April 22, 2005

“A disability is not an inability”

By Pablo Jaime Sainz

Alex Montoya was born in Colombia as a triple amputee: He was missing both of his arms and one of his legs.

In order to give him a better future, his parents made the painful decision of sending him to live with relatives in San Francisco, California.

“Colombia has advanced socially and technologically, but when I was growing up, being disabled would’ve been a great challenge there. It was a bigger sacrifice for my parents than for me, because they weren’t able to watch me grow up,” he said.

Through hard work and dedication, Montoya was able to pass his disability, and thanks to prosthetic arms and leg he received as a child, he set high goals for himself.

“For me, a disability is not equal to inability. To me it just means I have extra challenges to overcome.”,” said Montoya, who came to the U.S. in 1978, when he was only 4.

Those challenges he was able to overcome in California were the subject matter for his essay “California: Cradle of Dreams,” which was recently selected as top-prize winner of the statewide contest “California Stories Uncovered: Letters Home,” sponsored by the California Council for the Humanities and New California Media, an association of ethnic publications including La Prensa San Diego.

“The letters are a mirror of the new California, written from the heart by old and young, immigrants and U.S.-born, all reflecting stories of their communities, infused with excitement about the present, laced with a yearning for home and those left behind,” according to contest organizers.

In Montoya’s case, his essay, which was written as a letter addressed to his parents, who still live in Colombia.

“The essay is based on lessons that I’ve learned in my life,” he said.

When La Prensa San Diego editor, Daniel Muñoz, Jr., called him to give them the news that his essay had won, Montoya said he couldn’t believe what he heard.

“I felt really honored that from so many people who were participating in the contest, they decided to choose me as a winner,” said Montoya, who will receive a $1,000 check as first-prize.

In his essay, Montoya describes the opportunities he has received in California.

“California is where I have been able to –just as you had hoped— attend school, join the workforce, build a career, and engage in improving my community through public service. A disability here does not mean a pre-conceived notion of inability. If you dream it, you can become it,” wrote Montoya.

And truly, Montoya has reached the goals he has set for himself.

In education, he was one of the first San Diegans mainstreamed from special education to an integrated school environment in 1980. He then went on to graduate from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Communications in 1996.

Through his professionalism, Montoya has made the San Diego County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce become a stronger organization, where he has served as membership coordinator and marketing director.

No wonder he was named to San Diego Magazine’s “50 San Diegans to Watch” list in 2000.

“What is most wonderful about California is that it is a cradle of dreams,” reads his winning essay. “From priests who founded missions here in the Old West, to Gold Rush settlers, to aspiring actors and musicians, people have historically flocked here to turn their dreams into their daily life-style.”

And you can watch Montoya in two major films, Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report.

He describes that experience in his essay.

“I heard that world-famous director Steven Spielberg was casting for his science fiction film Artificial Intelligence. He specifically wanted people with prosthetics to play the role of futuristic robots so I auditioned –and got a role. Although my part in the movie was a quick one, you would have been proud, Mom and Dad... I even returned to Hollywood a year later to be an extra in a second film. [In California] you get more than one chance to make dreams come true!”

Montoya has also written a book, “Always Positive: The True Story of Alex Montoya,” that will be released this summer.

Although he’s missing both of his arms, writing, he said, is one of his life’s passions.

“What I do is, with my prosthetic hands, I take the back side of a pen and type on the keyboard. I can type pretty quick! I’m blessed that I can write everyday,” Montoya said.

In his essay, he also described the love he feels for San Diego, the city where he has reached many of his goals.

“Most everyone who lives in San Diego seemingly comes from someplace else. They come to escape snow, tornadoes, or other punishing weather. It is no wonder, since the skies are normally a booming blue, with the sun caressing your face like a warm blanket.”

And although Montoya has achieved success at many levels, in his essay he wrote he hasn’t lost his cultural identity.

“I am now a proud American citizen, but I will never forget my South American and Latino roots. That is what this state has taught me –to be proud of my heritage.”

On Tuesday, April 26, Alex Montoya will be receiving his award from the California Council for the Humanities at a 7 p.m. event at the National City Public Library.

At the event will be present Latino journalist Rubén Mar-tínez, who is the author of four major works, including the non-fiction collection, “The New Americans.”

To read the winning letters and meet the media who worked to bring these stories to the surface, visit http://news.ncmonline.com/news/.

For more information about all California Stories Uncovered activities throughout the state, visit www.californiastories.org.

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