Sal Ruiz, left, and Roger Montoya, right, are the co-founders of Moving Arts Española (all photos by author for Hyperallergic)

ESPAÑOLA, New Mexico — Since 2008, Moving Arts Española has provided visual and performing arts classes to youth in Española, a small community in northern New Mexico. Now, Moving Arts co-founder Roger Montoya is in the top 10 “CNN Heroes” for 2019. Each of these “Heroes” was nominated by someone in their community, and was then selected by CNN to receive $10,000 for their project, which can be anything that “makes the world a better place.” The winner, called the CNN Hero of the Year, will win an additional $100,000 for their respective organization.

Raised in New Mexico, Montoya was working as a professional dancer in New York City when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1986. “In 1989 I came back to New Mexico to die,” he said in a film made by Meow Wolf, part of a series highlighting the company’s nonprofit partners. He found solace and healing in arts and movement, worked for years on an arts-in-schools program, and then founded Moving Arts Española with his partner Sal Ruiz in 2008.

The entrance to Moving Arts Española

Student-made papier-mâché masks over the entrance to the Moving Arts building

For a few years the organization operated in an unused school building, starting with just gymnastics, hip-hop, ballet, and flamenco dancing (Montoya was a college gymnast). When the building was condemned and set to be razed, they moved into their current space, a former bingo hall built in 1984. Now Moving Arts offers every imaginable type of class, from comic book-making to theater to cooking. A “multi-menu” is an essential aspect of the project, Montoya told Hyperallergic. “Kids need entry points where they can find their path, and that’s the key to supporting their future.” Moving Arts has supported over 5,000 children and teenagers in its 11-year history. The organization hosts about 450 youth per week, and provides a free meal for the students and their families, which means between 100 and 120 people nightly.

A gymnastics class at Moving Arts Española

Española is known in New Mexico and beyond for being an epicenter of the country’s opioid crisis. Its rates of death from overdose are almost four times higher than the national average, and 30% of the community lives below the poverty line, CNN reported. “So many children come broken,” said Montoya. “They come traumatized.”

For these young people, Moving Arts is a refuge. “It’s a sanctuary for people who feel like there’s not a safe place in Española,” said Aaron Martinez, who went to classes at Moving Arts and now teaches in the program. Martinez lost his sister to a heroin overdose, and both his parents have struggled with addiction. Martinez is an example of what Montoya calls the youth mentorship program, where students graduate into leadership roles. “There’s something magic about that passing of tradition,” Montoya told Hyperallergic.

$100,000 would mean a great deal for Moving Arts. The strategic plan is extensive, and accounts for the incredible growth Moving Arts has seen over the past year, in which enrollment has grown by 50%. The expansion would include an additional 6000 square feet of space, into an area that is attached to their existing building but currently is unused and not part of their lease. Additional construction will include new bathrooms, a new entrance with parking shaded by solar panels, and a greenhouse where students would grow some of the food used in the meal program. A number of new staff members would be hired, including a program director, and new digital media literacy and behavioral health programming would be instituted.

Furthermore, Montoya stressed that they are focused on the replicability of the model. “Arts are the absolute best way to build a community into resiliency,” Montoya told Hyperallergic. “How can we take that recipe for other communities in rural America? How can we go teach and train and spread what we’ve done?”

Sofia and Dominic, both 12, will be singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the end-of-semester gymnastics demonstrations

A sewing class makes adjustments to their garments

I visited Moving Arts on their last day of classes for the semester. Final preparations were in the works for the end-of-semester performances, which begin this weekend. A cohort of students was working in the kitchen, baking cookies to be sold at the performances. (I got to eat one; they were delicious.) A sewing class was busy putting final alterations on their garments, which they’d soon be wearing on stage. Two 12-year-old students, Sofia and Dominic, let me sit in on a rehearsal of their performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Students and parents streamed in and out of the building’s doors, and gathered around communal tables over bowls of jambalaya, all joyfully greeted by Montoya and Ruiz. “Have a good night, see you soon!” the pair called to families on their way out the doors. “Don’t forget to vote!”

Voting for CNN’s Hero of the Year is open through December 3. A winner will be announced on December 8. You can vote here.

Ellie Duke was the Southwest US editor at Hyperallergic. She also co-edits the literary journal Contra Viento. She lives in Santa Fe, NM. Find her on Twitter.