Aliento: Healing through art

For Reyna Montoya, what started as a way to cope with her father’s detention became a youth-led organisation helping people deal with the trauma of detention and deportation through art.

by Aisiri Amin

Reyna believes art is a powerful medium that helps both express and heal. © Diego Lozano/Aliento

Growing up as an undocumented immigrant in Arizona, Reyna Montoya had been familiar with the fear that comes along with the status since she was a little girl. But it wasn’t until her father’s detention that she came face to face with the system. She knew she had to fight his deportation but before that Reyna knew that she had to process what was happening. As the world spun in fast forward, everything seemed like a blur for Reyna.

It was then she turned to dance to use it as a form to express all her fears and anxieties while making sense of what her father’s detention and the family separation meant for her.

“That experience truly inspired me to use art as a medium where people can reconnect with their humanity and find their own voice and power. I believe that through art people are able to connect with each other at a different level and build bridges of hope and reconciliation,” she says.

In 2013, prior to her father’s detention, Reyna made history when she and her team stopped an immigration bus and prevented deportations of undocumented immigrants. Later that year, Reyna stopped her father’s deportation. It was during this period when she understood the power of art in expression and healing.

Wanting to share her experiences and help others in the process, she founded Aliento in 2016 to provide community healing through art for those who face the trauma and consequences of detention.

“We see art as a two-fold medium where people can use it to heal and to advocate. We create a space for community healing through the arts, where people share their stories in their own terms- acting as agents of change and creators in their communities,” Reyna says.

Reyna also believes that Aliento is one of the multiple media that can help create bridges among people who might not be directly impacted by immigration.

Aliento organises people directly affected by the unjust immigration laws to fight the system. © Diego Lozano/Aliento

Undocumented immigrants who have been criminalized often go through traumatic experiences which often builds a ball of frustration in them. As a way to help them channel it better, Aliento offers art and healing workshops for different age groups of people who have been affected by detention, deportation or fear of family separation.

“In these workshops, we build community and create art so we as a community can find healing and our voice to advocate for ourselves and our loved ones! We believe that in order for us to heal from these traumatic experiences we need each other to co-create spaces of healing, love, acceptance, and empowerment,” Reyna explains.

Aliento asserts the importance of mental health in a community wherein generations have struggled with identity, belongingness and the feeling of “other”. Art, as Reyna discovered, can open up new ways to express the emotions silenced for years and help start the much-needed healing process.

“It is so uplifting to see children, youth, and families find their own voice and connecting with other people who are facing similar fears and anxieties and transforming those feelings into hope. It has been a true blessing to see people transform that pain into hope through creating art or engaging in our leadership and advocacy model. Once people tap into their own voice and power, no one- not even hateful laws can take that away from them,” Reyna says.

Today, Reyna is an inspiration for many millennials and has been featured in Forbes 30 under 30. For the millennials out there, craving to join the change brigade, Reyna emphasises that they start by asking themselves why it is important for them to create social impact.  “When lost, always come back to why this matters.”

Young children who attend the art workshops learn to face their fears at an early stage. ©Diego Lozano/ Aliento

Reyna hopes to see Aliento expand to other communities across the US and share the Aliento Way with other communities. To reach a wider audience, Aliento will be launching a podcast soon through which they hope to tap the global community.

As an undocumented, youth-led organisation, Aliento’s future might be hanging on a loose thread but Reyna is one of the many voices that echo even in silence. What started as a way to help her cope with her family’s separation has today become a turning point in many people’s lives who have joined forces against the unjust laws of immigration.

Reyna believes the most crucial change in the US related to detention and deportation system has to starts with the people. “We need to see how we can only be human by recognising the humanity of ‘the other’.

She believes the need to make their voices heard and to unite is needed now more than ever with the termination of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program under Donald Trump’s presidency. There are currently close to 27,000 DACA recipients in the state of Arizona and close to 800,000 nation-wide, says the 27-year-old DACA recipient. The majority of her constituency are DACA recipients or have a loved one who is impacted by the program.

“There is no doubt that our community is resilient, I just hope one day we don’t have to worry about being throw out of a country we now call home.”


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