Bay Area actor and maestro Noé Yaocoatl Montoya, a member of El Teatro Campesino, died on Nov. 26 due to complications of COVID-19. He was 66.
Lupe Ruby Ortiz found that bonding with Noé Yaocoatl Montoya was quite easy. Ortiz (she/her) spent years singing in the annual holiday productions at El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, Calif., and often found herself backstage with Montoya, a man who embraced the role of maestro at the famed Chicano theatre company founded by Luis Valdez (he/him).
Montoya, one of the earliest Teatro members from the days when the company moved to its new home in 1971, died from COVID-19 on Thanksgiving Day, just days after posting encouraging words on his prognosis. He was a pillar of El Teatro Campesino, most notably as a musician—a man who carried the deepest musical traditions of “La Huelga” and “La Causa” on his back. Before his death, he passed along his knowledge to multiple generations of artists who came through the doors of the Teatro playhouse. The impact of Montoya’s passing was felt far and wide, with both local and national outlets providing airtime to report the loss of an artist with roots in activism and social justice. His guitar was quite literally an instrument of peace, and his love for people lives on within those who grieve his loss.
“It was magical singing with him, he was so lovable and encouraging,” says Ortiz, performed with him at El Teatro Campesino and at various community events in and around San Juan Bautista.
“Thank you for your prayers and words of encouragement,” Montoya posted to his Facebook page on Nov. 23. “It’s been 7 days since I tested positive and so far I am feeling ok. I am sleeping ok, do not have a fever, my body isn’t achy anymore. I am getting an appetite again.”
One of the many cruelties of this virus is that it does not always move linearly. What may seem a steady recovery can change for the worse in an instant. After those encouraging words, which greatly comforted his many fans and friends, Montoya died suddenly at his home in the nearby city of Hollister just four days later. He was 66.
“He was such an anchor for us here in San Juan and part of everything,” says Valdez, who rose to prominence as the first Latino director on Broadway with Zoot Suit in 1979. (A feature film version of the play was released in 1981, and his critically acclaimed biopic La Bamba premiered in 1987.) “I was duly impressed by his enthusiasm,” he adds. “He was open to learning everything you can at the Teatro, especially music. As years went by, he was a repository of musical knowledge, with styles like corridos and rancheras residing in him.”
The virus that has defined 2020 has taken a particularly horrendous toll on elders and people of color. According to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, a study of farmworkers in Salinas Valley found that 13 percent of the 1,091 tested were positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Only five percent of Californians tested positive from the beginning of the pandemic to late October. San Benito County, where San Juan Bautista sits, reached a total of 2,964 cases on Dec. 21. December numbers have spiked particularly high, with more difficult days ahead.
For farmworking communities who have relied on services such as food banks and community goodwill to get through these unprecedented times, Montoya never shied away from doing what he loved: showing up and putting himself among the most vulnerable to provide uplifting peace and critical respite with his music. The numerous requests he received to be part of these events were never turned down.
The history of Teatro Campesino is rooted in the history of peaceful yet forceful protest. Valdez left his role with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a political satire theatre company, in the early 1960s to join labor leader César Chávez in Delano, Calif., in 1965, where a mobilization between Mexican American and Filipino American farmworkers was in full swing. Valdez’s role in the movement was about building morale through teatro, helping to educate farmworkers about the need for striking, and dramatizing the battles being waged by those who toiled in the punishing Central Valley heat, breaking their backs to pick crops for the world’s dinner tables—all for an undignified pittance. The dawn of El Teatro Campesino saw the birth of actos, or short plays, which were rooted in agitprop theatre and commedia de’ll arte.
In those early days on the picket line, performances took place in union halls and on the backs of flatbed trucks. After six years of a peripatetic existence throughout the Valley, the Teatro moved north to San Juan Bautista in 1971, a small Spanish Mission town in Northern California just outside the southern tip of the Salinas Valley, where they have been housed ever since.
Montoya was one of the troupe’s earliest community recruits, a young man in his teens when he first ventured to the former packing shed-turned-playhouse. Armed with a guitar and a youthful zest for walking, Montoya never shied away from marching for the rights of farmworkers, at times with Chávez himself.
Valdez’s son Kinan (he/him), who has worked with Teatro Campesino in various capacities over the years, most recently as the producing artistic director, had a unique experience with Montoya. Kinan was only three years old when he found himself on a European tour with Montoya and other members of the company in 1976, and later worked with him as a peer. What stands out to him is how Montoya crafted a precocious view of his own role in preserving the music of his people, which comes from Chicano music legends such as Lalo Guerrero—music rooted in pride, nobility, and struggle.
“He took it upon himself to be the transmitter of these songs and served as an organic repository of this music,” says Kinan. “Because he was so influenced as a young man, as a young person, he said to himself, ‘I have to make sure I preserve these tenets of Chicano culture and pass them on to future generations.’”
It was not just the legacy of music that Montoya prioritized passing along. His signature role for the Teatro was a principal character in La Virgen del Tepeyac, a holiday play that has run biennially, alternating with La Pastorela, since 1971. The story dramatizes the four apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Indigenous messenger Juan Diego on the Hill of Tepeyac outside of Mexico City in 1531.
Montoya played the role of Juan Diego four times in the 1970s, but went on a hiatus in the 1990s to record music with other groups in other venues. He returned to the Teatro in 2002 after a pilgrimage to Mexico City to visit the Basilica of La Virgen de Guadalupe, the church that was built around those apparitions.
Inspired by that visit, Montoya wanted another opportunity to play the role and received his wish at the request of the Teatro. He portrayed Juan Diego a total of five more times since 2002, retiring from the role in 2014. An older, wiser Montoya brought compassion and truth to the character that mesmerized audiences, notably Valdez.
