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Key Latino nonprofit celebrates 10 years in Half Moon Bay

ALAS known for its arts, cultural programs and ‘always much more’

Coastside Latino arts and programming nonprofit Ayudando Latinos A Soñar is celebrating a decade of community work June 15, honoring the groups’ cultural arts beginnings and current farmworker advocacy efforts.

ALAS is well known in the Half Moon Bay community for its on-the-ground efforts assisting farmworker communities after a January 2023 mass shooting took the lives of seven farmworkers. They’ve become well known outside the community as well, named 2023 California Nonprofit of the year by local electeds.

But the nonprofit, founded by now-Executive Director Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, has been working with a community-first approach for 10 years, using the arts as an organizing tool.

“Many people would say to us, when we would try to work in other areas and spaces, they would say, ‘we just know you as a song and dance program,’” Hernandez-Arriaga said. “We were always much more than that. Because what people didn’t see is that, from the very beginning, when we started with the cultural arts, we were already organizing. We were creating community. We were unifying our community.”

A Saturday celebration of the groups’ decade of service will honor its mission with live performances from Steeven Sandoval, known as “La Voz del Mariachi,” and ALAS’ own performance groups. The free gala is from 4-10 p.m. at Ides Hall.

One of those musical groups, Grupo Accordion Campo Media Luna, was formed in the aftermath of the mass shootings, a testament to the healing power of music and a “life-changing” experience for the five participating farmworkers, Hernandez-Arriaga said.

“Cultural arts is mental health in many ways,” she said. “The idea of the accordion going out into the fields to work with farmworkers is really impactful, because it helps them to be able to embrace home, that nostalgia of going back home with the music, with the sounds from their childhood.”

Ballet Folklórico Tonantzin and Mariachi Media Luna, other ALAS cultural arts performance groups, will also perform at the event.

ALAS has long been an advocate for meeting the needs of the community, with an equity express bus that serves as a mobile resource center bringing Wi-Fi, telehealth and mental health services to coastal farmworkers. The nonprofit also hosts summer camps and fashion design programs, offers free legal immigration services, and crisis support, among other endeavors.

Ten years ago, the group had no funding — “only a dream and a plan,” Hernandez-Arriaga said, crediting the organization’s growth to its success meeting the needs of the community and incorporating community members in its leadership.

“We have a huge food pantry program now, and the very families that are using the food pantry are the ones that are volunteering and serving and making this happen,” she said. “Everybody at ALAS has a story. Everyone’s contributed in so many rich ways.”

Now, ALAS’ advocacy efforts are focused on farmworker housing. The group is a co-applicant for proposed senior farmworker housing at 555 Kelly Ave. in downtown Half Moon Bay, a project that was recently approved by the Planning Commission after weeks of discussion.

Hernandez-Arriaga said the housing project isn’t political and revolves around meeting residents’ basic needs.

“If you don’t have a place to live, if you don’t have food, if you’re stressed, that affects your mental health, that affects your physical health, that affects your relationships, your family functioning,” she said.

The development has received pushback from community members who felt its design is outside of the scope of the downtown, but Hernandez-Arriaga maintained that the location itself is “very intentional.”

“People also talk a lot about, [farmworkers] can be put in other spaces or further out, or why not in another plot of land, further away,” she said. “I think what people don’t see is we’re trying to change the narrative that farmworkers should be just hidden in fields. They are so much more than that. They have a vibrancy of being artists, and being teachers, and being leaders.”

ALAS’ work has been informed from a mental health perspective since its inception, Hernandez-Arriaga, a faculty member at University of San Francisco’s counseling MFT program, said.

“It was a dream to really strengthen the Latino community on the coastside,” she said. “I knew that eventually, everything we were doing would be to reinforce mental health, improve wellness, improve lives, improve how people position themselves in the community.”

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