Carbondale looks to improve civic engagement with Latino residents

Carbondale municipality takes steps to ensure Latino community concerns are heard.

Carbondale Mayor Ben Bohmfalk, center, and town trustees listen as Alan Muñoz, left, and Omar Sarabia speak about ways to better involve the Latino community in town matters.
John Stroud/Glenwood Springs Post Independent

Carbondale could be the first Roaring Fork Valley and Garfield County municipality to appoint a standing Latino advisory council to advise the town and ensure Latino community concerns are heard.

Roughly a third of the town’s population is Latino — mirroring that of Garfield County as a whole. That’s been the case for many years, so the goal of including Latino residents in town discussions, events and projects isn’t new.

In fact, a long-standing goal for the town has been “to support the existence of an ethnically- and culturally-diverse community,” Carbondale Mayor Ben Bohmfalk noted at the start of a Tuesday work session, referring to a direct reference in the town’s more-than-two-decades-old mission statement.

The town’s Board of Trustees set aside its entire monthly work session Tuesday to listen to several Latino leaders associated with various organizations and to brainstorm some ideas to achieve that goal.

More specifically, “the goal is to increase two-way communication and engagement between the town and its Latino and Spanish-speaking residents,” Bohmfalk said.

That can include things like providing more town documents and useful information in Spanish, translation services at town meetings, creating informational videos in Spanish and making an effort to hire more bilingual town staff and police officers.

It could also include simple but highly-visible things that honor Latino cultural traditions, like erecting piñata poles in town parks, so that tree branches don’t have to be used, suggested Omar Sarabia, director of the Wilderness Workshop’s Defiende Nuestra Tierra (Defend Our Land) program, who spoke at the meeting.

Emerging as the number-one strategy, though, would be for the town to create a formal Latino Community Advisory Council.

It’s a first step that could take shape in the coming weeks, trustees agreed.

How that group of advisors might look and defining its purpose could take some time to iron out, though.

“To what end?” asked Maria Tarajano Rodman, executive director for Valley Settlement, which works within the Roaring Fork Valley’s Latino community to address a variety of issues and concerns and to build leadership within the community.

“We don’t speak with one voice,” she cautioned, adding the town should work to build relationships within the Latino community first.

“It takes time,” Rodman said. “You need to go out into the community and listen and try to really understand.”

Alan Muñoz, who works as a community organizer with Voces Unidas de las Montañas, said it’s important to understand that the region’s Latino population, not just in Carbondale but valleywide, feels community within their own people, not necessarily within the community where they live.

“For a long time, they have felt that they don’t belong, so that’s where the real work starts,” he said. “It’s about building trust, and that can maybe turn into having different cultural events.”

Muñoz said it’s then his job to show people within the Latino community that they do have a voice, regardless of immigration status or language barriers, “and that it’s important to be in these spaces,” he said referring to town hall or other venues for civic engagement.

He also suggested the town consider hiring a Latino outreach coordinator; another idea the trustees liked, but said it would take some time to find the funding.

Muñoz and others said it can be intimidating to show up at a town council meeting, or any government meeting, especially for those who feel marginalized. 

It’s also seen by many as a place of privilege not only just to serve on a town board or commission, but also to speak at a meeting. That often relates to the timing of meetings, which for the Latino community often cuts into precious family time in the evening after work, Muñoz and others also noted.

Trustee Erica Sparhawk said it’s difficult to find people to sit on other volunteer advisory boards, such as the Parks and Rec Commission or the town Environmental Board. But, if the Latino community could be better engaged in town matters, it might be more likely to attract volunteers to those boards, as well, in addition to the Latino council, she said.

It’s not just an ethnic barrier when it comes to town communications and efforts to improve engagement.

“We’re also not very great at engaging our English-speaking community,” Trustee Colin Laird pointed out. “I think we can learn a lot in this process that can benefit the entire town. 

“It’s a good first step,” he said of the advisory group idea.