Richard Montoya: 25 Years Of Laughing About Race 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.
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Richard Montoya: 25 Years Of Laughing About Race

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Richard Montoya: 25 Years Of Laughing About Race

Richard Montoya: 25 Years Of Laughing About Race

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Madeleine Brand with the last California character in our summer series.

Mr. RICHARD MONTOYA (Member, Culture Clash): My name is Richard Montoya. I'm a member of the performance trio known as Culture Clash. And by God, I'm a Chicano.

BRAND: For the last quarter century, Richard Montoya and his two Culture Clash partners have been entertaining audiences with performances that deal with race in America.

Mr. MONTOYA: I never read Kafka. I never read Tolstoy. I don't even know the words to "La Bamba." I'm a Chicano trapped inside the Beverly Center and I can't get out.

BRAND: Montoya's work can be over the top. It's not always politically correct. He draws on the real life experiences that occur when cultures clash for his material. And here in California, where Latinos make up more than a third of the population, that's where Montoya finds much of his creative inspiration.

And, Richard Montoya, you call yourself Chicano. What does that mean and why do you still use that term?

Mr. MONTOYA: It is a worldview. It is. And it has its reaches into our civil rights movement, the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement of the Southwest. And it used to be do-or-die, and life and death for us, and people went to prison, and people marched, and people died.

And as a writer and a playwright, I'm interested in what I call the last of honest Chicano plays, whether they deal with Chavez Ravine, a neighborhood that was displaced to make way for Dodgers Stadium, or "Water and Power," a play about new political power and corruption in the ranks of Chicano-elected officials and law enforcement people. I think that there's still room and there's still gold to be mined.

And the great August Wilson called himself a race man and that inspired me because I feel like I am also a race man. But I'm interested in the multicultural experiment.

BRAND: Tell me about Culture Clash. This is 25 years old.

Mr. MONTOYA: Culture Clash began in 1984 in a small little corner of the Mission District in San Francisco. And San Francisco in '84 was not a Chicano town at all. It was very - there are Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, it was the height civil strife in those countries. The Farm Workers' Movement, the Chicano movement was still pretty strong by then.

So nobody really wanted clowns, but we kind of found this hybrid performance thing that worked for us. And it was part gallery installation, stand-up, theater - Chicano Teatro. It was this kind of new thing for us. It was only meant to last a weekend or two, and 25 years has gone by.

Unidentified Man: Yes, the Mex-Men, mighty new kind of Mexicans transformed by toxic…

BRAND: On your Web site, you have some clips from some of your comedy sketches. One of them is about Mexican superheroes and you have these mutated Mexicans transformed by toxic waste - and this toxic waste dumped American factories in Mexican villages. So you've got Orange Man, Busboy Man, and Leaf Blower Man whose arm is actually a leaf blower and he's a superhero. Tell us more about that.

Mr. MONTOYA: It was something that 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 that so much effort is made to vilify. And our Latino-Americano stereotypes are in much better hands with us because we're going to put that little bit of a spin on it, where Leaf Blower Man, Orange Seller Man and and Busboy Man, mutated Mexicans as they are, come out a little bit on top. And Mexicans, at the end of the day, will save the day.

BRAND: And then White people don't feel guilty.

Mr. MONTOYA: No, they don't because they're going see a little bit of themselves, I think, in this humor. Because, look, I'm not a wealthy person by any means, but every other Saturday a very nice Salvadoran house-cleaning couple comes to my house. And when they miss a day, my world is turned upside down.

Now, do I employ them? Am I breaking the law? Should I feel bourgeois? No. Their son has 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. So in that case, Culture Clash, we are the "gringo" as well, quote-unquote.

BRAND: Richard, tell me, you've been doing this for 25 years. How have the issues, when you first started out - you said you were very political and in performance art, and a lot sort of Chicano identity theater - how have the issues changed in the last 25 years for you?

Mr. MONTOYA: You know, the identity politics part, I'm kind of happy to say that, you know, being a little bit more secured in who and what we were, we didn't have to spend every show screaming to the audience that, you know, we were Chicano or Latino or Hispanic. And, frankly, people from Syracuse to Miami to Kansas weren't that interested in that.

I think one of the greatest common threads has been this idea of immigration. And we didn't think that it would still be around with such fervor and such, you know, anti-immigration sentiment that we see throughout the country. It concerns us a great deal.

So on a good night, good theater can still be a town hall, where even if we're in Costa Mesa, South Coast Rep in Orange County, the protagonist of the evening can be an immigrant man that a lot of us, myself included, drive past 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. We're kind of reaching people that have changed their focus and flipped the lens on looking at a Mexican immigrant down the street.

BRAND: Richard Montoya is a member of the trio Culture Clash. It's a theater group. Thank you for being with us.

Mr. MONTOYA: I was such a pleasure talking with you. Thank you, Madeleine.

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