Immigrant Stories: The architect of Voces Unidas, a voice for Latinos
Intro: Beatriz Soto is an architect and an environmentalist working as Latino Outreach Coordinator for Wilderness Workshop, a local nonprofit organization devoted to protecting western Colorado’s public lands. She recently co-founded Voces Unidas, a network of Latino leaders in Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle counties.
Soto: My parents brought me to the United States when they were in their early 20s. I was 2 and my sister was 6 months old. They came without papers. That was the first time for us, but my father had a long history of working and living in the United States when he was younger.
He grew up in North Chihuahua and North Baja. He did drywall in California, Texas and the border states, so there was this really close connection between the northern states of Mexico and the U.S. border states where, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was really easy to cross from one country to the other.
Gallacher: It was a totally different time then. The border was fluid.
Soto: Absolutely. And that’s how my father grew up. He had this really strong relationship with the United States and lived and worked in both countries.
Gallacher: It must have been a harrowing time for your parents. Here they are with two babies, crossing into a new life.
Soto: You know, I have talked about this with my mom, and she always says that when you’re young different things motivate you, and they really wanted to get ahead and provide their children with some of the things that they didn’t have when they were younger. But now she reflects back on it and says, “You know, it’s interesting that would not drive me today. But when I was young that was definitely what drove us to take that kind of a risk.”
Gallacher: Where did you end up when you first came to the United States?
Soto: We were in Houston for a little while and then we moved to West Palm Beach, Florida, when I was 4. They had never been to Florida, and they took off a month ahead of us and lived out of their car until they secured some jobs and were able to rent an apartment.
Gallacher: What did your parents do for a living?
Soto: They had a drywall company, and a lot of their friends and family were the ones that worked for them.
Gallacher: So life was pretty good?
Soto: Absolutely. As a child I never realized that we were undocumented. My parents worked Monday through Sunday. I only saw my dad at night sometimes and sometimes not at all, because my parents were always working, I felt that was normal. I didn’t realize until I was older how hard they worked to be successful.
Gallacher: What brought you from Florida to Colorado?
Soto: It was an interesting journey. In 1986, my parents weren’t able to get into the Amnesty process. So they decided to move back to Mexico. We were in Mexico for eight years, and then my father died. My mother was left with three kids, so she decided to move to Colorado when I was a senior in high school. It was really hard for me because I was doing really well in school in Mexico, and I had friends.
Gallacher: Did you adjust to Colorado pretty well?
Soto: You know what? I did. It wasn’t easy, but I guess I was used to adjusting. We had moved to different cities. I had been in different schools. I’ve always been pretty good at socializing. I am sensitive to attitudes, and I pick up on things. I quickly learned how to blend, how to dress like people, how to speak like people to make sure that I wasn’t like an “other.”
I’ve developed that skill over my life because I have had to immigrate to different countries and adapt. When I got to Mexico, my Spanish was very limited, I didn’t know how to read and write in Spanish, and it took a lot for me, as a fifth-grader, to adapt to a language that I had only heard my parents speak.
Gallacher: So, out of high school, you were drawn to architecture. Did that happen early in your life or was that something that came later?
Soto: I always knew I wanted to be an architect. My parents worked in the construction industry. My father studied for a career in farming and ag, and he always said that he should have been a civil engineer. I guess it was a natural career choice for me, having lived around construction sites as a child. My parents often took me with them when they went to work.
Other careers that I saw, like being a doctor or an administrator, didn’t appeal to me. By the time I got to middle school, I knew I wanted to be an architect. When I graduated from Basalt High School, I remember looking into universities here, and they were just too expensive. College seemed like this impossible dream I could never achieve in the United States. So I decided to go back to Mexico and study architecture, as soon as I graduated from high school. And it was a good decision. I loved it.
Since graduation I have done a lot of the work with environmentally oriented architectural firms. But, overtime, I became more aware of the exclusivity. I was often the only Latina. I began focusing more of my environmental work on the social justice aspect. I began asking myself and others, “Why aren’t we all coming up with solutions together? If we’re concerned about our environment, if we’re concerned about our climate and future generations, why is it just the few figuring what’s going to work for all of us.”
Gallacher: We often disregard huge groups of people in our race to a solution. We’ve seen it during the pandemic. We’ve left out a lot of folks. COVID-19 has forced us to reassess who and what is essential.
Soto: Yes, the pandemic doesn’t discriminate. We have all been impacted by it. But some are having a harder time than others. One of the things we are realizing is that the solutions, the systems and the safety nets that are in place are not accessible to everyone. The pandemic is revealing the injustice and racism in our safety nets, our communities and our systems. The archaic systems don’t work for the new world we live in.
I feel like this can be a great opportunity for us as a society and as a community to reinvent, re-evaluate, and develop solutions that can truly help us thrive and make us all more resilient in the future.
Gallacher: Was that the reason you co-founded Voces Unidas?
Soto: Absolutely. A lot of Latino leaders that work in different institutions and organizations feel like tokens in their workplace. They often feel like they are only there so the organization can check the diversity box. These are smart, creative people who have solutions that can really help their community and the broader community, but they’re not listened to.
Gallacher: Can you describe the organization and its purpose and makeup?
Soto: Voces Unidas is a collaborative effort, bringing Latino leaders and elected officials to meetings where we can have informal but honest conversations with the chiefs of police and city managers and their staffs about issues within the Latino community.
When COVID hit our community, we realized that our government and a lot of nonprofits haven’t established a trusted relationship with our community. They are trying to serve our community, but don’t know how. They’re scrambling to do the work that they haven’t done in years. That’s when we realized there should be an organization led by Latinos, founded by Latinos, with a Latino board that is representing our Latino community accurately.
Our community is not monolithic. If you think about it, being Latino means 22 countries in this world with very different cultures, very different backgrounds. Latinos in the United States and here in Colorado are very diverse.
Gallacher: Well, I know you can’t speak for the whole community, but it has hit Latinos pretty hard.
Soto: It has, and I think around the world we’re seeing communities that are marginalized and have little access to resources are the ones that suffer the most. And as we focus on our little valley, our cities and our towns, we just want to make sure that we all come out of this successfully, that the virus doesn’t spread and that the information is culturally and linguistically appropriate.
We want to see communities where all of us can thrive, not just the few. Communities where everyone is recognized for who they are and what they contribute. We’re all here to help our communities, our economies and our families.
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