For Laura Soto and Norma Fuentes, service to the community has been more than a decades-long journey; it has been a heartfelt call to continue in the footsteps of other Latina women and lead the way for future generations to be of service.
Last month, the Boulder Chamber announced the 25th group of honorees for the Women Who Light the Community Awards. Every year for over two decades, the Chamber has celebrated women “who have made significant contributions to the community through innovations and a committed effort to address a meaningful business or nonprofit, arts or community need, locally, regionally, nationally, or globally,” according to the website.
This year, two of the six women being honored are from Longmont and bring diverse representation for the awards and to the community as proud Chihuahuenses.
Soto, operations manager at Philanthropiece Foundation, describes herself as a “warrior.” Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and raised bicultural in the U.S., Soto has worked as a cultural broker and activist for over 20 years, serving as a speaker and performer, translator and interpreter, community organizer and resource navigator.
As a DACA recipient, she is the first member of the undocumented immigrant community who has been honored with this award, and her experiences as such have helped shape her legacy, she said.
“My message has been, in all of my community work, to represent the undocumented immigrant community and to highlight our contributions as assets to our community. We enrich and serve this community,” Soto said.
Soto recognizes that her path toward this honor has not been one without trials and celebrates those who came before her to pave the way.
“They are the trailblazers, the people who have been working for years to bring people of color voice to the table, to bring equitable services to the marginalized community and my first honor is to be among those women,” Soto said of past honorees. “I know that all of that work has made (my) work possible. Each of these women has been instrumental in preparing the fertile ground for more Latina women to be highlighted.”
For her, being among the group of women, both Latinas and allies, who have for years enriched and served their communities is but one of the ways in which this provides a sense of achievement.
As a mother, she also personifies an essence of relatable vulnerability as someone who aims to become a light for future generations.
“I have two children who were born in this country and I have raised U.S. citizens to the best of my ability to contribute to this society, to be a healing contribution to humanity… to make a difference and to embody the bicultural identity,” Soto said. “It takes a village to raise a child. We need to have that acknowledgement and have that village support because each child being raised right now in the society will become a new adult, and it's up to us to support them to be the best adults that they (can be) for the good of our community.”
Soto’s village runs wide and deep. She is the co-founder of Voces Unidas in Boulder County and Colectivo Cultura, a member of the Latinx Advisory Committee to Congressman Joe Neguse, the SVVSD Parents Involved in Education Taskforce and the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.
Most recently, she has taken up the task to create and provide resources to support community members in times of COVID-19, including including the BoCo SUMA Community Resource Guide, the COVID19 Undocu-Relief Fund at the local level and the Left Behind Workers Fund at the state level.
For Soto, the impact of her work and her life is both about the past and the future generations, as well as an overall effort to bring hope and advance progress towards equity in the community.
“Many times we do not see the truth or whole truth of things because we live in a type of ignorance… Being a shining light for the community means bringing hope for integration, allyship and unity,” said Soto.
Norma Fuentes, program director at Intercambio Uniting Communities, has been in the workforce since the age of 16. Her odyssey began at a furniture warehouse at her native town in Chihuahua, Mexico.
Since then, she has cruised across a border, multiple jobs, the birth of her three daughters, and the arrival of a grandchild to realize her greatest life lesson: “to know people and be open to learn from everyone.”
“My greatest strength is my ability to connect with people. I thrive in an environment where I am interacting with people of different cultural backgrounds. It brings me great joy to be able to connect everyone in the learning process. Regardless of where someone is from, their background or status,” Fuentes said.
Fuentes sees her role in the community as a great commitment that represents years offering quality service through a labor of love and respect. “This award shows that it can be done, that there are opportunities, that we are seen, that our work means something,” she said. “I am a proud employee of the community, I enjoy what I do and above all I have great gratitude to our students, teachers and everyone who has helped me (get) here.”
For her, illuminating the community means serving as a role model for her daughters and her peers, as well as acting as a bridge for members of the community who, like her, have had to re-invent themselves as immigrants in this country.
She engenders the qualities for success and leading others to having “a master’s degree in getting out of (her) comfort zone.”
“We have to take advantage of the opportunity to work with the immigrant community, it is a privilege to offer services to a person from Thailand or China or Japan. We can unify people through quality service, a service that unites these cultures, and removes stereotypes,” Fuentes said.
As an English-learner, Fuentes has had to overcome fears and obstacles to get where she has gone; thus, she appreciates the value of the work she directs and the community she represents.
“The English language is one of my biggest barriers, I get so nervous I can barely speak. But knowing that this is not about me but about thousands of people who are behind me, gives me a lot of strength to keep going,” she said.
For her, building bridges is all about collaboration, relatability and empathy. “Offering quality services, help and support each other, taking the time to get to know each other as leaders, mothers, immigrants, people who are navigating the system and learning, this way everything is easier. We have to take the time and figure out how to communicate with other people,”she said, recognizing that members across all communities share common ground.
“It has been a blessing to get to know the Anglo community, see the humility and generosity they have. They also battle with isolation and fears,” she said. “It has been a marvelous journey to realize that in every community there are more people who are good, the only thing is that we have to get to know each other and be open to getting along and share.”
Fuentes currently serves as a board member for The Inn Between, and has participated in leadership programs such as the Boulder County Leadership Fellowship and the People Engaged in Raising Leaders training. She has also received other community awards including the Multicultural Award and the Unity of the Community Award.
An Award of Community
For Soto and Fuentes, this honor signifies many things but there is one that rises above all: community.
“The most important thing is that the community knows that this award is for all of us, I was only selected to go pick it up. I cannot do anything without anyone else. Without all of my people, my mentors, my students, my teachers, my family, I wouldn’t be where I am today. This is an award that belongs to all of the Longmont community,” Fuentes said.
Both women recognize that a whole community carries them forward, even the members who may have long stood in the shadows.
“To light the community is to give hope, to shine a light where there is darkness or to be that light to give hope and to be truth. (It is) someone who brings visibility of who this community is a home to, who is shining a light on the truth,” Soto said.
Recipients of this award are nominated by the community and selected by the committee hosted through the Chamber’s Business Women’s Leadership Group.
A free virtual event to celebrate the honorees will be held on September 24th. For more information and to register to join, click here.