether it’s culture, gender, or geography.

Montoya: I’ve always been interested in syncretism, in places that are not one thing or another, but many things. One of the things I learned early on within the Chicano Movement is the idea of mestizo, the coming together of multiple cultures.

Ware: New Mexico has been a longtime crossroads; that idea is important to understanding this place and its people.

Montoya: Northern New Mexico is the homeland. My mother’s family came from a little ranchito around Rociada, and past Sapello. My great, great grandmother Garcia came over the mountains from around the Santa Fe area, probably Pojoaque. On the way to Rociada, her husband gets killed in an Apache raid. Then she takes up the land as a single woman.

Ware: So you’ve got some strong women in your heritage. Were you born in New Mexico?

Montoya: No, I was born on an Air Force base in Texas. We moved back into New Mexico, and then we moved to El Paso, then back to Fort Worth, and eventually we moved to Omaha, where my father’s family is located. His mother was Polish, and she worked in the packing houses and as a waitress there. My mother would bring us back to New Mexico in the summers, and she raised us in many ways New Mexican.

Ware: Did you live in the city in Omaha, or were you on the base?

Montoya: We lived in South Omaha which at that time was

a place where the immigrants were coming in. It was very diverse: Polish and Italian, a black population, and the Mexican population was coming in. This is where I became politicized.

Ware: It sounds like you were exposed to a lot of different cultural influences as a child, and then in your teen years you began seeking your own identity.

Montoya: Right. It came out of my association with the Chicano Awareness Center. I started working at a Mexican restaurant. That’s where I came across Esperanza Montelong, whose family was politically active. She drew me in, and we became part of the youth group there and learned a lot about the Chicano poetry that was happening at that time, the arts, the murals, all of these things. The Brown Berets came into town; they were the Chicano version of the Black Panthers. This was also the period of time in Omaha, in the early 1970s, when race riots were happening, particularly in the high school that I went to.

Ware: That sounds like a tumultuous and stimulating environment. How did you fit yourself into that world? You were obviously witnessing some injustice and prejudice.

Montoya: I was trying to understand the world that I was confronting. I found myself aligning with the Civil Rights Movement. I held on to the idea of the reinvention of self, to align myself with the culture and its history. I wanted to connect with my minority friends who were also trying to connect to their past, and I was really inspired by the poetry and visuals that I was seeing and the theater.

Ware: Were you making art at that time?

Montoya: I made little books with poetry that we’d get from other poets that we saw. I went to a lot of activities, theater, poetry readings, and we’d find out what was going on from Texas all the way to California. We heard about the Chicano Moratorium, a student movement organized to protest the Vietnam War, and El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán presented at the Chicano Liberation Youth Conference in Denver.

Ware: Did you think of yourself as an artist at that time?

Montoya: Oh, absolutely.

Ware: Making those books was part of your emerging identity.

Montoya: That was part of being an artist, mostly because I had always drawn, always, as far as I can remember, made things. My mother was good at encouraging me to make things and draw. I liked the quiet time. Artists tend to spend a lot of time by themselves.

Ware: But you didn’t consider going to school to study art?

Montoya: What could they teach me? Eurocentric art? No way. There was no way I was going to touch that eurocentric art. I wanted to make my own art with my own voice. After high school I received a full scholarship for RN nursing. They were looking to bring minorities into that program, but I got pregnant and they took it away from me. I had to rethink myself, and at that point I decided that I wanted to get an education so that I could support my daughter. I realized that I had a certain ability in art, and I thought maybe commercial art might be the thing for me. I started off with a two-year program in Omaha, not thinking that I was actually smart enough to go on to college. It was during that time that I picked up a camera for the first time.

It seemed like the camera liked me a lot. Pictures came very easily, and I remember at one point I had something like $500 to my name, $400, something like that, and I knew I wanted a camera. I needed a camera. I was literally standing in the store, baby on hip, staring at this Honeywell Pentax, and I’m thinking to myself, “I’ve got $500. It costs $250. It leaves me $250.” What do I do? I remember sweaty palms, and finally it just came to mind, “I’m going to get this thing.” I grabbed that camera, paid a lot of money, and walked away with it. I look back at that now, and I realize it was my fishing pole. I always made my money with the camera.

