Marlom Portillo endured intimidation and eventual exile for organizing and advocating for student and worker rights in his native Honduras. After he immigrated to the United States, he watched his mother struggle with job-related injuries, abuses, and discrimination as a housekeeper. She suffered severe injuries from repetitive motion and stress, and eventually had to take disability leave.
“Immigrant workers often think they have no rights because they may not be here ‘legally,’ or are hired off the books and don’t have access to health or disability insurance,” said Portillo, who helped to consolidate and expand Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA). “I try to help workers who fear reprisals if they speak out about hazardous or unfair working conditions.”
At the institute, he founded and directed the Los Angeles-based Worker Health Project in 2003. The project promotes health awareness, networking, alternative health, and safe and healthy working conditions among Latino day laborers, household workers, community promoters, parents, children, and others.
For his tireless determination to ensure safe working conditions and access to health care for immigrant workers, Portillo has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award for 2012. The award honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities. Portillo will receive the award during a ceremony in San Antonio on October 17.
“Day laborers and household workers face incredible challenges in the workplace. They perform occupationally hazardous work in construction, demolition, housekeeping, and landscaping,” said Portillo, who recently was named executive director of IDEPSCA. “Yet, many of their employers do not offer basic forms of protections, such as gloves, masks, or safety glasses.” Many who are injured at work refuse to see a doctor because they lack health insurance and are not aware of low-cost medical resources available to them. Often they continue to work despite their injuries because they cannot afford to take time off, according to the Worker Health Project.
Portillo is also concerned that many people view immigrant laborers negatively. “Immigrants have often been through a lot to get here and they work hard. We need to do more to help them because when they do well, we all do well,” he said.
With a holistic approach to occupational health and safety—including mental and spiritual wellness in addition to traditional job-related issues—the project has reached more 12,000 people in the last eight years. It offers workshops on leadership and community participation, and trains health promoters to help workers recognize job-related hazards and manage chronic disease.
Portillo’s focus now is to figure out how to make the programs self-sustainable. “In addition to job training, we work as incubators for future business models, helping workers to acquire the skills to get good jobs or to build new businesses,” Portillo said. For example, his organization recently assisted 14 laborers to become “green” gardeners and to launch new businesses. “That took us two to three years to get that model off the ground, but the result, in terms of better jobs and lives for these laborers, was worth every minute.”
Janice Ford Griffin, national program director for Community Health Leaders, said the selection committee honored Portillo for his commitment. “Marlom has drawn on his personal experience to develop and motivate others to surmount impediments and obstacles with personal determination and with collective action to change systems,” Griffin said.
Portillo has leveraged IDEPSCA’s influence to be an essential member of more than 17 countywide initiatives, and several state and national coalitions, including the National Domestic Worker Alliance and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. IDEPSCA initiatives also include collaborations with Filipino, Chinese, and Korean populations, among others.
Portillo immigrated to the United States twice, the first time to New York to attend college. While there, he was assigned to a work-study program where he realized that U.S. workers also had to deal with poor working conditions. “I was assigned to a restaurant job. Some days, I would show up and they would send me home without pay because there wasn’t enough business,” Portillo said. He went back to his native Honduras, but later had to flee for both political and health reasons. When he returned to the United States, he moved to Los Angeles.
“Through his role as an educator and community health worker and promoter in prevention and social change, Marlom has changed our vision to a more holistic one. He has been strategic to raise individuals’ and key stakeholders’ consciousness in the struggle for social justice and health prevention,” according to his colleague Patricia Rizo, program manager at IDEPSCA’s Workers Health Project.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has honored more than 200 Community Health Leaders since 1993. The work of the nine other 2012 recipients includes culturally appropriate care for Native Alaskan elders; a program to prevent and treat cancer among medically underserved populations in South Carolina’s Low Country region; a community initiative to reduce opioid abuse and drug overdoses in Wilkes County, N.C.; an initiative to connect refugees to mental health services in Seattle; a breast cancer awareness and treatment program for African immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area; a free health care clinic for the working poor in Little Rock, Ark.; an initiative to prevent childhood obesity in Garfield, N.J.; support services for Latino survivors of sexual violence in Philadelphia, and an outreach program to assist older adults living at home in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.
For details on how to submit a nomination, including eligibility requirements and selection criteria, visit www.communityhealthleaders.org.