Inspiration for the Armando Alters Montaño ’12 Writers@Grinnell Endowment Fund

Armando Alters Montaño ’12
Armando Alters Montaño ’12

We hope that this fund will have a long life, to honor Mando’s life and the values of excellent writing and of Grinnell College.

In the spirit of wishing for the fund’s longevity, we would like to explain for future generations who Mando was and why the fund was set up in his memory. Mando, a Spanish major at Grinnell with a concentration in Latin American Studies, was an excellent example of the liberal arts student who thrives at Grinnell, with its intense and talented students, its excellent faculty and supportive administration. He admired and befriended many professors who guided and prodded him to write, observe, think critically and make his way in the world with confidence and compassion. He was living his dream in Mexico City in an internship with the Associated Press when he died in an apparent accident on June 30, just a few weeks after graduating from Grinnell in 2012.

Mando was an outsize personality at Grinnell, with his many friends recalling his intensity, his physical beauty, his smile, his laughter, and his ability to listen carefully and closely to those around him. Fairly early in life, he knew he was gay, and he talked with friends and family about who he was and what this meant. At the turn of the century, it meant a break from convention, as he grew up in extremely conservative Colorado Springs. As he grew into a young man, however, the culture seemed to be catching up. In the spring of his senior year, he did a very funny comedy routine in Bob’s, then a pub in the basement of Main Hall, about coming out. His comfort with his identity was one of the many reasons he was an empathetic and thoughtful person. He was surrounded by love growing up, and he returned our love many times over. He lost a close friend and fellow Grinnell student, Whitney Hendrickson '12, in the second semester of his first year, and then his young cousin, Nate Alters, exactly a year later, as well as his grandparents and another close friend.  He grappled with loss and grief, and tried to understand it; this struggle emerged in his writing, particularly “Snow Angels,” a short story he wrote in Professor Dean Bakopoulos's fiction seminar his senior year.

He was a writer and then news editor for the Scarlet & Black, where his passing was noted with sadness and his life with joy. “Mando was an integral part of the S&B and a fixture in the Student Publications office, where he broke some of our biggest stories while keeping the entire staff in good spirits through his impressions, dances, and endless smiles,” S&B staffers wrote in a tribute published Sept. 7, 2012. “As editor, he worked tirelessly not only to produce a high-quality news section, but also to help his reporters improve their journalism and interview skills. His blend of knowledge and kindness helped writers live up to his high standards. ”

“As a colleague, Mando took care of his fellow editors. His almost-painful massages frequently calmed down stressed editors trying to lay out impossible pages. He was passionate during staff arguments, but never angry or condescending. He was our most trusted adviser on all things journalism, but he never held his experience above ours.”

It is this ability to learn and teach that the fund founders want to foster, as we hope to help the S&B bring many Mandos to campus to enhance its operations. We recognize that someday the newspaper might not be able to exist in paper form, and we wish to encourage and uphold the best principles and values of journalism and of Grinnell College, as Mando would have done, if the S&B turns to an all-online or other alternative format. As an example of how forward-thinking he was, in an essay published posthumously in The Grinnell Magazine, Mando mused about his dream of a global network of local journalists that would “put the power to represent a country, a city, and a community in the hands of people who live there.” The essay was written before a remarkably similar news operation led by Christi Hegranes of Global Press Institute received the Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize in 2012.  So attuned was Mando to the move to online journalism that he helped write the social media policy for the Mexico City bureau of the Associated Press, and had followed the Mexican presidential election campaign on Twitter, then a new technology for news.

Grinnell College helped Mando live his dream of being a journalist. It supported him financially as the Grinnell summer intern at The Seattle Times after his first year of college. In his second summer, he interned at an all-online policy news operation, The Colorado Independent. With the encouragement of Professor Valerie Benoist and others in Grinnell’s excellent Spanish Department, he spent the first semester of his junior year in Buenos Aires, where he studied, honed his considerable language skills, and wrote a story about gay marriage for the Associated Press. He and his close friend and classmate, Tessa Cheek, documented the city together, Tessa with photographs and Mando in writing. For a story about the Villa Crespo neighborhood, the two took to the streets to interview people.

“Mando has named me his camerawoman, and already I’ve taken three pictures of real estate agents and two construction workers, utterly convinced from Mando’s rapt, undivided attention that each of them are at the center of the story,” Tessa said at Mando’s memorial service.

“When the Viejo arrives, they walk 10 miles an hour through the streets, and before I know it we are back to get pizza. It’s the best pizza in the city, maybe the whole world, Viejo tells us, and Mando is delighted by this discovery. In a month we will take our mothers here, this place ignored by travel guides, to taste this pizza and to tell them the stories we heard. He will be exalted, a fish in water, the whole city his pond, and every person in it a member of his school.”

He attended the New York Times Student Journalism Institute in 2010, was a Chips Quinn Scholar with the Freedom Forum for Diversity in 2011, and a summer intern for The Chronicle of Higher Education. He talked his way into an internship with The New York Times during the Iowa caucuses during the Presidential election cycle in 2012, where he interviewed Iowa Republicans, wrote short pieces, and reveled in the advice he got from more experienced reporters and editors.

“The Unexpected Lessons of Mexican Food,” an essay he wrote about cooking with his father for a nonfiction writing class taught by Professor Ralph Savarese, was published on Salon.com before he died, then republished in the third edition of The Norton Field Guide to Writing for generations of writing students to enjoy and deconstruct. Professor Dean Bakopoulos helped publish in chapbook form the short story “Snow Angels,” which Mando wrote in his fiction seminar. The short story is an exploration of love and loss. “My impression of Mando that spring was that here was a young man who understood instinctively the thing that all writers must understand: That life is a mix of beauty and horror, often simultaneous, and the writer’s task is to use language and narrative to distill the beautiful parts of life, while acknowledging the horrible parts of it as well. I saw that gift in Mando on day one,” Bakopoulos wrote in a forward to “Snow Angels.”  His passion, his ability to understand and learn, and his drive to write and report are what we celebrate with this fund.

Written by Diane Alters ’71 and Mario Montaño, parents of Mando

September 2015

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