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Leader of Española arts group in running for CNN Hero award

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

ESPANOLA – “Art is medicine.”

That’s the tagline on the cards being distributed across northern New Mexico with a QR code that cellphone users can scan to vote for Roger Montoya as the CNN Hero of the Year.

Roger Montoya, left, artistic director and co-founder of Moving Arts Española, poses with Salvador Ruiz-Esquivel, executive director and co-founder of the center. Montoya has been named one of CNN’s 10 Heroes of 2019. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Montoya, who co-founded Moving Arts Española in 2008 along with his partner Salvador “Sal” Ruiz-Esquivel, doesn’t remember when he first used the slogan. “I used it with a TV reporter and it just stuck,” he said during an interview at Dandy Burger in Española.

What Montoya knows for sure is that “art is medicine” is no hollow catch phrase. He credits his work with children in the Española Valley over the past 30 years with keeping him alive, despite being HIV-positive. Moving Arts Española’s free dance, music, gymnastics and other classes, as well as its meals, have also helped kids recover from the trauma of losing parents and other family members to drug addiction.

Montoya said he moved to Española from New York City a little over three decades ago “to come home to die.” He said it’s a miracle he’s still alive because he watched many friends die of AIDS in the 1980s.

Another survivor of a different kind in Montoya’s circle is Aaron Martinez, 23. Martinez teaches gymnastics at Moving Arts, which has studios and a theater for public performances in Ohkay Ohwingeh.

Martinez told a group of Española Valley High School students Tuesday that he spent his childhood moving in and out of foster homes, and was even homeless at a certain point because both his parents were drug addicts. Martinez has seen both his sister, who served as a stand-in for his mother, and his father die of opioid overdoses in the past few years.

He said he grew up hearing from family members that he “would end up as nothing” and become a habitual drug user like his parents.

What changed his life, he said, was when Montoya taught him how to do a back flip at the age of 9. “That moment will stay with me the rest of my life,” said Martinez, who played team sports and graduated from Española Valley High. The school’s graduation rate is about 65%, compared to 74% for the state, according to the Public Education Department.

Martinez was on hand to encourage Española teens to vote for Montoya, who is among 10 global CNN Heroes who are changing their community, and to find a source of passion in their lives. “You guys are the future,” he told the group. “And national media is acknowledging the heroin capital of the world is a good place.”

A show of hands in the library indicated most of the teenagers were unaware of the competition. Voting ends Dec. 3.

The awards ceremony for the CNN Heroes of 2019 will be broadcast from New York on Dec. 8, when the winner will be announced. Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino plans to have a viewing party for the show. It will be preceded by a recital showcasing kids and teens from the Española Valley, Montoya said.

During his interview and in his comments to the high-schoolers, Montoya was careful to stress that being chosen from 1,500 candidates to be one of the CNN Heroes of 2019 isn’t just an award for him, it’s recognition for Española as a whole. “Being called a hero is an honor, but we have earned this as a community,” said Montoya, a multimedia artist who is a painter, as well as a gymnast and a dancer.

He said residents of the Española Valley often take for granted the number of talented artists, from pueblo dancers to low-rider maestros, that have emerged over the years from the blend of Native, Hispanic, Anglo and immigrant cultures.

Still, Montoya acknowledged the region’s long history of “trauma,” which he believes has its roots in the Spanish conquest of indigenous peoples and later the arrival of Los Alamos National Laboratory, whose high-paying government jobs helped erode agrarian traditions, sometimes fracturing families in the process.

When he was introduced at Española Valley High, it was noted that Montoya’s mother, Dorotea “Dottie” Montoya, helped found a teen center in the town and that her son is following in her footsteps as a community activist.

Moving Arts Española, which offers 37 classes in a “smorgasbord” of performing arts to 450 kids, is just Montoya’s latest venture. Prior to having his own space, he would visit schools and teach classes.

He and Ruiz-Esquivel, a native of Mexico, formed their personal and professional partnership 12 years ago after meeting at the Santa Fe Spa. When Montoya asked Ruiz-Esquivel to teach baile folklorico at Moving Arts, “I told Roger, ‘I haven’t danced in 20 years,’ but there was no saying no,” Ruiz-Esquivel recalled.

Montoya said that Moving Arts has a budget of $345,000 that is supported mostly by small grants from New Mexico-based foundations and some funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its free meal program. Next year, the budget will grow to $425,000. Ruiz-Esquivel, who has a background in finance, has helped write grant applications for Moving Arts, 82% of which are approved, he said.

Montoya received $10,000 for being a top 10 finalist in the CNN Heroes of 2019 competition and will get another $100,000 for Moving Arts Española if he wins the grand prize. He said the media blitz surrounding the award has been valued at $1 million by CNN producers, and that the reach of the publicity is global. He and Ruiz-Esquivel recently returned from Miami, where they were interviewed by Hispanic broadcasting giant Telemundo.

Montoya credits Debby Everett, an independent television producer based in Santa Fe, and a video posted on Meow Wolf’s website with bringing him to the attention of CNN. Everett nominated him for the CNN Heroes contest nine years ago, he said, but he wasn’t chosen. The application recently resurfaced when some of the producers at the 24-hour news network were moving their offices, Montoya said.

The publicity from the CNN contest is attracting more students to Moving Arts Española and hopefully more donations. Plans are in the works to expand the studio’s physical space so it can serve more kids in the Española Valley, which may be collectively undergoing its own healing.

Said Montoya: “I was in Walmart the other day and I noticed this big guy following me around for about three aisles. I wondered what he was up to. Finally, he came up to me and thanked me for getting some positive news about Española. He had tears in his eyes when he hugged me.”

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