Guadalupe Sanchez de Otero

    • June 1, 2006

Position: Director, Andrew Sanchez Memorial Youth Center
Columbus, N.M.

"Lupe doesn't just talk about what's needed, but rather recognizes it and takes action in her own special way."—Benjamin Jacquez, Environmental Project Director, New Mexico State

"When you have a family and there's something wrong with the family, you try to help them."—Guadalupe Sanchez de Otero

Downtown Columbus, N.M., is not one of those places that you could miss if you blink your eyes while you drive through. But a catnap might do it.

There is the adobe town hall, built under a New Deal program; a library located in an abandoned tavern; a youth center in an old fire barn; a liquor store; and a Dollar Store. And that's about it. The population is under 2,000, and it is one of the poorest communities in New Mexico, with 57 percent of the families living below the poverty line. Work usually means picking onions or chiles or low-paying service jobs. The unemployment rate is 34 percent. Some 83 percent of the population is Hispanic.

"It's a town where you can make a difference," says one of the trustees on its governing board, Alan Rosenberg. And no matter how they stretch their memories, long-time residents can come up with no one who has made as much of a difference as Guadalupe Sanchez de Otero.

Since starting as a community health worker in 1995, Otero has become virtually a one-woman social service agency. She has established the Andrew Sanchez Memorial Youth Center; helped to start the public library; successfully lobbied for a community health clinic and worked in the breast cancer and family planning programs there; cooked and delivered meals to seniors; started pesticide safety education programs for farmers; and educated residents on immigration laws. She has even served as a Girl Scout leader and collected for the Salvation Army. And that is only a partial list.

In 2003, she was selected to receive a Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership Program award.

"Guadalupe exemplifies the meaning of volunteer work, as she has given hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours of her time over the past seven years to her community," says Benjamin Jacquez, an environmental project director at New Mexico State University.

Rosenberg describes her as "a bundle of energy. She never seems to stop moving. ... If she's eating her lunch and you say you need something, before you know it she's up and getting it for you. When she hears of a need, she has the tenacity to search out a solution and to implement the solution."

Otero says this is only natural for her: "When you're in a small village, it's like a family. You do as much as you can for them. Everybody knows everybody else."

Otero named the youth center after her father, who died in 2000. He introduced her early to the idea of public service after he moved the family to St. Louis from Chicago. "We were living in a gang community," she recalls. "It was a bad environment. He didn't want us raised there."

A maintenance man for the city of St. Louis, Andrew Sanchez also taught carpentry at a youth rehabilitation center. Eventually, he opened his own youth center, renting space in the back of a jewelry store and raising money through bake sales and donations from firemen and police officers. His daughter was a volunteer. "We worked with kids brought to us by the police department," she says. "Lots of times, all they needed was a place to talk to somebody, a place to get some love and understanding. My Dad always liked to help people."

Otero worked as a substitute teacher and as a medication and treatment nurse at a Little Sisters of the Poor home and a nursing home until her brother-in-law opened a Mexican-American restaurant in Chicago in 1978. She had always loved to prepare food, so she and her husband went to work there. In the mid-'80s, they moved to Mexico to work on a family cattle ranch between Palomas and Juarez, before settling in Columbus in 1984. Her parents joined them there in 1986.

The town sits some 4,000 feet above sea level on the Chihuahuan desert, a plateau of sand and mesquite reaching down past the Mexican border three and a half miles away. Many of its residents are illegal immigrants who are in effect stranded there, unable to return to Mexico and unable to move farther north unless they are formally admitted to the United States. Others are elderly persons eager to live within driving distance of the cheaper prescription drugs available in Mexico.

Otero adopted a son in Mexico in 1992. Sergio Manuel Otero is now almost 14 and suffers from epilepsy, cerebral palsy and asthma. Her devotion to him has become part of her legend. "It's amazing to watch her with that child," says Columbus Mayor Martha Skinner. She met him when she went for a family Christmas in Mexico. He had been abused by his family and was in the temporary care of her sister, a midwife. His mother had been charged with abandonment and child abuse and his grandmother with trying to sell him. "The Mexican judge asked me, 'Do you want him?'" And Otero, who is unable to bear her own children, said, "Sure, why not?"

"They told me he was going to be a vegetable," she recalls. "My doctor told me, 'You can't go by what they say, but what the man upstairs says.' Sergio sees well. He's really intelligent. His body just doesn't react the way he wants it to. I consider myself lucky."

With her husband helping to care for the boy, Otero moved for the first time into the public arena. In 1995, she was hired by the Promotora Project, a lay community health worker program, to run a new office in Columbus and in the larger neighboring city of Deming.

