“The Flow of Water”

Roger Montoya swam past vicious election rumors and heads to the Legislature to work on changing New Mexico for the better

Plenty of people knew Roger Montoya's name in Northern New Mexico long before CNN honored him on national television in 2019—and before his election last week to the House of Representatives.

They had seen the impact he'd made on kids' lives as a co-founder of Moving Arts Española.

They were familiar with his advocacy for people with HIV and AIDS. They respected his work for the homeless and addicted.

It's those deeds, and the actions still to come, upon which he wants to continue staking his name—not a political maneuver that marked the final weeks of the campaign.

Montoya, a 59-year-old Democrat, won the Rio Arriba, Colfax, Mora and San Miguel county District 40 handily with 57% of the vote against a Republican challenger. His decisive victory came a month after a right-wing blog revealed that Montoya had appeared in two porn films in the 1980s—information picked up and amplified by the state's two largest newspapers and national press. The state Republican Party called on him to drop out of the race.

The very brief acting career, under two stage names, came when Montoya was a young man in Los Angeles. He went on to tour with professional contemporary dance companies based both there and in New York City before settling in New Mexico in 1990.
Montoya calls the smear a "blessing." And he emphasizes he's not holding it against anyone.

As he prepares to enter his freshman legislative session, there's no time to fret about the past. Democrats have increased their majority in the state House, and Montoya will be part of a more progressive-leaning faction. He replaces Joseph Sanchez, a conservative Dem who didn't seek re-election and instead ran unsuccessfully in the primary election for the 3rd Congressional District.

The challenges COVID-19 is lumping on already-burdened sectors of the community can't be waved away. At Moving Arts, fewer than half its normal number of students have been able to stay enrolled online. The Española Pathways Shelter opened in January, only to see its overnight accommodations hampered by the pandemic.

Plus, lawmakers need to address public education, the health care system and other big ticket items that require lasting solutions.

Montoya spoke about these and other issues with SFR in the following interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

SFR: It’s been an intense election for the US. Can you describe this moment in the political and cultural landscape and what you see as your place within it?

Roger Montoya: We are definitely at an inflection point in our history and to be running for a political office at this particular moment is just so rich. There are so many implications, not only a call to action but a chance to really put my years of experience to a new level of effect. I just feel I have done a lot of good work on the ground. Now I hope to scale it and apply the knowledge as the voice of the people of my beautiful district. It's just the greatest honor I could think of having right now.

My mother passed this year and her life's work as the founder and really the mother of school-based wellness in New Mexico, it weighs heavy on me, not in a dark way, but in an inspirational way, to carry forward the incredible work that she did in the 40 years here in Española.

I'm ready to work.

Did you feel a little daunted by the prospect that the presidential election might result in a second Trump term?

I wasn't worried. The lingering PTSD from the last election cycle in 2016 was certainly sort of haunting, but deep in my belly I believed that truth would prevail and that our people in the United States would step up and make the change that is so necessary right now. So I think in the bigger picture, I trusted that we could do it and that we would do it.

What were you doing when you heard the news that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris would head to the White House?

I was preparing to head for my first day at the statehouse. I was preparing and I was dressing and getting ready and the news was on and they announced it, and I made a scream. My partner was like, 'What is going on? Did they call the election?' and we both just rushed down to the television and just sat in reverence and in gratitude and with more fire in my heart than I have ever had to be a leader of change.

The Legislature is scheduled to convene in mid-January. What do you expect that to be like?

Based on the [Democratic caucus meeting Saturday], there is a lot of very thoughtful planning and strategic visioning around the impact of COVID on our constitutional duty to serve. There is a sort of a real challenge to figure out: How do we make a 60-day session as meaningful to people we serve but also as safe? We have an absolute priority to protect the health and wellness of every citizen in the state, and so I was really inspired by the depth of the dialogue in trying to figure out how we move forward. Is it a hybrid? Is it postponed? Is it part in one place and part in another? There were many options.

What are the most pressing challenge lawmakers face?

COVID has underscored the access to health care, which is already heightened, and we are going to have to fortify the existing systems for the most vulnerable, especially those veterans and seniors and the immunosuppressed individuals who seem to be the most at risk.

The impact on public education is a major, major worry for me; that's where most of my civic duty has rested, in public education. I see the struggles and the deficiencies on so many levels to our teachers and our students and families.

I anticipate real challenges, ideologically. The political divide is not just going to go away; it's going to have to be reconciled and it's going to take a lot of grace and dignity and compassion to inspire right action by all citizens to place the priorities in their proper order.

