Art for people’s sake
The lasting impact of the Royal Chicano Air Force
Esteban Villa still remembers the moment art came into his life.
He was in the first grade when he lifted the wooden lid of his desk to uncover something he’d never seen.
“There was this big, beautiful box of Crayola crayons,” he said. “And I said, ’Wow.’”
Villa was born in Tulare during the Great Depression. His parents were farm workers who spent summers traveling with their nine children, following crops from Southern California to Washington. The whole family worked. His parents didn’t read or write, so pencils, crayons and paper were new tools for the young boy.
“I still remember the aroma of the crayons,” he said. “How they have that waxy smell.”
Later in life, his most important work required a team: the Royal Chicano Air Force.
Although Sacramento has recently seen a resurgence of murals in pop-up events such as Wide Open Walls, Villa’s group proves that this form of public art has much deeper roots in the city. The Royal Chicano Air Force is a nearly 50-year-old artist and activist collective formed on the Sacramento State campus in the early 1970s. Led by Villa and a fellow teacher, the late José Montoya, and supported by a network of students, artists, writers and politicians, members painted murals that have come to define the Sacramento cityscape, taught free community classes and started a bookstore. They also printed political posters and raised money for the United Farm Workers.
Originally the more directly named Rebel Chicano Art Front, some thought RCAF was an abbreviation for the Royal Canadian Air Force. It became a joke that stuck, and the Royal Chicano Air Force was born.
The collective’s most tangible mark on the city comes in the form of painted walls, some providing a bright backdrop to countless events, like the popular RCAF mural at Southside Park. Others are faded in color but still rich with meaning. “Metamorphosis” on Fourth and L streets, near the Macy’s in what was once Downtown Plaza, is filled with indigenous imagery of Earth, humans, animals and the cosmos existing in harmony. Hidden gems include a camouflaged fish rising from blue waves or a bull charging out of the clouds. Both were painted in the 1970s.
At the time, the works filled an artistic void in the city—before RCAF, there were few if any murals to speak of. Depictions of Chicano history were especially rare, but art education made RCAF’s work possible.
Villa and Montoya met at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland in the 1960s. They shared a similar background. Both enrolled through the GI Bill after serving in the Korean War, and Montoya’s parents were also farm workers from Mexico. They both became high school art teachers, and after 10 years of teaching, pursued master’s degrees in fine arts.
They attended Sac State and were later hired as professors. At the time, staff were required to do a community service project. Villa established the Barrio Arts Program, where students taught free art classes and painted murals throug hout the city.
“The list is endless of students that took our barrio art classes and brought the university to the streets of Sacramento. And that was new,” Villa said.
Noticing a lack of Chicano literature in the Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore, Montoya and Villa opened an off-campus bookstore focused on Chicano literature and history, La Raza Bookstore on F Street.
Rudy Cuellar, Tere Romo, Louie Gonzales and Phil Santos were the students and early RCAF members who helped found and expand the bookstore. Cuellar, who studied art at Sac State in the early ’70s, remembers road-tripping through California to buy Chicano books to sell. They found interested customers, and the space grew to include a gallery.
The first exhibit featured prints by Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, and La Raza Bookstore y Galeria Posada was born. Today, it is known as the Latino Center of Arts and Culture on Front Street.
“We had photography, we had silkscreen, we had theater in there,” Cuellar said. “It was that big of a space. … There [was] this little pot of gold, and little by little more people would come in.”
The group carved out opportunities to build community. They established the Centro Artistas Chicanas, the RCAF nonprofit and physical space where they hosted classes, hand-printed thousands of posters and served food through their Breakfast for Los Niños program, which was modeled after a Black Panthers program.
The RCAF played an integral role in bringing the traditions of Día de los Muertos, Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day celebrations into California’s capital city. They were at the forefront of legitimizing Sacramento’s new art scene. The group allied with Joe Serna, who would become Sacramento’s mayor in 1992, and advocated for the arts in planning commissions.
“We didn’t study history,” Villa said. “The RCAF made history.”
Ella Diaz, an ethnic studies professor at Cornell University, grew up in Sacramento and recently released her book, Flying Under the Radar with the Royal Chicano Air Force. In the book, she chronicles RCAF’s history of artistic activism through a sociopolitical lens.
It wasn’t until Diaz was on an airplane heading to college on the East Coast that she first heard of the collective.
Like many kids from Sacramento, Diaz went on shopping trips with her mom to Downtown Plaza, walking through the tunnel with the vibrant RCAF mural “Laserium” painted on the walls, without knowing who made it.
After she read an op-ed about the mural, she was surprised that as a Chicana raised in California public schools, she had never heard of the group. She decided to study the RCAF in college, returning to California to research the group and form relationships with its surviving members.
Their work motivated her to document their history, and she said they continue to inspire artists and activists today. Some local artists have gotten heat for participating in art events like Wide Open Walls, which some see as going hand-in-hand with gentrification projects. But that’s not the position of the RCAF.
“The RCAF artists who are still alive would be the first to say, ’Put your art up on the wall,’” Diaz said. And she’s right. Neither Villa or Cuellar will speak critically of muralists in Sacramento today. They see the fresh paint on Sacramento walls as a continuation of their work.
“It’s art that’s going to bring the attention to Sacramento,” Villa said. “It’s going to give Sacramento its character.”
The RCAF continues to be part of that character. Their most recent project is a colorful mural that will go into the new Golden 1 Center, just a block from where Villa’s “Metamorphosis” still lives.
Villa, now 87, spends most days sketching folks he sees in the same few bars or coffee shops in Midtown. He paints in his Elk Grove studio, plays music and puts out albums.
Alone, Villa has created thousands of artworks.
“The RCAF had its day, it did its job. It left Sacramento and the rest of the world a better place,” Villa said. “There’s more jobs, more opportunity, more beauty, more color.”
By continuing to share their stories, Villa and Cuellar hope to see the next generation of artists, writers and creatives build on the work of RCAF and construct their own narratives.
“I want the next generation to make history—their way,” he said.