The landmark documentary “Hunger in America” painted a grim picture of hunger on San Antonio’s west side when it aired in 1968. Growing up in that same part of town in the 1980s and 1990s, Richard Montez saw many of the same problems, still unresolved.
“A lot of the challenges that we have in our neighborhood are still the same,” says Montez, director of member services for the nonprofit Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) and this year’s Coors Light 2020 Líder of the Year. “There is still a level of education attainment we’re not happy with. There are still high degrees of homelessness and poverty in our neighborhood.”
The award is part of the Coors Light Líderes Program, a 14-year-old initiative that recognizes emerging Latino leaders and helps them succeed by providing resources, networking opportunities and other ways to grow professionally.
Chosen through an online contest, Montez, 34, wins a $25,000 grant from Coors Light for HACU. Molson Coors Beverage Company has a separate relationship with HACU; Miller Lite recently awarded $180,000 in scholarships to deserving Latino students.
Winning the grant, Montez says, is “validating. I have a renewed sense of urgency and energy. It’s invigorating.”
For HACU, an organization that supports higher education institutions and their Latino students, the funds are a much-needed shot in the arm.
“We’re pretty stretched, so when we get a chance to be part of something like Líderes, we jump at it,” Montez says. “It’s another resource we can use to improve the life of Latino students. Everyone is just over the moon and excited.”
Montez’s journey as a community advocate began when, as his high school’s student-body president, he witnessed disparities between rich and poor when he visited wealthier schools. “Sometimes the libraries were bigger than the entire front part of our school,” he recalls.
With support from teachers and an awareness of the challenges created by systemic societal problems, Montez knew he had to stand up for people on the margins.
“I was pulled up by people around me, and that’s what I want to do for people, whether it’s students or older people,” he says. “I think everyone needs an advocate.”
Montez graduated from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and became involved with Inner City Development, a local organization that serves San Antonio’s west side with a food and clothes pantry, reading programs and summer programs. It was with Inner City Development that Montez found his calling as a leader, he says, while at the same time developing a set of principles that guide him today.
“It’s easy to identify problems,” says Montez, who heads Inner City Development’s board. “It’s very different for us to apply our values to policies and initiatives that will change those things. One question to always ask yourself is, ‘What is the most loving thing you can do, for you, for your people, for your community?’”
It was that drive that led to Montez being the top vote getter in the Líderes online contest.
“We were impressed by Richard’s passion for his work at HACU, as well as his dedication to several programs in San Antonio that help his community reach a better quality of life,” says Kayla Garcia, manager of community affairs for Molson Coors Beverage Company. “This year, with Latinos being one of the groups most impacted by COVID-19, the work Richard is doing is more important than ever.”
The Líderes program awarded a second grant to Michelle Labrador Casiano for her work with HEART 9/11, a group of first responders that works to help those affected by natural and man-made disasters. It’s the first time the program has recognized a second-place winner.
Labrador Casiano, of Orocovis, Puerto Rico, will receive $2,500.