Editor’s Note: Interviews with the promotoras in this article (Lupita López, Jazmin Karns, and Rocio Gutierrez) as well as Kings Beach resident Ludim Chavez, were conducted in Spanish and translated by the author, with the translations checked by the sources.
Lupita López has called Truckee home for five years, and today, she’s thriving, with a vibrant network of friends and family. But when she looks back at when she arrived from Jalisco, Mexico, she remembers a much lonelier existence. After graduating college with a degree in education, López had come to join her husband in Tahoe, the beautiful land in a country where he was the only person she knew.
“What was very difficult is that I arrived with this dream from the university that I want to work, start my career,” López told Moonshine Ink. “I come from a family in which almost everyone has been teachers, educators. Since I was 16 years old, I helped members of my family in these roles. I’ve always been involved with education.”
Yet since she spoke almost no English, teaching in Tahoe wasn’t really an option.
López and her husband Luis Iñguez are high school sweethearts, married in 2010. But he moved to the U.S. just six months after their wedding, seeking work and landing in Tahoe because people from his barrio back home were already here, which López described as a common story among local Hispanic immigrants. López joined him here, thinking it would likely be a short-term stay.
“One year has already turned into five,” laughed López. The young couple became pregnant in her second year in Truckee, so the soon-to-be-mother considered her options. “I wanted to give my son the opportunities he could have here.” So Tahoe/Truckee became a permanent home.
But after the birth of their son, she experienced severe postpartum depression and felt adrift. Here she was, from a young and ambitious student with plans to start a career in Mexico, to an unemployed mother in a new country starting from scratch.
“I’m a hyperactive person. I came from being a student, working, one thing to the next,” she said. “My life changed … I don’t speak the language.”
She tried different methods to treat her depression, to no avail. It felt like a hopeless situation. Then, during her postnatal healthcare appointments, reprieve came. She crossed paths with women who were called “las promotoras,” and through the advice of these advocates, she found her salvation.
“I did a lot of therapy, but [the group of women I was connecting with] said, ‘You have to do something to occupy your time,’” López said. The young mother decided to follow the path of the advice-givers. She signed up with the promotoras program three years ago and the changes in her life are stark.
Now López is one of the people helping make that difference in the lives of others. She teaches aerobics classes, and is working toward coaching certifications through promotoras, and she’s leading support groups for young women.
Through her role, López “keep[s] empowering my community, saying you all can do it. That no obstacle can stop you,” she said. It’s a job in which “my first objective is to keep growing and keep empowering.”
La promotoras, a group of Latina women based in Truckee and Kings Beach, are a key program of the Sierra Community House, a Kings Beach-based social services nonprofit. Currently eight female staff members, including two coordinators, comprise the team hired to promote health and wellness in Latino communities. The mission of the promotoras is to make sure their communities know about available resources in the realms of mental and physical health, among others. Their methodology is pounding the pavement.
It’s a program that’s “constantly evolving,” according to Felicity Beallo, community engagement manager for SCH. One crucial pivot the program took recently was in becoming the invaluable resource for spreading pandemic and vaccine information to Spanish-speaking populations.
At the start of the pandemic, Kings Beach and Truckee Latino residents faced severe food insecurity, said Rocio Gutierrez, who joined the promotoras program about five years ago. She and the rest of the promotoras team were part of SCH’s all-hands-on-deck efforts to keep the community fed through delivery programs, helping to coordinate expanded distribution and delivery programs for Covid-positive and at-risk community members.
(SCH is still providing bags of food every Tuesday from 4 to 5 p.m. at their Truckee warehouse and every Thursday from 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at The Village Church in Incline Village.)
Gutierrez stressed that many in the community simply had no frame of reference to prepare for the hardships of keeping bellies full in those early days.
“This was something that impacted us a lot because the majority of us go day by day … or we buy for one week, but we never thought we’d have to buy for more time,” she said.
The promotoras program has roots in physical health education and each member of the team has her specialty — López teaches aerobics, Gutierrez leads art healing courses. And while the program’s origins are in the physical realm, even before Covid they had branched out to encompass wellness and mental health. These tools have placed it at the epicenter of the pandemic response in Tahoe/Truckee’s Spanish-speaking populations.