“For these last 20 years, Noé embodied Juan Diego’s authenticity and sincerity, weeping onstage in the role,” says Valdez. “He was just a wonderful, beautiful artist with a great heart and humility you don’t always find.”
Humility is a recurring theme among those who speak of Montoya. Robert Eliason (he/him), a photographer and journalist who has spent more than a decade documenting El Teatro Campesino for BenitoLink, was one of many moved by Montoya’s turn as Juan Diego. Eliason remembers a valuable lesson he learned after continuously bumping into Montoya while trying to shoot a performance, at one moment seeming to earn Montoya’s ire. As Eliason sat with his discouragement, trying to work up the gumption to apologize, it was Montoya who told him to keep working.
“I was just staring at the floor, and suddenly I see him come over and he’s grabbing me, gesturing for me to get up and keep taking pictures,” says Eliason. “I said, ‘No, I’m constantly in your way,’ and he says, ‘What you’re doing is just as important as what I’m doing, now go do your job’…It wasn’t a star thing for him—I was there to do a job and so was he, and we were both equally important to the company at that point.”
Eliason spoke to Montoya for an hour on the eve of Thanksgiving, the night before he died. He wanted to gain Montoya’s perspective on the role of Juan Diego as well as discuss this year’s production for an article in BenitoLink, which ran in December. Due to the decline of the aging Mission, the last production there was in 2018, and at present there are no plans to return. COVID-19 moved this year’s production to a streaming radio play.
Both men were bonded by tragedy. When Montoya’s son suffered a stroke, it was Eliason who was there to help him through the process of helping his son recover, offering guidance from the experience of working through the stroke of his own mother. When Eliason went in recently for prostate cancer surgery, it was Montoya who helped guide him through the procedure before his passing. “When I found out about my cancer, he was one of the first people I talked to in order to help me put things in perspective,” recalls Eliason.
Montoya always embraced any opportunity to share his vast knowledge of music, as well as acting. The role of maestro meant everything to him, a role which Kinan described as his “spiritual core and positivity, a generosity of spirit.” A great fear for any performer taking a role that was cemented by another is having to fill Grand Canyon-sized shoes. In that sense, Mauricio Sámano (he/him), who stepped into the role of Juan Diego after Montoya, is no different than any other actor. Yet of all the lessons that the supportive Montoya passed on, it was his reason for performing in the first place that has stuck with Sámano.
“If I am keeping anything from him, especially when it comes to acting, it is that acting is truly a tool for us to educate people and fight for justice,” says Sámano. “That care and compassion he had for humanity and what that means, that’s what stands out for me the most.”
San Juan Bautista was Montoya’s artistic home, but his art and activism took him all over the country. Meropi Peponides (she/her) and Beto O’Byrne (he/him) are co-founders of Radical Evolution, a producing collective of multidisciplinary, multi-ethnic artists in Brooklyn. The collective has been working with Montoya and El Teatro Campesino since 2015 on The Corrido of the San Patricios, a piece inspired by the story of Los San Patricios, a group of Irish soldiers who defected from the U.S. Army to fight for Mexico during the Mexican American war.
For both, the loss of Montoya, both to the project and the world, is immeasurable. “The way Noé drew on traditional and folk forms and brought them into our theatrical collaboration was a completely unique way of working that I had not encountered before,” says Peponides. “I had studied Chicano theatre in an academic setting but had not experienced the ways in which Noé combined music, including Indigenous instrumentation, poetry, and performance. He also had an impeccable ear for scoring a theatrical text in a way that was both instantly familiar and wholly unique.”
“He was the best kind of maestro,” says O’Byrne, who marveled at Montoya’s ability to fit himself into a room and goof around with artists many years his junior, bringing joy and levity to everyone. “He was willing to both stand in front of the group and instruct us as well as sit among us, willing to listen and learn, all while participating with a kind of infectious enthusiasm that I hope to one day emulate.”
This year in the history of El Teatro Campesino has been a difficult one. Losing Montoya was not their first loss of the year but their fourth. In March, an early member of the troupe in the 1970s, Felipe Rodriguez, died from cancer. A month later, Felipe’s cousin Diane Rodriguez, who joined the Teatro in 1973 and went onto a prestigious career, most recently as associate artistic director with Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group, died from lung cancer at the age of 68. She also held a spot on the National Council on the Arts, appointed to that position by President Barack Obama. Finally, longtime Teatro member Andres Gutierrez, who struggled for years with post-traumatic stress and, more recently, COVID-19, passed at age 74.
The loss of such pillars fell hard upon the community. It was also a year in which two major milestones were unable to receive proper celebrations—the 55th birthday of the company and the 80th birthday of Valdez, considered by many the father of Chicano theatre. While these losses have devastated the tight-knit community, Valdez has found solace in a life like Montoya’s, a man who passed on so much to so many before his spirit soared too soon. He was a man whose truth was on display every day, wearing either a shirt dedicated to the United Farm Workers or a shirt of the theatre company, which gave him immense pride.
“One of the benefits of an artist’s life is that they leave a legacy in the art they created,” says Valdez, referring to the many videos and recordings that will live on in perpetuity. “That’s part of the story, that human beings need culture, and it has to be trans-generational, deep-rooted popular culture. Long-lasting traditions are defined by their humanity. Noé will continue to live and his work will be always remembered at El Teatro Campesino.”
David John Chávez (he/him) is a Bay Area-based theatre critic and reporter. He is the vice-chair of the American Theatre Critics Association. @davidjchavez.
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