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Helping young artists discover their identities and find their voices – as he has done – is a passion for artist José P. Montoya, who lives in El Paso but has deep roots in southern New Mexico.
Montoya is a self-described “queer artist” working in a lot of media, including drawing, painting and graphic design. He has converted the living room of his central El Paso apartment into a small studio and feels “quite at home throughout the borderland,” he said.
“El Paso and southern New Mexico are equally important to me, as is Juarez,” he said.
Montoya grew up “in what people would call the barrio” in Alamogordo, he said.
“I didn’t realize that I was low income until somebody pointed it out,” he said.
Montoya didn’t have “many outlets to be who I wanted to be,” he said. But, with a lot of pop culture influences, he became an artist at a young age. In his bedroom, Montoya would “turn the music on and draw – in my little corner of the world, just drawing my little heart out,” he remembers. His first drawing was of singer-songwriter Selena – one of many “iconic, strong women” who are featured in his art, Montoya said.
It wasn’t until high school that Montoya gained the confidence to begin showing his art to others, he said. He came to Las Cruces as a first-generation college student, earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in criminal justice, both from New Mexico State University.
After working at a jail-to-community re-entry center in Denver and volunteering for the Metro Denver Partners (a youth social services program), Montoya returned to Las Cruces and began working with the NMSU College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP).
About 10 years ago, he “decided to take the crazy dive into the art world.” He’s had art shows in Las Cruces, El Paso, Juarez and Denver and works as a professional artist/educator.
“In order to eat, I have to keep pushing my message across and hope people will buy my art,” he said. “You become your own small business. It’s been a lot of work.”
Montoya has also continued to volunteer as a community activist, mentor and teacher, combining his love of art with a drive for social justice and racial equality.
Last summer, after the death of George Floyd, Montoya got involved with the nonprofit Empowerment Congress of Doña Ana County, becoming the lead artist for a mural project just completed in Chaparral, New Mexico. He guided the work of nine students, ages 13 to 18, from Chaparral, Anthony, La Mesa and Berino in creating the mural, which he said helped them learn about the history of the borderland and express their feelings about the colonias where they live.
Many of the students “didn’t know how the outside world viewed them,” Montoya said.
While others might think of a colonia as an unincorporated settlement with poor services and below-standard living conditions, the people who live there have a very different view, Montoya said.
“Hard-working immigrant families live in the colonias,” Montoya said. They have a strong sense of community, of being unified, he said.
The mural project helped young artists express “that sense of family they feel in their colonias,” Montoya said.
His students “created some really bold statements,” Montoya said. “I am proud of the work they did.” The mural project, he said, is part of “an education they’re not going to get in the school district.”
“I hope to impact rural colonia communities to think about some of the issues presented to them through public art,” he said.
Montoya also wants to help redefine what the word colonia means to the outside world, “also adding a little bit of color to it,” he said.
“I try to be diverse in what I do,” Montoya said.
Visit artedemontoya.blog and https://empowermentcongress.org/2013/01/03/dona-ana-county/.