In our region, where there is a dearth of Spanish-language resources for mental health, the promotoras provide one-on-one peer support. As the months of the pandemic dragged on and quarantine brought heightened anxiety and other mental health issues, the promotoras’ expertise in referring community members to help became increasingly important. They also coached people on legal, social, and health resources.
“Sometimes all someone needs is someone to listen to them,” Gutierrez said. She and López are both peer support partners, compañeras de apoyo, a subcategory of the promotoras mental health program, which has been accessed increasingly during Covid.
The secret sauce for the promotoras is their robust and diverse communication chain. For example, while some people they serve have adapted easily to Zoom classes, WhatsApp messaging, and virtually scheduled lives, there are those community members without the capacity or desire to adapt. The promotoras make sure they or family members and friends knock on the doors of anyone not in the digital sphere. And they do it again and again.
As the vaccine rollout started across the region, the promotoras spearheaded a vaccination information campaign called “Team Vaccine” to help Spanish-speakers learn how to make appointments and get their shots.
In early Covid days, promotoras followed standard protocol of referring people who needed coronavirus information to the counties. But with vaccines, it was clear that people weren’t being informed fast enough in Spanish-speaking-only circles. They hit the ground, armed with up-to-date information in coordination with the counties. Now, the team estimates they educate about 100 people per week.
Being able to turn on a dime is part and parcel for the team. Before the pandemic, the advocates’ programming was “all about being out there in the community, and we were providing snacks and childcare,” Beallo said. Covid crashed in right at the same time as the census, which is another big project of the promotoras. “We had to make a huge shift from one day to the other,” she said.
Beallo told Moonshine that the promotoras were perfectly poised to be that invaluable connection during the pandemic to Spanish-speaking communities that Sierra Community House serves, “because they are the community.”
Without English as a prerequisite, and in fact with a focus on community engagement and stewardship over credentials, the promotoras program has become a landing pad for smart young female professionals from Mexico and other Latin American countries. The women are offered training and certification opportunities concurrent with their work in the community, and they are encouraged to expand and evolve programming by following their passions.
The promotoras wear countless hats. They host workshops and classes in art and exercise techniques and facilitate discussion groups to support women, children, and the community at large. The key to the promotoras, says Beallo, is that they are a vital resource for Sierra Community House as a whole to understand what challenges and triumphs local Latino communities face on the ground.
“The most important role of the promotoras is that they are community members and they are in the community so somehow they are the link between the community and the population we serve and the resources and activities available to them,” Beallo said.
Beallo’s coworker and promotoras coordinator Jazmin Karns also came to the U.S. to be with her partner (like López, but in this case her husband is American). Originally from Chile, Karns spoke English but her husband didn’t speak Spanish so that factored into their decision to settle here in Kings Beach. Also like López, Karns found her role with las promotoras by reaching out for help as a new mom.
When Karns was pregnant, she discovered Sierra Community House’s Zumba and art classes through a program called Truckee Healthy Babies. Several of these offerings were taught by promotoras and Karns was drawn to these women.
“I went to more and more classes; I went to all of the classes,” she said. “When one ended, I’d say, ‘What am I going to do on Wednesdays? What am I going to do on Thursdays?’”
Karns ended up just signing up for it all, in 2020. When a promotora coordinator position opened, even as Covid prohibited face-to-face interaction, she dove in. She never would have predicted that she’d have gone so long working irregular office hours, and zooming with coworkers “in my pajamas,” she quipped.
The promotoras recruit each other in an organic, woman-to-woman manner, the same one-on-one outreach they employ with the community members they serve. In fact, it was Gutierrez that enlisted Karns to the program and mentored her in the transition.
And Kings Beach resident Ludim Chavez credits Gutierrez with helping her turn the corner when she was struggling with her mental health for six long years. After taking a workshop with the promotora that addressed mental health issues, Chavez texted her: “Thank you … the last lesson in which you gave us behavioral cognitive strategies to better our mental state … you have no idea how much [that lesson] motivated me.”
Working with Gutierrez “gives me peace,” Chavez said. The promotoras are “changing lives.”