Interview with Miguel Huerta, Mover of Mountains
I arrived in San Luis, Colorado about two hours before sunset on Friday, July 25th, 2014. I was invited by an activist friend to the culmination of a month-long program called Move Mountains, a program designed to empower and enrich the lives of the local youth in this community. The program works to train young people to bridge the gap between their contexts and those of their elders in the community, find common ground, and take their rightful places as their elders hand the keys down to the next generation. As one of the oldest Chicano communities in Colorado, San Luis’s history and flavor provide a richness that many small towns lack. I had the chance to interview Miguel Huerta, the man responsible for organizing the Move Mountains Project. (Click here to access audio file.)
Miguel: Do you want to go to those benches over there?
As we walked to the benches in the distance at the edge of a sports field, I told Miguel about my context. I’d observed the culmination of the program, the art festival, Santa Ana, and I’d already talked to both Miguel’s mentors earlier that day. They have vast and beautiful visions for the future of their communities, and they’ve been fighting battles like the one in San Luis for a long time.
Lindsay: A lot of people are in that position of being disheartened, maybe like there’s not enough hope in what they’ve been doing their whole lives, that they’re not seeing enough change.
Lindsay: And they feel like they’ve done everything for nothing. Sometimes I get that. Just seeing how, with just a little bit more energy from our generation coming forward to them, how that has reinvigorated their dreams. That was powerful for me.
Miguel: Yeah, I think that Shirley retired and wanted to come live a quiet life here after decades of struggle, and she tried putting the battle down. Then she told me that she realized she was at the stage where she wanted to be mentoring, and it was time to pass on those things that she had learned. Then, as far as the disheartened factor, my uncle, who you also met, I remember very clearly him apologizing to me for his generation and the fact that they failed in changing things the way that the social movements in the ’60s tried to and the ’70s also.
Lindsay: I think the thing that I keep on coming back to when I have those conversations are that, you know, “You guys didn’t fail! You started this battle, and it’s something that takes longer to finish than one generation.”
I sat next to him on the cool metal benches at his gesture. For a brief moment, I looked out across the beautiful valley before me, the mountains blue in the distance, and the inspiring man beside me. The vista seemed more colorful, more vibrant than any I’d seen, like a dream, one you remember for years upon waking, and I realized suddenly why Miguel and his friends keep coming back here. Something moves in the air like the breath of a live thing, like a pulse felt through feet-soles. Maybe it’s the spirit of the land. I felt its thrumming beneath my feet, breathed it in with my lungs, and pulled it down deep into my belly and held it sacred. For a moment, I imagined the spirits of a long succession of ancestors, and I thought they must have left part of themselves intentionally to protect such a place. Then, I looked at Miguel, smiled, and began the official interview.
Lindsay: So, this is Lindsay Deen, with US Represented, and I am here with Miguel, and what’s your last name?
Miguel: Huerta. H-U-E-R-T-A.
Lindsay: Miguel Huerta. Did I say it right?
Lindsay: Okay, good. So. Move Mountains. How did it start?
Miguel: Through my connection with this place, San Luis, and my mentor, Shirley Romero Otero. It was an idea at a dinner table in 2009, and since then, I have been coming back to San Luis, just really kinda hanging out, spending time with Shirley.
Since I’ve been in Philly, I have helped form an artist collective called Get Lucid, which is an amazing family of artists and activists in various mediums and causes who are really dedicated to displaying their art in intentional ways and provoking people and having it be, you know, art for social change or expressing issues of oppression and those things. In April 2012, we had our first dance party fundraiser, and since then we’ve had eight events. We bring a lot of people together and throw fun parties with different kind of music, different kind of art, poetry, and all of that.
We just really cultivated a very special community of people there. [Move Mountains came] out of that, and also out of working as a social worker in Philly, seeing the struggles there–especially of the black community, the African Americans. The level of poverty and segregation there is a lot more extreme than I was familiar with in Denver. And continuing every summer to see the social problems here in San Luis and how they manifest in such a small, tight-knit community and really how it’s been an assault, too. There’s a very coordinated effort to eradicate this community, and the methods that are being used are the same that are being used on young black kids in Philly.
So connecting people that work with youth and to this place was a really special opportunity, and so Move Mountains is a collaboration between the local people here and the county, and the city, and the school district, and Shirley and her people with me and my network, basically. So as a result of the economic and political exclusion in San Luis, there are really big gaps in the ages here, and that separates the young people from the elders.
There aren’t many young mentors in this community. Gabrielle Aragon, one of our partners, is one of them, and Carlos Martinez, but there are very few, and that’s because there aren’t opportunities here, so the young people come up in school just waiting to leave. They don’t see the value of this place, and they don’t understand the history of struggle for the land and what the land means, and why things are the way they are here, and how that relates to the land.
And so the idea was to bring young mentors, young leaders such as myself that have come from various backgrounds and have been fighting various struggles and have beat the statistics and found a place for themselves in the world—just using us as examples to catalyze as sense of empowerment in the youth and show them that they do have skills, that they are talented, that they are worthwhile, and that they can succeed in their dreams, and sure, they can go live in New York and be rock stars in L.A., but where they come from is still important. To not let this community die. . . .
If the elders don’t give the community to the young people, and the young people don’t see the value in the community and don’t take it, then all that Shirley and others have fought for for decades and those before her for generations will be lost, and this land could be a whole lot different.
