By the time Gov. Jared Polis declared Sept. 21 to be “Julissa Soto Day” in honor of the public health specialist’s critical work in vaccinating Latino communities in locations such as churches and beauty shops, Soto already was on to her next project.
Constantly on the move as an activist, Soto will begin 2022 by launching a new nonprofit, Casa Inmigrante, which will serve as a multi-function job-access service for immigrants, a health care source, and a central clearinghouse for immigration services.
Casa Inmigrante’s services initially will launch for El Paso, Teller and Park counties, though Soto hopes to have a wider state footprint soon. The nonprofit has a board of directors, and Soto has hired Adriano Muro as operations manager and Leticia Aranda as lead promotora and community health worker. (A promotora is a lay Hispanic/Latino community member who receives specialized training to provide basic health education in the community without being a professional health care worker.)
Soto built a 25-year reputation in Colorado after migrating from Michoacan, Mexico, in the mid-1990s in the trunk of a car. Soon after, she left the father of her two children after suffering significant physical abuse at his hands. Following a college education in public health and early child development, Soto worked for a variety of state and local nonprofits, including a 16-year stint at the American Diabetes Association. Her work in 2021 on the Colorado Vaccine Equity Task Force to support vaccinations in local communities convinced her of the need for centralized aid services to address recent Latino immigrants in the United States.
Soto spoke with the Business Journal about her path to Casa Inmigrante.
How did your interest in health care and child development come about?
When my kids were sick and I didn’t speak the language, I used to run to the emergency room for everything, because that was what I was taught. I would wait eight or nine hours for an ear infection. I did not know about low-income clinics. At one point of real frustration in an E.R., I prayed to God and said, ‘If you help me navigate this, I will dedicate my life to public health.’ Everything I have done since earning my master’s is to help people navigate systems, help with chronic health conditions. My minor in childhood development was because I put my kids through a lot, and I wanted to understand how children develop. I always tell people that my work is my life, everything I do is a reflection of my beliefs.
Was your 16-year stint at the American Diabetes Association part of a reflection of that focus on your beliefs?
Oh, I targeted them quite deliberately for potential employment. My brother died of diabetes at 37, and I always have been interested in the impact of both child-onset and adult-onset diabetes in our community. I was not there for my brother when he needed me, so I wanted to serve in his name. I was super excited to create programs that were targeted just for my community. A job should never be just a job. If you don’t connect your heart with what you do every day, you are wasting your time. You cannot be successful without that passionate commitment, you will just be a deadbeat collecting a paycheck.
Did the diabetes work provide practical ideas for addressing COVID in the post-vaccine months?
When I looked at the poor vaccination rates for Latinx communities, I knew we had to look at non-traditional reaching out. That is where the people are. I remember the Julissa Soto of 23 years ago, and wondered where I would want a clinic organized. I would visit Mexican restaurants, tire shops, spas run by Latinas, so all my clinics are at restaurants, spas, tire shops, and apartment buildings, for those undocumented people who are afraid to leave their apartments. Last week, I was at a large apartment complex and vaccinated 223 people.
Before the pandemic, you had moved to Servicios de la Raza?
You know, I will be honest with you. I joined Servicios to organize their Colorado Springs effort, to provide rental assistance, other financial assistance, for what was supposed to be all communities. The intent was to serve Spanish-speaking communities, but in practice, the primary focus was on targeting English-speaking Latinx people. Soon, I realized that this was not for me, and that was part of the motivation for beginning this new nonprofit. I resigned only because my heart and mind were not in the same place theirs was. When I saw the need in El Paso and Teller and Park counties, I decided in July to begin developing Casa Inmigrante.
When you say ‘Casa,’ do you assume a centralized facility — perhaps like a private home — or will this be a distributed organization that just uses the name Casa in a symbolic way?
I don’t know yet; it is whatever God brings to me. I am a woman of faith and will take the organization wherever it is meant to go. Maybe even beyond our three counties where we begin. But if I am going to go for something, it is going to be something big. I do want a real building, with murals and art, and children always around making a lot of noise. A building with many classes and support services would be good, but some services may be spread out.
Both Servicios and your new nonprofit are involved in rental assistance at a time when rental property availability is extremely tight. Will this be a challenge?
I had worked with the Left-Behind Workers’ Fund, concentrating on those who never received their stimulus checks. I learned a lot about navigating the system in the three-county area, first with Servicios and now with Casa Inmigrante. But first and foremost, I credit the American Diabetes Association with teaching me how public health can be understood, and programs created.
In the beginning of vaccine availability, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and big health organizations were wondering how you reach Latino communities, how you reach POC communities — and you were just going out and doing it.
Lead by example, not by talking about it. Others were sitting and having a thousand meetings to organize one clinic. I’m just going out there, organizing 12 clinics within the month of September alone. And this is so necessary when the economy is locked up so tight. I asked myself several times if this was a smart thing to do, but this was a call from God. We must empower people through jobs, through health availability. There will be focus on youth, parents, those looking for jobs. Casa Inmigrante is coming at a good time and a terrible time, and it will all depend on how we can make this work. Last year, I tried to open a trucking business for a while, to help solve all the transport problems. It didn’t work for me, but at least I tried it. I think Casa Inmigrante might work better than trucking!