Andrés Montoya was a deeply religious man who often celebrated life with simple, bare-footed walks among fallen leaves.
Montoya’s life was cut short at age 31 due to leukemia in 1999, yet the former Fresno State alumni, educator, political activist and Valley native continues to touch friends and family through his poetry.
The eyes of former U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera welled up with tears after describing Montoya to about 100 people – including Montoya’s father, Malaquías Montoya and his wife, Leslie Salkowitz-Montoya, and brother Maceo Montoya, and Andrés’s former fiancé, Eleanor Uribe – at Arte Américas last Friday (April 13) night.
The evening – which also featured a welcome by author Daniel Chacón, Fresno State College of Arts and Humanities dean Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, and numerous poets like Emma Trelles and David Campos – kicked off the two-day symposium ‘Together We’ll Be a Song: A Celebration of Andrés Montoya.’
The symposium is presented by the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing, and Letras Latinas, a literary initiative at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, and held at Arte Américas and Fresno State University.
“It’s a beautiful celebration, and a most-meaningful celebration of one of our pioneers; kind of like a pioneer in our second generation of Latino poetry,” said Herrera.
Herrera described Andrés, a student body president at Fresno State (1991-92), as “a very unique poet, a good friend and fearless voice, and a very gentle human being all at the same time. He accomplished so much in so few years. His life is kind of still being completed by the community.”
Andrés, a Fowler High graduate, helped found the Chicano Writers and Artists Association. He graduated from Fresno State and obtained a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Oregon (1994).
“Andrés had a sense of humor that a lot of people didn’t know because of his poetry being so serious. He always had the family laughing; he had these very crazy antics he would do to make all of us laugh,” said Malaquías Montoya. “And even when he was at the hospital, dying, it was always hard for me to understand how he could be still full of life and encouraging others. Yet he was the one dying. If I die that way, I would be happy.”
Uribe described the final days of life with Andrés.
“I’ve probably spent everyday of his life with him for the last year and a half of his life,” said Uribe, who was once engaged to Andrés.
“The first time we went walking around Fresno State was around the vineyards. He loved the campus, so we would go walking around there, and sometimes he would say, ‘OK, take off your shoes. Feel the leaves on your toes. Doesn’t that feel great?’ and sometimes we’d go sit on a little hill near the art museum on campus.”
Andrés would sometimes roll down the hill, remembers Uribe.
“Sometimes he would come over, I called it ‘Tuesdays with Andrés,’ because we would just have worship music playing. We would just sing,” she added.
According to Uribe, Andrés lived with his mother, Joanna Kirby, near Radio Park. Andrés’ second work on poetry, ‘A Jury of Trees’ was published posthumously last year by Bilingual Press.
Uribe, first met Andrés while he sat with poet Lee Herrick, who said, “Andrés Montoya was the first poet I met when I moved to Fresno in the 90s. Andres was literally and figuratively larger than life,” who added “I saw the world differently after meeting Andrés.”
“We would talk poetry and politics down at The Review in the Tower District. I had the good fortune of introducing to his fiancé,” said Herrick.
She said Andrés had the entire Chicano Movement and social justice engrained in his life because of his father, Malaquías.
Prior to his death, Andrés wrote ‘The Iceworker Sings.’ UC Irvine awarded him the Chicano-Latino Literary Prize and the Before Columbus Foundation American award.
“He was an ice worker. He worked in an ice worker in Fresno downtown, and used to sing. I actually delivered his manuscript (The Iceworker Sings and Other Poems) because he was in the hospital when he did his final revisions,” said Uribe.
“It’s just so moving to see this community of writers and poets, people rooted in the community talking about what Andrés loved so much. Andrés was passionate about poetry. He was passionate about Fresno. He was passionate about sharing and teaching poetry,” said Maceo Montoya, an accomplished writer.
“We had an earlier epic, where his (Andrés) uncle, José Montoya, was part of kind of like the first phase of Chicano poetry, which would probably began in the early 50s. And then Andrés kind of represented the second generation,” added Herrera, “Or maybe the third.”
Andrés is the second child of Malaquías and Joanna Kirby. There’s also Malaquías, Jr., the oldest, Marcella, the only daughter, Macario Montoya, and Maceo. Malaquías, who retired from his professorship at UC Davis, eight years ago, created Taller del Arte de Nuevo Manacer 10 years ago near Woodland. The program is sponsored by UC Davis.