The idea behind the program was that the biggest public health problem in the area was not just lack of services but lack of awareness of them. At first, she encountered bureaucratic resistance. "A lot of agencies thought we were going to take their business away," she says. "I had to do a lot of footwork introducing the program to different agencies. Our main job was to tell them what the community needed."

The only public health programs available in Columbus at the time were the WIC program—the federal supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children—and limited public health services, including immunizations.

The area was marked by a high incidence of diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Many pregnant teenagers had little information on prenatal care or child development and lacked diapers or baby clothes. Even if residents knew about medical services, she said, they often lacked transportation to get there.

"Within a year and a half," she says, "we had about 24 agencies offering services in Columbus." Other services were offered by mobile clinics that visited public schools, with the school nurse arranging transportation for residents who needed it.

The project brought Otero into the homes of hundreds of residents. It also brought her into a controversy that seriously tested her courage and resourcefulness. Funds for the program came from the Salvation Army and the Federal Emergency Management Administration, and Otero soon started finding inconsistencies in the budget expenditures.

She reported the matter to local law enforcement authorities, and two staff members were arrested and prosecuted. "This demonstrates Guadalupe's integrity and high ethical standards," Jacquez wrote in nominating her for the Community Health Leadership award, "because as a collaborator with these emergency funds, she ran the risk of being implicated in these fraudulent activities."

In 1996, she faced another controversy, this time over a health center for Columbus. Three of the five village trustees were supporting a privately operated center. Although she also was an employee of the village, Otero led the fight for a public facility instead. She mobilized more than 130 residents to attend a public meeting on plans for the center, and the community eventually convinced the trustees to support a public facility, the Ben Archer Health Center.

That same year, with the help of her family, she founded what is now known as the Andrew Sanchez Memorial Youth Center, persuading the village to donate the old fire barn and using local donations to purchase computers, a copier and sewing machines and to upgrade the kitchen and repaint the building. She says that the lack of jobs in the area made the need for a youth center particularly acute: "You find a lot of kids falling into the temptation of a fast buck selling drugs."

Her father had started a local group earlier, called the Maya Youth Club, but it had no headquarters. "That's why I was interested in getting the center started, so they could meet there. Before, they met at my house or the American Legion or in the park."

"Youth Center" was anything but a complete description of her new project. Otero says. "The staff is all volunteer. What's really nice is the backing we get from the community. We don't go according to the client's income. We go according to their need. If they can't cook, they get taken a meal." The center serves more than 30 meals daily to walk-ins and delivers 10 to homes at a charge of $2.50 per meal. On Thanksgiving, it provides some 60 meals. The only salary Otero draws from any of her work is the $6 an hour she gets for doing the cooking. In some cases, the seniors give back by reading to the younger children at the center.

Otero soon branched out into other areas as well—a support group for Hispanic persons with diabetes, training farm workers in the use of pesticides and how to respond to pesticide emergencies, sewing classes, health workshops. Even with the Ben Archer Health Center in town, she finds public health education crucial because the closest hospital is in Deming, 35 miles away.

There is also a year-round program for some 50 to 70 pre-school and grade-school children. It includes a summer Kids' University, with academic tutoring, arts and crafts, recreational activities and classes on environmental protection. The after-school program offers free care to the children of farm laborers who otherwise could not afford it.

The youth center is a place where both Otero's leadership qualities and her sensitivity are always on display. An 85-year-old resident recalls a visit there with her husband, who is two years older and suffers from Alzheimer's. Her husband uses crutches and got tangled in a chair and fell down.

"It was not serious, but the whole center was in a panic," she said in a nomination letter to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "Lupe Otero remained calm ... and preserved his dignity in a very simple way, assisting him with his crutches and helping him back onto his feet. My husband and I plan on remaining in Columbus. The center makes our lives easier and allows us to remain in Columbus and not in a nursing home."

Otero eventually hopes to buy land for a community center that would bring youth and seniors together for activities spanning the generations. But she used $105,000 of the Community Health Leader award (she also received $15,000 as a personal award) to renovate the current building and acquire equipment needed to expand the hot meal programs. She brought the kitchen up to state code with an exhaust fan and bought commercial-grade equipment, including a refrigerator and freezer, ice machine and stove.

The building itself is being totally renovated, including roofing work, stuccoing, a handicapped-accessible bathroom, added rooms for youth center activities and equipment for the center, including game equipment such as foosball and air hockey tables. Columbus residents—including Otero and her mother—did the painting, and a local quilting group created banners to hang from the ceiling. Renovations are scheduled for completion in April 2006.

It has been a project typical of the town and typical of Lupe Otero. "It was a big family project," she said. "When the community comes in and helps us, they feel like it's theirs, too."

Guadalupe Sanchez de Otero

Guadalupe Sanchez de Otero

2003 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader