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Embodying Untold Histories

Tucson, Arizona-based choreographer Yvonne Montoya’s latest work, “Stories from Home,” is part history, part geographical homage, and part family scrapbook. Montoya was inspired to create the piece, which is composed of 12 dances that work together to tell eight stories, after her father passed away due to cancer in 2015.

Montoya’s father worked in the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the government facility where the atomic bomb was famously created. “The government ended up paying for my dad’s terminal cancer treatment because they admitted to exposing [the workers] to things that were highly toxic, nuclear, and radioactive,” Montoya says.

Yvonne Montoya and Ruby Morales in “Mestiza Mulata de Analco.” Photograph by Dominic AZ Bonuccelli

“Stories from Home,” which will run at Washington, D.C.’s GALA Hispanic Theatre on October 28 and 29, explores this narrative in one vignette, entitled “Pajarito.” And though Montoya was not aware of the summer blockbuster Oppenheimer when she first began working on “Stories from Home,” she never doubted the importance of sharing this side of the story—one that the film, and many other mainstream accounts, gloss over.  

Montoya’s great-great-grandparents were among the communities who were uprooted from their homes on the Pajarito Plateau in order to build the laboratory. From this point forward, the lab would become enmeshed in Montoya’s family history, with her great-grandfather working as a bus-driver for the lab staff, her grandparents working as assistants, secretaries, and janitors, and both of her parents working in the lab for several years, too. Montoya’s grandfather is, similarly to her father, currently suffering from cancer due to radiation exposure from contaminants that he was not aware of, nor properly protected from. 

“I think this story is important to be experienced through dance because the experience of the lab, in my family and the communities from which I come, was experienced in our bodies,” Montoya says. “From the very first generations that were displaced from their homes—that was a physical displacement. Then the generation after, who were the construction workers, and the bus drivers, and the janitors cleaning up after the scientists, that was also a very embodied, physical experience. Then, to my dad dying of cancer, in his body.”

Ruby Morales in “Deslenguadas.” Photograph by Dominic AZ Bonuccelli

“Stories from Home” also builds on a larger theme of Montoya’s career: the exploration of the movement aesthetics of the United States Southwest. Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Montoya is the founding director and lead choreographer of Safos Dance Theatre, which champions the work, heritage and histories of Mexican American, Latine, and Chicana communities in the region. Her work has garnered a variety of accolades, including a 2019-2020 Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellowship, numerous grants, and membership in the 2019-2020 Dance/USA Fellowships to Artists pilot program. “Stories from Home,” in its first iteration, debuted digitally in 2020 in Tempe, Arizona. As a full-length, in-person work, it premiered in Green Valley, Arizona earlier this year. 

In addition to “Pajarito,” “Stories from Home” delves into other narratives like this: perspectives on events that might not be found in history books. The work also portrays Montoya’s father’s experience as a migrant farm worker with the Bracero Program, Americanization programs in the U.S. Southwest and the subsequent loss of the Spanish language in this region, and Montoya’s own hereditary connections to the Sephardic Jewish people, who fled the Mexican and Spanish inquisitions to settle in what is now northern New Mexico.

“And there’s a dance with my son,” Montoya adds. “It’s a sharing of some of the New Mexico folk dances, which are starting to be danced less and less.” 

Estaban Rosales, Zarina Mendoza Orduño, Ruby Morales and Lauren Jimenez in “Tecolote.” Photograph by Dominic AZ Bonuccelli

The corporeality of storytelling is also a through line in “Stories from Home,” with ties to both the onstage performance and the creative process. For “Braceros,” the section of the work about Montoya’s father’s time in the Bracero Program, the choreographer pulled directly from her father’s gestures as he told his story himself. 

“He was reenacting the action of breaking the watermelons and throwing them onto the conveyor belts and breaking open the watermelon to drink from the heart,” she remembers. “He was kind of looking off into the distance. I could see him remembering and these pictures coming to life.”

And for “Pajarito,” Montoya used archival research, including photos, to investigate how the farmers who lived on the plateau prior to the construction of the lab dressed, worked, and went through their daily lives. She also spent time with her cousin Myrriah Gómez, a professor at the University of New Mexico who wrote a book on the topic, to discuss where these stories lived in their bodies—and how interactions with the lab affected the bodies of the workers and displaced peoples. 

“I spoke a lot with her about the bodies of the workers, and she told some horrific stories about accidents [at the facility],” Montoya says.  

Esteban Rosales, Lauren Jimenez and Ruby Morales in “Siglos. Sueños. Sefarad.”Photograph by Dominic AZ Bonuccelli

For stories that are so deeply personal, yet simultaneously so important to share with the wider world, dance and the body seem an apt medium. Montoya was inspired by both her father’s innate ability to share and her own desire to document these stories. 

“He was a storyteller. I was thinking about my son, who was seven at the time, and how these stories, these memories, all this knowledge that my dad held, was now not going to be shared with my son,” Montoya says, adding, “I wanted to continue to share these stories—but do it in dance, because that’s my favorite language—and really explore where these stories live in my body.”

Throughout the work, Montoya’s movement language vacillates between the literal and the figurative, with some works painting a very clear picture of the story and others taking a more opaque approach. Movement’s ability to shift between these two realms allowed Montoya to capture a variety of perspectives.  

“Because of the abstract nature of dance, I feel like these stories can hold more nuances,” she says. “There’s more space for the shades of gray in the experience of these narratives rather than being so clear-cut.”

Overall, the mission of “Stories from Home” is to share, both the histories of Montoya’s family and of the American Southwest as a whole. And Montoya hopes that audiences will not only walk away remembering these untold histories, but also leave the performance pondering a series of questions for themselves.

“What are audiences’ stories from home?” Montoya asks. “What is their connection to land, place, people, community? What are their lineages? What are the stories that they’re sharing with others? Where do stories live in their bodies? What stories are they leaving behind?”

Sophie Bress

Sophie Bress is an arts and culture journalist based in Salt Lake City, Utah. In her writing, she focuses on placing the arts within our cultural conversations and recognizing art makers as essential elements of our societal framework. Sophie holds a Master’s degree from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. She has been published in Dance Magazine, L.A. Dance Chronicle, The Argonaut, Festival Advisor, and more.



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