The Story after the Story: Remembering Armando Montaño a Year Later

Mando in full form in DC on a trip to the Newseum, which he jokingly referred to as his future wedding location.
Mando in full form in DC on a trip to the Newseum, which he jokingly referred to as his future wedding location.

A YEAR AGO this week, I found myself in Shove Chapel on Colorado College’s campus where, at roughly age 10, Mando and I had sneaked in with the idea of drinking from the baptismal font. We had goaded each other right up to that moment, but for whatever reason, it didn’t quite pan out — either the stone basin was dry or we couldn’t find it. The truth is, I already can’t remember. Regardless, we gave up on the font sipping and moved on to the trees outside the chapel, a grove of them, easy to climb, that offered high shade between the buildings in which our parents, CC professors, roamed offices, classrooms, pages.

Mando would say I’ve buried the lede. I have been told, and I’ve read in the newspapers, that he was found the morning of June 30th, 2012, at the bottom of an elevator shaft in Mexico City, where at age 22 he was working as an intern for the Associated Press. He was wearing his grandfather’s Member’s Only jacket. His wallet was missing, his phone was with him. I had texted him that night, “See you soooooon.” Terrible foreshadowing in the extended Os.

The case remains open. He wasn’t in his own apartment building, and no one living where he was found seems to have known him. Mando had been reporting on drug-related violence, but his own death didn’t bear the hallmarks of the drug war. The case is unresolved, and the loss unresolvable.

A Large Life

Outside last summer’s memorial service in the bright sun, I watched our first grade teacher, whom Mando and I adored, chat quietly with the Grinnell College professor who taught us that creative nonfiction was our shared home in writing. I met friends of Mando’s on that day who loved and had shared pieces of their lives with him, but whom I’d never known.

In just over two decades, Mando led a very large life. The ripples are still felt. They shake us. We shake the water. We remember him in slow circles, waves, footsteps, words and conversation. No memory makes living of the dead. Still, his story grows.

“What I’ve tried to do is think of people as he did, as a family of humans,” says Diane Alters, Mando’s mother. A journalist herself, she is sitting at home in Colorado Springs in a study lined with texts on politics, history, and story-telling. Tomes about Twitter nestle against books by Barthes. Everywhere in this house where Mando grew up there are words about people, their stories and how to tell them. Mario Montaño, Mando’s father and an anthropologist, can be heard climbing the stairs up from his only child’s old room. Mario and Diane painted each tread of the staircase a different shade. It’s a rainbow in a house of bright colors, long dinners and good conversation among a small family that not only loved, but also enjoyed each other.

Sarah Milteer’s ‘It’s the Most Beautiful Place There Is,’ from a series inspired by stories of Mando and the mythology of memory. It depicts Mando at 3 in his favorite dino sweater and me at 7 as a unicorn.

In the study, Diane and I are surrounded by pictures and paintings of Mando, chapbooks and hundreds of letters from people we know and people we never met — voices on voices moved to tell their stories about how Mando moved them.

“The thing that always struck me was how alive he was, how excited he was, how much his excitement motivated everyone else,” says Don Hecker, director of The New York Times Journalism Institute, a training program for some of the country’s most talented young news gatherers, which Mando attended in 2010. “It was like being there at the Institute lit him up somehow. It was just extraordinary.”

At a time when the prospect of a long and successful journalism career for a young and ambitious reporter seems unattainable, to say the least, Mando bounded along with confidence and joy in the work of asking people questions and reporting their stories.

“I’ll cut to the quick here, the guy was infectious — enthusiastic, smart,” says Jim Anderson, news editor of the Associated Press in Colorado. “For those in the business, he was a wonderful reminder of why we started in journalism in the first place.”

“He was in it for all the right reasons,” adds Richard Berke, another of Mando’s mentors and the assistant managing editor for news at The New York Times. “In so many ways he’s a good role model of how you grow as a young journalist and a young person … He showed that you don’t need to be afraid to talk to people, try things, be out there and be adventurous, learn.”

From as far back as I can remember, Mando loved hearing people’s stories, which he coaxed out through unassuming openness and sincere interest. For the first paper we worked on together, the Palmer High School Lever, he wrote a piece about immigration, getting to know immigrants in our city and educating himself on policy and its local impact. He knew since roughly age 7 what I’m starting to figure out at 23 – that people yearn to tell their stories and are capable of revealing the most intimate facts of their lives if asked by someone who’s capable of really listening. Less than a month into my new job as a reporter for The Colorado Independent, where Mando interned in 2010, I’m working to approach stories, and the people they’re about, with Mando’s empathy and insight.