That mountain could be frickin’ mined into and all the logs, and the water could be poisoned, and they could frack all of this, and blow up the mountainsides for gold and zinc, and whatever else crazy stuff they want.
Miguel: Essentially one of the oldest Chicano communities in the West would be lost. And all of the knowledge would be lost.
So, that was a long ramble. Move Mountains is an art and entrepreneurship community education program focused on art, on entrepreneurship, earth, and community action. That’s the short answer.
Lindsay: So, I guess, when you guys actually moved into the community with Move Mountains, what was some of the first resistance that you got, or was the community very accepting?
Miguel: Shirley remarked that she hasn’t seen this kind of unilateral support in San Luis, and I think it’s really because it is completely about the kids. This community is weary of outsiders, and we made it very clear, and Shirley made it very clear that we weren’t taking anything, that we were giving, that we were volunteering our time, that we were all experienced, credentialed people that could be working with their kids, and that, again, we weren’t taking anything. We were raising our own money to come here, we were spending our own money to come here, and so we got a lot of support from people that Shirley didn’t necessarily expect. She expected some people to drag their feet or to make excuses, or not follow through, and none of that happened.
From institutions like the school district to just individuals that cooked Andre and Jake food while they were here all month, and gave us firewood, people have just been very welcoming and very thankful, and that’s really amazing, but its been super important to keep the focus on the kids and keep us out of it as much as possible. You know? Just an equal playing field, an equal relationship.
Lindsay: Yeah. And that’s the really amazing thing about this program, is that you guys actually empower the kids to take leadership positions in their own nonprofit.
Miguel: Yeah. The idea that we want to hand this off because we helped start it, but we don’t—it’s not ours. We don’t want it to be ours. We want to take this model other places, but, yeah, I wanna see Alex and Jose, and Kirsten, I want to see these people running this nonprofit for the younger kids.
Lindsay: Yeah. I think that’s brilliant. So, what would you say was the most powerful moment for you during this entire process?
Miguel: There are a few. The first is the first summer that I came here, and we did some poetry workshops, Dan, and Ike and I. We ended up working with these two young girls, and one of them is now going to be a sophomore in high school, and in the performance yesterday, for Santana, she danced, she read poetry, and she rapped, which was really pushing her out of her comfort zone, and to just see, to be able to have known her and watched her grow like that has been really amazing, and it’s all her. You know, she really pushes herself.
When it all set in that this thing was real was when all of the 18 youth that were involved this month were up against the mural with their certificates, and we took pictures. Just the pride that I saw in their parents and how proud and happy they were, and how you could tell they really have grown together as a group, and I’ve seen growth in all of them in the two weeks that I’ve been here. That was the culmination, that was the moment, there, when they were standing in front of that mural that stirred the community up and got so many people talking, and that’s good. I couldn’t have imagined it going this well, how well it’s gone.
It just fell together, things just happened, like the band 2MX2 that came. We didn’t know where we were going to get a sound system, and they were our sound system, and they were so generous, and yeah. Everything just fell right into place. It was amazing.
Lindsay: Yes. Well, I guess I’ll just ask you one more question, and then we can end the interview. What do you see for this program moving forward for next year? And then what
is your broader vision for the future?
Miguel: So, for next year, there are a lot of little ways to tweak things. Now, since all of you guys and others have arrived, things just got so crazy, and we didn’t even have our stuff together to get food shopping, we were trying to pull meals together, so there are all those little pieces that, like anything, when you are running an event or program like this, it’s all the little stuff that falls through the cracks. So trying to reflect on that really deeply, and create mechanisms in the organization to handle that kind of stuff is going to be really important.
Like Andre said yesterday, we want to pay the kids more, we want to pay them for longer, and so I think that’s gonna be a big goal. And I would like more artist-educators to be here longer, too. That’s a vital piece that I need to mention is that the dynamic of having young leaders or young adult leaders to work with these teenagers from other places is really important because they idolize that leaving, and for them to experience, for them to see people they look up to being in wonder about their land and care about this place and want to learn about it gives value to them.
In this small town, everyone knows everybody’s dirty laundry and skeletons in the closet, and [then] we come. We’re a clean slate, and the youth can really open up to us because we don’t have that baggage about them. We don’t know about their family and the dynamics. We don’t know what so-and-so did to so-and-so’s grandma, and we don’t need to know any of that, and that’s really important. I’ve seen that that’s functioned really well.
So the larger vision for me and for this place is that I want to create an artist residency here and facilitate an exchange from the East Coast to San Luis and from San Luis to the East Coast and really having a creative visitor here to run programming. Whether it’s somebody that’s here to finish their book, record their album, or just retreat and paint for a while, and to send artists to exhibit on a Friday in Philly. Facilitating that is the next step, and then I would like it to turn into a school.
Lindsay: Awesome. So. This is Lindsay Deen, signing off, for US Represented.
After the interview ended, I spoke a few more minutes with Miguel as I looked back out to the mountains. I decided that I would return to San Luis next year and take a more active role in teaching the kids and creating space for the teachers for free expression. I thanked Miguel for his interview, and we turned our backs on the mountains and moved across the field, back to the rowdy group of young adults who had just finished a monumental struggle. 18 young people worked with their mentors to move, inspire, and empower the entire town of San Luis, Colorado. For both the mentors and students, I could see that the gift was in the giving.