New nonprofit aims to provide voice for Latinos in Roaring Fork Valley | AspenTimes.com
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New nonprofit aims to provide voice for Latinos in Roaring Fork Valley

LATINOS HELPING LATINOS

To learn more about the new nonprofit organization Voces Unidas de las Montanas, go to http://www.vocesunidas.org.

Jasmin Ramirez recalls the “culture shock” she experienced after moving from California to the Roaring Fork Valley just before her senior year in high school.

Ramirez, 30, said she came from an environment where cultural diversity was embraced. Growing up she was a U.S. citizen, bilingual speaker and had Latina role models as her town’s mayor and congresswoman.

In Glenwood Springs, she found the expectation was she should speak only Spanish and hang out exclusively with the Latino kids.

“We’re seen as Mexicans and immigrants — everyone crossed over the border,” she said. “You’re never going to be seen as an American. That’s a hard pill to swallow.”

That environment inspired her pursuit of advocacy over the years since she graduated. Ramirez won election to the Roaring Fork School District RE-1 board of education in November. She said she is the first “brown person” to serve on the board.

The victory that she labeled “miraculous” inspired her to reach out to other Latino leaders with this observation: “I know we’re not organized, but should we be?”

Ramirez and several others formed the Roaring Fork Latino Network, a group of 100 leaders from Aspen to Parachute who are strategizing on how to elevate the voices of Latinos and Latinas in the Roaring Fork and Lower Colorado River valleys. That, in turn, led to the May 1 launch of Voces Unidas de las Montañas, an organization which is seeking formal nonprofit status. It wants to serve as an umbrella organization that cultivates and oversees multiple other efforts, Ramirez said.

Alex Sanchez, a Roaring Fork Valley native and Basalt High School graduate, is the managing director of the startup organization. He said its goals are multi-pronged but center on getting more Latinos involved in decision-making roles in the valley they call home.

“It’s a nonprofit created by Latinos for Latinos,” Sanchez said. “We as an organization don’t want to speak for people. We want people to speak for themselves.”

United Voices won’t reinvent the wheel in the Roaring Fork Valley. It will model its approach after successful efforts pursued decades ago in cities such as Denver. It includes registering people to vote, providing them with information during elections and mounting get-out-the-vote efforts.

United Voices wants to nurture candidates and build the confidence that they can win elected office, as Ramirez did. They want a greater role in running nonprofit organizations.

In the bigger picture, it will work on social-justice issues such as affordable housing, expanded health care coverage and workplace advancement.

“That work has yet to happen in our valley, from Parachute to Aspen,” Sanchez said.

He believes Latinos don’t have a voice due to a system that creates and maintains inequities. United Voices aims to create opportunities where Latinos gain a voice in civic affairs.

He noted that Latinos comprise about 30% of the population in both Garfield and Eagle counties and about 19% in Pitkin County. In the three counties combined, there are nearly 30,000 Latinos. The student population in the Roaring Fork School District is about 60% Latino.

“We’ll be driving the growth of these counties,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez experienced his own bit of culture shock after returning to the Roaring Fork Valley 20 years after he graduated from Basalt High School. He said he couldn’t believe how little progress had been made on integrating Latinos and Latinas into the valley. He wants to work toward a situation where “we’re not treated as strangers in someone else’s land.”

Circumstances being what they are with the coronavirus crisis, one of United Voices’ first calls to action was helping Latinos navigate a somewhat confusing and bureaucratic aid system.

On May 5, just five days after United Voices was founded, it launched its Ayuda campaign to identify Latinos who were struggling finding help to pay rent, bills and other essential needs. People were urged to text a specific number to ask for help. In less than 24 hours, they received more than 1,000 individual texts from roughly 250 individuals from Aspen to Parachute. They were assigned to one of 17 volunteers who had been briefed on what aid exists and how to match needs with opportunities.

“We’re not a service-based organization,” Sanchez said. But the board of the new organization felt it must reach out to help Latinos in the time of need. “We saw a lot of Latinos get left behind.”

Elizabeth Velasco of Glenwood Springs is one of the volunteers assisting people. The Eagle Valley native is a small-business owner, providing interpretation for Latinos with medical needs, so helping people find aid during the COVID-19 crisis was a natural fit.

She found the biggest stress generator was the sudden loss of jobs. People who were used to working two jobs were suddenly down to part-time, if they were working at all. The American Dream of working hard to achieve success was suddenly a distant memory, she said.

Undocumented immigrants are facing a particularly bleak time.

“They’ve been scared to even get help,” Velasco said. “They’re the ones who are working at the restaurants. They’re the ones who are working at the hotels. They can’t file for unemployment.”

Numerous nonprofit organizations have joined some local governments to provide aid. However, it is often a one-shot situation where families who received financial aid to make it through April are ineligible for a second dose. In addition, some Latinos have experienced language barriers or insurmountable bureaucracy while seeking aid.

Velasco said the problem remains severe despite the economy slowly opening.

“There are so many people that are in the hole,” she said. “I don’t even know what to tell them.”

She has been volunteering four days per week, two hours per day for the aid effort. During the week of May 4 to 8, she provided information to 21 people.

“I had to stop,” she said. “It’s very overwhelming. It’s very heart wrenching. It’s difficult to hear their stories.”

United Voices conducted a survey of 280 people it assisted in the Ayuda campaign. More than 90% of the respondents said it had been very difficult or difficult to get emergency aid during the coronavirus crisis. More than 70% said they had been denied aid.

The majority of respondents said they needed rent assistance for May.

While the need is overwhelming, Velasco said it also is rewarding to help.

“We’re all putting our heads together to support them and find help,” she said.

Ramirez and other leaders already are envisioning the next steps for United Voices. The Latino community needs to be included in discussions on economic recovery, she said. They will approach the cities and counties of the region to ensure they have a voice in the discussions.

Sanchez said officials with Pitkin and Eagle counties have sat down with them, but “it’s been a little more difficult with Garfield County.”

Ramirez envisions a day when there truly is one valley with fluid interaction among all residents.

“There’s a lot of work ahead of us,” she said.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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