A dozen years of Cinco de Mayo
Pillar of Hispanic community heads to greener pastures

SideStory: Cinco de Mayo at a glance

Jim Montoya stands Monday on the front porch of the house that he built off Highway 160 near Grandview. Montoya, who has been involved with the Durango Latino Education Coalition for several years and lobbied for a name change from Gateway to Santa Rita Park, is leaving Durango next month./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Missy Votel

Perhaps there is no better perspective on Durango than from Jim Montoya’s front porch. The timber-beam structure and adjoining log house, which Montoya built from lumber harvested atop Missionary Ridge, sits in the shadow of Farmington Hill, staring squarely at U.S. Hwy. 160.

There, on the three acres his parents bought in 1943, Montoya, 62, has a front row seat for one of the more obvious and telltale signs of change in his hometown.

“When I was a boy, we would walk across the highway to catch the school bus at the base of Farmington Hill, and the dog would come down and meet us when we came home,” the soft-spoken Montoya said from his kitchen on Monday. “There’s no way I could cross that highway today.”

In fact, Montoya likely will cross that highway for the last time come June, when he and his wife, Mary Ann, load up their recently purchased fifth wheel and hit the open road in search of greener, less hectic pastures.

“That’s why I’m leaving, it’s too busy,” he said.

But Montoya will be leaving behind more than that sleepy little mountain town turned bustling city, or the small road that bears his family’s name. He’ll be leaving behind a legacy of Hispanic heritage that his family and others like it built – one that over the years he has worked to preserve.

Montoya, a minister at the Community of Christ Church and board president for the Durango Latino Education Coalition, is perhaps least known for his most public accomplishment: the renaming of Gateway Park to Santa Rita Park in 1999.

For Montoya, the youngest of Ray and Stella Montoya’s four children, it was an effort that hit close to home. Montoya spent the first year of his life in “El Parrar,” the mostly Hispanic neighborhood along the Animas River that later became known as Santa Rita. The area, which Montoya said was referred to by the derogatory name “Mexican Flats” by some, was home to hundreds of people until the 1960s, when road construction pushed the last of its residents out. Many years later, a city park was put on the site and given the name “Gateway Park.” However, to Montoya, whose grandparents and mother were born and raised there, the name was ignoring if not erasing a lively and vibrant past.

“My mother would tell me about swimming in the river in the summer and walking up to school at Park Elementary. It was a neighborhood – people just enjoyed each other,” he said.

However, Montoya said although his family owned its land, which was near the present home of the Visitor’s Center, many families there did not.

“Somewhere along the line, they decided they wanted to put a road through there and started moving them out,” he said.

Montoya also pointed out that the name “Gateway Park” was illogical from a geographic standpoint.

“It was a gateway to Durango some 20 years ago, but then came Wal-Mart and Bodo, and the edge of town moved south,” he said.

As a result, Montoya started a petition to change the name of the park to Santa Rita, in honor of its former inhabitants. “I thought, ‘Why not remember some of the people who lived here, some of the history?’” he said.

Montoya took to the streets with his petition, looking for signatures at the park and other popular places such as City Market, where it was well received.

“Most people were open and signed it with no hesitation at all,” he recalled.

Within a few months of beginning his quest, Montoya’s petition had reached Durango City Council, which voted to rename the park in the summer of 1999.

And while Montoya’s work renaming the park was fairly short-lived, his work with the Latino Education Coalition was ongoing. He has been

president of the board for three years but involved with the organization, which works to improve academic achievement of local Latino students and promote Latino culture, for “what seems like forever.” According to Montoya, the group was founded in 1994 to address the graduation gap between Anglo and Hispanic students.

“It started because of the kids,” he said. “It started when one of the daughters (of founder Butch Gomez) came home from school and said, ‘The Latino kids are all dropping out.’”

When the group started, the graduation rate for Hispanic students at Durango High School was 64 percent, nearly 25 percent lower than that of their white counterparts, at around 87 percent. While Montoya said the gap can be attributed to many factors, one plausible reason is that in the past, there was not as much emphasis on education in Hispanic households. In fact, his father, who came from the Blanco area of northern New Mexico, had a first-grade education.

“He couldn’t go to school because they needed him to work on the ranch,” he said. “He didn’t speak English. My mother, who had an eighth-grade education, had to teach him.”

Over the last 12 years, DLEC has been working to close the gap through tutoring and keeping the kids involved in extracurricular school activities. Since then, the Hispanic graduation rate at Durango High has climbed, by more than 12 percent – a rise Montoya partially attributes to DLEC’s work

“(The graduation rate) is starting to go up,” he said. “We got our kids tutoring, etc,. and it helps.”

Over the years, DLEC also has worked to bridge the cultural gap. This Saturday, the group will host the 12th annual Cinch de Mayo Fiesta at Santa Rita Park, a celebration of Hispanic culture and heritage. According to Montoya, who will be putting in his last 12-hour day to ensure the event runs smoothly, it is the culmination of months of planning, hundreds of volunteer hours and a little goodwill from the community. “Whatever we can borrow, we borrow,” he said.

And as he hands over his reins to an as-yet unnamed successor, it is events such as this that will become increasingly important in the face of new challenges for the Hispanic community, such as growth and fragmentation. He said he has seen many of DLEC’s kids leave their neighborhoods to make way for new development or because it became too expensive.

“They get pushed out and spread out wherever they can go,” he said.

As for Montoya, he said he no longer has family ties to Durango – his siblings moved away; his father passed away four years ago; his mother passed away last year; and his only daughter lives in Santa Cruz, Calif. He plans to sell the family place and hit the open road next month. Although he is unsure of his exact route, he knows he wants to head north, in search of a sleepy little place at the other end of that highway right outside his front door. Whether he will find it is anybody’s guess, but as he has demonstrated over the years, one never knows until one tries.

“That’s why I want to go, to check out those places and see what I can find,” he said. •



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