Social Entrepreneur Reyna Montoya: Transforming Fear into Hope at Aliento

Reyna was only 13 when she and her family were forced from their home in Mexico, ending up as a family with no status in the U.S. This event changed her whole life path, motives, and strivings. Growing up as an immigrant, experiencing fear, anxiety, and stress, but most of all, unfair treatment in many aspects of her life, made her determined to do something to make a change. She founded Aliento, an organization that helps to support the 6.5 million undocumented youth and children of immigrant parents by investing in their well-being, mainly through the arts. Her achievements, persistence, and fearlessness have been recognized – with her name appearing on this year’s Forbes 30 under 30 – Social Entrepreneurs List. Reyna Montoya is a girl who lives to teach people the lesson of humanity, and this is her story.

Aliento, the place where fear is becoming hope


You were only 13 when your mom took you and your brother by the hand and you all left Mexico, reaching the USA just as tourists with no status. What was your perception of that event and those circumstances, back then?

At that moment I was just very confused, but at the same time I knew that we were leaving Nogales to be safe in the U.S. I was also very excited to have all of us (my family) together since we were going to be permanently reunited with my dad.


What kind of memories rush in when you remember your first months in Arizona, and how were you welcomed by your first neighbors?

Back in 2003, September 22nd was our first time at our home in Mesa, Arizona. I remember it was just a few days before Christmas, we didn’t have much furniture, since we had just moved in.

I remember that all of us slept in the living room on the pink carpet and we were sharing stories. That was one of my favorite memories because my mom, my dad, my little brother and I were finally together.

The next day, our neighbors came and knocked at our door. They came as a family, they were a couple with three children, the oldest daughter was about my age and she had two younger brothers. I was very nervous because my family didn’t really speak English, so they assigned me as the spokes person since I had had English classes in Mexico (the reality was I had only learned how to count and say hamburger, restroom, and maybe some colors).

With my broken English I attempted to introduce myself and said thank you since they had come over to introduce themselves and welcome us to the neighborhood with cookies.

I will never forget their hospitality, and it has been a blessing seeing their family and my family grow. It has been great sharing New Year’s across the street, seeing and launching fireworks. Even though I no longer live with my parents, every time I come, I visit all of them and my heart melts.


Until you became a DACA recipient in 2012 (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program), you were just one of the numerous undocumented immigrants in the USA. What kind of problems did you have to face during your school days that other kids didn’t even have to think about?

Prior to becoming a DACA recipient back in November of 2012, a simple task like getting a driver’s license was something my school peers could do and I couldn’t. Another difference was how much I had to pay for dual enrollment classes or college compared to my friends.

It was very frustrating to see my peers who attended the same classes as I did, but I had to pay three times as much as they did. Other simple tasks such as driving without fear of getting deported or not being able to travel outside of the country for different opportunities, like studying abroad or conferences, was something that was very frustrating, because I always felt that I had opportunities that I couldn’t take due to my lack of immigration status.


In 2013, you were brave enough to lead a team that stopped an immigration bus and prevented the deportations of immigrants! That same year you stopped your father’s deportation. Still, how do you deal with defeat when you do not manage to save people who end up being deported, sometimes in front of their kids’ eyes?

Seeing families being separated for the lack of inaction from Congress and the way the Obama and now Trump administration have dealt with deportations has been one of the hardest things. It is heartbreaking to have to bear witness to the pain, tears, and trauma that is inflicted on families and loved ones, when it doesn’t have to be this way.

I am a firm believer that we can do so much better as a society and we can find reasonable solutions that will stop inflicting stress, anxiety, and trauma in our communities.


You are the founder and CEO of Aliento, an organization that helps in several different ways the millions of undocumented immigrants by investing in their well-being mainly through the arts. Founding a community like this is not an easy task. Tell us more about how you did it, who helped you the most in raising financing to make your idea a reality, and what were some of the obstacles on the way?

