Hector Hernandez saw a need in his community of Lamont and Arvin. He noticed indigenous people were in need of more information on services related to farmworker rights, housing rights and so much more. This is why he, along with others, founded Unidad Popular Benito Juarez.
Unidad Popular Benito Juarez is a volunteer based community organization that helps to advocate for the housing, health, and basic human rights of indigenous people.
“We are advocating for indigenous communities and our focus of Unidad Popular is culture and trying to rescue the culture,” said Gladys Flores, the treasurer of Unidad Popular. “We’re doing more canvassing in Arvin, Lamont, and Weedpatch because that’s where most of our indigenous communities are. Now that we are doing door to door we are encountering a lot of need and services.”
The founders grew the organization by creating a committee to talk about who the organization is and how they were going to give back and help their community.
“We started organizing with different families and try to get services to come to our communities and there was an agency outside of Modesto that would come and talk about legal rights, farmworker rights, and housing rights, so we started bringing those agencies to our, communities and that’s how we started building Unidad Popular,” said Hernandez.
Hernandez said that in the past year they have brought professors and writers from Oaxaca that would talk about their history, the language, and traditions. The organization, for example, has held events with Folklorico performances and educated people on the roots and traditions.
“We talk about the history of our language and where it comes from,” said Hernandez. “We try to emphasize to our community that this is important. Unfortunately, due to migration, a lot of our communities are losing (their native language).”
Hernandez has seen a trend among young people who hardly speak their native language, which is where Unidad Popular comes in handy. This is why the organization holds events that value their native culture, traditions and language.
However, due to COVID-19, Unidad Popular’s mission has shifted throughout the pandemic. The organization, which help from the Public Health Department, began doing outreach work in their community to educate residents on safety precautions, COVID-19 testing, and vaccines.
Volunteers have been canvassing door-to-door, passing out educational information about health resources in the community, and helping out with the vaccines, according to Hernandez.
“It makes me feel good because unfortunately there is a lot of information that people are not aware of,” said Hernandez. “Even with the vaccine, they are hesitant to take the vaccine, but we are trying to educate the community.”
Hernandez said there are challenges when trying to educate the community of the vaccine.
“It’s really hard for us to communicate (information regarding the vaccine),” said Hernandez.
This is because the number of people who speak the native language of Mixteco continues to decrease; however, that hasn’t stopped volunteers from offering their services and assistance.
“That’s part of what we are trying to do in our community,” he said. “We educate our community, but we do it in a native language so folks understand what we are trying to do.”
Flores joined when she was 16 years old because she loves working with the community.
“Your reward is the community when you serve your community, so I started getting more involved into it,” said Flores. “I knew that our community needed a lot, so that’s another reason I got involved – to try and make a change for our people and try to give more voice to our people.”
Flores said that they stopped operating for a while, but decided to come back because of the 2020 Census. She started noticing that a lot of the people from her community weren’t counting themselves, so she knew Unidad Popular needed to come back and start doing more events and outreach to educate the community.
Flores continued to help out with outreach efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. When going door to door and providing these services, Flores has been seeing and hearing that a lot of people are still experiencing COVID-19 after effects.
“I bring up the long haul a lot because some people don’t know what that is and that is the effects that people are still going through with COVID,” said Flores. “The thing is that a lot of the times they are getting headaches. Their lungs are still struggling, and they cannot do the everyday activities like they used to do before. A lot of them are getting frustrated because they have to go to work. So it’s good that we’re out there in the community giving that support, but I still think we need more support and more services.”
Flores loves volunteering with Unidad Popular and dedicating her time to educate the community.
“It makes me feel happy. Sometimes when you’re at the stores people say hi to you and ask how you are doing and the community is grateful. When you help them and they feel like you really served them, the community is happy and you see it. I love it when as you’re walking people say hi because they see you, they know who you are,” said Flores.
Featured photo: Volunteers pass out food to Weedpatch residents at a food distribution, organized by Unidad Popular Benito Juarez, in partnership with CAPK (Courtesy of Unidad Popular Benito Juarez Instagram)