Depending on where you work or send your kids to school, it’s surprisingly easy to ignore the fact that nearly half of Santa Barbara’s population is Hispanic or Latino. Michael Montenegro learned early on that there are two separate, unequal Santa Barbaras. “I see how Santa Barbara treats my brothers and sisters who are darker and more indigenous looking,” said the light-skinned Montenegro, a child of Mexican immigrants who grew up on both sides of town. So as a teenager, he would tell people his parents were from Spain, taking advantage of his visually ambiguous ethnicity in a Eurocentric culture with a fetish for its Spanish colonial period.
That all changed when Montenegro took a course in Chicano studies with Santa Barbara City College instructor and artist Manuel Unzueta. “Chicano” is a word that generally refers to people of Mexican descent, but it is often theorized as a mixed identity drawing on both sides of the border, as well as indigenous roots. Unzueta’s course led Montenegro to embrace his Chicano identity, and he became determined to use his budding skills as a digital-media content creator to resurrect stories of the city’s Chicano history.
Among these efforts — along with producing documentaries and leading tours of Santa Barbara murals and Mexican restaurants — is a Facebook page that Montenegro calls Chicano Culture de Santa Barbara. The page serves as a public archive where Montenegro posts historical ephemera, asking his audience to fill in the context of these photos or documents, turning them into stories.
Browse Chicano Culture, and in between the memes, you’ll find photos of workers (from braceros to tortilla makers at La Tolteca factory), members of the Santa Barbara chapter of the Brown Berets — a Black Panther–inspired Chicano activist group — marching on Cota Street, or a poster advertising a lecture by César Chávez at La Casa de la Raza. These photos highlight Santa Barbara’s role in the Chicano movement’s struggle for fair political, economic, and aesthetic treatment, but many of the photos just weave a vibrant Chicano presence into the tapestry of everyday life in Santa Barbara.
Taking inspiration from figures like the recently passed chef and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain and the local historian Neal Graffy, Montenegro said, “I want to contribute to the Santa Barbara narrative and the Santa Barbara identity.” He doesn’t want to erase the image of a sun-soaked pleasure paradise that attracts tourists and drives our economy, but he wants to infuse it with “the story of how people of color and working-class people contributed to the grandeur of Santa Barbara.”
The members of the generation that kick-started the Chicano movement in the ’60s are starting to die off, a fact that motivates Montenegro’s own activism. He refers to the idea of the three deaths in Mexican culture — when your body stops functioning, when you return to the earth, and when there is no one left to remember you.
In that sense, Chicano Culture is like a digital Día de los Muertos altar for Santa Barbara’s Chicano history. If you have photos, documents, or commentary to share, or you just want to learn a bit more about Santa Barbara’s past, visit facebook.com/ChicanoCulturedeSB.