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An oasis of community and support for Latina moms

In California, many Latina mothers find themselves cut off by domestic responsibilities and language barriers. But with the help of trusted mentors, they’re learning new skills and strengthening their support networks.

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“Her intent was, how do we get these women—many of them immigrants—to learn about each other, support each other, because when they move here they become isolated,” says Elisa Herrera, coordinator of the Latino Leadership Council, an organization formed in 2007 to assist underserved Spanish-speaking populations in Placer County. About 13 percent of the county’s 350,000 residents are of Hispanic or Latino origin.

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“We [later] asked the women, when they had a problem or a challenge, who did they call?” Herrera says. And they said that they called Maria Cordova.

The council labeled Cordova a promotora.

“She said, ‘What the heck is a promotora?’” recalls Herrera. A promotora, Spanish for “promoter,” acts as a trained paraprofessional to help families navigate complicated social systems and access resources.

Promotoras aren’t unique to Placer County. Various social agencies throughout the United States use them, including the Migrant Clinicians Network based in Austin, Texas, and Planned Parenthood chapters. They typically focus on health issues.

Placer County’s promotoras are managed by the Latino Leadership Council. Cordova helped develop the program and now serves as its manager, overseeing 13 trained participants. They are paid on a contract basis and earn between $12 and $20 an hour, depending on skill level.

The first and most important factor in selecting someone to train as a promotora is that she must be trusted in the community.

“We hire for attitude and trust, and train for aptitude,” Herrera says.

The promotoras undergo training on a regular basis, learning about topics such as health education, youth violence prevention, and how to deal with trauma. They learn when to refer a client to a licensed professional or other organization. The promotoras who work for the Latino Leadership Council recently received training from a clinical psychologist on setting boundaries.

Herrera says that promotoras sometimes want to do too much for families, and take full responsibility for their lives.

“This training helped promotoras understand that they cannot work harder than their client does,” she says. “They can help the client access medical help, for instance, but they must then teach the client how to go to a pharmacy to get a prescription filled, or learn how to call to make their medical appointments. They should not do those things for the client because [that] creates dependence.”

Promotoras provide language translation, arrange transportation, act as liaisons, and work with youths and parents. They share vital information about health issues—Latinos are affected by diabetes and high blood pressure at a higher rate than whites—and connect people to primary care services so they no longer go the emergency room for nonemergency situations. They also host classes in Zumba, a Colombian workout style, where women go to dance and exercise, while learning about nutrition.

Using grants from Kaiser Permanente and the Sierra Health Foundation, promotoras in Placer County have collaborated with nursing students to conduct health screenings for Latino clients. Based on those results, the mentors set up the initial appointment, accompany the patient, help them understand doctor recommendations, and make sure they follow up on the advice. Herrera says this effort has been successful in improving the overall wellness of local Latinos.

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