In a rural desert community north of Albuquerque, a group of high school students sat planning a mural. The group’s first few meetings had been casual and fun — eating pizza and playing ice-breaker games, mostly avoiding the weighty topic that brought them together. Now, Warren Montoya, an artist facilitating the group for New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, knew it was time to get serious. They needed to talk about how guns had touched each of them personally.
He asked the students to raise a hand if they had been affected by gun violence. Nearly everyone did. A girl shared how her friend, who was 14 at the time, had used a gun to take her own life. A few older students remembered a young woman who had graduated from Bernalillo High School the year before, and was shot to death by her boyfriend the very next day.
Montoya, now 39, was struck by the heartache the young people had endured. But he was not entirely shocked. Gun violence had permeated his early life, too. As he encouraged the students to find meaning in their experiences and look for ways to take action, he began to find his own sense of hope. “Any one of the things people had been through could drive someone crazy,” Montoya told The Trace. “But we were all carrying it — dragging our 500-pound bags of grief.”
Montoya grew up on the Tamaya Indian Reservation, just a few miles from Bernalillo High School. Both on his tribal land and in nearby communities, it was “common to have guns, common to see them, common to hear them,” he said. His own father had a safe containing about a dozen firearms, and as a child, Montoya was taught that guns were protectors with spirits of their own. He recalls, as a teenager, being allowed to take his grandfather’s old .22 pistol to the river to shoot birds. “I remember feeling powerful because I had that gun in my hand,” he said. One day, he accidentally fired the gun when he put it back in its holster without taking his finger off the trigger. The bullet missed his foot by an inch. Not wanting to get in trouble, he never told an adult what had happened.
A few years later, Montoya’s tribe hired its first police force. Before that time, the community’s sovereign land, called the Santa Ana Pueblo, had been patrolled by tribal officials. Montoya, his older brother, and two other teenagers were driving on a dirt road one day when a police car pulled up and blocked the road without warning, he said. A couple of officers got out of the car, then used the open doors as shields as they pointed their weapons at the four stunned teenagers. Over an intercom, they instructed the teens to get out of their vehicle. Montoya recalls hearing one of the officers say, “Anything can happen. I’ve seen this on TV!”
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After searching them all for weapons, the officers instructed Montoya and one of the friends — the younger members of the group — to walk away. But they detained his brother, who was 19, and the other teen. Montoya remembers the dread he felt walking down the dusty road away from the car, wondering whether his brother’s life was in danger. After he was released unharmed, the two didn’t talk much about what had happened. “It didn’t make any sense to me, so I just packed it away,” Montoya said.
In retrospect, Montoya realizes that he spent much of his young life feeling confused about how he fit into the world. While his true home had always been the Santa Ana Pueblo, he lived much of the school year in Cuba, New Mexico, where his parents were public school teachers. The family stayed in a trailer in town during the week, and Montoya and his brother went to the public schools there. On weekends, they went back to the pueblo. This left Montoya with a fractured identity; he felt alienated from his Native American community because of the time he spent away from the reservation, and from his schoolmates because they didn’t understand his home life or his culture, which they showed through occasional racist comments about Indigenous people. In his teens, he began acting out, getting into trouble, drinking too much, and staying out late to party.
One of those nights, when he was 19, Montoya and a few friends were at his cousin’s house with a slightly older man. Later, he heard that the man had shot someone to death after leaving the house.
Montoya knew the man who was killed — a friend’s older brother — and the unexpected loss made him realize how suddenly and completely someone can disappear. He thought about how devastated he would be if his own brother died suddenly. “He was just gone,” said Montoya, who testified at the murder trial about the events that led up to the shooting.
As an art student at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, Montoya was still undirected. One year, he shared a house with three other students. He remembers being drawn to one of them, a woman named Mariah. “She was just a beautiful soul,” he said. Mariah was creative, bohemian, a little bit melancholy. Her father had died by suicide a few years earlier, and she struggled to make peace with it. She and Montoya never dated, but they were inseparable friends, taking care of each other when they were sick and regularly talking into the early morning hours. Mariah was an incredible pool shark. Pretty and sweet looking, she would go easy on Montoya during a round, and inevitably other men would put quarters down and ask to play next. “She would just wreck them,” Montoya remembers. “I would just sit there laughing.”
Mariah moved out the next year. She moved to Canada for a while, then back home to Colorado Springs. She and Montoya continued to talk on the phone, though he could sense a growing distance. Their calls became less frequent. “There was always something under the surface I couldn’t figure out,” he said. One day, while on a road trip with his cousin, Montoya decided to stop in Colorado Springs and surprise Mariah. He called her house as he pulled onto the off ramp, and her mother said she had terrible news. Mariah had taken her own life with a gun a few weeks earlier. She was 22.
“That really screwed me up, actually, for like two years,” he said. “I did a lot of things to try and soothe my pain and mind my heart.”
Montoya graduated from college and eventually got a job with a company that offered therapy to at-risk young people through outdoor adventures. Helping other people face their problems and find resilience inspired him to do the same. When he broke his leg and had to leave, he decided to turn back to art in a serious way. It was time.
He started creating portraits of Native American people in contemporary settings and backgrounds. Over time he began to feel his creativity was a blessing, one he had an obligation to use. “I wanted to show that we are still alive, we are still present. We’re not just historical figures,” he said. He sold his art, together with clothing and jewelry he made, at craft markets. He started an Indigenous art collective, and took graphic design jobs. He also met and married his wife, Jaclyn, with whom he now has two young children. It was around the time he met his wife that Miranda Viscoli, co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, approached him about starting a student-led mural project.
Viscoli told him she’d noticed many young people in their state seemed uncomfortable talking openly about gun violence, especially because gun issues are heavily politicized in New Mexico. But she wondered if those who might not have opened up to teachers in a more formal setting might feel more comfortable sharing with Montoya. Viscoli proposed paying the students stipends to paint murals in their schools, under Montoya’s guidance. Maybe they could start a vital conversation along the way.
The idea immediately appealed to him. “I see so many things in these young people that remind me of myself,” he said.
Valentina DeForti, now 23, was in the first group of students Montoya worked with. Her father’s brother had been fatally shot before she was born, leaving a lasting mark on the family. She also remembered people carrying guns at Santa Fe High School, and once one of them threatened a peer with a gun while she sat nearby. After the mural was complete, DeForti noticed that her classmates began talking about guns in a new way, even approaching her for help because they knew she had worked on the project. “They would ask me for information, or how to get involved. Sometimes they would ask what to do about guns in their homes,” she said.
As Montoya and Viscoli took on new projects, they began to hear more of the students’ stories. One young man worked on a mural and, months later, lost his best friend to a shooting. Another participant was shot in the face a year after completing a mural.
By the time the Bernalillo High School students started their mural, Montoya and Viscoli knew how to approach a project. They prompted the students to think about what they wanted to express, and guided them through the various ways they might express it. At the center of the Bernalillo mural, they decided, they would paint the girl who’d been killed by her boyfriend. Her left hand would be open, dropping almost a dozen bullets to the ground, and each bullet would be labeled with a societal problem the students hoped to eradicate: “hate,” “intolerance,” “selfishness.” On the central figure’s T-shirt, they placed a mandate: “Teach peace.”
The Bernalillo students created a five-panel mural that could be moved between locations. It was displayed in a local courthouse for several months, then moved to a hospital, then to the Santa Fe Convention Center. Next year, it will head to the University of New Mexico Trauma Center in Albuquerque. Montoya, now a high school art teacher, has loved watching the mural make the rounds, spreading the students’ message across New Mexico.