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The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force

The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force

Employing a creative mix of real and fictive events, objects, and people that subverts assumptions about the archiving and display of historical artifacts, this innovative book both documents and evokes an arts collective that played a significant role in the Chicano movement

Series: William and Bettye Nowlin Endowment, in Art, History, and Culture of the Western Hemisphere

May 2016
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159 pages | 8 x 9 | 136 color and 1 b&w photos |

How do you write a history of a group that has been written out of history? In The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force, world-famous archaeologist La Stef and the clandestine Con Sapos Archaeological Collective track down the “facts” about the elusive RCAF, the Rebel Chicano Art Front that, through an understandable mix-up with the Royal Canadian Air Force, became the Royal Chicano Air Force.

La Stef and her fellow archaeologists document the plight and locura que cura of the RCAF, a group renowned for its fleet of adobe airplanes, ongoing subversive performance stance, and key role as poster makers for the United Farm Workers Union during the height of the Chicano civil rights movement. As the Con Sapos team uncovers tensions between fact and fiction in historical consciousness and public memory, they abandon didactic instruction and strive instead to offer a historiography in which various cultural paradigms already intersect seamlessly and on equal ground. That they often fail to navigate the blurred lines between “objective” Western archival sciences and Indigenous/Chicana/o cosmologies reflects the very human predicament of documenting the histories of complicated New Worlds everywhere. Uniquely blending art history, oral history, cultural studies, and anthropology, The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force suspends historical realities and leaps through epochs and between conversations with various historical figures, both dead and alive, to offer readers an intimate experience of RCAF history.


An Introduction to

The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force*

The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force represents over a decade of observations, recordings, listening, writing, participations, and other modes of fieldwork on behalf of multidisciplinary artist Stephanie Sauer. In this introduction to her collection of primary sources on the Royal Chicano Air Force, a vanguard Chicano/a arts collective from Sacramento, California, I do not intend to explain what these archives are, or why Sauer deems them accidental. Nor will I overly emphasize my interpretation of these records for fear that I may break the fourth wall of the narrative and influence the reader’s experience of this expansive collection. Rather, my introduction to this prolific gathering of archival materials seeks to contextualize them by briefly introducing the curator and the deeper questions she poses regarding the politics of institutional archives and collections—from their construction of knowledge to their complicit role in public assumptions of historical truth. In doing so, I also elaborate on the artistic and literary themes on which Sauer draws to relate the documents and objects she has recovered.

Stephanie Sauer was born in Rough and Ready, California, a tiny town near the California and Nevada border whose major claim to fame is that it briefly seceded from the Union during the American Civil War.This is an important and defining detail of Sauer’s biography, which also includes growing up in a family of carpenters and hunters, childhood years spent swimming in the Yuba River, and family elders who taught her how to sew, cook, can and preserve foods, care for livestock, and farm. The art of making things by hand sustained Sauer throughout her life as she pursued craftsmanship in her arts practice, founding her own press (Copilot) in 2008, which specializes in hand-bound books and printed matter.

* The author of this introduction recommends that you do one of the following:

a) Skip the introduction

b) Read the introduction after you finish reading The Accidental Archives

c) None of the above

Returning to Rough and Ready’s secession, the rebellious spirit of her townspeople is marked by being on the wrong side of history, a fact that was not lost on Sauer while she finished high school in Colima, Mexico, at the Tecnológico de Monterrey. Sauer was able to study abroad in Mexico through an exchange program offered by “El Tec” and her public high school, Nevada Union. The program was established and run by two women, one from each of these respective schools, and one being her high school Spanish teacher, who Sauer describes as “a hippie who also taught us about the School of the Americas and other political realities at the time.”2 Set against a secondary education in Northern California that simultaneously engrained and disrupted principles of Manifest Destiny and visual and historical tropes of the “Wild West” and “gold country,” Sauer encountered a different master narrative in Mexico: the colonial processes that shape and disseminate history as a method for nation-building and citizen-making, for enforcing geopolitical borders and mythologizing wars, for forming opinions about here and there, as well as feelings of us and them.

Sauer worked from 2002 until 2004 at La Raza Galería Posada, in Sacramento, California, first as an intern and then as the ArtChives coordinator. A historical center for Chicano/a and Native American literature, art, and culture, La Raza Galería Posada (LRGP) was first founded as a bookstore in 1972. RCAF member and Chicano/a art scholar Terezita Romo recalls that she joined the staff “when it was just a bookstore and had been the UFW [United Farm Workers Union] office and then COPA [Chicano Organization for Political Awareness]” (2007). She also named several of the bookstore’s original founders—“Philip Santos, Pete Hernández, Gilbert Gamino, Juan Gutierrez and Louie ‘The Foot’ [González]” (2007). Romo added that La Raza Bookstore had been a place for the display, sale, and collection of RCAF silkscreen posters. In 1979, Romo “asked [Philip] Santos if we can use the other space as a galería,” when the adjoining dry-cleaning business closed and the space became available (2007). After writing a grant and fund-raising with the M.E.Ch.A. Chapter at Sacramento State University, Romo and the staff launched La Galería Posada in 1980. “The first exhibit was of the work of José Guadalupe Posada, an influential, Mexican artist,” writes Philip Santos in the introductory note to the catalog for La Raza Galería Posada’s Quinceañera show (1988, 1). Soon, LRGP’s exhibitions of Chicano/a posters and other visual art became important social events and gatherings for Sacramento’s Chicano/a community and for the RCAF.

