HALF MOON BAY, Calif. - From navigating the challenges of the COVID pandemic to responding to winter floods and a tragic mass shooting, one local group, known as ALAS, has been recognized for its work addressing these recent crises in San Mateo County.
ALAS, a non-profit organization has been serving the community for more than a decade. This summer, the organization received "Non-Profit of the Year" award from California lawmakers, recognizing its contributions.
Visitors to Half Moon Bay are greeted by a bright yellow house on Purissima Street, adorned with colorful decorations and traditional Mexican "papel picado" hanging outside. A sign displays the name "ALAS."
The word "ALAS" in Spanish translates to "wings," and ALAS stands as an acronym for "Ayudando Latinos a Soñar," which means "believing in Latinos to dream." This house serves as the home base for ALAS.
"We do everything from taking food out to food pantries, running a diaper program, and collaborating with researchers from various places to uplift our community," Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, the founder and executive director of ALAS. She is also a professor at University of San Francisco’s Department of Education.
According to the 2022 U.S. Census, more than one-third of Half Moon Bay's population identifies as Latino, with many individuals working in the agriculture and tourism industries.
"In our work, we're highly visible, impacting schools, the local population, and the economic engine," Hernandez-Arriaga said. "However, in politics and decision-making, the Latinos on the coast have remained invisible to the community."
A decade ago, Hernandez-Arriaga decided to change that. Born and raised in the small town of Edna, Texas and remembers how different that world, decades ago was compared to home now in Northern California.
"My mom went to segregated schools," she said, "We quickly learned growing up we couldn’t be proud of who we were. Speaking Spanish was not allowed."
After coming to California for college and becoming a licensed clinical social worker, Belinda had a life-changing counseling session with a 10-year-old girl who lived in fear of her parents being deported.
"Really made me realize there were so many more children like her, also feeling alone, feeling invisible and feeling vulnerable," she said, "We needed to celebrate who we are."
This encounter inspired her to create ALAS in 2011, starting as a Ballet folklórico and Mariachi music program for kids.
Marisela Martinez-Maya, who joined ALAS’s music program at the age of 12, found her confidence and cultural pride learning to play the guitar. She and her brother ended up performing with ALAS’s youth Mariachi group throughout the state and at one point, even opened for the Latin Grammy-award winning band, Los Tigres Del Norte.
Martinez-Maya is now pursuing a college degree in mathematics while working at ALAS.
"It's just been like a second family. We're all a family," Marisela says.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, ALAS expanded its efforts, responding to the crisis with counseling, finding masks for farmworkers, and opening a food pantry that's still going strong.
"We have about 30 people who come and help make this food pantry run for about 350 cars and walkers who come through our line every other Saturday," Hernandez-Arriaga said.
In 2020, a donor, impressed with their hands-on work, gifted them their "Casa Amarilla" or Yellow House. It became home base again this winter for two crises: devastating storms and flooding, and in January, a tragedy when a gunman shot and killed seven of his former co-workers on two separate farms in Half Moon Bay.
ALAS organized fundraisers, community vigils, and pushed for changes to farmworker housing.
"It [ALAS] moves the needle on local and regional policy," says San Mateo County Supervisor Ray Mueller, remembering the days following the mass shooting, and ALAS at the front lines of the response.
The governor and other state leaders met in the garden of the Casa Amarilla, where Hernandez-Arriaga brought in farmworkers to ask directly for help.
"It was really amazing that there were farmworkers who stood up and said you need to do more. This is what we're living with," Ray Mueller recalls. ALAS and the community it serves pushed for better regulations and safeguards against the dismal living conditions of farmworkers.
This summer, the California Legislature awarded ALAS "Non-Profit of the Year" in for its work.
ALAS' next big project involves taking their services on the road. This spring, they launched their Mobile Resource Center, which travels to six different farms in Northern California.
"We're taking everything that ALAS can pack into our programs out into the field, including mental health, telehealth, working with SMC to get health care out there, and providing arts and education classes," Hernandez-Arriaga said.
The organization is also partnering with Stanford and the University of San Francisco on a research project to study stress in immigrant communities.
The group’s arts and culture programs continue to thrive, thanks to their dedicated staff of 28 workers and hundreds of volunteers.
"We have an amazing team at ALAS. Every day I get to see their joy, their heart," Hernandez-Arriaga said. "We've been through a lot together. We're here on the ground, ready to serve every day."