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Remembering Noé Montoya: A Mentor, A Father, A Humanitarian

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More than 550,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19. We're going to take a moment now to revisit the life of one of those people. We first brought you his story late last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NOE MONTOYA: (Singing in Spanish).

CHANG: A musician and actor, a mentor, an activist, a devoted father, a humanitarian.

GRACIELA SERNA: That was Noe Montoya. If I were to give you a definition, that would be it.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Graciela Serna lived next door to Noe Montoya, who died Thanksgiving morning at his home in Hollister, Calif. He had tested positive for COVID-19 the week before.

CHANG: Serna says his world was one filled with music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTOYA: (Singing in Spanish).

CHANG: Through the walls, she would hear him play his guitar, an instrument he picked up some 50 years ago, around the time he and Serna first became friends, marching alongside migrant workers sometimes led by Cesar Chavez.

SERNA: Like the marches from Delano to Sacramento or Salinas to Sacramento - we'd march and sing the entire way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTOYA: (Speaking Spanish).

KELLY: On what would have been Chavez's 93rd birthday, Montoya posted a tribute to the labor leader on his Facebook page.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MONTOYA: Cesar Chavez would be the first one to tell you, don't honor me, honor the farm workers - los campesinos. For they, even today, they're out there picking and harvesting for all of us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTOYA: (Singing in Spanish).

CHANG: Montoya was himself the son of Mexican farm workers, but he ended up with a career working as a county employment counselor, helping people from all backgrounds step into the workforce.

SERNA: Giving them different tools on how to interview or how to go out and look for a job - he was good at getting you to understand it's not just about, oh, got to find a job, there was more to it. And he was beautiful in that way.

KELLY: Montoya was also an actor, a beloved member of the theater company, El Teatro Campesino.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY)

MONTOYA: (Speaking Spanish).

KELLY: But in the months before his death, his focus was on his adult son, Robert, who has been living in a care facility since suffering a stroke. Montoya was unable to visit in COVID time, so he played guitar for Robert daily over FaceTime and sang him his favorite songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTOYA: (Singing) I love tortillas, and I love them dearly.

CHANG: Graciela Serena says she and Montoya sometimes discussed life and death, even talked about what he would want for his family and friends when he was no longer physically with them.

SERNA: And what he would say is, I want everyone to remember what it is that I did with them. Take a piece of me and put it in you and up your game.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTOYA: (Singing) There's no tortillas. Ay-ya-ya (ph). There's only pan.

KELLY: Noe Yaocoatl Montoya died on Thanksgiving Day. He was 66 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTOYA: (Singing) Son of a gun. And my grief... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.