Roger Montoya says art is medicine, and he has the life story to prove it. After testing positive for HIV in 1986 while living and working as a dancer in New York City, he moved home to the Española Valley to paint Northern New Mexico.
Since then, he said, he has dedicated his time to helping the youth in his hometown, a city that has struggled with a high rate of violence and an opioid epidemic, heal through art. He first founded an arts program in Española Public Schools and directed it for a decade, and then in 2007 opened Moving Arts Española, where he gives hundreds of local kids a place to try out a wide range of visual and performing arts.
“Northern New Mexico is a wonderful place, but families are suffering from cyclical poverty,” Montoya told CNN in a 30-second video for the network’s CNN Heroes series. “So many have been shattered by the opioid crisis, there is just very little for young people to do in this region.”
Montoya has been named a Hero of the Week for 2019, and the short video will be aired on the network several times throughout the weekend.
Most of Española lies in Rio Arriba County, which has struggled with an opioid epidemic for decades. It has the highest rate of fatal drug overdoses in the state, according to the New Mexico Department of Health, and one of the highest in the nation.
A recent analysis by the Washington Post found the Walgreens store in Española, a city with a population of about 10,000, dispensed the third-highest number of pain pills in the state from 2006 to the end of 2012, based on a federal Drug Enforcement Administration database.
Like Montoya, boxer Monica Lovato, a fellow Española native, was recognized as a CNN Hero in 2007 for her efforts to help local kids — in her case, by opening a youth boxing gym. Her aim was to steer kids away from drugs and gangs and teach them, instead, to strive for their goals.
Lovato told The New Mexican at the time that boxing provides a way for young people to enhance their sense of self-worth, which many lack, a problem that can lead to a dangerous lifestyle.
Montoya, named as one of The New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference in 2000, has not only been offering kids a path away from drugs and violence but has been involved in organizing efforts to address the issues, and has inspired young people to get involved as well.
He said Moving Arts Española, housed in a former casino in the pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh, north of the city, draws about 175 kids every day to classes ranging from ballet to cartoon drawing to gymnastics to African drumming.
“Human beings, but especially kids, need as many on-ramps as possible, especially in the process of healing,” Montoya said. “That’s why we have a smorgasbord or banquet of options.
“I’m a painter,” he added, “but also an amateur chef, so I always say, the more ingredients, the greater the possibility to inspire.”
He’s also a gymnast. As a teenager, Montoya toured the world with the U.S. gymnastics team. And in his 20s, he worked with dance companies.
While he still teaches some visual arts and dance classes, Montoya has shifted much of his focus to finding solutions to Northern New Mexico’s troubling issues. He recently started working with United Way of Northern New Mexico as its collective impact director and said he is now starting the first formal initiative in Rio Arriba County to address homelessness.
“The arts can only take you so far. It’s a beautiful entry point, but we have to dig much deeper,” Montoya said. “The suffering in Rio Arriba is astounding and alarming, and I’m called to action every day.”