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Feeding Hearts,
Fueling Imaginations since 2008
By Tracey Ryder · Photos by Carole Topalin

Chef Laura with culinary students at Moving Arts in Española.

Salvador Ruiz-Esquivel and Roger Montoya are completely invested in each and
every child and make a point of getting to know the children personally as well as
their families. They never see limits in children, only potential.

68 edible New Mexico | EARLY WINTER 2018
s you near the entrance of Moving Arts Española (MAE), munity building at its best,” says Montoya. “We feed their bodies,
you can see that this is no ordinary place of learning. A their brains, and their spirits.”
long archway of Rio Grande willow branches festooned In addition to providing after-school meals, MAE’s core program
with student artwork speaks to visitors as an emblem includes classes that range from folklorico to fashion design, drama to
for all that happens here. A similar archway beckons you to enter gymnastics, singing to STEM arts (science, technology, engineering,
the theater. You have no choice but to give in to the magical sense of and math), and a culinary arts program which is open to students ages
wellbeing that surrounds you. ten and older. During her classes, Chef Laura Cox teaches students to
Just over a decade ago, realizing that the Española public schools cook simple and delicious meals while learning about the importance
didn’t have funding for any creativity-based afterschool programs, of good nutrition.
Salvador Ruiz-Esquivel and partner Roger Montoya made it their Chef Laura was raised on a farm in rural Wisconsin, in a family of
personal mission to find a way to fill the lives of children from twelve children, so cooking for a crowd came naturally to her. And
throughout northern New Mexico with creativity, healthy meals, and with a degree in early childhood development and twenty-five years
a safe, culturally rich social environment. Both men had already spent of teaching experience behind her, she is a natural in the classroom as
a good part of their own lives submerged in creative careers—from well. Chef Laura’s path to Moving Arts Española came after working
gymnastics, to dance, to entrepreneurship—and were well aware of with the Cooking With Kids program in Santa Fe, where she met
the benefits associated with living a well-balanced life whereby body, Montoya at a health fair he’d organized. A few months later, when
mind, and spirit are all nurtured. So in 2008, they founded Moving Montoya wanted to start the Healthy Meals program at MAE, he
Arts Española, an organization that offers children and teens classes in called to see if Cox wanted to help. She recalls that conversation:
performing, visual, and culinary arts. “Roger said, ‘In an area of desperate food insecurity, we would pro-
Thanks to consistent funding from many of New Mexico’s top vide healthy and nutritious after-school meals for the students of
philanthropic organizations, such as the McCune Charitable Foun- Moving Arts Española and their families.’ I was all in!”
dation, Los Alamos National Bank, the LANL Foundation, the
After her first semester at MAE, spent creating healthy after-school
Santa Fe Community Foundation, plus the United Way and sev-
meals, Laura started the culinary arts program, which is now in its
eral others, Ruiz-Esquivel and Montoya have been able to expand
third year. Often hearing students say things like “I wish I could make
the programs offered at MAE to include healthy after-school meals.
this,” or “What is quinoa?” she realized the need for them not just to
When it came to participating in the usual food reimbursement
help out in the kitchen, but to actually learn how to cook. Her goal
component provided to organizations by the USDA (in this case
is to introduce new foods that children can make at home using local
through a grant managed by Help New Mexico), Ruiz-Esquivel and
ingredients so that they can proudly prepare dishes on their own while
Montoya weren’t satisfied with the frozen, processed, pre-packaged
having fun. She quips, “So far, we have the ‘fun’ part conquered!”
foods most often provided, so they challenged the USDA to allow
them to provide their students with locally-sourced, organic, veg- Originally, Chef Laura had a concern about the age of students in
etarian foods whenever possible. The USDA agreed, and now, Mov- her class, who can range from seven to fourteen years old. Quickly,
ing Arts Española provides as many as twelve thousand meals to however, she realized that was one of the strong points of the pro-
students and their family members each year. In fact, the program gram. “Learning to help each other,” she explained, “builds confi-
has been so successful that it is now a model for other organizations dence and teaches compassion at the same time.”
that want to follow suit. Ruiz-Esquivel explains it simply: “If kids As with all programs provided at MAE, the culinary arts program
are hungry they can’t learn. Feeding them makes all the difference. teaches students to learn to work in groups, to be cooperative, to
They now come here to eat, to learn. They are happier and have share. They also have to clean up afterwards—washing dishes, sweep-
longer attention spans.” ing, wiping counters, and sharing chores. Because of this, students
Even though Moving Arts Española is reimbursed for every reg- come to rely on one another and really help each other out—all excel-
istered child who eats there, that doesn’t reflect the whole picture. lent life skills that can be carried forward with each of them.
Since most parents or grandparents who bring children to the pro- When asked what it’s like to work at MAE, Chef Laura doesn’t hold
gram drive an average of thirty miles roundtrip, often with additional back. “I often wonder what I did to fall into such an amazing job. I
siblings in tow, it’s not always possible for them to drop off students am so fortunate! You feel the positive energy and spirit of the place
and then return later to pick them up, so family members are wel- the minute you walk through the doors. Ruiz-Esquivel and Montoya
come to stick around, participate in classes, and to enjoy the healthy created this welcoming atmosphere. They are family to me and are
meals as well. The USDA reimbursement of $3.07 per meal covers family to everyone here. They are the reason this place is a haven
only a fraction of the costs for those meals. Rather than viewing this for young, creative people who can freely express themselves through
as a negative or complaining about the situation, Ruiz-Esquivel and dance, music, art, food, and drama. They are completely invested in
Montoya feel blessed to be able to feed so many people. “This is com- each and every child and make a point of getting to know the children