I had been doing community organizing at the grassroots level, with local and national organizations. I started observing that many organizations were there to survive and be established rather than solving problems. I also was a high school teacher for two years at a predominately Latin-immigrant school.

All these experiences truly pushed me to think of different alternatives to create change within my community. One day, Michele Rudy, who is a dear friend and mentor of mine, told me about a fellowship.

For the fellowship I needed to create a six-page proposal pitching my idea and go through a very rigorous process. Thanks to her words of encouragement I decided to apply, and after close to 3,000 applications and a panel interview I was named one of the 2016 Soros Justice Fellows.

This allowed me to be at Aliento full time and then started seeking other types of funding. I was, also able to apply and be named 2017 Echoing Green Global Fellow, an international fellowship where over 150 countries compete, and people like Michelle Obama and Van Jones have served in the past.

Since then, one of the biggest obstacles has been the constant changes that are occurring related to immigration. As a DACA recipient myself, now my future in this country is at risk. However, I have used that to truly think of ways of increasing our support and also educating others on what is at stake. I have also implemented well-being practices in my life like going to therapy and ensuring that I am taking care of myself.


Aliento (in Spanish breath, encouragement) has a holistic approach while dealing with the people involved. What are the components of its program?

We at Aliento understand the fear, anxiety, and trauma that children and youth who are undocumented or live in mixed-status families face. Through our arts and healing workshops, leadership development, and community organizing we transform fear, anxiety, and trauma into hope and action.

We understand the importance of young people engaging in a holistic approach and have the tools and skills to be the next change makers.


Who makes up your team, and who is dealing with immigrants – do you cooperate with educators, teachers, or psychologists?

The Aliento team is very diverse. We have people like me, who have faced family separation first hand, we have DACA students, folks who live in mixed-status families, and allies. We have different teams and a group of supporters for advice, those included teachers, therapists, psychologists, and community leaders as we were developing our program.


Some of the kids in Aliento are as young as 7 years old, and all have one thing in common: someone in their family was deported or is about to be. What healing processes help them the most?

We have a curriculum for children who are as young as 7, and we do our arts & healing workshops in a multi-generational setting where we have trained facilitators per age group. We are not a clinical support group, but we do connect our participants with more traditional forms of emotional support.

We have seen the power of art and community in our workshops. A lot of our families feel isolated, and having an intentional space where they can bring their whole selves and have a support group that is facing similar experiences has been very transformative for them. There is something so special when people who felt they had no agency see themselves as creators and learn coping mechanisms, art being one of them, that they can use and implement in their daily lives.


Nearly 800,000 youth have been DACA recipients, and you are one of them. However, the Trump administration announced its plan to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.  Do you have a plan B in case you are forced to leave the USA one day?

I have been asked this question many times, and I personally find it very insensitive and it truly takes an emotional toll on many of us. However, it is the reality that I and many dreamers/DACA recipients are facing.

I am actively organizing to ensure that many individuals know that this a reality we are facing and looking for solutions to change this. I would personally have to be dragged out of my home by the Trump Administration, and I will ensure that everyone would bear witness to this cruel injustice.

Based on the reasons of my migration to the U.S. my plan B would be to seek asylum in another country because I will be too afraid to stay in Mexico since my dad was kidnapped there when I was very young, which pushed us to migrate to the U.S. in the first place.


You say the hope of Aliento is: A world without punitive practices, a world where everyone’s humanity is at the core and is the driving force. A world where healing and reconciliation are the norm. Why do you think it is so hard in to achieve this goal?

This is definitely an ambitious goal. However, this vision is what truly grounds me. We have to start thinking more collectively and how everything we do or do not do impacts one another. I am a true believer that we can do so much better as a community, and I am grounded in the phrase of “Ubuntu” from Desmond Tutu, which means, My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.

We belong in a bundle of life. Our hope in Aliento is that more people will start to acknowledge that we are all connected individuals, and we need to start seeking our humanity in one another.

Photo Credit: Diego Lozano, Creative Director at Aliento  

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