Sam Garzon is El Tecolote’s Report for America Corps Member who reports on mental health and healthcare inequality in the Latinx community.

Recognizing that farmworkers in rural communities are oftentimes underappreciated and invisibilized, Ayudando Latinos a Soñar (ALAS) — an organization serving Half Moon Bay — is a beacon of support and advocacy for farmworkers along the coast.

On June 7, 2023, Senator Josh Becker and Assemblymember Marc Berman honored ALAS as California’s “Nonprofits of the Year,” shining a long overdue spotlight on an organization that fosters cross-cultural solidarity and advocacy for farmworkers in Half Moon Bay.

Ayudando Latinos A Soñar headquarters in Half Moon Bay, Calif. on July 25, 2023. The yellow house was donated to the organization in 2020 by a Half Moon Bay resident who originally bought the house. Photo: Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local

“We have operated under the radar in our community for years, laying the groundwork for this pivotal movement we initiated long ago,” said Dr. Belinda Hernandez, ALAS’s founder and executive director. “This recognition feels so important for us because it symbolizes our community is being seen. Not just ALAS but our whole community is being seen.”

ALAS’s recognition coincides with its 10th anniversary, a milestone that highlights its remarkable growth from a grassroots collective to an impactful agency that advocates for improving the lives of the Latino community.

“What ALAS works to do is build on the strengths of our Latino community. In so many spaces, we’re seen as a deficit or just as a resource, but not as a power,” said Hernandez. “We were not being celebrated and honored for the power of who we are, and our ability to transform our lives and the space around us.”

A key focus of ALAS revolves around developing new and efficient models that serve its community efficiently, with a specific emphasis on mental health. 

“We’re utilizing the arts as a mental health instrument, and we believe that’s significant,” said Hernandez. “We’re uplifting our farm and essential workers by organizing many opportunities for them to lead and showcase their strength.”

Juana Echeveste, 42, paints a colorful house backdropped by a mountainous landscape during an art group session facilitated by Ayudando Latinos A Soñar (ALAS) on July 20, 2023 in Half Moon Bay, Calif. ALAS created this art group session to help the victims and farmworkers of the mass shooting that gripped the community earlier in the year. Echeveste, a mother of three children, was present when the shooting occurred. “I started coming here to this group after the tragedy that happened at the farm, and it’s helped me deal with anxiety — my depression,” Echeveste said. “I paint at home, too, sometimes with my daughter.” Photo: Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local

Over the past decade, ALAS has pioneered numerous distinctive initiatives to improve the lives of farmworkers. Among these, The Equity Express stands out. 

Functioning as a mobile service station powered by solar energy, The Equity Express — a repurposed double-decker bus — isn’t just a vehicle; it’s a fully equipped service center catering to all age groups. The bus offers many services, including Wi-Fi access, telehealth consultations, personalized tutoring, English language classes, comprehensive mental health services, and the provision of computers and internet access. This enables individuals to access the internet, connect with the digital world, and avail themselves of opportunities that normally would be out of reach. 

Inside the solar-powered Farmworker Equity Express Bus stationed at Rancho Cabrillo in Half Moon Bay, Calif. on July 25, 2023, one of the several farms where mobile services are offered. Community members have access to free wifi, educational services, virtual healthcare and mental health services. Photo: Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local

Angel Ramirez, a 23-year-old recent immigrant from Mexico, exemplifies the transformative impact of ALAS’s unique community services. As he waits for the harvest season to commence at El Cabrito Ranch, he enthusiastically participates in English classes aboard the Equity Express. “I see this not only as an opportunity for personal growth but also as a means to empower my family,” said Ramirez. “It’s great I can teach my child English, once I get back.”

Angel Martinez, 23, stands for a portrait near the Brussels sprout field in Half Moon Bay, Calif. on July 25, 2023. Martinez uses the Farmworker Equity Express Bus for English classes. “It’s a necessity to learn English not just to get by here, but to take with you everywhere — I want to eventually help my one-year-old son to learn the language,” Martinez said, who is supporting his son and wife back in Mexico. “The services are an excellent thing.” Martinez plans to learn English, save money and build a home for his family in his native Michoacán. Photo: Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local

Another innovative facet of ALAS’s work is using art and cultural activities as therapeutic tools. This approach embraces the farmworkers’ cultural heritage, fostering self-expression, healing, and community connectivity. 

During one of these art sessions, Juana Echeveste paints a colorful house backdropped by a mountainous landscape. Echeveste, a 42-year-old mother of three, was present during the mass shooting on Jan. 23, 2023, which claimed the lives of seven people, all of them farmworkers. ALAS created these art spaces as a direct response to the mass shooting. 

“I started coming here to this group after the tragedy that happened at the farm, and it’s helped me deal with anxiety—my depression,” Echeveste said. “I paint at home, too, sometimes with my daughter.” 

Ruteleo Lopez, 71, a four-decade resident, finishes peeling the thorns off a bundle of prickly pear cacti, also known as nopales, near his trailer home located in Rancho Cabrillo in Half Moon Bay, Calif. on July 25, 2023. The Rancho Cabrillo community is one of several farms where the Farmworker Equity Express Bus provides educational services, virtual healthcare, free wifi, and mental health services. The program has helped farmworker communities that have, for generations, lacked adequate social services such as this one, with improved livelihoods. Photo: Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local

Allowing community to participate in shared creative experiences can break down societal barriers, combat stigma, and promote a sense of unity and belonging.

“We’re still constantly grappling with challenges related to housing security and access to basic services,” said Hernandez. “That’s why delivering services directly to them via the bus is crucial for them and us.”

In 10 years, the organization has come a long way. 

“We started from zero, nada, with only nuestro corazon and a determination for the Latino community to be acknowledged, heard, and advocated for,” said Hernandez. “We’ve endured considerable tragedy recently, but we’re forward-looking.”

Winsor Kinkade, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and farmworker advocate at ALAS, told el Tecolote about how ALAS approaches creative expression to enhance mental health and overall well-being.

“I believe everybody has their own intrinsic potential to heal themselves. I’m just there to support and coax that healing out of them,” said Kinkade. “I work directly with the community, seeing individual clients or groups of people, and providing them with a safe container in the community. Creating spaces that liberate people is the cornerstone of my work. It’s not just about delivering services or running programs. It’s about creating spaces where people can heal, grow, and feel empowered.”

Signage of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act in English and Spanish inside the Farmworker Equity Express Bus, facilitated by Ayudando Latinos A Soñar (ALAS) in Half Moon Bay, Calif. on July 25, 2023. Photo: Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local

ALAS aims to leverage arts and creative practices as therapeutic tools. This initiative is a refreshing departure from the conventional models of mental health care that tend to be more clinical and less holistic. They recognize the immense healing power of creative expression and use the understanding to create art-based therapeutic programs that resonate with the community’s cultural heritage.

But the painting projects that ALAS runs go beyond just making the artwork. These projects often culminate in public exhibitions, allowing participants to share their stories, experiences, and emotions with the wider community. This provides participants with the tools to break down barriers, reduce stigma, and foster a sense of connection and belonging. ALAS also often organizes fiestas and events aimed to strengthen their connection with the community.

While ALAS understands that individual support and services are crucial, systemic change is needed to create lasting improvements. But in the meanwhile, they hope to inspire and even lead some of these challenges.

“We will always strive to devise new tools and ways to be present through culture, art and social justice movements,” said Hernandez. “With initiatives like the Equity Express and more in the pipeline, we intend to continue supporting our community for a long time.”

Pablo Unzueta contributed to this report.