And goodness gracious, the budget is going to really be a challenge. There's not going to be a lot to work with. The diversification of the economy moving forward over time is going to have to be at once courageous and at once responsible to ensure that we can take care of our people and build a brighter future.

We don't have a lot of economic opportunity in New Mexico in general and it's going to take some real innovation and creativity to get there.

Do you think New Mexicans are in for big changes?

Yes. I'm an altruistic, active participant in change. And I have always held aspirations that we have to always look to the very best we can be. Otherwise, why work towards anything? The bar has to be lifted, not unrealistically, but incrementally so that we are constantly on a trajectory forward.

You have joined a small, but growing number of LGBTQ elected officials. One flier for a Zoom meeting this season called it the Rainbow Wave 2020. What’s the significance of this to you and to New Mexico?

Civil rights and equity is absolutely at the foundation of our nation and our Constitution, and the fact that I am an out-and-proud, HIV-positive man is not the most important thing. I think the discrimination that I have lived through, surviving the last pandemic of HIV and AIDS in the 80s and 90s, was a major challenge but it has informed my knowledge and my empathy and compassion to get through this. So, I'd say it's not so much that I am going to be this advocate for the Rainbow Wave, it's just that I have an expanded empathy for all people who are downtrodden and not the center of the focus always. I think…that tends to be people of color, our tribal and our immigrant populations, even veterans and even seniors, there is so much of a disproportionate priority and I think if I can be a voice to find equity because of who I am, not advocating for just gay rights. That is so shallow to me.

Last year was also a big one for you with national recognition as a Top 10 CNN Hero. What was that experience like?

Before I gave my acceptance speech, right before I stepped on the stage, I closed my eyes and I thought of my mother and father and my ancestors and they called me to remember the 'we' of our lineage, my community, the people who are heroes in our circle—that it's not Roger Montoya the hero, it's the community that needs to be honored. And so I adjusted my speech accordingly because my community is extraordinary and without the challenges and all of the gifts and all of the unsung heroes—and there are so many including the kids and families themselves—that it really was a collective honor. And it did not feel and does not feel to this day like any one person creates alone. We are part of a community and that is really at the base of my philosophy and my practice as a leader.

Did the national attention help the work at Moving Arts Española?

Absolutely. It made a world of difference. It legitimized our work. It gave us more confidence, certainly, and it expanded our donor base by many, many, many percentage points and the capacity to continue dreaming. We are in the process of expanding right now in very bold ways. We are going to create an aspect of our service provision that we don't currently have. We have been a 3-year-old to 13-year-old, mostly, youth-serving organization, but we see the potential and the need for the 13 -to -22-year-olds who don't have the confidence and need that career development. We are going to use the arts and culture through digital media, filmmaking, sound engineering and behavioral health, the nexus, in expanding our current site by 6,000 square feet, and intentionally serve and pipeline young people into pathways of passion and purpose.

It's all in partnership with the tribal government. That's always been important. Moving Arts has been an organization that invites and unites strategic partners for the best and highest outcome possible.

Ohkay Owingeh is where our organization is nestled, but because of our work as an organization, we have also partnered with the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council, the immigrant community, all of the institutions of higher ed. We are really far reaching; the Sikh community are big partners. We leave no stone unturned and that is really part of our recipe for our success.

How has the pandemic affected the work of Moving Arts Española?

Immediately the pandemic halted the operation of serving kids directly. But one of the strongest provisions we have, the last five years, is an emergency food and meal service, so we led a coalition of 10 nonprofits within the first weeks of the epidemic to unite and to address the food insecurity throughout Northern New Mexico, particularly the rural areas in Rio Arriba County. So the 10 nonprofits raised about $75,000. I led the charge and each of us were able to have our own autonomy of delivery, but we worked in tandem to ensure that every corner was served and that we could leverage any and all resources. It was just a beautiful thing.

Closer to home, we moved into our summer session in June, admittedly, clumsily, on distance learning platforms that were kind of piecemeal…It became very clear during that six-week session that we needed to focus and align all of our teachers and our parents and students on one platform. So we found something called Moodle that allowed us to take the curriculum and the safety of the students to the highest level and also to train our staff and our teachers to get the kids on. We have retained about 125 kids, ages 3 to 18, in every art form that we have. Our normal students served weekly is about 400, so it definitely dropped. But we were able to really continue a stream of service that was the best we could do for the fall session, which is just finishing now, and we are assessing the best practices yet again to be prepared for whatever we need to do.

Our mission is to serve and inspire and cultivate leaders through the arts and culture and no boulder in our way is going to stop the flow of water. That is our philosophy. We keep flowing because we have to. We are artists and artists solve problems through innovation, tenacity and effectiveness.

