Family to accept honorary doctorate for the late Esteban Villa, former Sac State professor, artist and Royal Chicano Air Force founder
April 06, 2022
The iconic art collective known as the Royal Chicano Air Force is rooted in the work and activism of late Sacramento State Professor Emeritus Esteban Villa and others who wanted to be powerful voices for cultural and social justice.
Villa, which died at age 91 on May 15, and other founding members started the group at Sac State in 1969 to convey the goals of Chicano civil rights and the United Farm Workers of America labor union. They created a place where artists gathered, offered mutual support, and created art in the form of murals, political posters, music, painting, sculptures, and poetry while planning educational programs and events.
Sac State will honor Villa’s important contributions with an honorary doctorate of Fine Arts. His sons Rene and Nathan Villa will accept their father's doctorate during 2022 Commencement. Esteban Villa also was honored April 6 during a ceremony at Sac State’s Julia Morgan House, along with honorary degree recipient May O. Lee and Tim Collom, recipient of the President’s Medal for Distinguished Service.
“It was at Sac State that the RCAF was born and I feel my purpose came to be,” Villa said in an earlier interview.
- Honorary doctorate follows continuing leadership and support for generations of underserved people
- President's Medal recipient has turned his success and art into an ongoing community gift
The collective became a springboard for numerous community service efforts, and the artists’ murals and other work became cultural landmarks across Sacramento. One of the group’s pieces of art hangs inside the downtown Golden 1 Center. Another mural graces Southside Park.
While at Sac State, Villa began to work abstractly, most often using bright colors featuring portraits and landscapes.
“My style began to emerge, revealing itself in daily sketches, thousands of them over the years, and also in my paintings taken from these sketches,” he said. “That’s my style, and the way I want to be known.”
Villa was born in Tulare and taught high school for 10 years before joining the Sac State faculty. He retired from the University in 1995 after 25 years of service. He has served as an art consultant to schools and organizations, and conducted art programs for prisons. Numerous venues, including Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, have exhibited his work.
“The legacy of Professor Villa, and the RCAF collectively, represents the best of the ideals of the California State University: the use of the creative mind and spirit to pursue and build a more just and enlightened society in our state and nation.” - Phillip Garcia
Villa and other members of the Royal Chicano Air Force, including the late Sac State Professor Jose Montoya, mentored and inspired generations of students and activists, said Phillip Garcia, a retired Sac State administrator who nominated Villa for the honorary degree.
“The legacy of Professor Villa, and the RCAF collectively, represents the best of the ideals of the California State University: the use of the creative mind and spirit to pursue and build a more just and enlightened society in our state and nation,” Garcia said.
“Certainly, the history and legacy of the RCAF continues to inspire Latinx students today – and all students dedicated to the pursuit of social justice for all.”
Receiving an honorary degree “is validation that my work has purpose,” Villa said. “That my art, murals, and paintings mean something and are important in society.”
His mural at Golden 1 Center “tells a story,” he said, “of us, of the RCAF. We are a collective. We always were a collective, working together.”
This story was updated on May 17.
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