Thirty years later, Sauer, among a cohort of secondand third-generation LRGP workers and volunteers, was tasked with the duty of meeting with RCAF members and key community activists to record memories of their lives, involvement in the bookstore, and stories about making art in the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond. Asking questions and recording their answers by hand or with audiocassette tapes, Sauer, who was also completing a specialized bachelor’s degree in Chicano/a Literature and Arts at Sacramento State University, was edging the disciplinary borders of art history, oral history, cultural studies, and anthropology. She wasn’t alone in this documentation process, as Josie Talamantez, an RCAF member and the retired director of programs for the California Arts Council, was also busy interviewing and filming RCAF artists about their historical participation in the Chicano Movement, UFW activism, and production of Chicano/a art over the past forty years.

This is important context for The Accidental Archives because it was in this capacity and with a background in tactile experience (sewing, gardening, and other meditative acts that involve attention to detail, manual labor, and discipline) that Sauer began to reexamine what she was doing. What did it mean to sit down and ask someone questions about his or her life amidst historical events? How does one translate what Tino Villanueva calls the “sound texture” (2000, 694) of English, Spanish, and caló, intermingled with slang, or site-specific references? Interviewing RCAF members such as José Montoya, Esteban Villa, Juanishi Orosco, Stan Padilla, Luis González, Armando Cid, Josie Talamantez, and others, Sauer also encountered a unique aural experience when she heard RCAF members’ use air force vocabulary and expressions like “impudent pilot,” “General Disaster,” “Major Confusion,” and “locura lo cura,” or craziness cures. The RCAF used a distinctive vernacular to describe themselves, their antics, and the historical events through which they lived. As it often happens with historians and, sometimes, anthropologists, Sauer struck up friendships, and her professional work became her personal life. Soon the stories told to her became more humorous but complex, and more vivid but incomplete, as the RCAF members she interviewed forgot the last names or the first names of the people they mentioned, relayed exciting stories in keen detail but were uncertain of dates and times, and told conflicting accounts of the same story.

Working with partial histories and contradictory memories, Sauer experienced the insecurities and frustrations on which Dolores Hayden comments in The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (1997). Noting the negotiations and compromises involved in documenting and building a public memory of local history, Hayden’s book reveals both the forgotten histories and the processes of their recovery. Much like Sauer, Hayden’s Power of Place—as both a text and an organization— was prompted by a haunting question concerning the official sights/sites of history in the US built environment: “Where are the Native American, African American, Latino, and Asian American landmarks?”(7). By founding the Power of Place in Los Angeles, Hayden sought to preserve historical sites of the other Los Angeles, or the histories left out of the official maps and organizations of the city. To do so, she worked with artists, community members, historians, students, and local city planning agencies on the Biddy Mason Memorial honoring a nineteenth-century slave woman who strategically won her freedom, became a community touchstone as a midwife and general healer, and whose homestead at 331 Spring Street was a paved parking lot by 1986 (169).

After a public workshop that included students and faculties from several departments at UCLA, artists were employed to reinterpret the historical site of Mason’s home.5 Artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville was especially important to the memorial, designing an eighty-one-foot installation wall. Hayden writes that Levrant de Bretteville’s permanent piece “transformed a marginal alley behind several large buildings into a significant public place” because of its dynamic approach to historical narrative (181). The timeline organized Los Angeles history according to decades, telling “the story of Los Angeles’s development from a tiny Mexican town to a thriving city” (181). Interspersed in Los Angeles’s evolution was the “story of Mason’s walk across the country, arrival in Los Angeles, her suit for freedom, and her thriving practice as a midwife” (181). By locating Mason on the map of Los Angeles’s larger historical context—the demographic shifts and changes to the built environment brought about by annexation, abolition, industry, and economic development—the wall “encouraged a viewer to contemplate change on Spring Street in both space and time” (187).

Despite the nod that Hayden gives to the artists, residents, researchers, and city workers involved in the Mason memorial and other Power of Place projects, she acknowledges the uncertainties and concessions that historical collaboration causes between these often disparate groups. How does the historian work with a person who lived it, or remembers the past from a personal experience? How does an artist translate historical evidence in a factual way, if at all? “All of the participants in such a process transcend their traditional roles,” Hayden answers, adding,

[f]or the historian, this means leaving the security of the library to listen to the community’s evaluation of its own history and the ambiguities this implies. . . . It means working in media—from pamphlets to stone walls—that offer less control and a less predictable audience than academic journals or university presses do. It also means exchanging the well-established roles of academic life for the uncertainties of collaboration with others who may take history for granted as the raw material for their own creativity, rather than a creative work in itself. (76)

Although Hayden appreciates “public art as a route to public memory,” she confesses that working with artists, as well as the other project participants, is an uncomfortable process for a historian. Cross-community collaboration is akin to interdisciplinary studies and, as Hayden notes, “interdisciplinary, community-based projects are not always easy to accomplish” because borders must be crossed, methods must be blurred, and multiple points of view must be valued (77).

No surprise that Hayden was critiqued in the academic journals and scholarly reviews of her book for not elaborating in analytical detail on the commissioned artworks, like the Mason memorial. Elizabeth Grossman finds Hayden’s modest remarks on the public artworks outlined in her book to be deficient: “What is most disappointing, particularly given Hayden’s gift for design analysis, is her minimal discussion of the physical projects themselves” (1995, 25). But Hayden’s “minimal discussion” of the artworks pertains to the Power of Place’s collaborative process, which gave “less control” over the history to the official historian (76). Having worked with artists, community members, researchers, and planning agencies, Hayden curtails her authoritative voice in the textual interpretations of the public art projects to extend the collaborative process to her readers, who she hopes will form their own opinions and participate in the concept of a shared, public history by reading her book.

