By Gladys B. Vargas

El Concilio Family Services awarded and honored six community leaders at the Concilio’s 33rd annual Latino Leadership Awards ceremony Wednesday night, in an event attended by more than 100 people at the Museum of Ventura County, in Ventura.

The evening of Sept. 27 consisted of remarks by the six honorees and their sponsors, almost entirely presented via pre-recorded videos showcasing photos of the honorees doing the work they were being recognized for.

The ceremony was opened by Andres Herrera, President of the Board of El Concilio. “We have, uh, supporters that come in and give us their time after they go out there and make their livelihood. And that’s what makes us stick around 33 years. That’s what makes us do work for people,” Herrera said of El Concilio and supporters of the organization.

Herrera also introduced distinguished guests, including Deputy Mayor of Ventura Jeannette Sanchez-Palacios, who hosted the rest of the ceremony, as well as assembly members Steve Bennett and Jacqui Irwin, County Supervisor Vianey Lopez, Commissioner of the Port of Hueneme Jess Ramirez and many others.

The honorees and their awards for this year are:

Marcos Rodriguez, El Concilio Latino Leadership Award
“Marcos Rodriguez is committed to promoting student success and fostering a welcoming environment on the Oxnard College Campus as the Student Service Specialist. Mr. Rodriguez’s parents worked long hours in the strawberry fields in Oxnard but remained steadfast in supporting their children’s education. That support led to his siblings graduating from a four-year university. Due to his background as a first-generation college student, he is sensitive to the needs of the students he interfaces with daily on the Oxnard College Campus. He works hard to provide ongoing support, training, and guidance to the students he serves with enthusiasm and understanding. Mr. Rodriguez mentors younger youth with his involvement with Future Leaders of America and the Ventura County Big Brother Big Sister program. He said, “I try to provide unconditional support by modeling a Si Se Puede! attitude with my professional and volunteer work.”

Oscar Hernandez, El Concilio Latino Leadership Award
“Growing up poor in a rural village in Mexico, Dr. Oscar Hernandez’s parents saw education as the key to a successful life. Mr. Hernandez now offers that same wisdom to over 5,000 PK-8 students he stewards as the Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services for the Rio School District. Like many students he serves, Dr. Hernandez entered the United States undocumented. He and his family lived in a tiny Oxnard apartment carved from a garage, and he worked to support himself while attending college. With steadfast encouragement from his family, he continued his studies to earn his doctorate from Cal Lutheran University. Dr. Hernandez has dedicated his professional life to educating Oxnard Plain’s predominantly Latino student population. First as an elementary school teacher at the Hueneme School district, then eventually serving as the principal of Hueneme High School, his alma mater. Now in his current role, he has expanded the programming to students in his district who live in Nyland[sic] Acres. [Hernandez] has worked closely with Nyeland Promise to form The Nyeland Acres Cultural Arts Encrichment Program. His unique style, which includes ‘El Botas,’ Mexican boots with a suit, and ‘El Bigote,’ his eye-catching mustache, is not what makes him stand apart, but rather his fierce dedication and commitment to the students and parents to create pathways to success through education.”

Suzanne Godinez, El Castillo Latino Youth Award
“Suzanne Godinez has been serving the children and families of Ventura County since 1983. She began working for Child Development Resources as a teacher and is now the Director of Early Care and Education for Child Development Resources (CDR) Head Start. She has dedicated her work to the CDR mission to provide the foundation to build promising futures for our children. Suzanne Godinez works closely with the Ventura County Office of Education and is an appointed member of the Local Planning Council. With this and other partnerships, she is an immensely powerful advocate for our community’s most vulnerable children and families. She participated in an initiative called Uplift, where she was part of a team to develop pathways to increase the number of students pursuing the PK-3 Early Childhood Specialist Instruction Credential at local and state-wide levels. As the only Latina serving on the executive level of the CDR, Ms. Godinez advises other Latinas to “look within yourself to see your potential, believe in yourself, and work hard.”

Swap Meet Justice, represented by co-founder Vanessa Frank; Eric Olsen Bill of National Leadership Award
“Swap Meet Justice (SMJ) was established in 2018 by immigration attorney Vanessa Frank, CLUE-VC member Nan Waltman, and community advocate Adriene Coulter to address the fears and concerns caused by escalating anti-immigrant policies at the federal level. Every Sunday, community volunteers and expert professionals come together under the white pop-up tents on the Oxnard College campus. Community members are provided information and resources directly from the experts. During the SMJ, residents are advised of their rights in immigration, employment, debt, and estate planning. They are provided COVID-19 vaccinations, diabetes, and blood pressure testing, and enrolled in Medical. Since its inception, over 40 diverse agencies have participated. While this community-based initiative is unique to Ventura County, it provides a powerful template that should be replicated nationwide. As one attorney volunteer of the SMJ observed, “We see anxious people walk up, weighed down by the dire questions that haunt them, and watch them visibly relax under the reassuring expertise of our immigration professionals.”

Pedro Chavez, El Concilio Latino Leadership Award
“As a first-generation immigrant from Mexico, Pedro Chavez understands firsthand the struggles many Latinos face. Raised by his mother in a small apartment in Los Angeles County, he watched his mother work overtime to ensure he and his brother could make their dreams come true in the United States. Mr. Chavez took lessons from his mother’s strength and courage and paid it forward to his adopted communities where he has made a positive impact. Now serving as a City Council member, he is committed to making his community of Santa Paula a better place for all. As a city council member, he worked hard to ensure the passage of Districting to drop the systematic barriers in the electoral process that prevented Latinos from holding the majority. Thanks to his unwavering efforts, Santa Paula is on a path to having a council reflective of the community it serves. Mr. Chavez’s mission, in his own words, is to “Identify and address the gaps that hinder progress within the Latino community whether these gaps manifest as educational disparities, limited access to health and public services, economic challenges, or social inequities. My commitment is to work toward their resolution tirelessly.”

Representatives for the sponsors of the event and honorees were present from the Players Casino, Southern California Gas, U.S. Bank, Ventura County Community College District, and Southern California Edison.

In her remarks, Palacios said El Concilio “more than doubled” the number of people they reached out to in their programs in 2022. She also said the organization served more than 13,000 clients, processed more than 1,500 immigration petitions, and served more than 300 DACA renewals to young adults. All of their work served 55,000 people in just 2022, according to Palacios.

“And this year,” Palacios said, “we’re on track to touch even more.”