Ware: It was a tool. You weren’t buying a Ferrari. You were buying a tool.

Montoya: At the time, I didn’t think of it as a tool. I just knew I had to have that thing. True, it was a low-end camera, but I got some good pictures out of it. I realized that you can buy all this fancy dancy equipment, but unless you have the eye and you can get yourself into those places and see, all that equipment is not going to do any bit of good.

Ware: Sometimes a tool makes a difference, but sometimes, it’s just a tool. It’s what you bring to it.

Montoya: I realized that I wanted to be a photographer. I wanted to make images, and I realized that as a twenty-one- or twenty-two-year-old single mom with a Pentax camera, I probably would have a hard time even opening up a portfolio in front of someone. Then I realized, “You know what, I would hire myself. That’s what I will do. I will hire myself.” I went back to the Chicano Awareness Center, and I told them, “Look, I can make a whole slideshow for you about the Mexican Nebraskan. Let’s write a grant.” I knew that if we got the grant, I would make myself the photographer. And we did, we received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, and I started putting the project together.

Ware: You reinvented yourself.

Montoya: I reinvented myself, so that I could get myself a job as a photographer. After that project, I heard that in Colorado there was this production house, Photosynthesis, that was hiring. So I just packed up the car, packed up my baby, drove over there, put my application in, and the next day I was hired. My sister was living on the west side of Denver in this very large Chicano barrio, and I had never lived in an area that was completely segregated. The barrio had Chicanos coming out of the San Luis Valley and new immigrants coming in from Mexico as well, a mix of Hispanos.

Ware: Did that feel like home? Especially with so many people there who had come from New Mexico?

Montoya: I loved it. It was great. It was vibrant, I could listen to Spanish, there were people who I understood who could understand me. But then I got to a point where I realized that I wanted to go back to school, I had a real desire to get my undergraduate degree, and I knew that New Mexico, the land of my mother, Albuquerque, had a really strong photo department. There were these amazing people there. I decided, “Well, time to pack up the car again.”

Ware: Time to start a new chapter in the artist’s book.

Montoya: I was heavily influenced by Bruce Davidson’s book, East 100th Street, where he photographed a neighborhood for a couple of years. When I got to the west side of Denver, I wanted to start photographing what I had seen. I didn’t want to do it right away, so I stayed in the community for quite a while until people knew me. Then right when I got ready to leave, I just started shooting like crazy. People that I knew, everything that I saw, things that I knew I would never see again. Eventually, I turned those images into a small-edition book with Cecilio Garcia-Camarillo called Crickets in My Mind. It was the merging of his poetry and my first look at feeling La Raza to be all around me.

Ware: How would you articulate the concept of the mestizaje as it plays out in your various series?

Montoya: A lot of my work and my research is about figuring out my world around me. After I did El Sagrado Corazón and the Guadalupe Tattoo series, I got interested in the idea of the bad girl, las malcriadas. At first I thought, “Who are the bad girls?” And then I decided, let me look at the folklore tradition, it’s so much fun, and there’s so many layers.

Ware: After exploring the mythical bad girls, you looked for them in real life, too.

Montoya: Who is our contemporary bad girl? Because the bad girl isn’t all bad. She thinks of herself as taking the right track, but the rest of the world is looking at it entirely differently. When a willful little girl decides that she is going to be doing it her way and not the way that they’re trying to teach her, she gets that bad girl label.

Ware: Now that sounds truly autobiographical. I have check with your mother on that!

Montoya: I was a good girl! I talked to Teresa Marquez in Albuquerque, who was doing research on female boxers, and we decided to collaborate. I enjoy collaborating as a way of expressing the voice of the community; it helps expand on that voice, it’s no longer just my voice, it becomes more of “us.” You can’t be the single voice of culture. And a collaborator offers another angle, you learn more. I had this preconceived stereotypical idea that the boxers would be barrio Latinos, a lot of minority women. That’s not the case. It is international, it goes across race. They learn how to box, and they deliver a pretty good fight. More than anything, they are athletes, and they have an interest in combat.