You’ve also helped to found Española Pathways Shelter, which just opened in January. What is the status of that effort?

For 30 years, the city of Española and Rio Arriba County could not successfully, and had not ever up to that point, opened any provision of service for homeless individuals outside of a faith-based temporary shelter or soup kitchen. This model is a comprehensive, inter-dependent, social-services driven intake, treatment, supportive housing and workforce development.

It took a great deal of work, and this is part of my recipe and how I am going to serve in District 40, is that democracy is about action. Community champions, unsung heroes, exist in every strata and in every community on a whole host of issues. By identifying them and nourishing their mission, we can accomplish great things.

There's a gentleman named Ralph Martinez, now 41 years old, a former addict, homeless for many years, hit rock bottom and he found a way forward and he is a remarkable community organizer and he called me about three years ago and said, 'Roger, the homeless population is growing. Winter is coming; we have to move into action.' And so we started, literally, six hours later. It was 3 am, and by 9 or 10 o'clock the next morning I was out looking for sites. We were going to do a pop-up shelter because it was a cold winter, and that quickly graduated into forming a very diverse board of directors, which has evangelicals and Sikhs and immigrant leaders across a whole spectrum who are linked and absolutely united to solve this issue of homelessness in Northern New Mexico. So the Española Pathways Shelter was born.

And it hasn't been easy. The folks who don't want this in their backyard have been very vocal and attempted to block us at numerous angles and we have made history. We had a unanimous Planning and Zoning hearing Commission vote…because of our addressing of this critical social ill and the conditions they set were exceeded on every point. And so we are at the challenge now that, because of COVID, we cannot house homeless individuals in the kind of bunk bed style provision, so we are looking at other avenues to house those that are in need, those that need transitional [housing], those that need medically assisted treatment, those that need mental health services…We have been able to interface with over 125 individuals and previous to our work there was literally zero data in Rio Arriba County ever in the history of the county. So it's been a really remarkable journey.

It's a testament to my style of leadership, to take a problem head on, identify a coalition that is broadly diverse intentionally and get to work… The idea of criminalizing or shaming anyone for any reason is not part of how I work. I think we can be humane, compassionate, bring dignity and devise a system that may take five or 10 years to help someone find their stability. But it's worth it because the cost to not acting—to the person's life, first and foremost, but the cost to society of the revolving door, incarceration and drug addiction—it's not something I can live with.

I am deeply moved to make changes across a whole host of needs. And you know, I am so excited. People say, 'Aren't you tired?' or 'Haven't you done enough?' and my answer is, 'The work has just begun.' The fact that I am healthy in mind, in body and able and inspired, now I have a real duty to act and make the next 20 years really matter.

The state Republican Party and some local press paid a lot of attention to a specific job you did 40 years ago. Do you feel like that was an effort to make you feel shame about being gay or being HIV positive?

I respect all leadership. The decisions and actions that the Republican Party took were necessary to them. They felt that they needed to do whatever they needed to do. I was and always will be prepared to be a truth teller. Truth matters. Leadership matters and a history of actual service matters. And it clearly showed. My voting percentages were huge, given the challenges. And I believe that, and this is without ego, that the public will see my capacity for leadership moving forward and that I will engage as many naysayers with my work and my example—not my words but with my actions. I don't hold any animosity toward anybody who attacked me. I hope to win
them over.

In short, I am thrilled the way it played out. The timing couldn't have been better. It was difficult, but it freed me. It allowed me to find healing and any time a person tells the truth, they are fortified and ready to do even more work, and that is how I feel right now. It's a blessing, really.

You posted on Facebook three days after the election about wanting to build bridges. What can you do, what can New Mexico do, to heal divisions and connect to one another?

I believe that at the end of the day, if we pose the right questions in the right way, without the noise of partisan wedge issues and all this sort of old corrosive material, if you will, and focus on what matters, then we have more in common than we do not. I just cannot imagine that any human doesn't want a safer world, doesn't want optimal health, doesn't want an economy that allows for everybody to be fulfilled. The whole notion of taking care of your neighbor, that cuts across any set of values as truth and I think that is how I was able to develop a coalition for the homeless shelter. Guys, this is not about any one faith or denomination or somebody is better or somebody is worse. We have work to do and if you want to join, please: Let's link arms and let's get this show on the road. It is really a no-nonsense approach to humanity and the needs that face us.

I'm a proud Democrat, but at the end of the day I'm a humanist and we must find ways to focus our work and make it the most meaningful that we can.

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