Making our valleys more equitable — for everyone
Like a lot of you, I grew up in Eagle County. More and more of us can say that these days, as the generations pass, although it certainly wasn’t the case when my father first migrated to the area from Mexico in the early ‘80s. Like most of those who laid the foundation for Colorado’s blossoming resort communities, he came from somewhere else.
And just like those before him that made their way over Shrine, Independence or some other Colorado mountain pass, he rolled up his sleeves, dug in, and went to work. Workers then, as now, were in high demand. And Latinos fulfilled the need, building on the rich history of Latinos who helped weave the cultural fabric of what we now call Colorado. The place we also call home.
But much like those earlier generations, building a home here has not been easy. Although our labor was welcomed, as Latinos, often we were not. We know what it feels like to be discriminated against and have experienced it in many forms. Entering school as English language learners, we understand what it’s like to feel isolated, to be excluded or to be unable to fully participate because of a language barrier. We also know what it feels like to serve as a 10-year-old interpreter for our parents at the doctor’s office or with the landlord at the mobile home park. And some of us know the gut-wrenching feeling of having our own mother deported as she returned home from working in one of the resorts.
These are the lived experiences for many of us. And while I understand I’m not the first to endure such circumstances, I aspire to be among the last.
Two-and-a-half years ago, I co-founded an organization called Voces Unidas de las Montañas, launching the first Latino-created, Latino-led advocacy nonprofit serving the central-mountain region with the vision of increasing the power and influence of a community that has been kept in the margins of society for far too long. The goal of our organization is to elevate the voices of Latinas and Latinos, create opportunities where we can advocate for ourselves, and increase our representation and participation in decision-making tables. We believe that this is how we can make our valleys more equitable — for everyone.
Voces Unidas de las Montañas originated from our lived experiences as a recognition of both the growing needs of the local Latino community and the reality that, in order to address those needs, we must dig in and work together to create opportunities for ourselves. No one else can do it for us.
Latinos make up more than 30% of Eagle County residents, and a comparable percentage of the workforce that the surrounding resort economy depends upon, yet we still struggle to convey meaningful influence. While we may be 30% of the local community, we’re certainly not 30% of the town councils, school boards, county commissioners, or in any other positions of influence. We don’t see ourselves reflected in community decision-making roles and we’re far from where we need to be in regard to upward mobility.
However, our circumstances are not unique.
Throughout history, every community — Irish, Italian, Jewish, African American, and others — has had to build the infrastructure required to achieve liberation from inequitable and oppressive systems, working together to create a thriving society for themselves. In our case, that means creating opportunities for Latinas and Latinos to have more meaningful ways to be involved in the community, to be more active in democracy, and build leaders and propel champions that are going to create a more just and equitable world for all of us. As a society, a democracy, we cannot resolve our issues with 30% of the community absent, and our opinions, contributions and lived experiences deserve to be represented in all levels of leadership.
Through Voces Unidas de las Montañas — and our companion organization, Voces Unidas Action Fund — we are working to provide Latinas and Latinos a sense of ownership in the solutions. We want to make sure Latinos see themselves in leadership roles in places like Eagle County and beyond, not feeling like a stranger in someone else’s home. This is where we grew up, and it will only strengthen our community if we are engaged in all aspects of society, so we’ve made it our business to address what happens next.
We’re focused on the long-term work that allows our community members to move up the economic ladder, advocate for themselves so their rights are upheld, and feel able to serve the community, whether that’s in church or as a member of the school board, the chief of police, or even governor.
Our voice is growing louder in Eagle County along with our organizing efforts throughout the central-mountain region as we mobilize leaders who want to create change. We continue to grow the number of Latinos with the skills and confidence to speak for themselves and change the conditions that are preventing them from thriving. The Action Fund endorses candidates — both Latino and non-Latino — who will champion our issues, and we continue to invite leaders who want to learn the role of a city council member so that one day he or she may become one.
Meanwhile, we plan to share our views on relevant issues in our community in this space on a monthly basis, with an invitation to readers to help us break down all barriers to a more just and equitable world for everyone. Starting right here, at home.
Alex Sánchez is the founder and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas and Voces Unidas Action Fund, nonprofit organizations working in Summit, Lake, Eagle, Pitkin, and Garfield counties. His column appears monthly at www.vaildaily.com.