Latino who grew up in Basalt returns to head Valley Settlement
Alex Sanchez to lead Carbondale-based nonprofit
The Aspen Times
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For more information about Valley Settlement’s specific programs, go to https://valleysettlement.org/
The new leader of a nonprofit organization that helps the region’s Latino immigrant families knows firsthand the uncertainty of having a family member deported, the fear of crossing the border illegally and the challenges of relocating to a strange place.
Alex Sanchez was hired May 6 as executive director of Valley Settlement, a Carbondale-based nonprofit that’s implemented education projects and other programs to help Latinos since 2011. Sanchez said he looks forward to carrying on and expanding Valley Settlement’s work.
“I think that we as Valley Settlement, now we can say we are Latino-led, Latino-serving or we’re immigrant-led, immigrant serving,” Sanchez said. “It’s not lost on me, the symbolism that has. It’s also not lost on me the responsibility that comes with it, of being the first Latino, for example, to lead a large nonprofit (in the Roaring Fork Valley) that is creating impact and opportunities for others.”
Sanchez has an interesting background that blended life in Mexico and Basalt. He was born in Los Angeles, so he is a U.S. citizen. His mother took him back to Mexico to her small, rural hometown to raise him during his formative years while his dad primarily worked in the U.S.
Sanchez crossed the border at Arizona for the first time with his family at age 6. They moved to Basalt because his dad was working in the kitchen at Aspen’s Tippler, a popular apres ski bar and nightclub.
“My mom started working the hotels in Aspen and on the way back home to El Jebel, there was an INS raid at the bus stop,” Sanchez said, referring to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, predecessor of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Many folks were detained and taken. So my family followed my mom back to Mexico.”
He stayed in Mexico until the age of 9, when he crossed the border for the second and final time with his family. They followed the same path as before with several families from the same small village, many of which had established roots in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Sanchez recalls running through the desert, reaching landmarks such as highways and hiding in the brush while helicopters circled overhead.
Back in Basalt, Sanchez started fifth grade in the Basalt public school system.
“I think it’s that experience that formed my passion for this work,” Sanchez said. “I very much understand in an intimate way what family separation feels like, what the struggles and the possibilities are of the immigrant families, both the adults and children.
“I can relate very well to being an English language learner in our school system,” he continued. “The opportunities there and the struggles that school districts have to be able to prepare every single student.”
Sanchez said his little town in Mexico had a good school and he was an eager student. In Basalt, the focus was almost exclusively as an English language learner so he wasn’t taking math and science. He got bored and was often sent to the principal’s office. Luckily, he said, a school counselor realized what was happening and helped get him engaged.
He rattled off the names of several teachers and counselors at each of the Basalt public schools that helped him with his successful academic performance. He graduated from Basalt High School in 1999. He was among the first generation of recipients of the Alpine Bank Hispanic Scholarship program and attended Colorado Mountain College’s Spring Valley campus for a year before transferring to Colorado State University.
He is the first in his family to graduate from high school and receive a four-year college degree.
After graduating from college, he went into the private sector, then was recruited by Michael Bennet, when he was superintendent of Denver Public Schools, as founding director of its first-of-a-kind Multicultural Office. Bennet is now a U.S. senator from Colorado. Sanchez helped introduce linguistically and culturally effective programming at the schools for Latino and Vietnamese families as well as refugees from several different countries.
After Denver, he went onto similar positions with the school systems in Austin, Texas, and Palm Beach, Florida.
Sanchez most recently managed his own public affairs and political consulting firm, splitting time between Denver and Barcelona, Spain. He learned of the opening at Valley Settlement after Jon Fox-Rubin departed earlier this spring as executive director. He jumped at the opportunity to apply for the position.
“It is personal for me,” Sanchez said. “While I’ve done this work about creating opportunities for upward mobility for immigrant and refugee families in other communities from Texas to Florida to Denver, it is different when you can do it for your own community. Potentially you’re impacting your own blood relatives and in the community that made you who you are.
“So for me it was personal to be able to do the very similar work that I’ve done in other communities for the same population, now to do it in my own community is just very rewarding,” he continued. “It’s a cycle, you’re coming back home.”
His mother now has U.S. citizenship and spends much of her time in the midvalley. His father and oldest brother do not have legal status and live in Mexico.
There also was the professional appeal of taking the reins of Valley Settlement and working with its board of directors to implement its goal. Every community has visionaries who create opportunities for others, he said.
“In our case, it was George Stranahan and many other community members who chose to co-create and co-lead with immigrant leaders,” Sanchez said. “We are forever grateful to our allies who paved the way for the Latino community to be part of solving our problems and creating opportunities for our own community.”
Sanchez said he looks forward to working with other nonprofit groups from Aspen to Glenwood Springs and from Parachute to Eagle to see where Latinos are being served well and where there are gaps. He also is determined to help, on a personal level, prepare and encourage Latinos to move into leadership positions.
He believes Valley Settlement’s work is more important than ever with the immigration policies of President Donald Trump.
“This is not the time to back down,” Sanchez said. “This is not the time to be shy.”
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