Building the Next Generation of Latino Leaders

By: Asheton Gilbertson

“I want to [see] more respect for the environment and the communities that are living in that environment. People are being taken advantage of. We have to try to change. Going out and canvassing and talking to politicians, that’s a solution.”
– Dominique Lemus, Youth Promotora

Colorado’s Latino community—comprising about 21 percent of the state’s total population—is one of the largest in the nation. Latinos have historically been underrepresented in politics and too often overlooked, if not unintentionally harmed, by the conservation movement. This historical injustice inspired the development of the Promotores program in 2014, which recognizes the importance of Latino involvement in civic engagement by working with communities to provide the resources, knowledge, and leadership skills needed to create sustainable community solutions.

To date, Protégete has graduated over 150 Promotores. We sat down with Promotores instructors and students to learn more about how the program helps Colorado’s communities, environment, and our future.

Cultivating Advocacy and Activism Skills in Latino Communities

Noe Orgaz and Patricia Ferrero are two of Protégete’s youth Promotores instructors. Each week, the Protégete organizers meet with about 20 students to discuss the current issues impacting their communities and collaboratively craft solutions.

“Our goal is to get students to talk about environmental issues and to tell their stories effectively,” said Orgaz. 

Patricia Ferrero and Noe Orgaz facilitate a discussion with Promotores.

As facilitator, Orgaz’s goal encompasses more than reaching out to the community: it’s about “not only training the young people, but actually getting them to mobilize.”

Helping the students mobilize their communities is especially important, considering the fact that Latino communities – who suffer disproportionate impacts from pollution – are most often underrepresented in policymaking.

“Many feel disenfranchised because resources aren’t provided in their language or by the history of systemic marginalization,” said Ferrero. She explained that “having a program that is intentionally centered around the cultural aspects of the community ensures that community members feel confident and welcome in traditionally unwelcoming spaces.”

Alexsandra Ruiz-Ortiz

Jordi Hernandez

Tying the Health of Our Environment to the Health of Our Families

When asked why they decided to get involved with Protégete, current Promotores listed their families as their primary concern.

“Conservation means preserving and maintaining what’s most important to you. And that’s family,” said Alexsandra Ruiz-Ortiz. “Air quality is an environmental issue that is really important to me. My nephew and I have asthma because of the bad air quality. Before I do any exercise…I have to take my inhaler. For my nephew, when he gets tickled for a long time, he starts wheezing.”

Latinos suffer from asthma — which is worsened by air pollution — at much higher rates than people from other demographic groups. A Latino child is 40 percent more likely to die from asthma than non-Latino white children. At the same time, 66 percent of Latinos in the U.S. live in areas that fall below EPA’s air quality standards.

Jordi Hernandez added, “Whether people realize it or not, they’re going to be breathing [polluted air] and it’s going to cause some health disruptions. We need to learn how to do something about the issues that we care about. Promotores is helping us do that.”

Elevating Latino Voices

Along with becoming informed about local environmental justice issues, Promotores supports students in becoming the next generation of leaders.

“[Promotores] allows a person to be active.” said Orgaz. “These are people who can continuously talk to the media about issues that they’re facing, that can continuously educate others. Then when [their community needs them] to come out to testify or take an action, they’ll be ready.”

By giving students a platform, hands-on experience, and the resources to succeed, the Promotores program helps to elevate Latino voices. Through these opportunities–be it testifying at the Air Quality Control Commission on behalf of clean car rules or knocking doors for pro-conservation leaders–Promotores prepares its students to become influential community advocates.

“Seeing how motivated and excited [our Promotores] were about [testifying] made me really proud of how much students and Latinos can get done when they’re given the opportunity,” said Ferrero.

Elva Parga shared that the Promotores program helped her find a way to help her broader community. “I’ve always helped a little here and there, but I’ve never been this involved,” she said. “I’ve always been the person to [watch others] and cheer them on, but now I’m the one sitting at the microphone speaking to representatives, telling them what I want them to do. That’s something that I didn’t think I would ever do.”

Promotores testify in support of clean car standards

Promotores canvass for a pro-conservation candidate

Elva Parga, Youth Promotora

Promotores advocate for clean buses at a rally in New Mexico

Promotores celebrate Latino heritage at Great Sand Dunes National Park

Looking to the Future

Though still relatively new, the Promotores program is continuing to evolve in its capacity and potential.

“We still don’t know the full potential of this program. It’s definitely always growing and we’re going to continue to expand,” said Orgaz. “My vision for Promotores is that once a person has graduated, they’re the ones teaching the class.”

“We can start with Promotores at a high school and end up helping someone get elected as a city council member or work at the state Capitol and realize the [full] potential that they have,” said Ferrero. She aims to give those opportunities “because a lot of students don’t realize that’s something that they can achieve.”

Students agree. Concluded Parga,“I feel like [Protégete’s Promotores program] is preparing me to fight bigger battles in the future.”

Read More