An Interview with Nuestra Casa Promotora, Maritza Leal

Tell me about yourself. What’s something people don’t know about you?

My name is Maritza Leal, and I’ve lived in Redwood City for over 20 years. I’m a proud mother of three kids—ranging in age from elementary through high school. In fact, something people probably don’t know about me is that my kids inspired me to make some big changes in my community, and I published a book about it! Nuestro Proyecto is about my experience leading a group of parents to bring two schools into North Fair Oaks (Redwood City): Rocketship and KIPP Excelencia. We felt that they were performing really well in other cities and that they would better meet the academic needs of our kids. As parents, we have the privilege and power to encourage our children’s potential and bring their dreams to life. I wrote this book to document our local story and inspire other parents to do the same. I really enjoyed writing it!

Another thing people don’t know about me is that I love to sing! I learned how to sing at church. I took classes at Instituto Canzion in Modesto because I am so passionate about it. I might not be a professional, but I’ve invested a lot of time to learn how to do it well.

Do you have a song or quote that inspires you?

Yes! I’m very inspired by something the current president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said:

“El poder es humildad y se convierte en virtud cuando se pone al servicio de los demás. Solamente el pueblo puede salvar al pueblo y un pueblo organizado puede cambiar una nación.”

Which translates to:

“Power is humility, and it becomes virtue when it is committed to the service of others. Only the community can save the community and an organized community can change a nation.”

How did you hear about Nuestra Casa?

I’ve lived in this community for many years, and I like to volunteer for different organizations. That’s how I feel I can help—by putting myself to work with various community-based organizations. When the pandemic started, I was in an excellent position to help because I was already volunteering. I knew what people needed. I started focusing my volunteer efforts on organizations that bring resources directly to families, like KIPP’s Parent Leadership committee. 

That’s how I learned about Nuestra Casa’s Food Distribution program, which had a site at KIPP on Fair Oaks Avenue. I started as a volunteer at that site. Julio, the senior program manager, noticed how I always talked to participants and told them about essential resources. After a few weeks, he asked me to join the promotora team at Nuestra Casa.

What’s a promotora? What motivates you to do this work? Why is it important to have promotoras in our communities?

Promotoras are community outreach workers. They deliver important messages directly to community members. This can be through talking to people at community events, at their homes through door-to-door canvassing, and at their places of worship and children’s schools. Promotoras spread the word about resources for families that they otherwise would not know about. If we didn’t have promotoras, we wouldn’t reach as many people in the community as we do. 

One crucial fact about our promotoras is that they all live in the communities we serve at Nuestra Casa. That characteristic is so valuable—families trust them because they are members of the community. Promotoras’ work is incredible because they connect with very busy, hard-working families to tell them about resources they don’t know about but genuinely need. COVID underscored the information gap our families have. We work hard to make information accessible to families. 

For example, promotoras have been absolutely critical to getting COVID prevention and vaccination information out to community members. We share information about what to do if you get sick, where you can get tested, and where you can get vaccinated. Many of our community members are not online or might be getting misinformation—we are here to help with that. I get feedback from my families that they really appreciate the information and resources I gave them about COVID. And they followed up and got the vaccine, so I know it’s helpful! 

Another excellent example of our work is housing. Promotoras have been going door-to-door, telling tenants in danger of losing their homes how they can safeguard themselves from eviction. In California, we have an eviction moratorium to support people, and our promotoras make sure our community members know how to access that protection. 

I also learned from this work how hard it is to apply for rental assistance. Many of the families I work with told me they applied and didn’t get it. Often, the application was too complicated or required documents they couldn’t gather at the time. Other promotoras heard the same so we relayed this information to our senior program director. As a result, Nuestra Casa secured a grant so staff members can directly support community members with rental assistance applications in the coming months.

I feel that I’m offering a valuable service to my community when I deliver these messages. And that really motivates me! Plus, I get to know more about my neighbors and what they need. I can share this information with our Senior Program Director and influence Nuestra Casa’s programming. That way, our programs reflect what our community members need instead of what we think they need.

How are promotoras serving the community during COVID-19? What are some of the things you do for community members that might not get done without promotoras?

We knew there was a lot of need in the community, especially because so many families were not working. And not working means no income. It was a terrible situation for our community. Our promotoras were on the front lines getting as much information about resources to residents, many of whom are our neighbors. We wanted to make sure they knew about Nuestra Casa’s Food Distribution program and any other resources that could help.

I mentioned earlier that promotoras have been providing a lot of information about COVID prevention and vaccination. We are doing more specific outreach to help San Mateo County Health advertise their local vaccination clinics. A few months into the pandemic, the county realized communities like East Palo Alto, Belle Haven, and North Fair Oaks needed vaccination clinics close to their homes. We help get the word out through door-to-door canvassing in our communities. We let people know when these local clinics are open, who is eligible, and whether you need an appointment. 

What have you learned about your community during this crisis?

With the pandemic, everything changed. Our community members had to be strong to face the reality of living through a pandemic. For those who are essential workers, they haven’t stopped working or providing for their families. I think this shows they are a strong community that will come out of this crisis okay.

What change do you hope to see in our community? Are you hopeful about the future?

With COVID, everyone is trying to help each other get through this crisis—to be there for each other as a community. This is one thing I hope continues. I would love to see all community members continuing to create a better community for everyone. A place where we can all live and stay for the long-term. A community with more opportunities for everyone.

What have I not asked you that you wanted to tell me?

I love to do this work! And I think I will continue to do it for the rest of my days. I just love to talk to people. I love to provide them with any resources they need. I study theology, and I’m just putting into action all that I’ve learned. I think it’s something that I have inside of me! It’s my personality—how I feel I can be helpful to others, and I enjoy doing it.