by Stephanie Sauer
In California, there is a group of pilot-artists, largely unknown yet renowned for their fleet of adobe airplanes and their key role in the Chicano civil rights movement. As Cesar Chavez’s bodyguards and poster makers for the United Farm Workers Union, they created a vast repertoire of silkscreen posters, murals, poetry, performances, and public ceremonies that served to counteract the shame that once surrounded all things indigenous. Their air force stance and self-mythologizing has enshrined them in California lore.
I was first introduced to the history of the Royal Chicano Air Force through Steve LaRosa’s original PBS documentary, Pilots of Aztlán. The story goes: The Rebel Chicano Art Front (RCAF) was created in 1969 by art professors José Montoya and Esteban Villa, along with a handful of committed students from California State University, Sacramento, whose ranks grew to include hundreds of artists, activists, community members, academics, politicians, and pilots. Intent on honoring the spirit of a true collective, they signed all their work with only the acronym RCAF. Soon the RCAF became confused with the Royal Canadian Air Force, until one day someone said: “No man, we’re the Royal Chicano Air Force!” And the mythology grew from there.
There is no way to write an accurate historical account of the Royal Chicano Air Force; in fact, conducting official and unofficial research over the last ten years has led me to understand that there is no way to write an accurate historical account of anything. You may not agree with me, and that is exactly what I mean. We live in a world filled with multiple, coinciding, collapsing, reconstituted truths, a world in which “truths” are used to justify. The ways I see our world and its history are directly related to my own lived experiences and contexts, as are the ways you see them. You chose the historical narrative sequence that validates your life choices, world view, actions, and privileges, and I do the same.
Despite our best efforts to remain “objective” or “scientific” or “rational,” our perceptions remain shaded, even if by objective scientific rationale. Worldwide, we have yet to fully investigate the cultural damage done by Victorian-era archeological practices and dominant Western lenses through which notions of otherness are viewed, studied, and explained. Cultural institutions adopt—and indeed pay for the rights to use—Indiana Jones-inspired stories in attempts to engage young learners of history. And, in general, we agree to believe that those fantasies are facts.
I am not interested in perpetuating this narrative. This is not a colonial fantasy in which I forsake my cultural inheritance in order to prove my allegiance to an indigenous or urban noble savage population, and then report back to you, dear reader. This is my cultural inheritance. This is the United States of America, and we are messy.
In Pilots of Aztlán, RCAF member Stan Padilla says, “In a world that is out of balance, adding beauty and harmony does not restore the balance. Sometimes you have to add more craziness. That is the message of The Sacred Fools, the tricksters.” Stan Padilla did not say exactly this, but that is how I remember hearing it. The following excerpts are my hymn to this sacred locura (craziness). They are part of a larger book, a catalogue of field research conducted in the neo-traditional RCAF locura lo cura (craziness cures) method. Using this approach and performing the character of La Stef, a turn-of-the-century World’s Fair archaeologist, I blend myth and historical documentation without prioritizing one over the other. Here I offer but one truth that is not entirely fiction.
A Brief Introduction to the Royal Chicano Air Force
CON SAPOS is an archeological collective over 500 years in the making. Founded by world famous archeologist La Stef, our mission is to record, collect, and preserve history in the Americas as it happens. Since the colonial period, our approach has been unique in combining techniques of preservation indigenous to this continent, as well as those introduced by European archivists in recent centuries.
Con Sapos’ current team is led by Quetzalcoatl, who pioneered tlacuiloismo (the historian’s art), and includes John Rollin Ridge, Jean Charlot, Bertolt Brecht, Erich von Daniken, and cartographer Miss Ella. Among our noted services to the field are the recovery of lost and stolen Royal Chicano Air Force ephemera and our pioneering applications of mitoarqueología.
A Close Call as Cesar’s Security
This map, which was originally used in the cockpit of RCAF Commander José Montoya’s C-29 adobe aircraft, is unique to the fleet of the Royal Chicano Air Force in that it was later utilized as a scroll to document one of the Force’s near lethal encounters while serving as security for Cesar Chavez at a United Farm Workers Union rally in Davis, California. The map itself blends the standard French aeronautical map and holder model with that developed by the Eagle Knight Warriors serving under Moctezuma II, allowing pilots to steer the aircraft with one hand while turning the scroll map with the other. It is the same model used in World War I, El Movimiento Chicano, and the Maguey Wars of 2012.
With the help of a handful of code-switching scholars and a series of meticulously transcribed oral history accounts, the Con Sapos archeological team has deciphered the pictographic language in which an unnamed scribe recorded the day’s events. We have carefully translated its contents here and included archival annotations when necessary:
United Farm Worker Union leader Cesar Chavez had made his way to Davis, California, to address a crowd of sympathetic listeners. Members of the Royal Chicano Air Force (identified by their green uniforms with the exception of General “Confusion” Esteban Villa, who came attired in his usual lunar exploration suit) were providing security for the union organizer, whom they affectionately referred to as “The Little Guy.” Chavez’s personal secretary Richard Ybarra secured the stage. During a rousing speech on walkouts in Yolo County, the union leader became so impassioned by his commitment to La Causa, or the plight toward social justice for all farm workers, that the body guards noted a visible shift in the crowd that now rallied behind him after having been so moved.
