Art for art’s sake may be fine for some, but the tradition Xico Gonzalez is aligned with uses it as the vehicle for messages of social change. Born in East Los Angeles but raised from age one in San Luis, Sonora, Mexico, Gonzalez experienced serious culture shock at 16 when his family moved to Pennsylvania. He found solace in art, pursuing first graffiti and then academic studies and activism until his twin interests led him back to California. Now, he is a member of Sacramento’s Royal Chicano Air Force (a.k.a. Rebel Chicano Art Front), which provides a distinctive visual signature in the city’s public spaces. His art has appeared in Sacramento’s art galleries, including the Brickhouse and the La Raza Galeria Posada, and his agitprop posters often are seen on Sacramento’s streets. In addition to pursuing a master’s degree in art from UC Davis, he makes reggae music.Why did you come to Sacramento originally?
I met some people from Sac State while I was in an internship in North Carolina. The internship was called Student Action with Farmworkers. … Around that time I was really into Chicanismo, you know, the Chicano movement. … I had started MEChA at Penn State, and I started doing a lot of research on art, on Chicano artists from this area. That’s how I heard about the RCAF. You know, they’re pretty famous throughout the world and they’re from Sacramento. I heard about Toltecas en Aztlán, they’re from San Diego. I heard about different artists and poets and being one out of 30 Mexican students in a 40,000-student university, you know, I felt out of place. So I wanted to come back, and I think those people that I met through that program that were from here, they gave me an insight into how everything was over here, and I moved back.
When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, I was the only Mexican student in my whole high school. Nobody spoke Spanish, so I felt really out of place. So coming over here, it opened doors. I became an artist. I became a poet. I became an organizer. It was a really good experience.
Which came first, art or activism?
I think art, since I was a little kid taking art classes in elementary school. Then later on in the States, I was always doing graffiti, writing letters on walls, stuff like that. So I think that came first, art. My older brother was really into art and I remember him showing me books about the Mayas and the Aztecs, looking at that kind of work, and about Diego Rivera and Siqueiros and Orozco and I think that’s how I got into it. Because, in Mexico in the public schools, they teach you a lot about that—about the Aztecs and Mayas, all the indigenous cultures.
What is your connection to the RCAF?
When I transferred here from Penn State, at Sac State I heard a lot about Jose Montoya and Ricardo Favela. I had seen some of their artwork in books from Latino studies classes at Penn State, so I kind of knew about the Chicano movement and the RCAF. So once I started at Sac State, I actually went out and looked for them. One of the first things that I did was to hook up with MEChA at Sac State. … Eventually I met Jose Montoya and Ricardo Favela. At the time that I got there, Jose Montoya had retired from Sac State, but Ricardo Favela was there. Little by little I started working with him. He was kind of like my mentor. After like three years of proving myself as a political artist and a political activist and as a cultural organizer, they gave me my wings. So I became an RCAF member in 2000, and since then I’ve been following in their footsteps and doing the work that they were doing in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
What have you been working on lately?
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of artwork to support the struggle for immigrant rights in the United States. I’ve been printing a lot [of posters] for immigrant rallies. The biggest one that we had here in Sacramento was on May 1: We had about 40,000 people marching in downtown Sacramento. My contribution to that was mainly as an artist, but also as an organizer; I was one of the people in the organizing community for the rally. I established an organization kind of following the RCAF, called the Brown Syndicate … they’re younger artists than me. Now, I’m no longer at Sac State, but they’re there doing a lot of work.
Also, I, along with my wife and a few other friends that graduated from the Sac State credential program, established a Saturday school. It’s called Academia del Barrio, and we have classes, mainly for Chicano youth, and we’re teaching them Spanish, art and Chicano studies. And it’s free for the students. It’s cool, helping out the younger generation, moving them ahead, and encouraging them to college.