Giving Thought: Bring Latino voices into the local conversation
Our country is boiling with anger at systemic racism and police violence, and though the Roaring Fork Valley is hardly a hotbed of unrest, many of us share in the grief and rage we are seeing in the news.
We aren’t on the front lines in the protests roiling America’s big cities, but we get the message and we support those who are crying for equality under the law. We’re also aware that disenfranchised and underprivileged populations live here, in our own region, and they too deserve a seat at the decision-making table.
About a month ago, a new group called Voces Unidas de las Montanas (United Voices of the Mountains) formed in the region. Unidas strives to empower Latino men and women in the valley to advocate for the causes that matter to them, to develop leaders who can create systemic change and to increase civic engagement among their people.
“We are a new organization, but the leadership, the idea, the need and the vision have been around for a long time in this valley,” said Alex Sanchez, co-founder of Voces Unidas, an El Jebel native who is the first in his Mexican immigrant family to graduate high school and attain a college degree.
Sanchez and his team had been talking for a year or so about starting the new organization, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they accelerated their schedule in order to help local Latino families in need. They’ve been busy ever since.
Voces Unidas helped distribute food to 220 families alongside the Aspen Skiing Co. and Food Bank of the Rockies; they will be coordinating food distribution in Rifle and Glenwood Springs during June and July. As of mid-June, the group had helped 281 Latino families from Parachute to Aspen by connecting them to various social and human service organizations. The group is also advocating at the state and local level for Latino access to health care and emergency assistance.
Of course, while lending a hand during the pandemic, Voces Unidas also has an eye to the future and to the larger drama that’s unfolding nationwide about systemic oppression and the need to reimagine our institutions to provide equal access and equal treatment.
“We are a social justice-driven organization,” Sanchez said. “We believe we need to dismantle these systems of oppression, which were created by humans and will have to be dismantled by humans.”
A major part of this effort is encouraging and teaching Latinos to participate and advocate for themselves. After many years on the fringes of local politics and decision-making, Sanchez says, it’s time for Latinos to speak for themselves and have a seat at the table, instead of “people making decisions for us, without us.”
This effort will take time and will involve hundreds of Latinos from Aspen to Parachute, but it must also include Anglos willing to join hands and bring their Spanish-speaking neighbors into the mainstream of valley life — through organizing, advocating, speaking out, and, of course, voting.
“We need people of good conscience to participate and be our allies,” Sanchez said. “We can’t do it alone. We need allies who are thinking about things like economic mobility, job opportunities and health care.”
Sanchez got some good news last week when the U.S. Supreme Court prevented the Trump Administration from ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which enables young, undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States on a renewable, two-year basis. Some 17,000 individuals In Colorado, the vast majority of them Latinos, were directly affected by the Supreme Court decision and will be able to remain where they are.
While applauding the court’s decision, Sanchez also noted that the so-called Dreamers, the immigrants who are living in the country under DACA’s temporary protections, should have permanent protections from deportation and a legal pathway to citizenship.
That’s one more item on a long list for a tireless and committed local activist. For more information, go to http://www.vocesunidas.org.
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.