Poetic Influencer: Marilynn Montaño [People Issue 2019]

Marilynn Montaño helps others create. Photo by Michael Ziobrowski

Young poet Marilynn Montaño has been actively supporting and nurturing other local writers in her vicinity since starting as an adviser for Barrio Writers at the age of 18. She currently hosts writing and poetry workshops around Santa Ana, including Mi Palabra, Mi Communidad, a workshop series she founded that guides novice writers into journaling self-affirmations on paper. She also facilitates workshops at Crear Studio, a gathering space for those who want to practice their art with a creative mind hive or learn new art skills. And she holds poetry readings and open mics at the cozy bookstore LibroMobile.

Montaño’s work can be found in numerous Barrio Writers publications as well as the grassroots Seeds of Resistance Flor y Canto zine, which publishes poetry by women of color based in Santa Ana, and the anthology book Los Angeles Water Works: Histories of Water and Place. She also contributes to the online magazine for Veggie y Que, a plant-based vegan restaurant in Whittier, and she won an Orange County Press Club award as co-author of a story on housing security in Orange County. Plus, she was a featured poet on PBS NewsHour. Her latest literary release is the zine Roots, a self-published collection of personal poetry that honors her background and family life.

The self-professed Chicana balances her workshop planning with her day job as a barista at the DTSA-based Coffee Muse, and she helps with social media at LibroMobile. But poetry is where she processes emotions and observations, and many of her poems touch on themes such as gentrification, identity and respect for her working-class parents.

Raised in Santa Ana, Montaño recalls her immigrant parents moving their entire family from room to room across various parts of the city. It wasn’t until high school that she began to reflect on her parents’ struggle to apply for citizenship papers, which led to her writing about it. She officially started penning poetry at age 15 and spent after-school hours and summers at the Teen Space at Newhope Library. There, she saw an advert for a week-long writing intensive for teens called Barrio Writers. Montaño was intrigued; she decided to put aside her shyness and attend.

Helmed by Sarah Rafael García, the workshops introduced Montaño to writers of color and gave her a boldness she had never known before. “I was a writer, but I didn’t feel confident enough [to call myself] a writer,” Montaño explains. “But when I entered Barrio Writers and participated in the program, I felt this drive, and little by little, my shyness was going away, and I was still working through it.” Years later, García offered Montaño a position as an adviser to help other youths. Though she was initially taken aback, Montaño now looks back at it as prophetic. “I didn’t know back then [that opportunity] was going to lead to where I’m at now, where I host workshops,” Montaño says. “Adults don’t just offer that to young teens.”

Another formative experience for Montaño was volunteering at local organizing spaces and community centers such as Latino Health Access and El Centro Cultural de México. Although she says she loved the work and activism the latter group championed and learned a great deal about organizing, interpersonal drama and ageism, as well as misogyny, drove Montaño away. This led to a period of depression, which she slowly worked through by starting a new job as a barista at her favorite café, Calacas (now Cafe Cultura). She began her Mi Palabra workshops series in the fall of 2018 and regained her self-confidence through helping others.

Montaño is now putting together a full-length manuscript of poems and applying for an arts and culture grant so she can hold more Mi Palabra workshops, and she continues to write in the wee hours of the night. “I still want to keep doing poetry till I die and find ways for other people to incorporate poetry in their lives,” Montaño says. “After [every] workshop I do, we build a writing community among one another.”

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