FWD.us talked with LaLo Montoya of ShareLingo, a Denver-based social enterprise that connects Spanish and English speakers in an effort to break down cultural barriers. An immigrant himself, Montoya discussed his own immigration story, what inspires him to work in his community, and his goals for ShareLingo.
Montoya: During my Junior year in high school it was a time when my friends at school were getting their summer jobs, driving permits and applying to college. It was during a college fair at school that I found out I was undocumented. One of my dreams has always been to be a broadcaster for politics and sports. The school recruiter thought I would be perfect for their school and she asked me to fill out the application and the first line of the application asked for a social security number. I looked at the empty space with a puzzled look and told her that I did not have one. She said, “Sorry, but you cannot apply until you have one.” The response felt cold and I felt a shadow being cast over me paralyzing my hopes and dreams.
From that moment on – at 16 years old – I felt like I was the only undocumented person. Up until then I had done everything that had ever been asked of me: go to school, do my homework, show respect. I grew up with two cultures that clashed all the time, I loved watching the Power Rangers and El Chavo del Ocho.
FWD.us: How did growing up in a multi-cultural environment affect you?
Montoya: I spoke both Spanish and English growing up, but it was difficult to fully identify with one – I am both Mexican and American. I felt I was never Mexican enough or American enough. Being undocumented made me feel like an outcast in the only country I knew.
I felt hopeless after I found out I was undocumented, but luckily I met two other undocumented students at my school. They were fighting for the DREAM Act at the time, and they invited me to join their youth group called Jovenes Unidos.
That organization helped me find a voice and turn my fears into actions that would lead to positive changes in our community. I was in high school fighting for the rights of all students to have an opportunity to achieve their dreams. After high school graduation in 2005, I became a community organizer with high school students. I led the campaign to end the school to prison pipeline in Denver Public Schools.
FWD.us: You spent a lot of time advocating for DACA. What all did you do and how has it impacted your work?
Montoya: I helped organize the first hunger strike inside President Obama’s campaign office in Denver, advocating for an end to deportations and relief for undocumented families. When the president announced his executive order announcing the creation of DACA, he said something that I will never forget and drives me to be the entrepreneur I am today. He said, “If there is a young person here who has grown up here and wants to contribute to this society, wants to maybe start a business that will create jobs for other folks who are looking for work, that’s the right thing to do.”
After 25 years of living in the shadows, I was finally able to receive a work permit. Signing my social security card affirmed my commitment to being the best I could be for this country and doing my part in contributing to the United States of America. I now serve as Director of Community Outreach at The ShareLingo Project and every day I strive to create jobs that will make our country stronger.
FWD.us: ShareLingo is a very unique organization. How is it bringing communities together?
Montoya: ShareLingo’s mission is to connect people of different cultures through language exchange. It’s a simple idea, really. When two people have a language barrier, it separates them. But if they get together and teach each other, their different languages become something they have in common. Both languages are valued in a ShareLingo class. Imagine a police officer learning Spanish from a street food vendor and the food vendor learning English from the police officer – that is happening in these classes and it's having amazing results. We do language exchange in a face-to-face environment so participants get to know and trust each other.
The business sector is taking advantage of training their employees through The ShareLingo Platform. We have companies from the banking, healthcare, and construction sectors coming to use ShareLingo because it improves their company culture and makes it possible for all employees to communicate with each other.
We are not trying to replace existing language education models at ShareLingo. Instead, we are trying to build something new that puts language learning into practice. Denver is a great community to begin this project in, but we see it expanding very soon – to new regions and new languages.
FWD.us: What motivates you to come to work every day? What inspires you?
Montoya: It really inspires me to think of the people who are part of The ShareLingo Project and the skills they are using in their everyday lives – at work, at school, in the grocery store.
Seeing ShareLingo participants gain the confidence to speak a new language, get promoted at work, communicate better with different communities, and strengthen their own communities and celebrate their language… that’s what motivates me to come to work every day.