Immigrant Stories: Humanitarian award winner gets the word out to Hispanic community
Intro: Brisa Chavez is lead educator and Hispanic engagement coordinator for Garfield County’s Public Health Services.
Chavez: I’ve been working for Garfield County for 18 years, believe it or not. And I think it’s because I love working with people. I love the community. I believe in change and I believe in empowering others.
Gallacher: Well, the community believes in you, obviously. You recently received Garfield County’s Humanitarian of the Year award for Community Empowerment. Congratulations for the work that you’ve done and do for all of our participants and all of our members of the community.
Chavez: Thank you so much. It was a true honor. It came as a surprise. It was such an honor just to even be nominated, to tell you the truth. There are other people, other Latinos, in our community that do this work probably better than me. A lot of the work that is being done by them goes unnoticed.
Gallacher: But it’s good to have the whole community recognize your work. We need more bridge-makers like yourself in this community, in this county. What are some of the trials that you face doing the kind of work you do?
Chavez: Well, I’m the daughter of immigrants and an immigrant myself, a first-generation college student. I have two beautiful sons that have grown up in Garfield County, one that graduated from Re-2 and studied at CMC, my youngest son is in middle school. I’ve been one of the fortunate Latinas, because I have had the opportunity for higher education.
Gallacher: But from what I understand, you made that opportunity.
Chavez: Yes. I basically said, “I am going to college.” My dad was like, “What do you mean? You’re not getting married?” And I said, “No.” And to this day, I am thankful for Ms. Benoit. She was my high school counselor. If it hadn’t been for encouragement and belief in me, it would have been a different story. My parents barely spoke English. They didn’t know anything about how to pursue higher education for me. I hold a special spot for all those educators that go beyond their work to help students.
Gallacher: You’re a community organizer, and I am sure it is fulfilling work, but it’s also really difficult. Your job is to encourage people and assure them that they have the voice and the power to make change. You’re encouraging people to come to meetings and to be involved. But it must be confusing for some in the Spanish speaking community who have a neighbor on one side who is warm and receptive and on the other side there’s the neighbor who wants them to leave. It must be hard for them to figure out what they can trust.
Chavez: Yes, it does make it hard to gain people’s trust. So, unless you’re a part of those communities, sometimes it’s hard for them to let you in. Trust is crucial; building that trust and not breaking it is huge.
Gallacher: One of the things that I’ve been hearing, particularly during the COVID times, is that there’s not enough information in Spanish for the Spanish-speaking community. They don’t have it in their language. So, if you don’t have information, you make assumptions.
Chavez: I think a lot of information is out there in Spanish, but I think there are other issues as well. Every county is handling COVID differently. A lot of our county residents are essential workers who leave Garfield County to work in Pitkin or Eagle County. So, how do you do one message across the board when every county is a little bit different? Not only that, some of our Spanish speakers believe in COVID and others don’t.
Gallacher: Yeah, that’s the larger community, as well. We’re split almost down the middle on whether a mask is something you need to wear, or if COVID is real. I think it’s becoming more and more real, but yeah, the same thing is reflected in the Anglo community.
Chavez: What I hear is that once it infects them or a family member, then it becomes very real.
It’s hard, and we understand that. This has affected everyone, and holidays are coming up and our rates are increasing statewide and the message is still the same, right? Wear your face mask. Stay home if you can. Physical distance. Wash your hands.
Gallacher: But it’s harder for many of our county residents who are essentially Aspen and Basalt’s working class. They have to travel in cars, oftentimes with other people, to their job sites.
Chavez: Well, and it’s a huge dilemma because we have essential workers in restaurants and housekeeping and construction, and not to mention City Market, Walmart. They don’t have the option of working at home. They’re there all day long.
As a result, in Garfield County, almost 70% of the COVID cases have been Latinos. We are fortunate to have multi-generational homes, but that creates real challenges during a pandemic. Sometimes there are two families to one apartment, one bathroom, it makes quarantining and isolating nearly impossible.
Another challenge is that a lot of people in our Hispanic community are proud and won’t admit when they need help. They won’t say that they need food or rental assistance. We have been trying to help with those issues but, as you know, the county’s public health department is maxed out with contact tracing and COVID health issues.
Gallacher: You’re out there trying to be optimistic and encouraging people to get involved and ask for help if they need it. But you’re up against the scapegoating of the Latino community that’s gone on for years. So it must be difficult to convince the Spanish-speaking community that we’re really here to help when some people are saying, “We want you to go away.”
Chavez: Well, part of what I try to do with whatever circle or network I am involved in is to let them know, “We’re here. We are part of your community, which is our community as well. And we are also part of the solution. And if we’re invited, you get to know who we are and what we have to contribute.”
It’s a different perspective, sure, but let’s learn about each other’s cultures. And like I said, I grew up here. My kids grew up here. We’re part of this community, and I think the beauty of it is that we have so much to share. Everybody has so much to share. Let’s just start with that.
Gallacher: Talk about the impact the pandemic has had on the women in the Spanish-speaking community. Because you deal a lot with women and children and infants, right?
Chavez: I do. I think a lot of our Hispanic women have those essential frontline jobs as well, but they’re also the ones that take care of the kids at home. The school districts are doing an amazing job. But trying to do online learning has really been challenging for the women in the community. A lot of our Spanish-speaking mothers need guidance and help with technology. Wi-fi has been a huge issue. It’s been hard to support. Parents are worried that their kids are falling behind.
Gallacher: It must be particularly hard on many of these kids who are second language learners trying to learn English in addition to their other subjects.
Chavez: I am very proud of our District Accountability Committee in the Re-2 school district. They have been able to provide interpretation for our Spanish-speaking families. Our district understands that 50% of our students in Garfield County are Latino. So when you consider that, dual language options not only make sense, it’s essential for full participation of the whole community.
Gallacher: The COVID pandemic has really underlined that need, hasn’t it?
Chavez: Yes, these are the systems that do need to be in place, that we do need to work on to make sure we do have better communication with all our community members, with all our parents, not just a few. We need to ask ourselves, “How do we reach out to those parents that normally don’t come to the table? What can we make different?
It’s hard work. But I try to offer support not only on an individual level but also wherever I can help within those organizations. So I try to be there in whatever capacity I am able to serve. I try to empower and say, “This is your vision, or this is what needs to be done. You need to advocate. You need to voice your opinion, your thoughts. Back it up with some other things as well, and also be part of the solution.”
Gallacher: Where did your optimism come from? Because you are truly an optimist, which I think, you have to be when you’re doing organizational and community change.
Chavez: You know, my dad always said laughter is the best medicine. Truly, it is. And then my grandma that passed away this year, she was everything to me. She survived breast cancer. She lost two of her daughters when they were very young. But she was always so positive. She would say, “You know, family comes first. You help out when you can, you take care of yourself, and you take care of family and then the rest of the world.”
Gallacher: Who do you turn to for that help, when you need it yourself? Who do you lean on?
Chavez: I think one of the best listeners was my grandma, because she would just listen and tell me stories, and we would just laugh together. My husband is unbelievable at helping and supporting me. And my kids, I am always striving to make them proud of their mama.
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