Hollister native, El Teatro Campesino veteran, educator, immigration activist, and farmworker advocate Noe Montoya, 66, died suddenly on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26. Though he had COVID-19, the official cause of death has yet to be announced.
The day before, Montoya spent an hour talking with BenitoLink about his life, career and signature role as Juan Diego in the Teatro play “La Virgen de Tepeyac,” an interview that forms the basis of this article.
“I have often remarked,” said longtime El Teatro Campesino stage manager Milt Commons, “that when I get to heaven, if Juan Diego does not look like Noe Montoya I will be very disappointed.”
Noe Montoya was not the first Teatro actor to play the role of Juan Diego, but for many, his was the definitive performance. First taking on the role over 40 years ago, he retired from performing it in 2014.
“There is so much to say,” Montoya said. “The play has always been very magical, very spiritual, and it has been an honor to bring to life Cuauhtlatoatzin, Juan Diego.”
“La Virgen de Tepeyac” is based on the story in which, in 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared four times to Cuauhtlatoatzin, a Chichimec peasant, instructing him to ask the archbishop to build a church in Tepeyac. On the fourth visit, he was given roses to serve as proof of the apparitions and discovered his tilma (cloak) had been imprinted with the image of the Virgin.
Luis Valdez, founder of El Teatro Campesino, first asked Montoya to play Juan Diego in the mid-1970s and he performed the role in four productions 30 years later.
“I left Teatro for a while as I was going through a lot of personal issues,” Montoya said, “and when I came back in 2002 I auditioned for a role in ‘Zoot Suit’ but I didn’t get the part. My son Robert and I had planned a trip to Mexico City, so we went there.”
On arrival, they visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which houses Juan Diego’s tilma.
“When we got there, everyone was busy cleaning the church,” Montoya said. “I asked them why and they said the pope was coming at the end of the month to declare Juan Diego a saint. Someone gave Robert an artist’s rendition of what Juan Diego looked like and he said ‘Hey, Dad, he looks like you! You should ask Teatro to let you play him one more time.’”
Montoya and his son went to view the tilma, which is displayed on the wall behind the altar.
“As I stood there, I offered myself to the Virgin,” Montoya said, “I prayed, and I asked that she help me and my family come out of our difficulties in a good way. As we were leaving, my son asked me if I prayed and if I told her that I would play Juan Diego again. And I told him yes, I told her if she helped us I would play Juan Diego again. I kind of laughed it off and we went on our way”
Later that year, Montoya got a call from Kinan Valdez, who was directing the Christmas play, asking if he was interested in taking on a role in the new production.
“He said ‘I was hoping you would consider being a musician, or the uncle, or Juan Diego,’” Montoya said. “I said, ‘You want me to audition for Juan Diego?’ Kinan said ‘If you want it—yeah, sure, what the heck.’ I did my audition and a few days later, Kinan called me and asked me when I could start. I called my son and said, ‘Guess who is playing Juan Diego this year?’ and he said, ‘Dad, she gave you the role.’”
Montoya played the role in four consecutive productions—2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008.
“When I got the role again, I had to do some real strong soul searching,” Montoya said. “By now I had studied a lot of the history of the conquest and the Catholic church and I had a different outlook of the story. Did it really happen? Was it just a ploy to convert the Indians? I asked myself if I really believed, if I should really play a role I had doubts about. I had to make some very serious decisions. I almost called Kinan back to tell him I could not do it.”
What brought him back was wise words from his son. “Dad,” Robert said, “the Virgin would not have given it to you if she did not think you were worthy of it.”
Montoya’s internal struggle over the part led him to an understanding as to how to play the character.
“I went ahead and accepted the role,” he said, “but I decided I was going to portray him more honestly. I was not going to portray him as a humble, meek, mild Indian. I decided that he would not have just accepted everything thrown at him. He felt anger, he felt humor, he felt love. And I brought with me my cynicism, my surprise, my humor—if I were Juan Diego and this woman appeared, how would I react?”
Montoya announced his retirement from the role in 2014.
“It is a physically demanding role with a lot of running and kneeling and movement,” he said. “Over the run of the play, it takes its toll on you.”
Stephani Candelari performed the role of the Virgin of Guadalupe for Montoya’s final season.
“Because he had a history with this role and because he lived his life as a leader and a poet,” Candelari said, “I felt taken out of myself while performing with him. It felt like we were not acting. I remember in rehearsals, we would discuss how we could do certain parts and he would drop pieces of his own insight—it was magical. He was constantly storytelling and teaching. It opened my heart in seeing the Virgin in a very different way.”
Montoya passed along the role to Mauricio Samano for the 2016 production. Samano also plays the role this year in the Teatro radio version of the play.
“I was really scared and I did not know if I could do it,” Samano said. “I wanted to talk to Noe but he had stepped away from the production that year. I ran into him by chance and I asked him if he could coach me. And Noe, being Noe, said ‘Nope.’ Then he immediately took me by the arm and he held my head like a son. He said ‘I can’t coach you, I can’t train you, but I will give you advice if you want it. But you need to find Juan Diego within your heart and your spirit. Look for him and you will find him.”
Montoya stayed away from the rehearsals and shows that year.
“I did not want anyone to see me and start making comparisons,” Montoya said. “I did come to one performance and stood at the side aisle. But I could see people noticing me and you could tell they were wondering why I was not on the stage performing. But when it was over, I went to Mauricio and said ‘You made me cry!’”
While Montoya was also known for his community involvement, his farmworker advocacy, his educational outreach programs for elementary schools, and his long involvement with El Teatro Campesino, his performances in “La Virgen de Tepeyac” gave him special satisfaction.
“When I play this role, I know how much it means to the Mexican community,” Montoya said. “It’s not a play. It’s beyond words. It never failed when I did the show, grandmothers would come up to me, embracing me. They really believed I was Juan Diego. A lot of people come to see a play. A lot of people come to see a beautiful pageant. But there are those who come to see a miracle. There are people who come to see their faith come to life.”
Stephani Candelaria’s video tribute to Montoya reprising their duet in “Ay Hijo Mío” from “La Virgen de Tepeyac” by Luis Valdez, using photographs by Robert Eliason and a recording by Tim Tomkins of the 2014 production.
Other related BenitoLink articles:
BenitoLink is a nonprofit news website that reports on San Benito County. Our team is working around the clock during this time when accurate information is essential. It is expensive to produce local news and community support is what keeps the news flowing. Please consider supporting BenitoLink, San Benito County’s news.