It takes courage to ask questions and lower the volume in our heads enough to really hear the answers. Mando was brave in that way. He was similarly unafraid of speaking his own truths. That quality enabled him to come out as a gay 15-year-old in Colorado Springs just months after our high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance was protested by Westboro Baptist Church. That was in 2005, when the number of openly gay or lesbian kids in our school could be counted on one hand and when in our hometown, the word “fag” often went over easier than the phrase “God dammit.”

That same candor and thoughtfulness drove an article about his ethnic identity that he published in Salon. In it, he told the story of trip with his dad to Mario’s hometown in south Texas. He wrote:

We ended our 14-hour drive from Colorado as the sun began to set behind the sandy wasteland known as West Texas. We pulled into the Best Western for refuge, the only hotel for almost a hundred miles. The Anglo man gawked at my dark-skinned father and his freckled child, and answered our unasked question: “We’re out of rooms.” He shuffled his papers to avoid eye contact. As my father dragged me closer to the counter, he strengthened his grip on my tiny hand and asked why the parking lot was empty if they were out of rooms.

“Conference,” the man said, glaring at my father and me without blinking.

We spent the night on a ratty mattress supported by cinder blocks at another motel a few miles away. When dawn came, we started our trip again as if nothing happened.

“I hate white people,” I muttered as we approached the sign welcoming us to my dad’s hometown, Eagle Pass. He jerked the car off the road and pounded the brake. He sighed, wiped the sweat from his forehead and glasses, and demanded that I never utter those words again. “How would your mother feel if she heard you say that?” he said.

The Story after the Story

For a recent college grad, Mando had racked up a lot of news clips – articles ranging from coverage of the legalization of gay marriage in Argentina for the Associated Press to the Republican Caucus in Iowa for The New York Times. And though there is no more Armando Montaño byline to follow, his memory is enabling others to keep reporting.

“Mando brought so much outside experience to the paper and we really did turn to him for advice,” says Alyce Eaton, a former Editor in Chief of Grinnell College’s Scarlet & Black, for which Mando wrote, edited and finally informally mentored during his last year. “Our thought was to do something that would incorporate Mando’s relationship with the paper into a program that will bring experienced journalists, including alumni, together with student journalists on campus.”

“Mando Burger,” from a second-annual installation remembering Mando on the Colorado College campus. ‘We needed something physical to do with our hands, a way to talk about him without necessarily having to put our emotions into words,’ said Patti Weintraub, who has brought Mando’s friends and family together to memorialize him through his love of cheeseburgers. ‘Out of all these materials and so much uncertainty comes a way to celebrate remembering him together.’

Eaton along with many other writers and editors of the paper worked with Mando’s family and friends to establish a memorial fund “to help students at the Scarlet & Black pursue Mando’s ideals as a journalist: to produce a newspaper that seeks truth, accuracy and independence in the pursuit of excellence…”

At The New York Times Institute, which Mando attended in 2010, a scholarship in his name recognizes emergent journalists who approach stories with that same conviction and openness to learn.

Mario Koran, the first recipient of the scholarship, didn’t start off as a journalist. He was a high school teacher in Denver’s Watkins neighborhood before a drinking habit ultimately resulted in felony charges.

Incarcerated in Wisconsin, Koran enrolled in a study release program. Randomly, he signed up for a journalism course, where he learned the craft – and privilege – of reporting.

“In jail, the biggest thing I felt was dehumanized. I was just a number,” says Koran, 31, now an investigative reporting intern for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Journalism was empowering for me and I realized I could also give that power to other people who were disenfranchised by helping tell their stories.”

While at the Institute, Koran covered a small sheriff station’s attempts to navigate the unforgiving intersection of national drug and immigration policy on the US-Mexico border. His piece was ultimately published The New York Times.

As a relatively new reporter committed to making an impact with his work, Koran carries the weight of living up to Mando’s legacy.

“There’s a certain gravity to it, a responsibility that comes with the honor of becoming a part of the narrative around Mando and the people like him who were willing to take this profession, this ideal, as far as they could,” he says. “It would feel like I was walking away from something big, something that could make a difference, if I leave journalism now. It’s truly inspired me and given me motivation to keep searching for those stories that need to be told.”

This time last year, Mando’s story was national news. He trended on twitter, which would have amused him. The story after the story is something Mando knew — that the news of ongoing life, of memory, can be just as vital and just as timely. Like Koran, I’m starting out in an uneasy time for journalism when newsrooms are shrinking, standards are shifting and scores of seasoned journalists have been nudged out because of budget cuts or their insistence on speaking truth to power.

At least for now, I’m trying my hand in the work Mando cared so deeply about — not just asking who, what, why, where, when and how, but also addressing why any of it matters. Hopefully, like Mando, I’ll help give voice to people whose voices might otherwise not be heard. And maybe, like Mando, what I write will make a difference while there’s still time to act. Everywhere, every day there are stories upon stories that, if covered the way Mando covered the news, turn strangers into members of a family of humans.