Richard Montoya: 25 Years Of Laughing About Race

Richard Montoya i i

Richard Montoya calls himself a "raceman," interested in the multicultural experiment. Courtesy of The Oregon Shakespeare Festival hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of The Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Richard Montoya

Richard Montoya calls himself a "raceman," interested in the multicultural experiment.

Courtesy of The Oregon Shakespeare Festival

In the mid-1980s in California, at a time when few people wanted to talk about race, Richard Montoya was laughing about it. His thought-provoking performances with the group Culture Clash over the past 25 years have cracked up audiences, and changed some minds.

Montoya's work can be over the top, and it's not always politically correct. But he draws on real life experiences. He proudly calls himself a "Chicano," and much of his inspiration comes from California, where Latinos make up more than a third of the population.

"The great August Wilson called himself a 'raceman,'" says Montoya of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, "and that inspired me because I feel like I am also a raceman. I'm interested in the multicultural experiment."

And this curiosity about the multicultural experiment is at the heart of what Culture Clash does. The group started performing in 1984 in San Francisco's Mission District. Their project was part gallery installation, part standup and part theater. Montoya tells Madeleine Brand that for many in California's Latino community at the time, there didn't seem to be much to laugh about.

Culture Clash i i

The Culture Clash trio — (left to right) Ric Salinas, Richard Montoya and Herbert Siguenza — has been entertaining audiences for 25 years with performances that deal with race in America. This photo was taken in 1986. Harry Gamboa Jr. hide caption

itoggle caption Harry Gamboa Jr.
Culture Clash

The Culture Clash trio — (left to right) Ric Salinas, Richard Montoya and Herbert Siguenza — has been entertaining audiences for 25 years with performances that deal with race in America. This photo was taken in 1986.

Harry Gamboa Jr.

"There were Nicaraguans, Salvadorans. It was the height of civil strife in those countries. The Farm Workers Movement, the Chicano movement, was still pretty strong by then," he says. "So nobody really wanted clowns."

But they must have hit a nerve. The group's performances were only meant to last a weekend or two, but 25 years have gone by, and Culture Clash is still going strong.

One of the trio's notable sketches features Mexican superheroes — mutated Mexicans, transformed by exposure to toxic waste from American factories in Mexican villages. There is Orange Man, Busboy Man and Leaf Blower Man, whose arm actually is a leaf blower.

"We thought that would be fun to honor the people that do the mundane daily chores, the people that are part of the work service backbone of places like Los Angeles and Orange County," says Montoya. "So much effort is made to vilify [these people]."

The goal, however, isn't to deepen racial divisions, but rather to explore them. After all, Montoya points out, issues of race and class are complex.

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"I'm not a wealthy person by any means, but every other Saturday a very nice Salvadoran house-cleaning couple comes to my house," says Montoya. "Should I feel bourgeois? No. Their son is graduated from UC San Diego in La Jolla and that's how they've done it. They've pieced together their American dream, and their son will not be doing what they're doing."

He adds, "In that case, in Culture Clash, we are the 'gringo' as well."

Montoya's goal for Culture Clash is to be thought-provoking.

"On a good night, good theater can still be a town hall," he says. "The protagonist of the evening can be an immigrant man that a lot of us, myself included, drive past at the Home Depot as fast as we can. And when a well-heeled Anglo crowd in Orange County is on their feet at the end of the night, we're not singing to the choir."

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