At that moment RCAF pilot Ricardo Favela, positioned imperceptibly in the crowd for Chavez’s protection, noticed two snipers poised atop an apartment complex just across the street from the park with a missile aimed straight for the union leader’s chest. The pilot motioned another Air Force member on Chavez’s right, who made the leader aware. “The Little Guy” immediately “went limp,” says fellow pilot Juanishi Orosco, then turned himself inside out so that all that was visible of his once petite but formidable self was his heart, exposed and beating for all to see. As another witness described the change, “it was as if he were just tempting the assassins to make a martyr of him in front of all those folks.” According to scholars, Chavez, following in the Aztec and Mayan traditions of human sacrifice, had updated the practice and used, instead of another human, himself as sacrificial victim. In the few split seconds—though it is recorded that all temporal measurement devices actually paused—the vulnerable heart tissue was swaddled in gauze and taken under the protection of two federal agents charged with avoiding the union leader’s martyrdom. They cleared a corridor in the crowd as pilots Louie ‘The Foot’ and Ramón Ontiveros hurried the organ into Chavez’s beat up Dodge Dart, summoning the RCAF squadron to follow, for they were legend to be useful in the reconversion process.
The Ancient Documentaries of Southside Park
Near the end of the Fourth Sun, when the world was about to split open and make way for the Fifth, members of the Royal Chicano Air Force, informed by scholars and elders, reinvigorated a series of ancient ceremonies, including Día de los Muertos, Fiesta de Tonatzin, Fiesta de Colores y Fiesta de Maíz. The freestyle interpretation of the sacred rites infuriated some indigenist activists engaged in more authentic reenactments, but the RCAF and their comrades continued with their belief in the greater need. The organizers had been informed by Dr. Reynaldo Solis, who in his own sociological research had come to the hypothesis that certain cultural and historic wounds that plagued the local Chicano community and continued to cause ingrained psychological, spiritual, and even economic damage could be healed in part by updating and reinstating ancient cultural ceremonies that both marked individual rites of passage and affirmed and connected one in a positive way to the whole of one’s cultural history. He wanted to test this hypothesis and the RCAF was ready.
The Sacramento Concilio, led by Josie Talamantez, Tere Romo, Rosemary and David Rasul among others, took on the strategic planning for the ceremonias, including the securing of required legal permits and fundraising. For Day of the Dead, they even chartered a flight to Mictlán to extend personal invitations to key ancestors and submit a request for sacred visions from Mictlantecuhtli and Huitzilopochtli without the need for sacrificial cannibalism, which they reasoned would complicate the already controversial use of public space with too much illegality.
Others, including Privates Stan Padilla, Gina Montoya, and Juanishi Orosco, prepared a sweat lodge on Stan’s property in the Sierra Nevada Foothills—a place believed to house potent spiritual energy, as well as being the site of historical atrocities associated with the European discovery of gold and other minerals. The group gathered green willow branches, pine resin, and stones in preparation for the cleansing.
The following narratives describing the first ceremonies held in Sacramento were recently excavated from the Southside Park cenote by La Stef and local historian Miss Ella. A major find in the field of RCAF scholarship, three of the four sacred scrolls were found encased in wooden boxes with cut out holes for viewing. Read from top to bottom by turning the handles, it is not unlike watching film in a prehistoric television set. Indeed, it has been confirmed that these Ancient RCAF Documentaries are the missing link between the ancient scroll book form and contemporary film media, proving that they are indeed the precursor to movies and television. Thus, it can be concluded that these dominant forms of art and entertainment have originated entirely in the Americas.
There was no physical record found of the Fiesta de Jaguares, a ceremony said to have been developed by danza azteca leader Chuy Ortiz to honor and establish a rite of passage for young men.
While a fourth box was found in pieces, the scroll pertaining to Fiesta de Tonantzín was missing.
[Translation of First Scroll: Dia De Los Muertos/Day Of The Dead]
As read from left column to right, up and down:
1. The First Dia de los Muertos.
2. Pilot’s hold council in Stan [Padilla]’s sweat lodge.
3. Las Guadalupanas receive visions from Mictlán / and begin to organize.
4. Senior Airman Rudy Cuellar pilots a special / mission to retrieve pyramid and coffin.
5. Chuy’s danzantes lead procession down 64th / to the cemetery,
6. carrying the (almost) interred Elvia Nava.
7. The neighbors complain.
8. Finally, they arrive at the cemetery.
9. They offer blessing at the four directions. / In reverse.
10. Las Mujeres perform an interpretive ‘Birth Dance.’
[Translation of First Scroll: Fiesta De Maiz/Corn Festival]
As read from left column to right, up and down:
1. The First Fiesta de Maiz
2. Held on the summer solstice / with the sun at its zenith
3. in Southside Park
4. where / a few / months / prior / . . .
5. a visiting Tibetan monk / discovered a crystal bed
6. beneath the pond / that was really a cenote
7. that had a vein that ran / from SacrAztlán all the way to Hopi.
8. When the elders arrived / they burned copal.
9. They blessed the dancers / who began to dance.
10. They / danced / . . .
11. and / they / danced
12. until some out-of-town performers / passed out.
13. Maria de Maíz appeared / atop a pyramid.
14. Xilonens – dressed in white – / enter the sacred circle.
15. They receive the blessings and the palabra.
16. They had prepared all year for this.