VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. –
When Hispanic Heritage Month comes around, Staff Sgt. Damian Montaño thinks of his childhood home, his family and all the things they’ve shared together. Originally from New Mexico, Montaño, a recruiter for the Virginia Army National Guard, now calls Virginia Beach, Virginia, his home.
“It always reminds me of my heritage, where I came from, my grandparents and my great-grandparents,” Montaño said of Hispanic Heritage Month. His grandmother told him his family came from Mexico, but his aunt said the family history goes back further, back to Spain. She said his family included some of the first Spanish-Mexican settlers in the Americas.
Growing up, Montaño was raised mostly by his grandparents, while his mom, a single parent, worked. His grandparents owned a Mexican restaurant and every day after school, he would come to the restaurant and spend time with his grandmother to learn about his family’s history and culinary traditions.
“My grandmother would always make me a plate of chicharrones,” he said. “It was tiny squares of meat that have been cooked a special way. It was not always available, but it was a snack that my grandmother would cook especially for me.”
Another favorite, he said, was sopapillas, a fluffy fried pastry similar to a doughnut that was covered with honey.
“It was a rarity,” he said of the sopapillas. "She would cook those closer to birthdays and holidays, but [they were] always a treat.”
Today, in raising his own kids, Montaño has continued to share his cultural heritage through food. He and his kids cook together and while their favorite dish is quesadillas, Montaño says he especially enjoys making enchiladas.
“The enchiladas are really called ‘Christmas.’ It contains both the red and green chili on it and is made in a blue corn tortilla instead of yellow. I enjoy making recipes with my children that my grandmother shared with us growing up: tortillas, sopapillas, enchiladas, homemade versions, or the New Mexican versions which also include a hatch green chili,” he said, explaining that the hatch chilis are only found in Hatch Valley, New Mexico.
In joining the military, Montaño continued in the footsteps of his grandfather, who served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and later worked at the labs in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The junior Montaño started his military career in 2003, and said he joined for the benefits and the low-cost health insurance option. The military, he said, is was led him to call Virginia home.
“I ended up staying in,” he said. “I completed seven years of active duty in the Army and in 2009, I switched into the National Guard. I loved the stability the National Guard has to offer, I liked it here, so, I stayed.”
Now with more than 18 years of service and a residence on the East Coast, Montaño tries hard to keep the stories of his family alive for the younger generations.
“My children need to know where our ancestors came from and how they paved the way,” he said. “It’s also important for them to know how lucky they have it today, especially compared to how hard it was.”