Readers of The Accidental Archives will discover that Sauer confronts many of the same challenges that Hayden does in the hunting, gathering, and sharing of the RCAF’s history. Like Hayden, Sauer welcomes readers to follow her through the archive, but she turns in a different direction than Hayden by suspending historical realities, leaping through epochs and between conversations with various historical figures, dead and alive, to offer readers an intimate experience of RCAF history: her deeply personal, biased, and shared witnessing.

In fact, Sauer prepares readers early on in the catalog for a messy and subjective historical encounter. Following The Accidental Archives’ table of contents and a page of suspicious epigraphs, Sauer presents a two-page roster of names as a “Cast” with the disclaimer: “[The majority of whose work goes unrecorded in official historical documentation of the Royal Chicano Air Force, including this very catalog, even despite the author’s meticulous efforts and unbiased record-keeping practices]” (000). Sauer’s “Cast” of names moves in a nonlinear, nonvertical, and nonhorizontal order, a formless shape that, on its left side, is bordered by “JOAQUÍN MURRIETA,” a nineteenth-century folk hero mythologized in corridos and a symbol of regional resistance to annexation and discrimination against Mexican Americans following the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Sauer’s cast also includes “DIEGO RIVERA,” “FRIDA KALHO,” and “MOCTEZUMA II,” next to “FREDDY & THE RCAF BAND,” “FAST EDDIE SALAS,” “TONY LONG HAIR,” and “‘TURTLE’ RODRIGUEZ” (3–4). These sixteenth-, nineteenth-, and early twentieth-century historical figures, as well as the people listed by their nicknames, are interspersed throughout the list of RCAF members whose names are more recognizable—“JENNIE BACA,” “RUDOLFO ‘RUDY’ CUELLAR,” “JOSÉ MONTOYA,” “ESTEBAN VILLA,” among several others. Below the “Cast,” Sauer inserts her own pun on the bottom line, providing a place for anyone who feels a part of the RCAF, but is left out of the record, to sign his or her name. Sauer politely instructs: “All others, favor de sign here.”

The “Cast” of characters with an option for signing and, thereby, entering the historical record, is one of the first clues Sauer gives readers to the creative liberties she takes with the documentation of the RCAF in The Accidental Archives. In this playful and preliminary experience of the catalog, Sauer draws on literary devices and elements from magical realism, in which the story line of a novel merges the spaces and times of several centuries, moving the plot forward through supernatural events that are regarded as commonplace by the characters. In “An Overview of RCAF History,” for example, Sauer begins the historical synopsis of the 1960s and 1970s Chicano/a arts collective in 1898 with Brazilian inventor Alberto Santos Dumont and his designs of the “Santos No. 20 or Demoiselle (Dragonfly).” She describes this small plane as “made of bamboo, linen, and wire” (20). In a test run of the Dragonfly, Sauer writes that Santos Dumont ran out of linen and used napkins from a bar near his home, discovering that José Montoya had sketched upon them the “perfect accent to his everyman’s flying machine” (21). RCAF members adapted Santos Dumont’s airplane design, Sauer explains, adding adobe, which made the light plane heavier (21). “Rudy Cuellar, who was a natural mechanic,” used fireworks to start it, while “Dr. Arnaldo Solis and Stan Padilla . . . created a ceremonia in which the heavy mass could be lifted into flight with the help of Juan Cervantes’ combustible engine research for prolonged suspension” (21). To support her account of the building of an RCAF airplane, Sauer presents photographs from the archive she has amassed, including an illustration of the “inaugural flight of LaRuca 2012” from the Con Sapos Nationalist Museum, an airline ticket stub with the airport code, “Rio—Santos Dumont,” as well as a photograph of a plaque from the Santos Dumont Residence in the city of Petrópolis in Rio de Janeiro. Also presented as historical proof is an index card with the following annotation:

At Simon’s Bar on 16th Street across from Luna’s Café, the balding man with bright blue eyes asks if Ishi knew that the adobe airplane made Pablo Neruda laugh.

Francisco Something had told the balding man this.

In her textual record and collection of archival evidence, it is clear that Sauer is moving through centuries and geographies to make a point about the tensions between oral cultures and Western notions of historical truth. Building the RCAF aircraft, like an archive, is one part myth, two parts homage, and the final part is Sauer’s role as the listener/ recorder/mediator. Readers can almost see Sauer leaning in while Ishi and the balding man with bright blue eyes converse, only to be frustrated by his lapse in memory over Francisco’s last name. Thus, Sauer’s written account in “An Overview of RCAF History” coincides with her visual evidence because what is factual and truth is conveyed to readers in the same way she has collected it: in bits and pieces.

Returning to The Accidental Archives’ “Cast” of characters, Sauer’s inclusion of pre-Colombian rulers and deities, as well as early twentieth-century Mexican leaders, artists, and philosophers, reveals another essential component of RCAF history and oral traditions. The Chicano Movement emerged in 1965 around the farmworkers’ strike, anti-war protests, student walkouts, calls for land reclamation, and the liberationist philosophies of 1968. Chicano/a artists, poets, intellectuals, and activists revisited their origins, asking, “¿Quien Soy Yo?” and responding with Yo Soy Joaquín (Gonzáles 1967), among other epic poems and political manifestos like El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán (1969). The poetry, posters, and plans drew on Mexican revolutionary artists, thinkers, and political leaders to articulate Chicanismo, a cultural, political, and spiritual concept of identity for Mexican Americans who no longer wanted to adhere to the melting pot logic of nationalism in the United States (Valdez 1972). Instead, Chicano/a artists, activities, leaders, and intellectuals traced a modern identity for Chicanos/as in the late twentieth century across geopolitical borders between the United States and Mexico, and crisscrossed the borders of US and Latin American histories.

The RCAF contributed to the building of this self and group consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s Chicano Movement as they spoke, performed, and painted into being an unbroken and continuous Chicano/a consciousness in dialogue with the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and pre-Colombian civilizations. Drawing on the educational and revolutionary art philosophies of “los tres grandes,” or the early twentieth-century Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, the RCAF also employed Joaquín Murrieta, Moctezuma II, Frida Kahlo, José Guadalupe Posada, and other historical artists that preceded their historical moment to talk about Chicano/a art from a decolonial perspective of US history. Therefore, the presence of Diego Rivera, Joaquín Murrieta, Moctezuma II, Frida Kahlo, and others in The Accidental Archives allows readers to enter into the RCAF’s aural experience in the 1960s and 1970s, side by side with members as they told stories to each other and to the Chicano/a community about who they were and what they were doing.

Moreover, this anachronistic method for ordering the RCAF archive lets readers simultaneously witness Sauer’s early twenty-first-century experience of listening to RCAF recollections, or re-articulations, of their conversations about late nineteenthand early twentieth-century Mexican thinkers and artists, espousing concepts like “la raza cósmica” (Vasconcelos 1925), which framed Chicanismo and the group’s founding principles. In other words, the past is present in The Accidental Archives’ organization of RCAF history. Subsequently, Sauer perceives the lapses in RCAF memories, or the members’ offerings of incomplete names, places, dates, and conflicting perspectives of events as an opportunity to let them be—to coexist. In doing so, she captures the RCAF’s history as it happened to her in the twenty-first century, raising questions about whose past gets preserved at the site/sight, sound, and moment of history. The blurriness of The Accidental Archives’ historical accuracy makes readers wonder why certain “people, places, and things”6 are implicitly acknowledged as historical, while others only become invaluable long after they are paved over and most of their primary sources are lost to posterity.

The suspicion Sauer infuses into her archival evidence of RCAF history is also a politically subversive strategy, or a way to document Chicano/a history that safeguards the speakers who took sobering risks in the 1960s and 1970s, and are now asked to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. For example, when readers of The Accidental Archives encounter the interior spaces of RCAF planes, where members like Juanita Polendo Ontiveros “house the sewing machines used to make huelga flags at a moment’s notice” (000), the urgency of the farmworkers’ strike in 1965 is conveyed. In Sauer’s descriptions of the “Powered Squeegee,” or “the most elusive plane in the entire RCAF fleet” that was “flown by Captain Louie ‘The Foot’ González,” readers learn that it was actually the “undercover graphics operation for huelga posters for UFW strikes” (32). In between the fantastical possibility of RCAF airplanes that flew, Sauer imparts a historical truth about the stakes of the farmworkers’ strike and what the RCAF did on its front lines. The RCAF flew planes not just to attend farmworkers’ protests, but to produce art that bolstered resolve and built solidarity with posters that proclaimed, “VIVA LA HUELGA!!!” and “BOYCOTT GRAPES!!!”

Similar to El Teatro Campesino’s actos, or the impromptu and brief performances in which farmworker actors performed on the beds of farm trucks in the earliest years of ETC, the RCAF produced UFW posters inside their airplanes (Elam 1997, 75). Their posters, like ETC’s performances, served an immediate audience and purpose. Rooted in histories of labor—both farm work and artwork—the RCAF plane was “a dual symbol” for farmworker audiences, reminding viewers of “those other flatbeds that served as the primary means of transportation for the migrant farmworkers,” and also a space that “connoted and promoted rebellion” (Elam 75). As a space of rebellion, the RCAF airplane defied traditional notions of where art can happen. Thus, the “adobe airplane” was a coded term for the RCAF, humorously referring to using vehicles as on-site centers for art production, all of which are chronicled in the “Flight Logs” of Sauer’s section on the RCAF’s “Flight Maneuvers.”

Leveling the playing field between fact and fiction, Sauer’s appropriation of magical realism literary devices privileges myth in the historical records of the RCAF, working both with and against the institutional definitions and values of the archive (Echevarría 1984). Magical realism, a genre that deals with myths or “stories whose main concern is with origins” (Echevarría 1984, 359), is equally concerned with history—both its making and its edifice, or where it is housed, located, and accessed in relation to the social body that made it. Roberto González Echevarría notes that “the duality” of myth and history “is present throughout Cien años de soledad separating the world of writing from the atemporal world of myth. But the play of contradictions issuing from this duality reaches a synthesis that is perhaps the most important feature of the novel,” since “myth represents origin” (370). Making art for the people and fashioning an air force persona, the RCAF performed into being a legend of a Chicano/a air force that was mythologized as soon as it happened. One could say that all RCAF history originates in myth.

With the presence of the supernatural in Gabriel García Marquez’s classic work of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude, history “dwells in a special place,” González Echevarría writes (371). The records and documents of generations of the Buendía family are stored in “Melquíades’ room in the Buendía house,” which Echevarría chooses “to call the Archive,” a room “full of books and manuscripts, and that has a time of its own” (371). In The Accidental Archives, readers find that RCAF history dwells inside Sauer’s catalog and it also has a time of its own.

Melquíades’ room in One Hundred Years of Solitude has far-reaching implications for Latin American history, which Echevarría perceives as the colonial processes of ordering the physical world as well as the world of knowledge: “The Archive is, first of all, a repository for the legal documents wherein the origin of Latin American history are contained, as well as a specifically Hispanic institution created at the same time the New World is being settled. . . . America was discovered by Columbus, but really became a historical entity as a result of the development of the printing press. Latin America was created in the archive” (379). Echevarría claims that the New World comes into being through conquest and the recording of conquest that occurs during the colonial period, both of which pertain to The Accidental Archives. The mapping of the “New World” encompasses the mapping of knowledge, and the historical consciousness of that knowledge is the origin from which readers understand their contemporary world and its history.

Archives are thus powerful because they are “the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events” (Foucault 129). But, as Michel Foucault carefully adds, the archive is not only the principle and regulation of knowledge; it is its order—the system of its organization. In other words, the archive is more than the assemblage of the stuff of history; it “determines that all these things said do not accumulate endlessly in an amorphous mass” (129). Documents are not history without their interpretation, filing, indexing, and presentation to a reading and/or discerning audience. Thus, the archive “is that which, at the very root of the statement-event, and in that which embodies it, defines at the outset the systems of its enunciability” (Foucault 129). For history to have happened, it has to be known; and for it to be known, someone with knowledge of archival practices—either Melquíades in his room inside the Buendía house, or Sauer listening patiently to a bald man remembering partial truths at Simon’s Bar—has to have a hand or foot in both the colonial world (the archive) and the world waiting outside Western knowledge and its systems of interpellation.

The RCAF’s realm of sociopolitical resistance, Chicanismo, and myth is one such world that occurs outside the Western one and navigates an unsteady entrance through its volatile atmosphere. Sauer alludes to the RCAF’s tense negotiation of resistance and acceptance of institutional archives in the section “La NASA Sapotécnica Incident*,” which she footnotes with an explanation that the incident is actually one of a series of “The Archivist’s Dreams.” More of a nightmare, the footnote vulnerably conveys a blurry encounter with the FBI, spies, and other enforcers of the law of the land meant to contain and control the RCAF’s ruptures of the master narrative of history; or, in other words, to quell the activists of the 1960s and 1970s civil rights era, who talked back to power (Lipsitz 2001, 73).

In the “Archivist’s Note,” Sauer addresses the far-reaching implications of the colonial ordering of the world, the world of knowledge, and its enforcement. She explains to readers of The Accidental Archives her role as “La Stef” and her archival choices in ordering the RCAF’s history both with and against institutional practices: “I began the arduous task of documenting, preserving, restoring, organizing, collecting, categorizing and cross-referencing the whole historical truth of the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF) several lifetimes ago, when I was incarnated and initiated in a body much different from this current one. A body composed of small pores and broad hands. I was mute but not deaf and put to work as a keeper. I kept the adobe. I kept the secrets. We did not have writing, but I was born with memory then. I was born with seeing. Now I need evidence. I need documentation” (11). Sauer as La Stef suggests that she is the RCAF’s Melquíades in One Hundred Years of Solitude. She is not a relation of the Buendía family (or a Chicana), but she is an insider and outsider of the family, since she is omnipresent in the catalog; she sees all and remembers everything, but doesn’t speak the prehistory of the RCAF. La Stef, the keeper, also echoes in Melquíades’ transformation from the gypsy, who appears at the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude, introducing José Arcadio Buendía to a host of worldly technologies, and returning at the end of the novel as the chronicler of the Buendía family. Along La Stef’s journey through the beginning and ending of worlds, she shape-shifts and is reincarnated, until the systems of record(and secret-) keeping change like they never have before.

In a defiant act against the new ordering of her very old world, La Stef decides “to create entire libraries of proof” with her now delicate hands “able to move through manila files and ephemera at a superhuman pace, able to document meticulously in red and black ink” (11). It is no coincidence that Sauer, as the RCAF archivist La Stef, records events and happenings in red and black ink. Evoking the Nahuatl word for the writings of books, which is “in tlilli in tlapalli,” translating literally to “the black [ink], the red [ink]” (Boone 2000, 21), La Stef embodies an indigenous scribe under layers of Eurocentric knowledge and training as an archivist.

While not (supposedly) part of the archive—or the history that the archive is supposed to objectively keep and disseminate—Sauer’s “Archivist Note” communicates the splitting of the sacred from the intellectual in ways that parallel Gloria Anzaldúa’s embodiment of the scribe, who is the historical consciousness of a people and, therefore, a sacred person. In “Tlilli, Tlapalli / The Path of the Red and Black Ink” from Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), Anzaldúa writes,

In the ethno-poetics and performance of the shaman, my people, the Indians, did not split the artistic from the functional, the sacred from the secular, art from everyday life. The religious, social, and aesthetic purposes of art were intertwined. Before the Conquest, poets gathered to play music, dance, sing and read poetry in open-air places around the Xochicuahuitl, el Árbol Florido, Tree-in-Flower. . . . The ability of story (prose and poetry) to transform the storyteller and the listener into something or someone else is shamanistic. The writer, as shape-changer, is a nahual, a shaman. (88)

Coinciding with the oral histories and archival work Sauer was completing as the ArtChives coordinator at La Raza Galería Posada in the early twenty-first century, other institutions were forming collections for the RCAF. This explains why La Stef and her Con Sapos team “no longer guard the adobe” since “that task has been taken up by an appointed subcommittee of the Board of Directors, operating under 501(c)(3) status. I now share upkeep duties with the Impudent Young Pilots of the third and fourth generations—soon to be fifth, including bi-weekly dusting of all control panels in the aircraft fleet” (11). Embedded in her fantastical explanation of La Stef’s archival practices and her loss of them—since she is reassigned to dusting duties for the RCAF aircraft fleet—Sauer confronts the politics of archiving, or “the systems of enunciability” that make history recognizable (Foucault 129).

On May 5, 1988, the Royal Chicano Air Force deposited their artworks and records at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The RCAF’s collection was maintained for five years in the Colección Tloque Nahuaque under the direction of archival librarian Salvador Güereña. In 1993 it moved to the university’s institutionally integrated archive, the California Ethnic and Multicultural Archive (CEMA), and became part of a major engine of archival research for four major ethnic groups in California. The RCAF’s collection was processed in the late 1990s, and by the early twenty-first century images of RCAF posters, murals, and historical events became available through Calisphere, the University of California’s online catalog of primary sources.8 Historically, the RCAF was active and always headquartered in Sacramento, raising questions about why this local Chicano/a arts collective deposited its archives outside the region.

Back in Sacramento, the RCAF’s lack of place at the local university, Sacramento State (CSUS), reflected the larger predicament of Chicano/a art in the 1980s and 1990s. The RCAF made many strides in regional and mainstream visibility, but Sacramento State did not seem to notice. Both Esteban Villa and José Montoya were art professors at CSUS from 1969 until the 1990s; many of the RCAF members graduated from the university. While CSUS was a major hub for the RCAF throughout the late twentieth century, the university library made no major efforts to collect RCAF art or historical artifacts for its archive until 2007, long after the group donated its private collections to CEMA in 1993.9 RCAF artist Ricardo Favela explained,

There was two main reasons we decided to go and house our archives there. Number one was very simply, they asked us. And this is something that CSUS can’t get over. They never asked us. If they would have asked us they would have had it. But they never asked us because we were hidden in plain sight. . . . the other reason why we decided to go with Santa Barbara was because they are the only institution I believe in the whole of the United States that has a Master’s program and I believe a PhD program in Chicano/a art history. So they—it was incumbent upon them to collect a very good collection of Chicano material. (Lemon 2001)

As Favela recalled, the RCAF remained “hidden in plain sight” at CSUS during the 1980s and 1990s, despite the visibility of RCAF murals in Sacramento like Southside Park Mural (1977; 2001), Metamorphosis (1980), and L.A.S.E.R.I.U.M. (1984; 2000), as well as its participation in countless local and regional exhibitions of Chicano/a art.

The breadth and quality of a university’s collection of Chicano/a materials is directly linked to the development and proliferation of its Chicano/a Studies program or curriculum. CEMA director Salvador Güereña makes this point very clear in “Archives and Manuscripts: Historical Antecedents to Contemporary Chicano Collections” (1988). Reviewing the history and the politics of Chicano/a archives, Güereña states that “those university collections which advanced the farthest did so synchronously to the growth and sophistication of the Chicano academic infrastructure on their campuses” (1988, 5). UC Santa Barbara’s Chicano/a collection demonstrates the correlation. One month after the Chicano Youth Conference in Denver, Chicanos/as organized the Mexican American Studies Conference at UCSB.10 The meeting led to El Plan de Santa Barbra, a key planning document for all Chicano/a Studies programs and, specifically, for the development of Chicano/a academics at UC Santa Barbara. Güereña adds that CEMA’s Chicano/a collection “is the only discrete research collection that operates as part of a university library” (7). Completely entrenched within the institutional infrastructure of the Department of Special Collections, the collected works were first named the “Colección Tloque Nahuaque” in 1968 (Güereña 7). The collection was “conceived through the initiative of members of the United Mexican-American Students and the staff of the Center for Chicano Studies” (Güereña 7). Güereña writes that the evolution of the collection, which was started through student and staff initiative, “was supported by the University Library administration” (7). Thus the history of Chicano/a resources at UCSB reveals a history of institutional support.

The RCAF’s collection at CEMA contributed to its visibility in the first national Chicano/a poster art exhibit in 2000. Organized by the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara, Just Another Poster? Chicano Graphic Arts in California relied heavily on the RCAF poster collection at CEMA. Between 2000 and 2003, the exhibit toured the University of Texas at Austin, the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara, and Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum.The title of the show, Just Another Poster? is based on Luis González’s 1976 silkscreen, This Is Just Another Poster, which also adorns the cover of the exhibit catalog.

Likewise, UC Santa Barbara advertised the exhibition with an RCAF poster by Ricardo Favela that he signed “© 1975 RCAF,” emblematic of the group’s collective consciousness during the 1970s, which espoused group solidarity over individual notoriety. Favela’s poster features two calaveras dressed in contemporary clothes. One of the skeletons holds a frame up to the other’s face. Favela created the poster as an advertisement for the RCAF’s Centro de Artistas Chicanos, an umbrella organization founded by the RCAF in 1972 to teach and make art and to support other community services. The poster’s original advertising function is conveyed by the text below the image: “Posters, Murales Y Clases de Arte Para la Gente.” But Favela’s poster takes on new meaning as an announcement for the 2001 Just Another Poster? show. As one of the calaveras attempts to capture the other’s likeness in a frame still dripping with fresh paint, the image playfully comments on the new appeal and collectability of Chicano/a art in the twenty-first century.

Amidst the success of their collection in Santa Barbara, the RCAF grew increasingly aware of their absence in the university archives and collections at CSUS. Echoing Ricardo Favela, José Montoya remarked on Sacramento State’s neglect of the RCAF and the uneven development of Chicano/a history and departments in general:

We’ve been interviewed and researched and there’s very little out there that we can send our students to go and read those books—even at Sac State. For all of the things that we accomplished as the Royal Chicano Air Force, they’re finally—just barely—beginning to say, “Well, you guys came from here. Why is your archive in Santa Barbara?” Well, no one asked. Now they’ve got new librarians who are saying, “You have to have your stuff here.” So I’m having to, you know. I will give them some of the Barrio Art materials because it’s still going on and still a CSUS affiliated program. The poster-making—Favela, who teaches in the art department, has turned the collection over to them—or set up an archive. Nothing is as expansive, or close to having everything we’ve ever done like Santa Barbara. (José Montoya, Interview, July 5, 2004)

As Montoya indicates, institutional efforts to collect RCAF art and records at CSUS did not get under way until their CEMA collection was wellestablished. As head of the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Sheila O’Neill joined the CSUS staff in 1999 and is one of the “new librarians” to whom Montoya refers as a recent advocate of RCAF archives at the university library. Following mayor Joe Serna Jr.’s death in 1999, O’Neill was contacted by his staff in 2000, and his “papers came to the library December 2004 and were processed during the year 2006–early 2007.”13 The Joe Serna, Jr. Papers officially opened to the public on October 21, 2007.14 “During that same month, the library hosted an exhibit titled ‘Our Mayor Forever: Joe Serna, 1939-1999.’”15 Serna was an RCAF member and, along with his collection at Sacramento State, O’Neill and her staff prepared another RCAF member’s collection: the Dr. Sam Ríos Papers, which includes documents on the founding of Chicano Studies at CSUS; the early years of Breakfast for Niños, a breakfast program in Sacramento started in the 1970s for low-income students; and the development of the Washington Barrio Education Center.

In the twenty-first century, the anxieties provoked by the acquisition and official archiving of historical records in the very institutions that underrepresented communities struggled for access to and visibility in pervades The Accidental Archives. While Sauer’s catalog raises the same questions that Dolores Hayden poses in The Power of Place, it is also powerfully subversive because it works against institutional practices for collecting history. Thus, Sauer’s catalog resonates in other public art interventions that operate unofficially, enacting spatial tactics to remap the forgotten histories of communities of color.

In 2002, artist Sandra de la Loza founded the Pocho Research Society (PRS) in Los Angeles and intruded on the city’s built environment through a series of public art projects that are recorded in the PRS’s Field Guide to L.A.: Monuments and Murals of Erased and Invisible Histories (2011). In the opening image of the field guide, de la Loza presents herself as a guerrilla artist: her face is covered by a white face stocking, and her eyes are framed by a piercing frown. Donning the role of a militant subversive, de la Loza and her PRS team performed Operation Invisible Monument in which they located, installed, and photographed “a series of plaques at four different locations in and around downtown Los Angeles” (5). The plaques commemorated key events in local Chicano/a history, a history far removed from the visual archive of the American imagination of “the West” and “the frontier.”

One of the monuments that de la Loza and her crew landmarked was at La Placita Olvera, near 650 North Main Street in Los Angeles. This is the site of Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros’ mural, Tropical América (1932). While the mural is now officially restored and on view (with an Interpretive Center officially opened October 9, 2012), the PRS installed its plaque in 2002, detailing the mural’s creation, the sponsors’ original expectations that it would feature “lush tropical vegetation,” and Siqueiros’ delivery of politically charged imagery, including “a crucified indigena with a descending eagle representing American imperialism” (2011, 6). Subsequently, the PRS plaque notes that “the piece caused much scandal” and was covered and then the entire work whitewashed within six months (6). While Tropical América is now restored, celebrated, and even perceived as aesthetically pleasing since its “social and political context” is no longer “fresh” and has been “forgiven” (Pitman Weber 2003, 14), de la Loza notes in the PRS Field Guide that her plaque “was taken down five hours after it was installed” (15). Unlike Siqueiros’ mural, the PRS plaque was too fresh and completely unforgivable. It didn’t have the right to public space or, apparently, the right to tell the history of Los Angeles.

In many ways, the RCAF members in The Accidental Archives are Sauer’s unofficial monuments. The RCAF and the stories that people told Sauer over several years of interviews transcend oral history and transform into monuments. In other words, RCAF memories are tall tales; they are uncontainable monoliths that belong in public parks, public squares, open fields, and other outdoor spaces in which many of the stories took place. Sauer’s film accompanying The Accidental Archives, aptly titled The Ancient Documentaries of Southside Park (2010), makes this point clear. Presented in a section of the catalog, The Ancient Documentaries is a short film that chronicles La Stef’s discovery of the sacred scrolls of the RCAF and their premodern viewing apparatuses (a sort of prototype of the television).

After tracking the scrolls through various old haunts of the RCAF and the historical gathering places of Sacramento’s Chicano/a community, La Stef and her knowledgeable local assistant “Miss Ella” pay a visit to José Montoya at his home in Sacramento’s Chicano/a barrio, the Alkali Flat. La Stef seeks Montoya’s advice on locating the scrolls because she and Miss Ella get warm to their location, but never warmer. In a scene on Montoya’s porch, Sauer makes a critical nod to The Accidental Archives as she sits and listens to him talk about the history of the scrolls, which are neo-indigenous codices that visually narrate the Chicano/a ceremonies enacted by Sacramento’s Chicano/a community throughout the late twentieth century. Montoya gestures in the scene to the whereabouts of the scrolls’ location and hands La Stef a key. While lighthearted, the gesture is also powerful because it conveys the productiveness of oral history work, which Sauer visualizes in the film as the literal key to unlocking history. By listening to José Montoya—or any elder within a community who has lived it—present and future generations of artists, scholars, historians, and archivists have an opportunity to really know history. This is a significant point to make because it means that history needs more than the archive—it also needs people.

If readers of The Accidental Archives seek a clear trajectory for RCAF history, they will soon discover that “X” never marks the spot in the catalog Sauer has assembled and interpreted. But they will depart from The Accidental Archives wondering if it ever really does. Such wonder is exactly the way one should approach historical truths. It is not accidental in the section under “Infamous Accidents” that La Stef offers readers a primary source, or rather a primary voice, typed out on an index card: “‘You’re going to confuse archeologists 500 years from now.’—Sam Ríos, PhD” (68). For Chicanos/as and other underrepresented US communities that are often of color, the reclaiming of space—both physically in the environments in which they live, work, and produce culture, as well as in the abstract spaces of history—is always a politically contested and often violent process. The Accidental Archives seeks to tell you something about this; but not everything.

To conclude my introduction to The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force, I would like to mention my missed opportunity to interview La Stef’s native assistant, Miss Ella, for the sake of writing this introduction. I encountered her when I was invited to present a lecture, “Flying under the Radar with the Royal Chicano Air Force,” at the Annual Festival of the Arts and Art History at Sacramento State University in April 2013. Held in the library gallery at CSUS, the lecture was in conjunction with an exhibit of RCAF posters that are now on permanent loan to the Department of Special Collections and University Archives from La Raza Galería Posada. Miss Ella had come into the lecture just one minute before I started speaking, and she laid out brochures for her K Street tunnel tour in the back of the gallery.

Titled Miss Ella’s Tunnel Mural ToursTM, the brochure solicits tourists to contact her if they would like a personal tour of the pedestrian underpass in downtown Sacramento that connects “Old Town” to the K Street Plaza. The passageway houses the RCAF mural L.A.S.E.R.I.U.M., which stands for “Light Art in Sacramento, Energy Resources in Unlimited Motion.” Designed by Esteban Villa and Juanishi Orosco in 1984 and renovated in 2000, L.A.S.E.R.I.U.M. is a two-hundred-foot-long mural that spans the entire length of both sides of the tunnel. I noticed Miss Ella, as well as most of her brochures, were long gone before I ended my talk. I wasn’t surprised by either, since I too wanted to take her tour and assumed someone of her local knowledge would be irritated by yet another academic showing up to talk about people, places, and things that she knows little about.

After I finished, a good many hands shot up in the air and I was excited that my talk had provoked a response from the audience. But my excitement soon turned to disappointment when the first question I was asked by an art history student was if Miss Ella was available to give a tunnel tour of L.A.S.E.R.I.U.M. She was clutching a brochure in her hand, and I realized that many others in the audience were clutching brochures as well. I replied that, unfortunately, I did not know Miss Ella’s whereabouts at that particular time and moved on to the next question amid some uncomfortable laughter from the crowd.

Fortunately, La Stef took Miss Ella’s tour, shortly after enlisting her as an assistant in the recovery of the RCAF’s sacred scrolls. Surprised by Miss Ella’s breadth of local knowledge, La Stef asked her to join the Con Sapos team and add to its centuries of RCAF records, artifacts, and stories. La Stef has recorded most of Miss Ella’s tunnel tour here for readers and viewers of The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force.

Ella Maria Diaz


“What a magnificent project—a blend of curation, art history, archaeology, and, perhaps most important, a book tinged with the trace of ludic savvy, the ‘ludic’ being at the heart of the Royal Chicano Air Force, a playful intervention, an intervening play, both at the same time. The volume archives in book form an artistic performance/event that has not been documented. It does so with vision and acuity and, essential here, with wit! Stephanie Sauer’s gift is to have compiled a working archive that mimes the logic of the Royal Chicano Air Force without overshadowing it in any way.”
William A. Nericcio, Director of MALAS, the Master of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences Program, Professor of English and Comparative Literature & Chicana/o Studies, San Diego State University, and author of Tex[t]-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the “Mexican” in America

“To make an artist-book to pay homage to the contributions of an artist collective is significant because it has not been attempted within Chicana/o art history. This is an entirely new strategy—unique, original, and witty—that allows for highly detailed accounts of RCAF history. The artist, Stephanie Sauer, is interested in the destruction and creation of history and how archival material is preserved, who decides, and how power informs knowledge production. Her book stands on its own as a work of art, a codex of the RCAF.”
Karen Mary Davalos, Professor of Chicana/o studies, Loyola Marymount University, and author of Exhibiting Mestizaje: Mexican (American) Museums in the Diaspora and Yolanda M. López