My mother and friend, Dorotea Montoya, widely known to community members from the Española Valley as “Dottie,” is recognized by many people of northern New Mexico as a woman of great wisdom, strength and resilience.
Dottie was born in 1933 in a small adobe house in the mountain village of Picurís Pueblo near Peñasco. She was born to Demetria and Maximiliano Roybal. Demetria, a remarkable community leader herself, would instill in my mother the deep commitment to community that would be the driving force of her life’s work. One of 13 children, Dottie and my father, José Amado Montoya, would raise their own family of six children, of which I am the youngest.
Over the course of her 80 years, my mother’s life reads like a novel of a beloved matriarch and healer, treasured community organizer and advocate for youth and families, with a sensitive but forceful nature. She spoke only Spanish until high school and never traveled farther than the Española Valley until she was 18 years old. She became a nurse in 1950, and, after her children were raised, returned to school in the 1970s in Denver, Colo., to receive her Nurse Practitioner’s degree. In the late 1970s, she and my father returned to New Mexico, making a home in Velarde. She was soon hired to serve as the school nurse—a role she reinvented—at Española Valley High School, where she developed a courageous model for school-based wellness centers. Her immediate task was to deal with an alarming rate of teen pregnancies, which averaged 75 to 80 per year at the school. Through her wellness center, she provided a safe and nurturing environment for counseling that included abstinence training, sex education and comprehensive family-planning services; treatment for teens with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs); HIV/AIDS education;and a myriad of psychological, social and emotional-health modalities. Dottie did all of this in the 1980s, when few were willing to address the unmet health needs of children across America. With common sense, and “an act-now, answer-questions-later” approach, she responded to the students’ immediate needs, creating a lasting legacy in public health for New Mexico and beyond. Today, Española Valley High School has an average of two pregnancies per year and leads our state in comprehensive health services for youth.
Dottie has received countless awards, including the prestigious Margaret Sanger Award, from the Reagan administration. She was featured in the Oprah Winfrey magazine in 1998 for her courage as a breast cancer survivor and was honored as a legendary nurse by the state of New Mexico in 2004.
My own life’s work over the last 25 years, providing arts and cultural educational opportunities for young people, has been inspired by my mother’s approach and her devotion to community. I do my best to follow her example, to move through the world with a sensitive urgency to advocate for a future in the Valley, where young people will understand who they are and what they can become.
Dottie and I have co-created a school-based wellness center as an integral part of the La Tierra Montessori School for the Arts and Sciences Charter School that I co-founded in 2012. At 80 years young, Dottie continues to work part-time with Tewa Women United and the Río Arriba County Health Department. She volunteers weekly at La Tierra and provides support and wisdom to her large family and community.
I have been blessed in this life with a model of the sacred mother, the giver of life, who inspires me to dedicate myself to the health of my community, to support and honor the ancient cultures, and to encourage and empower the children of our community.
Roger Montoya is an artist and community organizer living in northern New Mexico.