The birth of Aliento
After leaving ASU, she was eager to join the fight to help undocumented people like her. But working in national advocacy groups, she felt disillusioned by how much was going into what felt like few discernible results. The feeling worsened when, a year after graduation, her father’s deportation proceedings sent the family tumbling into crisis.
“I didn’t really know how to process the idea of not having my dad,” she said. “During that time my refuge was dance — it was my escape.”
After a nine-month legal battle, Montoya’s father was granted the right to stay in the United States. By then, she was working as a high school teacher in south Phoenix and hearing from students whose experiences with immigration policy mirrored her own. Getting DACA protection didn’t always mean the end of their problems, and the national aid groups she’d started out working for still seemed to be having little impact on the ground. Montoya started to think that if she’d found solace in expression and education, maybe others could too.
“I wanted a place where young people could go to process these feelings, while also trying to change the policies and structures causing the trauma in the first place,” she said.
Joining forces with Ileana Salinas, an alumna of the ASU Department of Psychology, Montoya invited families across Maricopa County to talk about their concerns. In 2016, a packed forum addressing DACA, deportation and immigration marked the birth of Aliento.
Over two years later, the group hosts regular art and music workshops, community organizing initiatives and informational sessions. A fellowship program also pulls younger students into the leadership fold, including some from ASU and community colleges across the Valley. The venture has also earned Montoya a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and a Spirituality Award from the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards.
A new era of activism
Montoya says her diverse studies within the college provided an interdisciplinary framework for the holistic approach she employs today.
“I was learning about my own identity within current policies while at the same time thinking about the role of government in society in my political science classes, and then really making sense of it all through dance,” she said. “It really allowed me to find my own voice and create something entirely my own.”
Going forward, she sees Aliento giving the next generation of leaders the space to do the same.
That vision was showcased this January at Aliento’s Education Day. In 2018, an Arizona Supreme Court ruling disallowed in-state tuition rates for DACA recipients, shooting costs up as much as 200 percent.
Almost a year later, the Aliento event gathered some 250 undocumented students and allies from around Arizona to tell state and local lawmakers how they’d been affected. Dressed in business attire, they headed to the Capitol to make their case to representatives.
For Montoya, the event demonstrated her group’s impact.
“It was really beautiful getting to witness all the leadership development we’ve been doing with youth get put into action,” she said. “There were kids as young as 14 leading meetings with legislators and telling their stories.”
These days, Montoya wears a necklace in the shape of Arizona around her neck. She says it’s hard to imagine being anywhere else. Even as the future of DACA remains uncertain, Aliento is a chance to give back.
“Going to ASU and meeting other ‘Dreamers,’ it really made me feel less alone,” she said. “There is so much hope and resilience in young people, I want this to be the place they’re reminded they have the power to change the things they don’t like.”
Top photo: College of Liberal Arts and Sciences alumna Reyna Montoya is the founder of Aliento, a support network for undocumented students and families that aims to foster the next generation of community leaders. Photo by Alisa Reznick