Full circle as immigrant leads Valley Settlement
Intro: On May 3, 2019, Alex Sánchez became the executive director of Valley Settlement, the Carbondale-based nonprofit that has been educating and engaging immigrant children and their families for the last eight years.
Upper-level management is not new to Alex. He has directed communication and community engagement organizations for over 20 years. He has served as director of Denver Public Schools and Austin’s Independent School District. Most recently, he has served as chief strategist for ASF Strategy Group, an international company that assists organizations with public relations, multicultural outreach and community engagement.
Sánchez: My earliest memories are of a beautiful, little town, of about 500 people. All the families knew each other. My grandparent’s house was right in the center of town and across the street from a corral where all the ranchers and farmers brought their cattle. It seemed like there was always something going on there. So that was where you could find me when I was a kid. I used to love to watch the “charros” working the cattle. My dad was part of the charros association in the town.
“Charros” translates as cowboys or cattlemen. Farm and ranch communities in Mexico typically form charros associations and put on rodeos and fiestas on weekends. Everyone in our town came.
Gallacher: What were the circumstances that prompted your family to leave Mexico?
Sánchez: There were very few jobs in our little town and almost no infrastructure. Our school was built by hand and run by the parents. The government donated a couple bags of cement, but that was about it. There were very few opportunities, and so there were always pioneers who migrated North.
My dad first came to the United States when he was 17. Back in those days, U.S. businesses were recruiting a lot of young people from small towns in Mexico. Mexican workers were being offered opportunities for employment both in the oil business as well as in farming and agriculture. My dad came to Casper, Wyoming, and got a job in the oil fields. In those days, oil companies needed men with small hands to clear debris off of the drill bits as the bits came out of the ground.
Gallacher: Dangerous work.
Sánchez: Yeah. My dad told me stories about the many immigrants who lost their limbs. Thank goodness he wasn’t one of them. He worked there for about five years. Then he migrated west to California where he worked in the fields and factories. Dad would come back to his home in Mexico every couple of years. It was on one of these return trips that he met my mom. They got married, and she went with him to California on his next trip.
When my mom got pregnant with me she planned to go back to Mexico to have me. She wanted to be surrounded by her parents and family. But I came a little bit early. So I was born in Los Angeles. But as soon as I was 6 months old, mom followed her original plan. She went back to her hometown. That’s why my brothers and I were raised in Mexico.
After I was born, my dad started following the first pioneers from our town who had found work in the Roaring Fork Valley. They sent word that there were opportunities. My dad was one of five or six men who originally came to the valley and started working in the restaurants. The rest is history. Today, probably half of that little Mexican town has some sort of connection to the Roaring Fork Valley. Ironically, the name of the town is El Colorado.
I was 6 years old when we left El Colorado with the families of the men who had first come here with my father. We were blood relatives and neighbors from the same community. We grew up as children together, and we crossed the border together. My mom went to work doing housekeeping in the hotels, and one day she got picked up and deported.
Gallacher: That must have been terrifying for you to have your mom suddenly gone.
Sánchez: It was. My mom got off at the bus station that was right in front of the Bella Mia Restaurant in El Jebel and immigration officials took her. I vividly remember being in my grandma’s house in El Jebel when immigration came looking for other family members. Grandma put us in a closet and told us to be very quiet. We stayed in there until we were sure they were gone.
That’s really the only memory I have other than taking that road trip back to Mexico. My father bought a truck, and put a camper on the back with a lot of sheets and games. We kids were in the back, and we took that long ride to the border to meet Mom, and then we continued south to our little town.
Gallacher: Wow. So you went back and started over?
Sánchez: Yes, I enrolled in the same school with the same teachers. Three years later, when I was in fifth grade, the family chose to come back again to the Roaring Fork Valley. We crossed in the middle of the night in the Arizona desert with other families. I remember crossing highways and hiding in the bushes avoiding the helicopters’ searchlights.
Gallacher: Were you terrified, or was it more of an adventure?
Sánchez: It was both. I think at 9 years old I understood a lot more and appreciated being part of that group experience. I was there with my uncles and aunts and cousins. I remember, after that ordeal, being picked up at a McDonald’s and staying with friends in Arizona, and then driving back to our home, the Roaring Fork Valley.
Gallacher: It’s interesting. When your dad first came, immigration was much more an ebb and flow, back and forth across the border. But that started to change and your mom was one of those folks caught up in the transition from an open to a closed border.
Sánchez: Yes. For my entire life, I’ve always known this fear that the Latino community has. As a child I didn’t quite understand it at first. But as I got older I realized what it meant to go to work every single day, not knowing if you’re ever going to come back.
Still today, as an adult, as an advocate, as a fighter for immigrant rights, I still don’t understand how these policymakers create these systems that are backwards thinking. They create policies that separate families that don’t allow humans to thrive. These are people who want to be here, who want to contribute. They are members of our community who just happen to be recent Americans who came within the last 10 to 30 years instead of in the 1800s over Independence Pass.
Gallacher: Did you feel like an outsider when you came back as a 9-year-old? A lot had happened to you in the three years that you were gone.
Sánchez: Yeah. I have great memories of growing up in this valley, but it was difficult at first. I remember sitting in my fifth grade classroom where everyone spoke English but me.
I acted out and was sent to the principal’s office quite a bit. But I had great teachers and mentors, and they worked with me and helped me make the adjustment to my new life.
Gallacher: Well, you definitely mastered communication. From a person who was struggling, trying to communicate, you overcame it in a big way. You’ve spent a lot of your career in jobs where communication is primary. How did that happen?
Sánchez: Well, I think communication has always been something that I had to learn fairly quickly. When you grow up in an immigrant family, you become the interpreter for the family. You become the cultural attaché. You’re the navigator.
Gallacher: The public relations person.
Sánchez: I remember going to the doctor’s office with my mom as she was trying to communicate with the doctor. I remember working with our landlord, literally negotiating the terms of my family’s rental agreement.
You have to mature a little faster than other kids, because you’re dealing with topics that typically a 9-year-old or an 11-year-old isn’t going to be dealing with in a middle class family.
Gallacher: Well, you’ve been around the world, literally, in the last 20 years doing communications and public relations work. What is it that brings you back here to the valley at this time in your career and your life?
Sánchez: I’ve moved 15 times in my life. I think being part of an immigrant family has taught me to enjoy going to new places and learning about new cultures. It has forced me to put myself in situations that challenged me to make connections, to make friendships, to find my own community.
Coming back to the valley to do the family programming, immigrant rights, integration and social justice work that I’ve done in other communities is very rewarding. I never imagined that I would have an opportunity to return to the community that made me who I am and be able to contribute, to give back. It’s a homecoming.
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After bowing out of the 3A state soccer playoffs in the quarterfinals and semifinals the past two seasons, the Roaring Fork Rams finally get their shot at a state title on Saturday.