Latino-led organizations in Florida step up for their community during the COVID-19 pandemic

Community Profiles: Redefining Leadership for Stronger Communities 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, UnidosUS has compiled stories that uplift our community’s resiliency and power that bring the Latino community forward. With the help of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, UnidosUS launched the series “Community Profiles: Redefining Leadership for Stronger Communities,” as a commitment to highlight leaders’ support systems, their collective strengths, and collaborative efforts that shape a more accurate narrative of Latinos as positive contributors to the United States and vital to the nation’s health and well-being. This is the fifth blog in our series. 

Florida continues to face the brunt of the Delta variant wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and community leaders like Otayme “Otto” Valenzuela, Public Policy & Advocacy Manager at UnidosUS’s Affiliate Hispanic Unity of Florida, and Barbara Cesar, Director of Education at UnidosUS’s Affiliate Centro Campesino, are committed to supporting the recovery of the Latino community from the overall impact of the pandemic. 

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Advocating for the Community  

Otto first joined UnidosUS’s Affiliate Hispanic Unity of Florida (HUF) as a 2020 Census Outreach Manager due to his extensive experience in political campaigns and knowledge of the community. He later became HUF’s Public Policy & Advocacy Manager and began leading HUF’s public policy work. 

HUF is a community-based organization based in Hollywood, Florida that serves a diverse immigrant community from approximately 25 different countries. Otto shared that he has known HUF almost all his life because his family members were participants of HUF’s programs for years. 

HUF’s programmatic areas cover 1) Health Care; 2) Education; 3) Economic Sustainability; 4) Education5) Immigration6) and Economic Development. One of Otto’s priorities throughout the pandemic has been advocating for an inclusive economic recovery for the Broward County community.   

Otto Valenzuela, Public Policy & Advocacy Manager at UnidosUS Affiliate Hispanic Unity of Florida.

“Our policy work has focused on the economic and health impact that the COVID19 pandemic continues to have. We are working to include immigrant families in the federal relief packages—especially among mixedstatus families,” Otto said. 

Otto explained that HUF has spent a significant amount of time collaborating with Protecting Immigrant Families (PIF), a network anchored by the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), and other member organizations. 

While this collaboration helped HUF provide food and help with Medicaid enrollment to eligible members of the community, HUF also took the lead in collecting stories from the community on the economic impact that the pandemic had on low-income, immigrant families and children in Broward County. Through their work with PIF, they were able to secure meetings with Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott to tell these stories. Otto recalled this being one of their most successful and impactful collaborations.  

As a result of their advocacy, immigrant families were included in the next relief bill.  

Otto added that meeting consistently with other UnidosUS Affiliates around the health, social, and economic complications of the COVID-19 pandemic served as a platform to share key information, and address barriers to vaccination. “This collaboration resulted in a more equitable vaccine distribution in our communities,” he explained.  

Listening to the Community  

Barbara is Director of Education at UnidosUS’s Affiliate Centro Campesino in Florida City, Florida. Her work encompasses community advocacy, education, and emergency preparedness and disaster relief. Florida City is home to many migrant and agricultural workers and frequently suffers from natural disasters. The COVID-19 pandemic has been no different.  

“This past year we’ve been able to continue providing the same level of services as before the pandemic, plus respond to pandemic (information sharing, testing, and vaccines), and more recently, transition to a food distribution center,” Barbara explained. 

UnidosUS Affiliate Centro Campesino’s food distribution center.

While Florida City is the gateway to tourist destinations like the Florida Keys and part of the affluent Miami-Dade County, residents are often left behind by policymakers. 

Barbara and her coworkers have worked hard throughout the pandemic to ensure that frontline workers have PPE and community members have all the information and the resources they need to get vaccinated. 

“We have found that being trusted messengers among the community, emphasizing respect, and informing them of their choices is far more effective than any public health messaging,” Barbara explained.  

Centro Campesino launched its COVID-19 Campaign in March of 2021. Barbara share her why and honors the memory of her uncle “Papi Pi” who passed away from COVID-19 in April 2020.

Many of the people they spoke with, for example, admitted that Barbara’s approach led to them changing their minds about getting vaccinated.  

Barbara has also been featured in a video as part of the bilingual vaccine education campaign by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to encourage farmworkers to get vaccinated against COVID-19. This was an effort to ensure that essential workers like agricultural workers are included in the vaccination distribution in Florida.

Leadership that Matters

Barbara follows the principles of spiritual leadership, a new definition of leadership that draws from intrinsic motivations, such as vision, hope, and love. Barbara started her career working in a domestic violence shelter, which taught her the importance of really listening to members of the community—and not just “listening to them complain.”  

Barbara added that she gets her strength from within—and it’s clear that her deep commitments make her an effective leader during this crisis.  

Similarly, Otto is a purpose-driven leader, focused on listening to his community, but also having grown up in the area that HUF serves and understanding the issues that affect it, is deeply committed to serving the people who live there.  

While Barbara and Otto might have differences in leadership styles, they are both committed to best serving their communities as COVID-19 cases continue to climb in their state.  

In fact, Barbara’s poem, “Where I’m from/De donde soy,” based off the poem by George Ella Lyon, encapsulates the commitment to community that both she and Otto share in their roles.  

I am from Cuban Peruvian decent, born in Miami, from a Peruvian mother and Cuban father.  

I am from a loving and encouraging home, a loving and nurturing marriage.  

It was quiet yet never felt lonely.  

I am from the mines in Peru, the finca in Cuba, the tomateras of Homestead, the beaches in Miami.  

I’m from the Incan empire and Afro Cuban decent.  

From the “you are a bocana” and defender. 

I’m from a place of faith and hope.  

I’m from Miami, tallarin verde, and ropa vieja. 

By Barbara Cesar.