Dawn Martinez Oropeza
Writer: Rachel Vogel Quinn
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
The coronavirus itself doesn’t discriminate. But its passage through society has affected people of color at higher rates than whites. Hispanics and Latinos were 1.7 times more likely to contract COVID-19, 4.1 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 2.8 times more likely to die from the virus, according to March 2021 data from the Center for American Progress.
These statistics aren’t a shock to Dawn Martinez Oropeza, executive director of Al Éxito, the only statewide nonprofit focused on Latino youths. As the pandemic ramped up in 2020, many of the youths in Al Éxito programs told her about the lack of personal protective equipment and safety protocols at their jobs.
“It really was evident to me that no one in power cared about our community,” she says.
Oropeza, 54, has spent much of her life advocating for the Latino community and immigration reform. She is a Mid-Iowa Health Foundation HealthConnect Fellow and an alumna of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program. She says discrimination, hate speech and deportation fears have caused many Latinos to take a step back from society. Oropeza wants to change that.
“The Latinx community has become really good at being willfully hidden over the past eight years—and probably longer,” she says. People outside the community “need to know who we are and what we do and how we’re living.”
One in five Polk County residents will be Hispanic by 2050, according to projections by the State Data Center of Iowa. But minimal data is available about the Latino population in Iowa. Oropeza believes more reliable information could shine a light on the challenges her community faces.
Inspired by the local One Economy Report from the Director’s Council—which offers in-depth data about disparities among Polk County’s Black residents—Oropeza has launched the Latinx Project to gather data about the economic status, housing, education and health of Latino Iowans. She hopes to have the initial results by the end of 2021.
The data could help local communities and organizations pursue greater health equity, a cause close to Oropeza’s heart. Earlier this year, both Oropeza and her husband were diagnosed with diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hispanic/Latino Americans have a more than 50% chance of developing diabetes, compared with 40% for all U.S. adults. And nearly 17% of Hispanic Americans are uninsured, a higher rate than any other group, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Growing up, Oropeza’s own ethnic identity often went unseen, she says. At school, she was frequently mistaken for mixed-race or Black.
“Looking like I did, people couldn’t figure out what I was,” Oropeza says. “They didn’t know what to do with me.”
Born and raised in Des Moines, Oropeza is the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Mexican Catholic father. Her Jewish grandparents came to the United States to escape persecution in Europe, and her Mexican grandparents came to escape poverty. Hearing stories from both sides of her family (such as how her Mexican grandmother temporarily lost her eyesight from exposure to pesticides as a farmworker), Oropeza came to understand oppression from a young age.
But she also saw how immigrant families like hers could thrive, as long as they had support. After earning an MFA in Mesoamerican art history from the University of California in San Diego, she worked at the Cesar Chavez Foundation, the Mexican Heritage Corp. and the Iowa Arts Council, often creating after-school programming for youths. She has served as the executive director of Al Éxito since 2013.
“I love watching the kids light up inside as they discover their power and their ability,” Oropeza says.
“I want them each to have the skills and the knowledge they need to fulfill their dreams.”
Meaning “Toward Success” in Spanish, Al Éxito serves about 800 middle and high school students in 33 schools, preparing them for college, careers and leadership roles. Results show that they outperform both their Latino and non-Latino peers in attendance rates, grade-point averages and credits earned. But Oropeza has often heard them worry that their loved ones would be deported. Then several teenagers in Al Éxito programs attempted suicide.
Convinced that Latino youths were experiencing undiagnosed trauma, Oropeza organized a 2018 study of the mental health and well-being of Latino youths in Al Éxito programs statewide. More than 200 middle and high school students participated, 80% of whom were born in the United States.
The study found that 40% of students felt stressed about the potential deportation of themselves, a family member or a caregiver almost every day. More than 70 percent reported being called offensive names or slurs. Nearly 60% regularly experienced “fear, anger or uncertainty due to anti-immigration sentiment.”
In response to the study, Oropeza created a student-led mental health task force, which developed a series of recommendations for schools, including anti-bullying policies, more bilingual and culturally competent school counselors, increased access to technology, and professional development for teachers about issues facing Latino students.
Although the students presented to Iowa school districts, the Iowa Department of Education and national conferences, none of the recommendations were implemented. That experience only confirmed Oropeza’s belief that health inequity would never be addressed until Latino people became more visible. She says real change won’t happen without a statewide network of Latino leaders who can advocate for policy changes, and she hopes some of those leaders come from Al Éxito programs.
“Dawn has inspired people like me to continue to lift up the voice of the Latinx community in all spaces, even if it makes others uncomfortable,” says Maria Corona, Ph.D., executive director of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
With much of her focus on launching the Latinx Project this year, Oropeza still finds time to care for her own mental health. She is a Kriya Yoga initiate, does Hawaiian hula dancing, and relies on a network of “comadres”—female colleagues, mentors and friends. She’s also returned to her artistic roots, creating installations and murals she hopes will draw attention to the challenges—and the beauty—of the Latino community in Iowa.
Oropeza says everyone without Native ancestry is an immigrant to Iowa. And she teaches Al Éxito youths that Latino people belong here just as much as anyone else. She cites research showing that the language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, originated in the Southwestern United States.
“We’ve walked here forever,” Oropeza says of her Latin American compatriots. “We are not immigrants here.”