By Maceo Montoya
Maceo Montoya is a California-based author, artist, and educator who has published books in a variety of genres. Montoya’s paintings, drawings, and prints have been featured in exhibitions and publications throughout the country as well as internationally. He has collaborated with other writers on visual-textual projects, including American Quasar, a collaboration with poet David Campos featuring 19 of Montoya’s monoprints.
He is a professor in the Chicana/o Studies Department at UC Davis where he teaches courses on Chicanx culture and literature.
Below, Maceo shares how Hispanic Heritage Month acts as an invitation for him to observe.
Hispanic Heritage Month for me means a lot more speaking engagements. In mid-summer I start getting emails asking if I’m available from the middle of September to the middle of October, and I rarely turn down these invitations because I know that for the rest of the year I’ll be constantly checking my email, fearing that I’ve been forgotten. I’m also very curious about the organizations that invite me, organizations that I wouldn’t know anything about if it weren’t for Hispanic Heritage Month. As a writer, I’m always trying to understand the innerworkings of people and places, and these — what should I call them, exchanges? — are a rare opportunity to step outside of my usual environs. So I accept these invitations because I want to learn something, just as these organizations want to learn something from me, though after all these years, I’m not quite sure what that is. I once spoke to a casino banquet hall full of union members who thought I was a diversity trainer.
I like speaking to state agencies because I’ve never held an office job, and I find it fascinating to see people emerge from their offices or rise from the cubicles, a little excited, asking each other, “Is it time?” or “Is that him?” Even though I understand that their attendance is mandatory, I feed off their anticipation, the small pleasure they derive from this break in their monotonous lives (or what I imagine to be monotonous; I’m only there for a few hours). I mostly try to avoid speaking engagements at law firms because the employees seem to derive no pleasure from life, and I often leave women — never men — in tears, not because my presentations are particularly moving, but because something I’ve said, I never know what, has disturbed the delicate balance of their conscience. Audience members don’t think you can see them, but tearful eyes are as obvious as eyes staring down at their phones, though much less numerous. I once spoke to a law firm that a friend later informed me defended powerful corporations against whistleblowers. I asked the friend if that made me a collaborator. He hesitated before saying no, but I also didn’t divulge that the law firm purchased fifty of my books, which is an incredible haul for me. My penance is to imagine my innocent book complicit in the defense of capitalism.
By far the strangest invitation I ever received was from an organization that I’m not at liberty to disclose, just that it related to scientific research. After multiple security check points, I was led to a dark basement lined with offices. My host walked down the checkered-tile hall, lightly tapping on each door, almost cooing his colleagues’ names, and one by one, they emerged in a kind of daze, following us in obedient silence to the conference room where an early model projector was waiting for me along with a disappointing bagel and muffin spread. The host led me to a wall of school-like posters featuring famous Hispanic scientists and waited for me to give each didactic its proper due. When I finally smiled in approval or perhaps to demonstrate gratitude for his effort, the host signaled to the others that they were free to enjoy the paltry refreshments. Then, Styrofoam cups filled to the brim, crumbs on their beards, cream cheese on the sides of their mouths, they circled around me expectantly, as though my presentation had already begun, as though I were now the subject of their research. I wasn’t offended, not at all. Isn’t this what I was there for? But this is the deal: I was there to observe them, too.