'Promotoras' encourage health in Latino community

Trusted community figures help Placer County families navigate complicated systems, live healthier lifestyles
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Silvia Lopez shook her hips to the rhythm of Latin beats, moving at a fast pace and not stopping until the instructor on the DVD said she could. “Twenty minutes more,” she said, with a tired smile during a water break. Lopez practices the dance-style fitness program called Zumba one hour a week. And she’s not alone, as four other women joined her Thursday in a carpeted, small meeting room located in an Auburn strip mall. Usually, about 15 women attend the session but the morning’s rain kept some people away. “I like the exercise and it takes away stress and we have a lot of fun,” Lopez said, through a Spanish translator. “I’m trying to help these ladies, too.” Lopez is a “promotora,” a community figure in Latin cultures that is also being used in Placer County. Promotoras, which means “promoters” in English, are trained para-professionals who help families navigate complicated systems and gain access to resources and information, primarily in the area of health. These bilingual cultural brokers also act as liasions, providing language translation, advocacy and transportation. “In our culture, promotoras are key, trusted people in the community, said Elisa Herrera, coordinator of the Latino Leadership Council, which runs the program. “It’s all about empowering the family to do what they can to help themselves. They build the skill set of the community.” The Latino Leadership Council is a nonprofit agency based in Auburn that assists underserved Spanish-speaking populations in Placer County. About 12.4 percent of the county’s 350,000 residents are of Hispanic or Latino origin. About 12 years ago, Maria Cordova, a Roseville resident and now-retired school psychologist, began observing a trend emerging in the local Spanish-speaking population. “I was seeing a lot of domestic violence, a lot of isolation, a lot of depression and things like that,” Cordova said. “Women were not being able to find their voice, or say ‘no’ or ask for what they needed. They didn’t know they had any power.” She started local women’s groups and soon connected with other community activists and professionals. The Latino Leadership Council formed in 2007 to provide feedback regarding the needs of Latino populations to two Placer County initiatives — a Children’s System of Care federal grant and the Mental Health Services Act. Cordova took part in the formation of this group and was instrumental in developing the promotora program. Now about 10 women act as promotoras and a few men serve as promotores, mainly to accompany male patients to medical clinics for health screenings. “The men, as the head of the households, don’t see themselves as caretakers of the community,” Herrera said. “The women are the nurturers.” One of those women is Lopez. Through her Zumba class, participants exercise, while learning about nutrition and illnesses, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, which affect Latinos at a higher rate than other ethnic groups. Lopez, a mother of two teenage sons, is considered the class’s instructor, but she doesn’t actually lead the ladies in exercise routines. Instead, she inserts the DVD and presses play. As a promotora, she also spreads the word, handing out fliers about the free class to Hispanic women she encounters at schools, churches, grocery stores and anywhere else she finds them. Lopez, who works as a housekeeper, used to be a student in the class, before receiving training so she could become a promotora. “More than anything, these classes are for prevention,” Lopez said. “The exercise is a great example to women and they have started the habit of walking with their families to the park. They see how important it is to be active and exercise. With their nutrition, they want to change what they eat. It’s helpful for their families and community because they share the information.” Prevention is critical as some of the women in her Zumba class — and their husbands and children — lack health insurance and don’t regularly visit the doctor’s office, she said. Edward Glavis, senior vice president and area manager for Kaiser Permanente in Roseville and Sacramento, said the promotora program is making a positive difference in the lives of Hispanic people in Placer County. Kaiser recently awarded the Latino Leadership Council a $25,000 grant, about half of which is used to support the promotora program. “Promotoras are successfully providing information that helps families access care and lead a healthy lifestyle,” Glavis said. In November, the Placer Collaborative Network, a project of the Placer Community Foundation, awarded the council its annual Outstanding Collaboration Award. Because promotoras live in, and know, the community, they are able to more easily build trust with those they seek to help. They share information through peer education — an approach Cordova considers key to helping the community become better informed and, more importantly, empowered. “We all experience being a victim but you don’t have to stay a victim,” Cordova said. “You can become victorious. Power, to me, is when everybody wins.” Sena Christian can be reached at ---------- For more information about the promotora program and the Latino Leadership Council, visit