A 2nd Act: An Unfinished Journey

Fifteen minutes. Not much time in the scheme of things, yet this timetable set Reyna Montoya’s life trajectory. Montoya was born in Tijuana, Mexico, a mere 15-minute walk from the United States border. Her parents were 18 years old when she was born in a private clinic, with her father saving all his money selling cassettes so she could have the best care. “I find this beautiful and inspiring,” Montoya said. “When I learned it was only 15 minutes from the U.S., I joked with my parents that my life would have been so much easier if you had me in the U.S.”

Montoya’s memories growing up in the borderlands involved an exchange that was natural, going back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. She attended private Catholic school with her parents practicing a “strict” parenting style. “I was never allowed to go to sleepovers or play in the streets like all the other kids,” Montoya said. “I was mad at them and didn’t understand the reason why there was so much strictness, fear and caution around who I was with and what I was allowed to do.”

She didn’t learn the reasons for their strictness — sudden migration to Nogales, Mexico, when she was in the fifth grade, followed by migration to the U.S. — until she was a young adult. Her dad had been kidnapped and needed to leave as soon as possible because of death threats to him and his family.

“I didn’t know any of this as a little kid. I was mad at my parents for bringing me to a place where I felt I didn’t belong. There was nothing in life I could control,” Montoya said. “All my anger later turned to gratitude and admiration that my dad made a risky choice. I felt I had been missing this critical piece of the puzzle all my life, and I finally found it. It’s heartbreaking to see all my dad endured to seek safety for my family.”

Montoya readily pinpoints the beginning of her adulthood as the age 17, when she saw how different the opportunities available were to her versus her peers. Despite her parents’ emphasis on the importance of education and her academic honors and public service, she questioned her ability to attend college because financial resources didn’t exist for undocumented students at the time.

Her coming of age took place during a time of dissonance in the undocumented community. “How the media or politicians were talking about my community versus what I was witnessing didn’t make sense to me,” she said. “I never planned to be an advocate, community organizer or a classroom teacher. I knew there was something inherently wrong, and I had to raise awareness. I believe in my bones that if only people knew our stories, they would change their minds.”

Something in her belly compelled Montoya to timidly raise her hand to speak from the back of the room during a Republican fundraiser a few months after SB 1070 was signed. This moment of bringing light to a community people didn’t know led her to commit to go beyond the headlines and connect with people on a human level.

Throughout college and following graduation, she was a community organizer at the local and national levels. Her growing anger about the state of the education system’s support of all students, regardless of where they come from, was the beginning of Aliento (the Spanish word for breath). “I started getting angry, but I didn’t want to stay angry,” Montoya said. “I knew I had the power to do something different. When you give Aliento to someone, you give words of encouragement. And that’s the vision.”

Tapping into her personal experience, Montoya wrote a proposal for a national fellowship detailing her idea on how art can be used as a healing vehicle for students, advocating and supporting youth on their educational journey and focusing on the agency and resilience of children and youth through a multigenerational lens.

She won the fellowship and began the initiative, which became a nonprofit in 2020. Aliento’s programs have evolved since its inception and now provide a continuum focused on three areas: Cultiva uses art as an intervention with a research-based curriculum, helping youth process their emotions and create healthy coping mechanisms; Nuture helps high school and first-generation college students build social capital and navigate the higher education system while supporting each other via a cohort model with individualized coaching, teaching them to advocate for themselves and putting their voice into practice; and Transform provides training and professional development for educators, counselors and business leaders on how to change policies and structures.

Montoya describes 2024 as “challenging” so far, given the difficult narrative about immigrants. “I’m trying to focus on the goodness of people and remind our students that they belong,” she said. “I know from research that it only takes one adult to make a significant impact on a child’s life. We have the opportunity to build or break people. I hope this year can be a reminder that we have the power to all be together.”

As Montoya looks down the road, other states have requested Aliento’s expansion. One thing about the future is sure — her unwavering reliance and belief in hope. “You must have hope in order to act,” she said. “This world can be hard. If we don’t have hope, we can be driven by fear or anger. I want our community to be driven by hope and love.”

To learn more, visit alientoaz.org.

About Julie Coleman

Julie Coleman is a contributing writer for Frontdoors Media. She is Principal of Julie Coleman Consulting, providing strategic philanthropy consulting services for individuals, families, businesses, foundations and nonprofit organizations.
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