Policy that works for all requires participation from all
“Today we march, tomorrow we vote,” was a popular rallying cry of the 2006 U.S. immigration reform protests.
At the time, those of us among the hundreds of thousands of Latinos marching in protest of the federal and state legislative proposals to classify millions of undocumented immigrants as felons had no way of knowing that those demonstrations would become a historic turning point in Latino civic participation and political influence. But for many of us here in Colorado, where a special legislative session led by Democrats and called by then-Gov. Bill Owens resulted in what was widely considered the nation’s most restrictive package of anti-immigrant policies, that soon became the objective.
I had only recently embarked on my advocacy journey, thanks to the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of La Raza, a Latino-led advocacy organization that introduced me to both the concept of “Latino Advocacy Day” programs and other local leaders with the shared desire to introduce the program in Colorado. Even as a young advocate, I knew the power of an organized, informed advocacy effort targeted at lawmakers.
Fast forward 17 years, and we suddenly find ourselves on the eve of “tomorrow.”
While we won’t be formally casting ballots, this weekend, March 18-20, more than 300 Latinos from around the state will gather in Denver for Colorado’s 17th annual Latino Advocacy Day. We will spend two days engaged in discussion about issues and then march, in a fashion, to the Capitol building, where we will sit down to meet with our elected officials and discuss our legislative priorities in an effort to create change. For some, it will serve as an introduction to the legislative process. But for all, it will underscore the importance of our community having a voice in state policy.
I’ve been fortunate to participate in LAD Denver since its inception, and I’ve witnessed its impact as more and more of our community see a place for themselves, their families and their voice in politics. Through organizing, increased awareness, and involvement in the process, we have shifted the narrative to a point where Latinos have become leaders in civic engagement and integral participants in the decisions that impact our state.
We have deepened the connection between our elected officials and our community, and through our annual Colorado Latino Policy Agenda survey and report, we have expanded into year-round work where policy is being crafted and created by, for and with the community. But, as always, there is more work to be done.
We hear more and more these days about the urban/rural divide and the cultural differences that separate the more metropolitan Front Range from the less populous communities in places like Eagle, Lake, Pitkin and Garfield counties, and beyond. And while organizations like mine prefer to preach the power of unity, we also recognize that distinctions do exist. In order to make an impact on the issues most important to Latinos in the central mountains at the state level, rural representation is essential.
True, we’ve begun to see more rural participation in the political process — including more than 70 registered participants at this weekend’s LAD program from the Vail Valley and surrounding central mountain communities – and last year even saw the election of Rep. Elizabeth Velasco (House District 57) as the first Latina from the Western Slope elected to the Colorado legislature. But while we are well on our way, shaping policy that works for all four corners of the state will require all our voices.
Having role models like Rep. Velasco — a business owner, daughter of first-generation immigrants, and public servant who grew up in Eagle County — is sure to inspire other Latinos and Latinas in our region, and we hope that her election serves as a model for how the Latino community can not only turn out to vote but also build issues-based coalitions across ethnic/racial lines to elect qualified leaders who will represent the entire community.
We believe that Latinos belong at every decision-making table. We represent about 22% of our state’s population and yet less than 10% of our state legislature. We not only need champions for our causes to help lift up the issues and voices of Latinos in the state, but also those familiar with and considerate of our communities in our region of the Western Slope.
In the end, voting matters — because it helps our community express preferences for the candidates and the issues we care about. But year-round engagement and advocacy matter just as much. For 16 years now, we have gathered in Denver from across the state to advocate for issues impacting our lives at Latino Advocacy Day, and we look forward to celebrating our progress together and continuing to build a future where we can all thrive at LAD 2023.
Even if you are not marching with us, I invite you to get involved, to get engaged, and to speak up for all communities.
Alex Sánchez is the founder and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas and Voces Unidas Action Fund, non-profit organizations working in Summit, Lake, Eagle, Pitkin, and Garfield counties. His column appears monthly in the Vail Daily.