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A Friend Among Amigos

Josie Montoya Is a Listener and Activist for Her Neighbors in Santa Ana and Anaheim

April 06, 1999|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you see Josie Montoya coming, you can bet she wants something. Canned food for the poor. Money to bury a poor woman's child. Someone to listen when she complains that the police or local government is stepping on her neighbors' civil rights.

For most of her 58 years, Montoya has taken it upon herself to help people who live in poor neighborhoods of Anaheim and Santa Ana. As founder of a small grass-roots organization called United Neighborhoods and a member of the activist group Los Amigos, she's become a crusader and lifeline to families in crisis.

"The people in those neighborhoods wouldn't have a voice if they didn't have a Josie," said Barbara Leon, a Los Amigos member for 10 years.

On Saturday, Montoya will receive a humanitarian award from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Orange County during its sixth annual Estrella Awards at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim. Amin David, president of Los Amigos, which nominated Montoya for the honor, said Montoya "has a remarkable dedication and passion for helping our community."

"Her shining principle seems to be helping the very, very poor. If they need food, she helps in getting food. She's a grass-roots individual," David said.

Montoya seems embarrassed by such acclaim. She's the first to say she has no fancy degrees, no great titles. She follows a simple code:

"I have a rule--every day I have to do something for someone else," she said. "When I'm not feeling well, sometimes it's only talking on the phone or writing a letter.

"I tell people [outside the neighborhoods] what's going on in the neighborhoods. I'm a link to a side of the community they don't always get to see."

Three years ago, Montoya and her 31-year-old daughter, Jessica Castro, started United Neighborhoods, working primarily out of the Anaheim home they share with Castro's four young children. The group helps families in any kind of trouble, including those who are hungry, facing financial hardship or upset by what they consider excessive police force.

Every Thursday, members of the core group of 18 hand out baskets of food to about 100 families in the Jeffrey-Lynne area of Anaheim. The neighborhood next to Disneyland is one of dilapidated apartment houses, and residents fear the city's renovation plans will cause them to lose even these modest but affordable homes.

"It's horrible to not know whether your home will be torn down in 30 days," Montoya said.

Montoya, a Los Amigos member for more than a decade, attended a recent meeting of the group to describe the neighbors' plight. She's one of the more visible members of the network of mostly Latino leaders and organizations that meets Wednesday mornings at a Sizzler in Anaheim. Los Amigos gatherings are informal; visitors announce their intention to speak by signing up on a blackboard.

Los Amigos draws everyone from local politicians trying to connect with the Latino community to residents airing grievances with city government, police and schools. At a recent meeting, Montoya was one of the last to speak, and the crowd of about 50 had grown restless after nearly two hours of discussion.

"Next up we have Josie," said a moderator. Montoya, whom they all know by her first name, calmly told the group how she had joined Jeffrey-Lynne residents the day before in a demonstration demanding from Anaheim officials information about redevelopment plans.

Earlier in the meeting Los Amigos was courted by a representative from the office of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and by Marjorie Lewis, president of Cypress College. When she spoke, Montoya reminded everyone that despite Latinos' growing political clout, when it came to ending discrimination they had far to go.

Montoya also petitioned the group to help a mother whose 5-month-old infant was smothered by blankets when left unattended. Montoya has become a mentor to the woman, whose two older toddlers were taken into protective custody on the day of the incident. The woman faces charges of child endangerment.

"In one day she lost all of her children. She has no family in the U.S. She had no [means] to bury the baby, so her neighbors started a collection. They're the poorest of the poor, but they're so giving [that] they raised $400," Montoya said.

Montoya had visited the mother several times.

"She sits on her front steps waiting for me. She clings to me when I go there," Montoya said. "Now I'm looking for a grief counselor to help this family." A woman in the audience raised her hand to volunteer.

"Hang around with Josie, and she'll keep you busy," a man at the meeting said after Montoya spoke.

Montoya stays busy despite serious health problems. She's had several surgeries recently to partially restore vision she'd lost in the right eye due to advanced diabetes.

The disease has also made walking difficult, but it doesn't stop her. When Montoya is sick, friends drive her around to neighborhoods and to meetings.

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