Left: Roger Montoya. Right: Salvador Ruiz-Esquivel.

personally as well as their families. They never see limits in children, Right now, MAE is housed in a former bingo hall and fireworks
only potential.” store, adjacent to the Ohkay Owingeh Casino. In another five years,
Dividing their roles, Ruiz-Esquivel and Montoya cover the gamut their lease expires, so finding a permanent location is paramount.
of responsibilities at MAE. Ruiz-Esquivel serves as executive direc- Here, MAE enjoys a large area, some thirteen thousand square feet
tor of the organization, taking on the responsibility of paying bills, in total, including a two hundred fifty-seat theater, multiple class-
making sure things run smoothly, keeping everyone grounded; rooms, the service kitchen where meals are served, offices, and a mu-
while Montoya, as creative director, uses his seemingly boundless sic studio—all furnished with repurposed materials. And the artful
energy to dream up fresh new ideas. Knowing the pair has spent the atmosphere doesn’t end with the arches that greet you at the entrance:
past decade working endless hours on behalf of their students, no an abundance of colorful drapes divide a large room into dance stu-
one would blame them for an indication of weariness when asked dios, interior walls are covered in photographs and playful posters,
about the next ten years, but without a moment of hesitation, Mon- and, most recently, the students created a large mural depicting the
toya's eyes light up and he replies, “We need to build a school! We landscape of northern New Mexico, with the words “Yummy Food”
need a permanent location!” spelled out in letters shaped from fruits and vegetables.

70 edible New Mexico | EARLY WINTER 2018
Back row, left to right: Bethany Gutierrez, Ethan Pierce, Max Garcia, Desmond Garcia, and Sean Pierce.
Front row, left to right: Xavian Suazo, Laura Cox, and Har Savari Khalsa.

Today, MAE provides the community with thirty jobs, and half has relationships not only with NNMC but also with the Santa Fe
of those are given to students once they are of working age. They School for the Arts to help MAE students gain admission, and more
start out above minimum wage, at eight dollars per hour, and are than thirty students have gone on to attend one or the other.
given raises as they gather experience. One nineteen-year-old, for For both Ruiz-Esquivel and Montoya, providing a one-stop shop
example, now earns twenty-two dollars and fifty cents per hour as for working families, where kids can benefit from healthy meals,
a teacher and head tutor. He has been with the program since the homework support, community connections, safety, and multiple
third grade, is Mexican, bilingual, and a super-bright straight-A stu- disciplines of classes, is the main goal behind Moving Arts Española.
dent. Montoya can’t hide his enthusiasm as he describes the young I would say they’ve achieved that goal beyond all expectations. It is
man: “He is destined for a great life. It’s so beautiful to see.” And often said that parents provide children with roots and wings. I would
this is not a rare occurrence. Many of the children who participate add that Ruiz-Esquivel and Montoya are their higher angels—inspir-
in the MAE programs return to work there after starting college, ing them to reach for the stars.
like Aaron Martinez, who currently attends Northern New Mexico
College (NNMC) and teaches gymnastics at MAE. In fact, MAE