But it was also singing, dancing and cheering in honor of Roger Montoya, co-founder of Moving Arts Española, an after-school program that has transformed the lives of many at-risk youth during its 12-year existence.
The venue was the Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino, and the occasion was a free party hosted by the Pueblo of Pojoaque for the community to watch the CNN Hero of the Year awards ceremony. The menu of pizza, popcorn and cookies might not qualify as fine dining, but was much appreciated by the many teenagers at the party.
Joseph Talachy, governor of Pojoaque Pueblo, kicked off the event with a Native prayer that was followed by intricate hoop dances performed by children and teens from the pueblo.
The rivalries between high schools in the Valley are well documented, but the message Sunday night was unity as athletes and cheerleaders from Pojoaque, Española Valley and McCurdy high schools appeared on stage together.
During one commercial break in the CNN ceremony, cheerleaders representing the Elks, Sun Devils and Bobcats – the mascots of the respective schools – took the floor together and led the crowd in chanting “Roger Montoya” in one of the most rousing performances of the evening.
When Montoya and Moving Arts co-founder Salvador Ruiz Esquivel first appeared on the giant screen, the crowd of at least 1,000 went wild. In his acceptance speech, Montoya said, “I have seen children move from trauma and constriction to trust. Please join me in sharing this award with my beloved and resilient community in Española, New Mexico.”
Montoya, whose studio offers after-school classes in guitar, flamenco, folklorico and other performing arts as well as free meals, did not win the top award. That honor and $100,000 went to Freweini Mebrahtu of Ethiopia. All of the top 10 finalists received $10,000.
But it didn’t matter that Montoya wasn’t No. 1. Just by making it into the Top 10, the arts activist lifted up his hometown and helped it shake the moniker of “the heroin capital of the world” bestowed not so long ago by national media outlets.