Ware: It’s clear that the training is extremely rigorous, and it’s a demanding sport. As a society, we’re still not comfortable with a woman who is inclined toward that kind of activity. They’re muscular, they’re tough, they train like crazy, they hit people for a living!

Montoya: Absolutely. It’s hard to be hit, and it’s hard to hit. Just as they have to be able to deliver a punch, they have to take those punches. It’s a mindset that I don’t have, but it fascinated me, because for men it’s sanctioned, it’s okay. They can get into the ring, they can train, their fathers are proud of them. The female boxers, they have to move away from what social order is, and reinvent themselves into what they want to be.

Ware: With some collaborations, you’re also extending the media. Someone else is painting and you’re photographing the entire thing; you add your images to someone else’s writing, or you’re doing an installation piece or book; that makes it more dynamic.

Montoya: Collaboration makes it more interdisciplinary, and also gives it volume. For me, it’s the ideas that are the most important thing. Some people will think of me as a photographer. Okay, but I don’t necessarily think of myself as a photographer. I think of myself as a visual artist. That’s why I have many different photographic and printing processes in the show. Each subject is going to require something different, in order to give it the form and shape that I’m thinking about.

Ware: That’s really important for artists to take into consideration, thinking about format, presentation, medium. All of these things need to contribute to the ultimate meaning of the piece. To me, it makes much more sense that an artist would need that flexibility, would seek that out.

Montoya: With the female boxers, I knew I wanted to put it into black and white, to give the sense of history.

Ware: To create a documentary feeling?

Montoya: Yes. I was also very interested in doing large prints, because I wanted to give them presence, so there’s the idea of confrontation.

Ware: In the series Sed, you use both black-and-white and color, though we are only showing the color work in the exhibition. What motivated that, and how did you decide to make most of the work panoramic?

Montoya: That project was experimental. Orlando Lara at Stanford was doing a lot of study on the migration trails. He got ahold of me and wanted to collaborate, but I only had four days to shoot. I did what they call “hedge your bets.” I brought black-and-white and color, just to see which one was going to work out the best. What I found was, I like the color.

Ware: There’s not that much color in the desert landscape!

Montoya: It was the skies, and it was the subtle colors. Also, you’d begin to see items that were discarded by migrants.

I took pictures of the landscape, and he went on to work with the video. What I love about this series is that you really can understand who’s passing through the landscape without ever seeing them. There’s a real sense of their presence. We call it the presence of absence within those pieces.

Ware: That’s a way of expressing the voice that you’ve been talking about, giving voice to a population. It has the effect of saying, “I’m here.” “We’re here.” How can that history be known if it is not spoken?

Montoya: Nobody wants to talk about it—that is, the crossing. It’s so degrading and difficult. It’s something that you want to forget. But how else is a community going to heal? You have to talk about it. That was the impetus for creating that work, that and the idea of using that particular space as a metaphor for the Chicano experience.

Ware: Obviously there is a political aspect to this issue, but the humanitarian aspect is where I’m hoping people can find common ground, because to have people under such duress, carrying their children long distances and at times consuming their own urine in order to survive in the desert is dire. What do you hope people will take away from these pictures?

Montoya: One of the things I was clear about when I first started was that I wanted to make work for my own community. I felt that, so much of the time, that artwork, or the artwork that was privileged, had very little to do with or was a skewed vision of what our Chicana world was like. I wanted to make the work that gave vision and gave a voice to our world around us.

Ware: Sharing the authenticity and the validity of that voice is one of your main goals?

Montoya: Exactly. That’s one of the reasons why I do so much research, because I’m trying to understand and give it validity. Our school system doesn’t teach us those things. We have to become our own teacher. When we first started this interview we talked about the invention of self. That, for me, is the process of self-invention. Not only am I inventing myself, but I’m trying to invent it in such a way that the community understands it and can embrace it. I think it does. A lot of the work does.

Katherine Ware is curator of photography at the New Mexico Museum of Art and the organizer of the museum’s Focus on Photography series of exhibitions, on view through March 15, 2015.